John Tinseth can’t walk through the Army Navy Surplus Store without thinking of the guys he knew in the Army.
The basement of I. Goldberg in Philadelphia is a diverse mix of mostly European military surplus with U.S. Alice packs and frames scattered in a corner. First thing you notice is the smell. Mildewed wool with Clorox added as a top note to an earthy base of foot locker plywood, protective mask rubber and Warsaw Pact leather. It’s a damned good surplus store. One of the best I’ve ever found.
I can’t walk through this place without thinking of people I knew in the Army. Names I still remember, but better, the characters whose names I forgot — Sometimes before I even got out. These memories can come out of nowhere. Cued up by a smell, a stenciled box of rations, the feel of a poncho liner or stories from another soldier.
Mudbone was a 15 year Spec 5 clerk who boasted of catching VD six times and being busted in rank at least four. His face was pock marked, his head had missing chunks of hair that never grew back, but he had a huge smile and a warm voice. At 5:30 every morning, Mudbone supervised barracks clean up. Dressed in a short silk dragon robe he purchased in Korea, he stood at the end of the hall drinking a can of beer and smoking a Newport.
Mudbone had a nobility despite his life being as bad it was. Maybe he just didn’t give a shit. Which is ironic. Mudbone shit in his pants on almost every jump I made with him. We’d be hooking up static lines and suddenly, from somewhere in the plane, there was that unmistakable whiff of Mudbone.
In Basic Training a farm boy from Nebraska or Kansas, can’t remember which, asked for a General Discharge. He’d tell anyone who’d listen that he made a mistake. I remember thinking we all made a mistake. He pushed and pushed the Drill Sergeants for the paperwork and they finally relented.
A week before he left, I saw him endure more harassment than I endured in my four years. A moment didn’t go by that a Drill wasn’t screaming in his face, hitting him on his helmet liner with a cleaning rod or just sucker punching him in the gut. And, egged on by the Drills, we fucked with him too. One night on Fire Guard I watched him sleeping in his bunk. He lay there like a peaceful mummy on his back. His hands perfectly folded on his chest. I thought it took balls. He didn’t give up on giving up.
My bunkmate in Basic couldn’t read. He wanted to go Infantry but didn’t score high enough on the ASVAB tests and settled for cook. The only job in the Army where you could be stupider than an infantryman. I wrote letters to his wife and read hers to him. He had jet black hair, a huge head, and to make matters worse, he was fat. But he was my bunkmate and I rooted for him while most others knew he wouldn’t make it. His wife seemed to know too. She was always worried about him. Afraid of what the Army could do to him. I was happy for her when he was discharged.
A SSgt in the 82nd asked me to join him in asking a couple ladies to dance at the main post enlisted club. We stood at their table. He asked. They looked up at us, shook their heads and went to back their conversation. He interrupted and asked if we could join them.
A blonde with Farrah Fawcett hair said she didn’t think so and turned back to her friend. The SSgt interrupts again and asks if we can buy them a drink. The blonde is pretty pissed off at this point, looks up at us and says sure. “Fuck You!” the SSgt screams and walks away. Leaving me at their table. I look at them and smile. They go back to their conversation.
Later that same night, he unzipped his fly at our table and told me to move my boots. After which, he urinated under the table. I’d run into many more like him. A craziness that was OD Green. If something like this bothered you…? You were in the wrong place.
Claggett was tall, attractive, built and lucky. One of the luckiest men I have ever known. Hookers on Hay Street extended him credit until pay day. Bartenders bought him drinks. Everyone in the company liked him. Even the officers.
He had a ’63 Dodge Dart that we took to the Fox Drive In on Bragg Blvd to see porno movies. We’d use the hood as a card table and played Black Jack while ignoring the movie. It wasn’t until someone would yell, “Les scene!” that we’d all stop the cards and watch in respectful silence. Claggett met a wonderful woman and married before he ETS’ed. I hope he’s still lucky.
Drill Sergeants Hunt and Stokes would force march my company out to the rifle ranges. Usually 10, sometimes 20 miles. We’d leave in the morning and wouldn’t see the range until noon. During the march, there was an accordion effect where, if you were in the back of the company, you’d have to run to catch up to the front of the formation. Then you’d stop dead in your tracks waiting for the people in front of you to move forward, only to run again when the march stretched out and the accordion repeated itself…over and over.
While we were qualifying on the range the other battalion Drills, usually four at time, would cram into a car and ride around smoking pot. I’d watch the car return, see Stokes get out along with a cloud a smoke and another Drill would take his place. We were told the first day of Basic we would never — never — forget our Drills names.
Ken was from Indiana, pursed lipped with wire frame glasses and hair parted down the middle. He was every bit the Volunteer Army stoner. During a field exercise in the Pisgah National Forest—or it could’a been Uwharrie, they looked the same to me—we found out from some guy in a Signal company that there was a general store close by that sold beer. We pitched in and sent Ken on a beer and Doritos run.
Ken finds the store is mobbed with troops. He waits in line a half hour and pays for the beer. Walking out, he realizes he forgot the Doritos. He asks the girl at the register if she’ll watch the beer for him. Sure, she says. And he puts the case down on her counter. When he comes back with the Doritos, the beer is gone. Ken asks where his beer is and the girl says she doesn’t know adding she’s pretty busy. Too busy to watch his beer.
Ken offers that she shouldn’t have offered to watch his beer in the first place. She tells Ken something like, whatever, and continues to ring up other customers buying beer. Which, as you can guess, this little market is selling a whole lot of.
Ken goes to the back of the store and grabs another case of beer. He stands in line for another half hour before he pays — for the Doritos. The girl tells Ken he has to pay for the beer. “No, I don’t.” says Ken and he points his M16 at her head. There’s a huge, “Whoa!” from the guys in line behind Ken. He looks at them. Then her, and says, “I’m leaving with my beer now.” and he walks out.
Before Ken got back to our tent, two MPs showed up and asked if we knew Ken. We told them we did. They asked where he was and we told them he was on a beer run. They asked if he was coming back and we said yes. One MP told us Ken had robbed the general store. All I could think of was—was he stoned? Someone asks how they know it was Ken and the MP tells us he was in uniform. Name tag, rank, company unit. Wasn’t too hard to find him.
I had to testify at Ken’s court martial. As it was, he got off pretty light. His parents were there along with the store owners and their daughter. I guess if you were them, you’d reckon Ken got away with scaring the bejesus out of their little girl. Or, if you were on the court martial board, you might suppose she should’a paid closer attention to Ken’s beer. I don’t know.
People came and went in the Army. Despite those intentions of keeping in touch — I’ve only stayed close to one. About once a year we get together for dinner, drink too much and remember. Sometimes we tell the same stories. Sometimes we discover something new. Something he knew that I didn’t or the other way around. We do agree on one thing. We love Army Surplus Stores and there just aren’t many good ones around anymore.