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Some things you don’t forget

“Boys Enter — Men Leave” — Sign at the entrance of Fort Polk, La.

There are some “firsts” in this life that you simply don’t forget, want to or not. One of them, subconsciously summoned by I know not what, awakened me in the proverbial cold sweat on a stormy night this past weekend.

It was the summer of 1971 and having done more partying than studying my first two years at Ole Miss, I found myself a 20-year-old draftee undergoing basic training at one of the world’s arm pits, Fort Polk, Louisiana — at that time the chief jungle combat preparatory location in the country.

If the U.S. Army thought Vietnam might be in your future, Fort Polk, with its charming combination of sand and swamp, was where it initially sent you.

The day of my nightmare I am sure had begun the way most did. The lights in the barracks came on at 5 a.m. and all had to be shaved and dressed by 5:20. Before breakfast, we ran a mile or two — I often thought dependent upon how amorous the drill sergeant’s wife had been the night before — and those of us in at least reasonably good shape were lucky those first few weeks of “basic.”

Allen Harper wasn’t in good shape at all. He died.

Harper was a gentle, sensitive guy from rural Kentucky who had been studying for the ministry before being drafted. He was 25-years-old, considerably overweight and had absolutely no business being in the Army.

I am pretty sure our drill sergeant, a gnarled and sinewy, tobacco-spitting man from Tennessee, knew that, too. If you need a good evaluator of your fellow man, find yourself a drill sergeant. Regardless, he pushed Harper harder than some of the rest of us. He prodded him and ridiculed him because he was the fattest and slowest and quickest to tire.

It is only with the wisdom of hindsight that I can now understand why.

We ran an awful long way on that fateful morning and the more we ran, the farther Harper lagged behind and the more the sergeant screamed at him and the more Harper pushed and the more Harper hurt.

Tears had begun to mingle with what had become his almost surging sweat when a really good guy named Randy Wilkins and I dropped back and locked arms with Harper’s. Half-dragging, half stumbling, our barely audible encouragements to him were partially self-defensive, and altogether drowned out by the drill sergeant’s bellowed brandishments. But his echoing barbs were diluted ever so slightly by the faintest of smiles, which at the time I found both infuriating and at the same time, something like benevolent.

For a moment, Harper seemed to gain more strength than Wilkins and I were lending him and thought he was going to make it back to camp. But then Harper suddenly wasn’t running anymore, and as he lurched forward, our combined momentum sent Wilkins and me sprawling onto the macadam.

My face and hands were burning from the sun-softened road surface on my skin and Wilkins was cussing from the roadside ditch, but I knew that Harper was in bad shape. I had heard a sickening splat as something hit the road surface milliseconds before I did, and as things began to come back into focus, I realized it had been Harper’s face.

He hadn’t moved. He weighed too much to bounce.

The drill sergeant was kneeling over him, turning him, pounding him, putting his own face next to the bloody one, screaming to unhearing ears. And then he turned away, turned toward me and in a voice suddenly soft and calm, said, “It must have been his heart. It had to be.”

He seemed unaffected by Harper’s eyes, eyes which I was avoiding for fear of confirmation of that which I suspected. His were like the eyes in an old newspaper photograph. The light behind them was gone.

Allen Harper was the first man I had ever seen die.

It was as if my brain required reinforcement and I reached to touch him, but the older man intercepted me and asked only, “Can you boys stay with him until I get back?” It was nothing he hadn’t seen before.

The drill sergeant was cussed as a murderer more than once that day and maybe it was that brown-stained mini-smile to which I had been privy, but I never could summon up the requisite hatred for that man. I kept having this image of a far-away snake- and sniper-infested jungle and Allen Harper trying to survive in it, and I could understand what the sergeant had sought to do.

I turned down the offered ride and walked back to camp that day, unable to name it but knowing that something about me was different.

Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.