Basic training in the U.S. Military does strange things to a person. The Army likes to boast that it brings out the best in a young person. Perhaps it does on a physical level. But it can also bring out the worst.
Before I reported for basic training at Ft. Ord, CA. in October 1960, I was not a drinker. They served 3.2 beer at the base and the stress of going through daily military maneuvers, physical training and dealing with officers caused many recruits to turn to alcohol as a temporary way of coping with life.
Our evening hours and weekends were also spent gambling. We had a regular poker and blackjack game in the day room that attracted a lot of action. I wasn't an expert at blackjack or 21, but I knew the rules of the game and I felt I was lucky enough to try my skills against the other players.
One of the blackjack players was Luther, a quiet, solidly built young man who wore glasses. Luther had grown up on a farm in Iowa. He loved physical labor -- he was built as strong as a bull -- and somewhere along the way, he had learned how to play blackjack.
I mean, Luther could play blackjack.
Who knows what was lurking in his mind when he sat down at the table? He could have been counting cards or use a basic strategy. But when he played blackjack, he played to win and he took a lot of money from the other GIs and me during our eight weeks of basic training.
I would joke with him about his abilities and told him I knew he was too honest to cheat. He seemed genuinely hurt by the suspicion that he was cheating.
'I never cheat,' he said quietly. 'Blackjack is just a game I know how to play well. You're not a very good player. I hate to take money from you, but if you insist on playing...' He simply shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes. I smiled and shook my head. We both laughed.
There was a corporal who played in the game who didn't like Luther. He especially didn't like the fact that Luther was taking all the money in the blackjack game.
One Saturday the corporal had been drinking. He sat down at the table and peeled out some folding money. Luther already had a stack of cash in front of him.
'I'm going to carve you a new a--h---,' the corporal snarled, sipping his beer.
Well, he didn't. Luther's skill and the inebriated condition of the corporal spelled disaster and he just started losing like the rest of us. Finally, the corporal couldn't take it any longer. He staggered to his feet and lunged across the table, making a round-house swing at Luther.
Luther's glasses flew off his face, but he rose to his feet and simply wrapped his powerful arms around the corporal, rendering him as helpless as a chicken in the clutches of a butcher.
The corporal flailed his arms but all his efforts were useless. He finally stopped struggling.
'Do you give up?' said Luther quietly. 'I don't want to hurt you.'
'I give up,' the corporal mumbled. Luther released him and he left the day room and returned to his barracks.
When we graduated from basic training, I was given my new orders and waited for a military train to transport me to Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, CA. My assignment would keep me on a Nike-Hercules missile site for the duration of my two years in the Army. I asked Luther where his new assignment would take him.
He shrugged and handed me the assignment sheet.
'Somewhere in the Mideast,' he said. 'Vietnam.'