Come July 4th weekend, our unit was detailed to march that Saturday in a parade down in Wildwood, New Jersey. This wasn't quite as good as getting a weekend pass, but it was better than hanging around the base. The day started out rainy, so we wore our Army raincoats over our uniforms. Luckily the sun came out before we set off, and we were able to leave our raincoats on the bus before marching in the ninety degree heat. The order of march for the parade was set, with military units from surrounding bases sending contingents of sailors, airmen, and marines to march with us soldiers. Our unit was just ahead of the Army Marching Band, and everyone was grousing; not only were we marching in full dress uniforms in this miserable heat, but we had to be subjected to hours of John Philip Sousa marches!
As we set off the people pressed forward to watch us go by. The Army Band struck up: "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along". Suddenly there were faces smiling out on us, little kids were running down the sidewalks waving their tiny American flags, and veterans of past wars were holding their hats or their hands over their hearts. It was a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. In an instant, the soldiers all around me stood up straighter and stepped out a little livelier. The grousing stopped because we all had lumps in out throats. Forgotten were the 20-mile night marches with full backpacks, the hours spent shining shoes and polishing brass buckles, even the mean-spirited Sergeants who forced screw-ups to clean latrines with their tooth brushes...we were soldiers in the United States Army, at that moment feeling honored and privileged to be serving our country.
After the parade, our officers gave us permission to stay in town for the rest of the day as long as we returned in time to catch the bus back to the base. Wildwood is a small, sleepy town in the winter, but back then in the summer time, it becomes party central. Being young men with a great fondness for alcohol, we did our best to deplete the town's supply. We made the bus just in time to collapse asleep in the hard seats. Upon arrival at Fort Dix, we grabbed our raincoats and left the bus. It had started to drizzle so I put the raincoat on to protect my uniform. I soon noticed soldiers throwing snappy salutes my way. I saluted back being too groggy to wonder why they were saluting a lowly buck private. It was then that I glanced down and saw the shiny silver bars on my lapels; I had taken my Lieutenant's raincoat by mistake, and it was his insignia of rank drawing all the salutes. I enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame, but hurriedly rushed to the orderly room to explain the error before I wound up in the brig for impersonating an officer.
Military service was good for me. It helped me to learn how to get along on my own, and how to be part of a team where each person did his share for the success of all. I think a year of national service of some sort should be mandatory for young people, even before entering college. There is a lot of good work to be done, and it is a small price to pay for living in the greatest country in the world.
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