by Rick Turton
It was an odd sight, even for an Enlisted Men’s Club. The jukebox in the corner played, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” The neon beer signs cast an eerie aura through the nicotine fog enveloping the dark, candle-lit tables. Open or empty cans of 3.2 beer littered some of the tables. And there, in the middle of the table at which I sat, rested a brand new, dull, lusterless, ordinary… red brick. The only brick in the room I might add. My right hand was placed squarely on this red brick. Occasionally I’d place my cigarette in the ashtray and take another swig of my beer with my left hand. My brick was a symbol, a trophy, the penultimate paradigm of some of the finest Sergeant-ing in the military since the Army’s inception. Before long, a couple of my classmates joined me for some Friday beers. Questioning looks abounded.
I was stationed at Fort Lee in Virginia from November 1969 to February 1970 for Advanced Individual Training. The most recent snowstorm had left a moderate blanket of snow all over the base. It was a few days before Christmas leave. I was on my way to class, and, since it was a regular day of duty, I was dressed in the uniform of the day, fatigues. I stopped at the Company office to check the Duty Board for any announcements or new assignments. Absentmindedly, I stuck my bare right hand in my pants pocket. I’d forgotten for a just the briefest of moments that, in the Army, this is one of the most heinous crimes that could ever be perpetrated. Of course, as Murphy’s Law would have it, my transgression was seen by the Company’s newest buck sergeant, Sergeant Corbin.
Sergeant Corbin fancied himself as a feisty, pit-bull type sergeant. He was gonna’ kick butt and take names. He would ‘break starch’ in his uniform daily; they could almost stand on their own. You could shave using the reflection from the toes of his boots, too.
The problem was that he was a little tiny thing, about 5’ 6” tall, freckled, pale skinned and whip thin. His blond-red hair was cut ‘high and tight’ under his regulation OD baseball cap.
Sergeant Corbin was bound and determined to make his mark with the other sergeants in the Company. Here was his chance – a helpless, hapless PFC was caught, literally, red-handed with his hand in his pocket This… this… PFC had carried out one of the horrendous transgressions against the Army, nay against all of humanity! Locking his latest victim firmly in the cross hairs, he zeroed in.
“Private,” he howled, “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Umm, checking the CQ board, Sergeant,” I replied naïvely. “Why do you ask?”
His eyes bugged out of his close-cropped head, and his face got so red I feared the twenty-year old sergeant would have a stroke.,
“Private, you have your hand in your pocket! Regulations strictly prohibit having your hand in your pocket! Are you aware of that regulation, Private? Are you?”
I brace myself in an attitude that moderately resembled attention; back straight, shoulders back and eyes locked straight ahead. As I was fourteen inches taller than the offended sergeant, he continued shrieking at my sternum. It was all I could do to hold it together. All 5’ 6” of this firecracker of a sergeant tried desperately to provide a verbal correction to me, standing 6’8”. It bordered on hysterical.
He carried on with his tirade, as he proclaimed me the worst soldier in the entire history of soldiering. He informed me that Washington would have thrown me out of the boat, that Patton would have run over me in his tank, all because I had my hand in my pocket… on a cold, snowy December morning. Showing no signs of running out of steam, and still at full volume, he then demanded of me:
“And what do you think your punishment should be, Private?”
Assuming this a rhetorical question, I remain mum, stifling laughter at the absurdity. Looking around, he saw what he considered the ultimate punishment.
“I have it, Private!”
He walked over to a wall that was under construction, picked up a brand new red brick, and handed it to me.
“You will carry this brick, Private. You will carry it with you wherever you go. I repeat, wherever ! You will carry it with your bare right hand, and you may only transfer this brick to your bare left hand when you are saluting a superior officer, after which time you will transfer it back to your bare right hand. Is this clear, Private? Have I left anything out?”
“No, Sergeant,” I reply, “Crystal clear! Permission to continue to class, Sergeant?”
“Yes, Private, you’re dismissed.”
I went on to my class more than a little peeved, but dutifully carrying my new best friend, a red brick. For the next several days, I carried my brick to my classes, to the mess hall, to my barracks, to the PX and yes, even to the Enlisted Men’s Club. I carried my brick everywhere. Of course, other GI’s would look and ask the question with their eyes. I would simply respond with one word, “Corbin”. They would just nod knowingly and pat me on the back, commiserating.
Fast-forward a few days. Excitement started to build because that was the day to check out and get our two-week passes for Christmas leave. Army travel regulations stated that we had to travel in our Class-A uniforms.. My buddy Paul and I were back at our barracks changing into our dress uniforms. We made our way to the CQ office and the line was about a quarter mile long. We got in line, but it was only inching forward. After waiting quite a while, I looked at Paul and said, “This ain’t gonna’ cut it. I’m gonna get us outta here.”
I walked up to the head of the line and went into the office just as the next soldier turned to leave. I cut in front of the next guy and started to plead my case when I saw… Sergeant Corbin doling out the passes. I decided to bluff my way through.
“Sarge, my buddy Paul and I can just make it to National Airport in DC if we can leave now. There’s a flight scheduled in 2½ hours to Los Angeles and if we hurry, we can just make get on that flight. How ‘bout it Sarge, can we get our passes?”
The Sergeant started to nod his head, smiling slightly. He looked up from his paperwork and just stared… He’d recognized me.
“Didn’t I issue you a brick,” he asks, looking at my nametag, “Private…Turton?”
“Why yes, you did, Sergeant.”
“Well, as I remember, private”, he said, voice rising and face reddening, “I instructed you to carry that brick at all times, did I not?”
Lowering my head and dropping my eyes, I replied meekly, “Yes, Sergeant you did.”He was really getting into it then. He realized he had me just where he wanted me, so he moved in for the kill. He raised his voice a half-octave higher and bellowed
“Well, Private, where is your brick?”
Looking up, I responded, “A very good question, Sergeant Corbin. But, as I recall, the brick you issued to me was a Fatigue Brick, and as I’m sure you are aware, the uniform of the day today is Class A’s. Therefore, I would be out of uniform carrying a Fatigue Brick while wearing a Class A uniform.”
It got deathly quiet in the First Sergeant’s office. Sergeant Corbin’s face got redder and redder After a moment, The company first sergeant burst out laughing, and then all the other sergeants started to laugh too.
“He got you, Corbin, let ‘em go!”