I only knew a guy by the name of Hanes for about three weeks and that was nearly a half-century ago.
There’s really no reason I’d think about him now. But something last week sent my mind traveling back in time to a particularly eight weeks of misery. At least that’s what I thought about the Army’s basic training. Somewhere in the middle of those long-ago thoughts, Hanes popped up.
I don’t know why. I hadn’t thought about Hanes for all those years.
There was a certain “pecking order” in basic training and it all came down to numbers. Nowadays, at least I think, the military uses a person’s Social Security Number as an ID number. Back then, however, you were assigned an eight-digit number for identification. Those numbers were preceded by “RA,” “US” or “NG.” “RA” meant you were regular Army.
“US” meant you were drafted and “NG” meant you were in the National Guard. The only ones who found favor among those who would lead us through our training were the regular Army soldiers. The draftees were somewhere below that and, if you had the “NG” designation, you were pretty much on the low end of the totem pole.
Since the military did everything alphabetically, “Hanes” fell right between “Haglund” and “Henderson,” who was my best Army buddy at the time. There was one bunk between Henderson and I and that belonged to Hanes.
Hanes was a draftee and Lord knows he tried. But, the simplest of tasks gave him problems. He had trouble marching in cadence, he had to think when our sergeant yelled out a simple command, such as “left face.” Hanes would stand there and wait to see what every other soldier did and then he’d do it, too.
Hanes became the butt of jokes among quite a few of those of us going through basic training that March at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. I didn’t like that and neither did Henderson. It wasn’t Hanes’ fault. He just couldn’t do things. He didn’t understand. So, Henderson and I sort of took Hanes under our wings, encouraging him. Henderson, although small in stature, was the best of the best when it came to Army drills. Nobody in our unit could touch him in anything, crawling on all fours, swinging like a money through the overhead bars drill, racing through the obstacle course.
So, when Henderson joined me in looking after Hanes, some of the taunting from others dropped off somewhat.
“I just can’t do this,” Hanes told us one night. “Back home I drive a truck and I’m really good at that. I wish I was back home.”
When we took the gas chamber training, Henderson and I made sure we were next to Hanes. Without masks, a heavy plum of tear gas was sent into the chamber and we all had to wait for a command, grab our face masks, clear out of breathing apparatus, then put on the mask. We knew Hanes wouldn’t be able to do it and we would have to be there to help.
Finally, a drill the Army called the “run, dodge and jump” became too much. You’d run around a couple of gates, jump across a stream of water, run through gates on the other side, then return. A maximum score was 15 seconds. It was really pretty easy.
When Hanes’ turn came, however, he put his fingers to his chin, like he was thinking, then ran carefully around the gate in circles.
“Jump,” someone said. Then, Hanes tried to jump the stream, but landed in the middle.
He never did complete the drill and it took him about a minute to fail. The sergeant took him aside and sent him with another soldier back to the barracks.
When we returned, Hanes was gone. His bunk was barren of covers, his locker was empty. We never saw him again. Nobody ever said what happened, but I assume the Army sent him home, finally realizing that what was simple to others was far too much to ask of Hanes.
But, I hope everything came out okay for Hanes. I hope he went back home to Northern Minnesota. I hope he went back to driving truck. I hope he’s had happiness in his life.
Most of all, though, I hope he’s forgiven, if not forgotten, the taunts and derisive laughs of a few Army recruits many years ago in Missouri.