Race and Rank: Fort Ord, 1964
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by John Nippolt
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        My acting platoon leader was a famous NFL safety whose career I followed from his college days at UCLA into his professional career with the San Francisco 49ers. I couldn’t believe it was him. We were in the Army together! He just happened to be one of my personal favorite players even if I didn’t like the team he played for at the time. Fate would see to it that we would meet again later in life after my tour of duty, getting my dad into a Rams training camp. He would be playing for the right team then, but that’s another story.
        Let’s name this football star, Kermit. Although we were both basic training privates, the Army gave him temporary rank, an armband with sergeant stripes and carte blanche treatment during his whole time in basic training. He went home to LA every weekend, but the rest of us were confined to the barracks, couldn’t go to the PX or any place else. The enlisted mens’ (EM) club was strictly off limits. No drinking allowed.
        He and others like him opted to join the National Guard rather than chance the draft in those years. It was their luck that the Army command would do anything to get some pros into their football ranks. Kermit allowed me into his life for that short period of time and we became friends. To mark the end of our first eight weeks of basic training we had to prepare for an IG inspection. The Inspector General’s tour meant fear, spit and polish. Miraculously, I made the list for honor guard and I received an official full day pass.
        That day is forever etched in my memory: A blistering hot afternoon in Monterey created a welcome change in the weather for April in northern California. Kermit and one of his teammates decided I would join them for a few celebratory pitchers of beer at the EM club. His teammate was huge, a veritable giant and I don’t remember his name. He had to be a lineman is the only way I could describe him. The club was only walking distance away, but we styled in his teammate’s brand new Cadillac, another benefit none of us regular grunts could enjoy. Like Cinderella, I would have to be back in the rack before midnight.
        We entered a chaotic, smoke filled madhouse. The mostly white, raucous crowd of drunk soldiers were screaming obscenities at no one in particular; their voices tried to compete with a jukebox turned up to full tilt boogie. I’m not kidding when I tell you the crowd noise dropped a few decibels when we walked in. Our silhouettes in the backlit entrance demanded attention. Two extra-large black men together would normally turn heads at most venues anywhere back then, but with a skinny little white dude wedged in between them, all eyes were on us. I didn’t fully comprehend the undercurrent; I thought it was their celebrity. I was lit up in the company of a real-life hero of mine and his friend.
        We didn’t go unnoticed by the bouncer, either. White and not quite middle-aged but getting close to it, the first sergeant’s lips were ironed on his face in a perpetual scowl. As crisp as a newly printed bill, the short, tin-can tight drill instructor looked like one of those guys who enjoyed pushing his weight around. His façade was that of a confident bad ass, but he could not hide the fact that his real power over us was his rank; absolute power.
        Of course, he would eventually have to come over and prove how bad he really was. Our fourth pitcher of beer arrives at the table along with the highest ranking man in the house. The joint is at a fever pitch and this wretched idiot had decided it’s time for the show. Purposely starting in on Kermit, it was obvious he knew who he was talking to. He cast his line into the water. “You privates believe you’re something special now, don’t you?”
        Kermit’s friend was about to re-fill our glasses and I was getting a real buzz on now. I was in this vacuum and couldn’t really hear any sound around us except the words of the first sergeant. At first I wondered why this guy was picking a fight; it was the way he said “you privates” that tipped me off. He was going to go for something that cut deeper.
        I could feel the attention of the crowd start to focus on our table. It was as if we were transported into a small tight arena. He’d done it…the sergeant had command of the room! He turned his scarlet face directing his ire on the monster man. Even I knew the word he was going to use to taunt my friends with next.
       “Well I believe it’s time for you nig..” CLANK! was the last part of the last word I heard. That full pitcher of beer was up off the table flush into the first sergeant’s face before he finished his orders. What an explosion! Clear glass sparkling in yellow gold suds with brilliant white foam rising up into the air…the power behind that glass pitcher jolted the tin can off his feet faster than you could say Jackie Robinson! Now he was sliding on his back over the top of the adjoining tables, knocking drinks onto the floor just like in the movies.
        Pandemonium erupts around us! Kermit and his pal lift me over our table to get us out the place. With no defenders in front of us, I look back at the bottoms of those shiny shoes disappearing off the slick surface of a beer-drenched table top. The Beatles were singing, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!”