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Lost in the woods of Missouri

It’s hard for me to feel the frigid bite of a bone-rattling morning without thinking back to winter, 1960 and Echo Company, 4th Battalion, 2nd Training Regiment.

The setting for this short episode in my life was Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (known by those who has spent much time there as Fort Lost-In-The-Woods, Misery).

Being one of the microscopic parts in the running gear of the U.S. Army (better known as a Private E1), I was undergoing the transformation from civilian to soldier (commonly referred to as basic training).

To prepare the recruit for life in the army, several bad civilian habits had to be broken — things like sleeping, dressing, talking, eating and riding in a car. It didn’t take long for me to learn the army has its own way of doing things. You get out of bed in the middle of the night, wear the same uniform every day, never talk while in line to eat, eat all your food in less than three minutes and never, ever, ride when you can walk.

On the other hand, the army relieved me of many responsibilities and problems. I never needed an alarm clock, had no use for a hair brush and never had to worry over what to wear that day.

I learned all this through the guidance of my new-found-friend Sergeant Benrostro, an ill-tempered, highly-starched madman who thought he was Napoleon.

Sgt. Benrostro’s favorite pastime was entering our barracks at 5 a.m. clanging two garbage can lids together while blowing through his chrome whistle at the top of his lungs.

After this gentle awakening, the next big challenge of the morning was to get all of one’s hygienic duties accomplished while battling 60 other recruits for a position in front of a sink with a mirror.

Washing was definitely a must each morning. Our barrack’s heat was generated by a large coal-burning furnace. This huge pile of rusty metal (a left-over from World War I) evidently had no filters. One would awake each morning covered with a coating of coal dust.

Soon after our wake-up call, happy-go-lucky Sgt. Benrostro would return with his trusty whistle. This meant another army tradition: “reveille” the French word for “harass.”

While we stood stiffly at attention outside our barracks, Sgt. Benrostro would inspect each of us to be sure we had properly cleansed and clothed our bodies.

We would then run several hundred yards to stand in line for breakfast. Anyone caught talking while in line would be allowed to get a little extra exercise by doing several pushups.

Our time in line depended directly upon the mood of another jovial character, our mess sergeant (who closely resembled a grizzly bear in size and disposition.)

After consuming breakfast (in a minute or so) it was off to the barracks. There we would indulge in such homemaking chores as making the bed, sweeping the floor and wiping away another layer of coal dust.

Then it was off to the rifle range — a several mile walk under the cadence and careful supervision of our buddy Sgt. Benrostro.

As there was no such thing as motorized power during basic training, Sgt. Benrostro would use our travel time as an excuse to work on our skills in the art of dismounted drill (marching).

Upon our arrival at the rifle range, it was time to wait again. While waiting our turn on the firing line, Sgt. Benrostro helped pass the time by volunteering us for environmental improvements (such as throwing the rocks in the ditches back up on the road so that the next time we could throw the rocks back off the road and into the ditch.)

Finally our time to shoot would come. The actual time on the firing line was less than a half hour but that didn’t matter, it was the waiting that made it so exciting.

Soon we were back in formation preparing for the long march home. No sooner would we arrive than it was time to line up again. Perhaps this time it was for a haircut, maybe a vaccination or nothing more than to listen to Sgt. Benrostro demonstrate an army skill such as calling us bad names in Spanish.

From there it was back in formation for another army tradition: retreat. (This too is army talk. It means listening to Sgt. Benrostro tell who’s going to have the r-e-a-l-l-y bad jobs tomorrow and how we all screwed up today.)

Again it was time to stand in line. This time it was for our evening meal — which was much more relaxed. (Instead of a minute, we had three minutes to eat.)

From the chow hall it was back to our barracks and another meeting with Sgt. Benrostro. This was our evening fireside talk. Sgt. Benrostro would carefully explain (basically in four-letter words) the military method of cleaning your M1 rifle with Coca-Cola or polishing your boots with spit.

Finally, Sgt. Benrostro would bid us all good evening and retire to the comfort of his home (to dream of future torture for his recruits). Soon it was “lights out” and time for a couple of hours sleep before Sgt. Benrostro’s grand morning entrance.

That was a special time – lying in bed, thoughts of the day rushing through my mind while listening to the gentle refrain of Elvis’ latest hit softly playing in the background … “Are You Lonesome Tonight”.

That was 54 years ago. I sure hated it then. I sure miss it now.

(Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He lives near Cambridge.)

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