This is the first installment of my Making of this Wildlife Professor series. I’ll not bore you with my academic training except when necessary to tell the story of my making. Mostly I’ll focus on my younger years in Florida and my formational years in the infantry. College followed all of this and has shaped me greatly. I write this in an attempt to figure out just how the hell I ended up here. Had I appeared in a single high school yearbook, I might easily have been voted most likely to die in combat. That is if enough people knew of me to vote. I had 42 excused absences my senior year, carefully scraping by to ensure I could make good on my commitment to enlist. Life after the Army never crossed my mind and neither did college.
I did not join the Army to get a skill, the recruiting pitch on their commercials at the time. I wanted to be a soldier and nothing besides the infantry struck my fancy. I still struggle to comprehend how much my 4 years enlistment prepared me for being a professor of wildlife biology. The Army apparently missed this too, to my knowledge it has never appeared in a recruiting commercial.
I learned to think quickly, weighing all my options and their possible repercussions from my favorite Drill Sergeant, Drill Sergeant Jarrett. I was second or third from last in line in our platoon, standing at rigid parade rest, head and eyes forward, legs shoulder width apart, hands crossed in the small of my back. Following the position of attention, parade rest is the next most rigid. It was about week 8 in basic training and we had been exposed to all manner of trickery and abuse at the hands of our Drill Sergeants. When they were bored, like waiting in line for chow, they got creative.
This was new, this was brilliant, this was off the charts. Jarrett appeared in my left ear and whispered. My pulse quickened, sending adrenalin coursing through my arteries and triggering my fight or flight response. I was standing dead still, in perfect parade rest, but my mind was spinning and I felt a wave of nausea. Combat pilots call the anti-aircraft round that has their name on it the golden BB. I just got hit by my golden BB. I had two choices only, bail out well inside enemy territory or risk a fiery death trying to nurse my plane back over friendly lines.
For us, basic training was new and we had a lot to learn. For the Drill Sergeants, on the other hand, it is an all-too-familiar and I’m certain frustrating routine that repeats endlessly. I caught a glimpse of this on the first day we met our Drill Sergeants, our hell day. As we were forced to abuse ourselves with push-ups, leg raises, mountain climbers, and worst of all, carrying our duffel bags over our heads, I noticed a gathering on the grassy hill across the street from where the cattle trucks left us to our fate. A half dozen or so spectators, with lawn chairs and coolers (the heat was shattering records in Georgia in 1986) were watching the spectacle unfold.
Like POWs, we quickly learned the personalities and proclivities of our captors. I respected Jarrett. He had a spark and was a bad ass. He could call cadence like a champ and this always helped us endure long marches and runs. Jarrett was second in command of our platoon but for the life of me I can’t remember the head Drill Sergeant’s name. This is telling, I had no respect for him. He couldn’t call cadence and certainly did not inspire. He did not like me.
Drill Sergeant Ochs was in charge of a different platoon in our company but there’s no forgetting Ochs. Besides being a big and mean son of a bitch, Ochs was a bit off. All the Drill Sergeants in the company rotated through Charge of Quarters duty, staying at the company H.Q. and checking regularly on each platoon through the night. I woke several times to find Ochs standing between the rows of beds in my barracks. He would just stand there in the near dark but his silhouette gave him away. He stood perfectly still, hands on hips, iconic drill sergeant hat perfectly topping off the picture. I think he was trying to eat our souls but I have no evidence of this. He would not move for a very uncomfortably long time. I waited, not moving and trying like one does in extremely stressful situations, to control your breathing and heartbeat lest these attract the wrong attention. I certainly was not going back to sleep while he was there.
Ochs was standing the way Ochs always stood and was just behind my platoon. Technically, it wasn’t an order that Jarrett whispered, it was phrased as a request. I still remember it pretty much verbatim even though this hot summer day was in 1986. “Matlack”, he said, “I want you to drop to your hands and knees, bark like a dog, and bite Drill Sergeant Ochs on the boots”. Jarrett was gone as quickly as he appeared and I was left with a hell of a decision and it had to be quick, Drill Sergeants are not known for their patience.
Ochs scared the hell out of us and Jarrett, by Drill Sergeant standards, was reasonable. But Jarrett was MY drill sergeant and I had a long, hot summer ahead working in close proximity to him. Damn. I decided to do the right thing. To me at the time, the only real option was the path of valor and that path led to Ochs. I could see no benefit, beyond the obvious health benefits, of declining Jarrett’s request. I acted.
I was little and fast and Ochs was caught off guard. I wrapped my arms as tightly around his left leg as I could, so I could bite with less chance of him kicking my teeth out. I did exactly as requested, barking loudly and biting. If you’re going out, go big. I wasn’t there long, Ochs grabbed me by my shirt and launched me without effort, out of the formation. I remember thinking I was in the air for a while but the landing escapes me. I popped back into formation as fast as possible and right back into parade rest.
My platoon mates didn’t say anything and I’m not sure they believed me when I told them my actions were at Jarrett’s request. I was in back so most didn’t see Jarrett approach me and only turned at the commotion caused by my barking. I wouldn’t be the first to snap. The last thing you want to do in basic training is attract the attention of a drill sergeant. That day I learned there were differences as a result of the way you attract their attention. I wasn’t chosen at random and I guess I am actually honored Jarrett choose me. To Ochs credit, I think I earned his respect too. He singled out Pvt. Connolly in my platoon on day one and rode him till the end of basic. I faced no retribution for my actions.
I wonder if I was the first to face this decision or one of many to entertain bored Drill Sergeants. If the latter, I wonder too what the rate of those that fulfilled Jarrett’s request versus those that stayed in parade rest. This wasn’t the first and was far from the last challenge I faced in the Army. The knowledge gained that day didn’t translate directly into the academic world or count as college credit. I have no doubt that this kid from a trailer park and first generation college student benefited from these and similar challenges. Stepping on to the campus of Kansas State University may have been too much to face without the confidence that comes from facing adversity. Thanks Jarret and Ochs, I think.