A  Short Story

Terry Meagher

In a profession where a deep voice is a prerequisite, our company sergeant major had unfortunately inherited a thin, reedy one. Gaunt, imperious and angular, he looked like a British officer in a POW camp, a survivor of the railway of death. His hair was red, his face was red, his eyes were rimmed with a pencil thin line of pink; and years before he had ever marched on a parade square someone had hung on him the indignity of the nickname Redeye. For most of our first two months as recruits, Sergeant Major Redeye had been indifferent to us, treating us as a collection of regimental numbers. But on this warm day, annoyed as he was, we were a collection of khaki clad malingerers whose ignorance was an affront, and whose childish lack of discipline a challenge to his authority.

He walked back and forth in front of us with his swagger stick under his left arm and his hands behind his back, confident of the authority invested in him by king and country. And so, insulated by his rank, he would never suspect he was fanning resentments that would some day bring about the only kind of mutiny a civilized army would tolerate.

As he walked, he quizzed us on our knowledge of the army. School was in and what a school it was.

"Who's the battalion adjutant?" he asked in a menacing tone.  Not one of the 100 recruits lined up in front of him could answer.

"Who's the regimental sergeant major?"

 Nobody could answer that one either.

"Who's the minister of National Defence?"

A lanky soldier in the front rank said, "Claxton, sergeant major, Brooke Claxton."

The sergeant major went to the middle rank, then, a mistake for everybody.  He chose Cooper.

"Repeat that answer," commanded the sergeant major.

Not only did Cooper look dumbfounded, his face showed a depth of befuddlement I had never seen before or since.

The sergeant major shouted angrily at him. "You, you dozy little man."  

Cooper was short, barely 5'3". He smiled up at the angular sergeant major, revealing a row of pink gums between his two eye teeth.

"Me, sergeant major?"

"Yes, YOU."

Blankly, dully, yet his eyes showing just a trace of impishness, he said, "What's the question?"

That was like a red flag before a bull. The sergeant major tore the red beret from his head and threw it on the pavement. "What's the question?" he repeated angrily. "What's the question?"

He threw the swagger stick to the parade square so hard it almost bounced back to his hand. When it hit the parade square again, it clattered away from him. Then he glared up and down the columns. The moment he took his eyes off us, bending down to pick up his swagger stick and beret, I feared Cooper would have the audacity to give his barrack room imitation of the sergeant major—a high pitched rendition of Woody Woodpecker. But only a real bird sang, twittered from somewhere at the side of the parade square.

Suppressing his rage, Redeye began speaking in low measured tones. "If you are taken prisoner of war, this army, this country will never have to worry about you giving secrets to the enemy." He looked in pain. Everybody was hoping he wouldn't go back to Cooper again. "Your name, rank and serial number," he said, and paused. His lower lip had become speckled with spittle. "Your name, rank and serial number," he continued, his voice rising. "That's all they'll bloody well get out of you, because that's all you bloody well know."

After he regained his composure again, he brought the company to attention. Just as all sergeant majors do, he eased the first part of the command out like this, "A-a-a-a-a-a-t-e­e-ennn ... "Then after a wait of three, maybe four seconds, he shouted "shun."

He toyed with us green recruits, then, telling us a soldier had to obey every command. Twice he marched us up to the tarpaper shacks called the H-Huts. He shouted the first part of the command "about" in good time, but he held the last part, "turn", almost too long.

The third time we hit the wall. The column bulged in the middle, the soldiers in the back jamming the ones in the front, crushing them against the wall. In the midst of the clattering rifles, grunts, curses and cries of pain, Cooper's voice rose joyfully, not once, not twice but three times in his Woody Woodpecker rendition of the sergeant major. "Ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha."

Cooper in his mischievousness had innocently dropped the gauntlet. Sergeant Major Redeye in his righteousness, blunted as it was by privilege and rank, confidently picked it up.

After the company got sorted out, he drilled us relentlessly for more than two hours. Then he challenged the "perpetrator, the one who had made that noise" to be a man, to have the courage to come forward. Cooper was rewarded for his courage with 14 days of extra drill—an hour and a half before breakfast, and an hour and a half after supper.

After training was over, we along with Sergeant Major Redeye were posted to Korea . One night on a hill overlooking the Sami-ch'on Valley we got word the colonel was coming to inspect our front line position. We were defending a low-lying hill that curved like a hook, the sharp end descending into no-man's-land. At first light—the time when enemy attack is most imminent—Sergeant Major Redeye came officiously down the seven-foot tall crawl trench connecting our slit trenches.

"The colonel is coming. The colonel is coming," he whispered hoarsely, as he moved from trench to trench. "Let's make this a good show," he exhorted.

When he ordered us on to the forward slopes to pick up chocolate bar wrappers and cigarette packages, even the fun-loving Cooper felt outrage. The more rebellious among us complained aloud, at first refusing to go. But in the end they went, we all went, climbed over the parapets and began cleaning the area above the barbed wire fences.

Patches of fog and the lingering smoke of exploded shells drifted up from the valley, obscuring the trenches and fortunately hiding us from enemy observers. After a short time, an enemy machine gunner alerted by the commotion began to fire. We could hear the bullets whispering overhead.

-continued on page two



Story Archives