September 22, 2009 by David Gillaspie
A pecking order stabilizes organizations by establishing proper flow. It’s important to know who is on top and who is on the bottom. Army trainees learn the pecking order right away; they are on the bottom and everyone else in the world is on top. At least that’s the view from the outside.
Inside a training platoon the pecking order is more important than the chain of command. Even in a group with the lowest rank ever invented someone still wants to move up. Some call it human nature. Some call it evolution. I call it ass kicking; some give it, some take it, some give and take.
Drill Sergeant Homer Easterling knew how to run a Basic Training platoon. He knew how to grow flowers too and had a nice garden he liked to show some of his new guys. He showed me the flowers while telling me he would make me the best soldier this man’s army has ever seen. I didn’t doubt him, but I was a two year enlistee. He’d have to hurry.
The 1974 Army had the same problems the rest of the country had: race, drugs, a feeling of dislocation. Sergeant Easterling knew how to handle them all. As a black man with Vietnam behind him, he knew how to nip problems in the bud.
Two problems in his training platoon were two big black guys who were having trouble understanding that race didn’t mean favoritism. One guy was a six foot five thumper, the other six three and built. City guys, Chicago and St. Louis. I was the new guy in the platoon, shifted over from the first, second, and third platoon to fill the last spot in the fourth. I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me. The two guys were already at the top of the pecking order when I showed up.
I had an idea of what Sergeant Easterling was up to when we all hot-footed out to a dirt field for pugil stick day. To make sure I understood, he spelled it out.
“You are my platoon guide. You are me when I’m not there. These young men need someone in their group to go to with their problems. If they don’t come to me or one of the other sergeants, they will come to you. Except our two brothers are in the way. They’ve established their dominance. You will un-establish them in the pugil stick ring.
“I’m putting you out in the middle and sending one, then the other. You take them down and pummel them until you hear the whistle. If you can’t do that I’m leaving you out for the rest of the platoon to beat on. Do you understand me?”
It was pretty clear. He needed an enforcer and chose me, the new white guy. I wasn’t even the biggest white guy, but he must have seen something in me. I hoped he saw something.
“Do you understand me, trainee?”
“YES DRILL SERGEANT.” What else was there to say?
Fortunately I grew up sword fighting with sticks and garbage can lids. And I had a big brother with friends who had big brothers. I knew enough dirty tricks from having them pulled on me. Our sword fights were brutal. The goal there was to whack each others hands until they bled and dropped the sword/stick, then swoop in and spank the opponent until they ran off crying.
This looked like the same thing.
I was also a high school all-American wrestler with a year of college varsity behind me. It felt like I’d been in this situation before, a Round-Robin of aggression. I strapped on my helmet, picked up the pugil stick and walked to the center of the ring. The drill sergeant pretended to look for my first opponent before pointing to St. Louis.
Here he comes. He’s got a winner’s swagger. He knows he’s going to win. I take a last look at the drill sergeant. He gives a chopping signal with his hand then blows the whistle to start.
Since it was my first pugil stick war, I wondered how to start. My opponent had no reservations. He ran at me with his stick aimed at my face. That’s how it was going to be; no mercy. I took a glancing blow off my melon then hopped after him to catch him on the turn.
I chopped his arm, took a few jabs at his face with the left end of my stick. When he raised his stick to defend his head I blasted his guts with my right side stick. Like most people taking an unexpected gut blow he leaned over. He dropped when I added a left sided axe chop to the back of his neck.
He didn’t scramble to his feet with any sense of protection so I crowded him and kept pushing him over until I heard the whistle blow. There’s no Hallmark card to make this better. He left the center of the circle with a nasty look toward me. We weren’t friends before it started because we didn’t know each other. Now that we knew each other friendship seemed a faint possibility.
Sergeant Easterling walked the circle pretending to decide who came out next. He picked the biggest, baddest looking guy, six foot five from Chicago.
I waited in the middle of the ring in the ready position. He walked out like he was going to bat in a baseball game.
“You’re not doing that to me,” he said when he got close enough so only I could hear.