There’s always one. Whenever I have memories about a group I was with, maybe at camp or school, or whatever, I will recall one seriously annoying schmuck. A person who bullies his way through life, seemingly feeding on those less powerful to satisfy a need for status or something. Quite often we’ll think that because this person isn’t in our faces that we aren’t on his or her radar, only to discover that they were actually just waiting for a time when some vulnerability or other makes us an easier target. More buck for the bang, as it were.
When I was at Ft. Bragg with the 82nd Airborne after Vietnam, I was again assigned to the rigger company. In our work area, which was in a little traveled portion of the sprawling base, was a set of candy and drink machines. As with most of the base, the area was patrolled by soldiers on guard duty, but the coverage was so spotty that a small and dedicated group likely could have stolen the buildings, no less the contents of them. So when it was discovered that these machines had been broken into and their coins stolen, two things happened. First, more guards were posted and that meant a larger number of us would have to perform guard duty, and second, an investigation was started to determine the culprit and bring them to justice. Both of these were entirely grating on those of us in the rigger company because they both interfered with our most important pursuit: free time.
We had to stay within the easy grasp of CID, the criminal investigation division of the Adjutant General’s Office. These were the MPs on steroids, much like the novelist Lee Child’s character, Jack Reacher. Actually, there is no such person as Lee Child. It’s a pseudonym for a British writer named Jim Grant. I’m not sure what heinous thing Mr. Grant did that he uses an alias, but given his imagination –as evidenced by his books and his collaborations with Douglas Preston– it must have been terribly gruesome. But at any rate, all of us in the rigger company were suspects in the great vending machine heist, which netted, according to the rumor mill, the breathtaking sum of twelve dollars, all in quarters.
Suspicions ran high through the company in terms of who we suspect had done it. A number of the guys in the company were cornering others and accusing them of the deed, and offering to stay mute for fifty percent of the take. All of these would be extortionists came away empty, no one choosing to admit their guilt and forking over half of their ill-gotten gains. Still, everyone was being taken to the dayroom where a pair of CID officers were interviewing everybody, one at a time. It finally became my turn. I was guided into the dayroom by my platoon leader, the door closed behind me and locked. The two investigators looked like Laurel and Hardy. One was tall and thin, the other short and squat. They were both warrant officers, a set of ranks I still to this day don’t understand. They were apparently not quite officers but they were well above enlisted men. Most of the aviation battalion pilots in Vietnam were warrant officers. They went through their training at Fort Rucker and then assigned to an aluminum coffin with rotor blades in Vietnam fifteen minutes after graduation.
I knew how it would go. A firm reader even then of mystery novels and police procedurals, I knew I was in for the Good-Cop/Bad-Cop routine. Immediately, both of them started yelling at me, demanding to know where the money was and telling me that the entire company had witnessed my crime and confessed that I’d done it.
“Hey, hey, hey!” I protested. “This is not how this is supposed to work. One of you is supposed to be nice to me.”
“Where were you at the time of the crime?” demanded Laurel.
“How the hell should I know?” I answered. “I have no idea when the crime took place.”
“Aha!” shouted Hardy. “Who said we were asking about a crime?”
“You did.” I answered, perplexed.
“I don’t remember saying anything about a crime. I didn’t, did I?” Hardy asked Laurel.
“Well, yeah. You did. We both did.” Laurel winced at the look Hardy gave him.
“So, let’s say there was a crime. Where were you when it happened?” Hardy again.
“I just said I didn’t know.”
“So, you know when the crime was committed?” said Laurel, raising an eyebrow.
“No, I said I didn’t know where I was at the time of the crime because I didn’t know the time of the crime. ”
“Pretty convenient, don’t you think?” said Hardy, looking sly.
“None of this is convenient. Do you realize that “She” is playing at the base theater? I was gonna go see it. Ursula Andress stars in it and I heard there’s a couple of seconds where you can see her boobs. Naked. This is very inconvenient.”
“Get outta here.” said Laurel. I said ‘OK’ and stood up. He stopped me. “No, no. I meant get outta here, they don’t show her breasts.”
“That’s what I heard. That’s why I was going to spend a buck on admission to find out.”
“So, you have money, eh?” asked Hardy.
“Is it in the form of a dollar bill, or is it PERHAPS IN QUARTERS?” yelled Laurel. I pulled a five dollar bill out of my pocket and waved it.
“You could have changed the quarters into bills at the PX.” snarled Hardy.
“Why would I do that?” I asked. “A lotta guys pay for movies with change. I mean, it’s a buck.”
The two looked at one another without speaking. Then Laurel said “Okay, you can go. But make sure someone knows where you are.”
“I’m pretty sure that someone will know. I’m in the army after all. ..And hey, I always meant to ask. What’s with warrant officers? I mean, you guys aren’t enlisted men and you aren’t really officers. So, what’s the deal with that?”
“GET OUT!” yelled Laurel.
“MOVE IT!” shouted Hardy.
Man, those guys sure are sensitive about their rank. Maybe that’s why they never figured out who ripped off the vending machines.