Between Memorial Day and D-Day, June 6th, I always have a thought, even if fleeting, for Sergeant Major Russell Keene, my savior.
It was fifty-one years ago—in the summer, I remember—that I first met Sergeant Major Russell Keene, the man who single-handedly ran the day-to-day life of the U.S. Army Battalion in which I found myself an unwilling draftee, in the Antilles Command, San Juan, Puerto Rico. I stood before Sgt. Keene that day in 1962 as a prisoner, having been transported back to Ft. Buchanan in San Juan from the Town of Salinas in the mountainous interior of the Island where I’d been assigned as an “Acting” Military Policeman with the rank of “Acting” Corporal, in a contingent of regular Army (as I was) to keep order in a Puerto Rican National Guard Summer Training Camp. I had been very much “acting”—I’d been issued no bullets for my .45-caliber sidearm since my primary job in the Army was “English Language Instructor” (the Service calls it your MOS), my fellow instructors being also armed with empty pistols, all of us just there as some extra bodies on loan to the real MPs. It was the real MPs who chased and arrested me for “misappropriating” the Lieutenant Colonel’s Staff Car to go into town for a “couple of pops.” That’s how I met Sgt. Major Keene. Under guard.
In between two MPs, I was ushered into the Battalion HQ Hut into His presence. You weren’t required to salute Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs)—even the top enlisted rank of Sergeant Major, but I resisted a powerful urge to do so. Sgt. Keene was a big man: six-two, broad in the shoulders and waist, barrel-chest, military-cut salt-and-pepper hair; I guessed his age at fifty. Being 21, old to me was 50. I stood at rigid ‘attention’: shoulders back, eyes straight ahead, head level with and centered atop my shoulders. (The man had that kind of effect on you.) Coming from behind his grey metal desk, he stopped two feet away, stooping a bit to peer intently in my face. I stared back at the clean-shaven face, noting absent-mindedly the gossamer tracery of burst red capillaries in the hollows of the cheek and the drinker’s nose.
“What in Sam Hill do you think you’re doing, Corporal?” he said. The tone perplexed, not unkind. After awhile, he told me to consider myself under arrest and confined to the HQ Company area, specifically a vacant barracks next door. I was ordered to stay put until further notice, except to go to the Company Mess at feeding times. He dismissed me then, directing his Orderly to get me bedding and escort me to my place of confinement. He’d forgotten something, and so called me back to surrender my Class A Pass (like a Passport, it allows you to enter onto or leave a military base).
Jail was not what I’d expected. I was alone in a barracks that usually was home to forty men. I took three meals at the HQ Company dining hall like the other soldiers, undistinguished by my status as prisoner. Days and evenings I read in the barracks. I consumed the “Studs Lonigan” trilogy by James T. Farrell. I felt no urge to flee; I accepted that I was ‘On My Honor’, sort of an Honored Guest. I never saw Sgt. Keene at the Company Mess Hall; the enlisted men’s grapevine said he took his meals at the NCO Club, where you could get a drink. He was rumored to put away a case of beer nightly at the Club; there was no Missus Keene, on the Base at least. Sgt. Keene was a Lifer, having parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, and fought in Korea in the early 1950s. I calculated that he was likely no older than me, probably 19, when he landed in France with the 82nd or 101st Airborne Divisions on June 6, 1944.
Ten days later, I was summoned again by Sgt. Keene, who informed me that if I wished to plead guilty to “misuse” rather than “misappropriation” of the Lieutenant Colonel’s staff car, I would be sentenced to 30 days at “unconfined hard labor” and loss of rank—busted back, that is, to the lowest enlisted rank, Private E-1, with a consequent loss of pay. Since I had only managed to rise one grade to Private E-2 despite my unpaid Acting Corporal rank, I readily agreed to the plea offer. That same day, in the afternoon, I appeared before the Battalion Commander, Colonel Bishop, to formally plead guilty and be sentenced at a Summary Courts Martial. The formalities swiftly done, the Colonel disappeared and I was left with Sgt. Keane who instructed me on my next assignment. First, he asked how many pairs of “fatigues” (the work uniform) I owned. “Two,” I said.
“Draw three more from Quartermaster and soap at the PX,” he said. “Report tomorrow at 0630 hrs. in full fatigue uniform to the Work Detail Sergeant at the northwest corner of the Parade Field. He’ll show you what to do. Dismissed!”
And so I was “Courts Martialled”. Next morning, I drew a pick and shovel, alternately, and broke ground, dug post holes, and hoisted lumber into place for the next thirty days—that is, me and successive platoons of Puerto Rican recruits. The only constant face in the work gang was mine. We were building a Combat Proficiency Course, the first on the Island. All regular Army would be tested—swinging on ladder bars, running over and under obstacles, climbing walls, while being timed—to measure our Combat-Readiness. This was during Cuban Missile Crisis time, which gave the Commanding General of the Antilles Command a purpose. The other half of the Command was located in Panama at the Jungle Fighters School. Their Combat Proficiency Course would not look anything like ours. In the event, I qualified on the course easily, being in the best shape I’d been since Basic Training.
I got quite adept behind the wheel of my Ton-and-a-Half, though it never got to go to Town. The months of my enlistment sped by as I picked up the dirty stuff—on alternate days of the week from Companies A, B, C and Headquarters—and came back with clean. Companies A, B and C housed the English Language Instructors. One hundred fifty of them—all of us college graduates sent at the end of Basic Training from Camps all around the country to Ft. Buchanan to teach Puerto Rican recruits to read, speak and write English (more or less), in eight weeks so they could pass a test, then be formally inducted into the U.S. Army. My brother instructors were every kind of engineer, PhDs in the Classics from Harvard and Yale, farmers from Texas A&M, and not a few actual high school teachers. All, with Lesson Plan in hand, saying “Repeat after me” to 30 or more ‘jibaros’, having varying degrees of motivation to learn the foreigner’s tongue. Sgt. Keene rescued me from that fate. In time, I learned that he had intervened to save me from another. Lt. Col. Hayes whose brand new staff car I had “misused” (and abused) wanted me to receive a General Courts Martial which would have sent me to the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS, with a Dishonorable Discharge. But Col. Bishop, who outranked Hayes, vetoed that. I believe that Sgt. Major Keene, as trusted chief advisor, whispered in his Colonel’s ear.
When I was a ‘short-timer’ with just one week to go before being shipped back to the States for discharge, Sgt. Keene once again demanded my Class A Pass and confined me to the Base. It was during the small private party he had for me—just him, the Orderly and me, with a small frosted cake from the Mess Hall with three candles on it—signifying my new pay grade of E-3, him handing me a pair of stripes to be sewn on, one to each sleeve, as he promoted me to Private First Class and advised that I keep my nose clean.
Why me? I ask myself. He’d commanded real soldiers, in combat and out, for two decades, and must have dealt with countless drunk fuck-ups. Was that it? Nostalgia? I wonder if he stayed in long enough to go to Vietnam. If he were still alive, he’d be about 93. I’d like to see him once more so he could see that I didn’t end up in Leavenworth after all.