Reader Reactions & Anecdotes

12 April 2008

Outflanking the Enemy

I’m 86, but I feel much older. Yet I also feel much younger.

The older one of me is the man who can look out to sea in a quiet moment and experience a sudden weariness, a numbing awareness of all the years that have passed and how utterly tired he is of watching the world destroy itself.

The younger man in me comes forward unexpectedly. He gets up in the morning, full of ideas for the day — often for the years ahead — as if he were back in the old times, when the future and personal energy were infinite. Both men are congenial, living in me side by side in a kind of calm acceptance of the peculiar contradiction they represent. Sometimes they both laugh together, as when they catch me eyeing a beautiful woman speculatively, or when they hear me saying to myself, “Damn — why don’t I take some of this so-called discretionary money of mine and get a current pilot’s license?” Or when they see me staring in combined astonishment and disgust when I spy my reflection in a shop window.

The real problem with all this, though, is external. The world refuses to see the young man — the real man — in me.

We are a society that puts great stock in the superficial, a people ready to believe that whatever glitters is indeed gold. A large house in a gated community? Those who live there must surely be happy and fulfilled. A Mercedes-Benz? The driver must be one rich dude. A beautiful face and a knockout figure? Such a woman is the kind we need in Washington. Tall, rugged, handsome, glib? The guy would be fabulous as a corporate president, or a head of state.

Other possibilities seem to be rarely considered. That the fancy house may be haunted by a hateful divorce or incipient murder, or that the Mercedes is being driven by a repo man who just took it back from a stone-broke phony, or that the beautiful woman and handsome man are tyrannized by self-doubt and anxieties and inner ugliness, doesn’t appear to matter. How things look is what matters. Central Casting über alles!

All of this first registered with me personally in 1943, when I was in infantry training in Georgia. At five-seven and 140 pounds, with a baby face and a kind of built-in exuberance, I discovered that I was seldom taken seriously by the hairy giants trying to turn me and my fellow trainees into the ferocious warriors who would beat Hitler’s legions into submission. I did fine in the academics, but when we got on the combat training, where the faculty officers would arbitrarily throw trainees into circumstances designed to test their readiness for command and responsibility, I, as the smallest man in the company, seemed always to end up with the “maid’s work” — crawling back and forth with messages, seeing to the ammunition and water supplies, distributing grub, and other demeaning, unglamorous chores.

One day the company was in an exercise that called for an assault on a “German” heavy weapons company dug in on a ridge. (The “Germans” were actually cadre troops firing blanks and exploding black powder charges planted in our path.) When all the shooting began our trainee company commander called for us to hit the dirt and called for commander, 1st Platoon, to send ahead a patrol to see just where the enemy was located. The platoon leader appointed a huge, barrel-chested ex-footballer to lead the patrol. But then, of all impossible things, our training officer, a first lieutenant, overruled him and, pointing to me, said, “You lead, Hunter.”

You could hear the snickers. Here was this pint-size errand boy, and he was suddenly in charge of six gargantuan first-platooners and would lead them into a probe of a dug-in machine-gun and mortar strongpoint? It was to laugh.

But the snickering made me mad as hell.

I signaled for the six to follow me, and we began our crawl to higher ground that would permit a view of the enemy-held ridge. Half-way there, the firing and explosions intensified and the first looie training officer yelled, “All right, Hunter! You’re pinned down! None of your people can move! Now what?”

But by then I was so pissed I kept right on crawling and the officer kept yelling, “I said you’re pinned down!”

He yelled it so often I became the explosion. I glared down the hill at him and shouted, “Get off my back! How the hell else am I gonna see where the enemy is?”

“You want me to bust you?”

“You bust me, it’s for something I did and not for doing nothing on my face in the freakin’ mud!”

I got to the rim, took compass readings on what seemed to be the extreme flanks of the enemy position, then crawled back and showed the company commander on a map what I’d seen. The exercise went ahead, we outflanked the “Germans” and nothing more was said about my mini-rebellion.

Late afternoon, our company was trucked back to the barracks area, and while everybody was still milling around, fussing with weapons and gear, the training officer pulled me aside, and I thought, Well, here it comes.

He said, “You were on the edge of insubordination out there on the ridge, you know.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m gonna let it go, because I think you learned something real important today.”

“What’s that, sir?”

“When they hand you the hat, you wear it. No matter what.”

We traded salutes and he strode off into the evening.

That lieutenant was only one among hundreds of bosses I’ve since had, in the military and beyond, but he was the one who did most to change my view of things. With those few words he taught me that physical stature has nothing to do with leadership, and that smallness would in no way diminish whatever capacity someone has for thinking things through and acting on his convictions. He made me understand that nobody is second-class because he’s small. Or can’t handle a responsibility because he doesn’t happen to look right for it. Or must go along and give up when somebody tells him that he’s pinned down — finished.

I’ve applied the lesson to everything I’ve done — or been asked to do — in my subsequent lifetime.

But they’re back again, these people who think that looks equate with capability. Now that my smallness has been joined by oldness, I detect a supposition among the younger practitioners in my professional circles that, since I’m old and teeny, I’m no longer aware, inventive, and skillful, and therefore no longer their peer. And most galling is the unwillingness of editors in their 40s to read book proposals or manuscripts bearing my byline on the assumption that the ideas and performance of an 86-year-old grump can’t possibly be New Age and cool.

They’re trying to pin down the old man in me. But, as always, I remember the clamorous ridge in Georgia those many years ago.

So the young man in me has settled the hat firmly on his head and kept clawing his way up the hill. And, Lo! I have a new novel — my 17th — coming out in September.

And, if, while finishing up my 18th, I run into an editor who requires an ID photo before he reads my stuff, I’ll get the neighbor kid to pose for the shot, by God.

She’s very pretty, and should make a nice impression.

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.