RESERVE OFFICER TRAINING CORPS (ROTC)
While I was at the University of Nebraska, I played football and was in ROTC. ROTC was Reserved Officers Training Corps which they had at most state universities around the country. I see from the paper yesterday (October 5, 2001) that Harvard is not going to permit ROTC units back at Harvard again.) But this was a big item in the midwest particularly, and it was required for two years. So I was just a regular GI. We drilled every week. There was a problem with that, because the timing of basic training conflicted with football practice in the fall. So I had a difficult time keeping up my attendance at one or the other. And naturally, I selected football as the primary consideration for my time.
As the result of skipping ROTC class, I got down slips from the ROTC captain. Captain Horan was his name, and he didn’t like people missing his class. When you got a pink slip from him, you had to go see the colonel, who was in charge of all the ROTC, to get permission to go to Captain Horan’s class. So after several pink slips and several trips to see the colonel, I finally got to the point where Captain Horan was going to fail me. This meant that if I got another pink slip from him, I would be ineligible for football. So I had to go see the Colonel about Captain Horan’ s decision.
I reported to the Colonel, who was an elderly gentleman and a legend at the University of Nebraska. He had been there for a long time. So I reported in and told him that my problem was that football practice was in conflict with my attending ROTC classes. The colonel said, “Cather, are you related to Willa Cather?” I said, “Yes, sir, she is a great aunt of mine.” He said, “Oh, she was a wonderful woman, wonderful woman.! Are you still a second lieutenant?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He called for his secretary to come in and said, “I’ll straighten things out with Captain Horan. In the meantime you are promoted to first lieutenant*, and you can go back to the classes now and try to minimize the amount of absenteeism so that you aren’t ineligible for football.” I saluted properly and went back to explain to Captain Horan. He thought I had been discharged totally from the ROTC, and therefore would be ineligible for football. I tried to explain to him that I was not discharged, that I was permitted to come back to classes, and that I was also promoted to a first lieutenant. (Cadet ranking in ROTC. Later, when in the reserve army, I wold start out as a second lieutenant.)
So after my two years of basic training, I continued in ROTC to officer training, because, for one thing, it paid $12 a month. And I needed that money for school. My father had told me he didn’t think I could afford university. I said,” Well, I don’t know about that!” So this was one of the means of income to cover my cost of playing football for the University of Nebraska.
In 1939 I finished college and got my commission as a second lieutenant in the infantry. And I was assigned at that time to a reserve army unit that had its headquarters in Omaha. During this time, to finish my ROTC, we had to go to a summer camp — six weeks each year for two years. In these summer camps, I was assigned to regular army units. One of them was at Fort Riley, Kansas. I was attached to the artillery unit. While here I was late for an appointment at the doctor’s office for a physical. I had some laundry to pick up, so I had gone to the laundry to pick up my clean clothes. As a result of that, I was late for the doctor’s appointment.
Consequently, I received a letter from the commanding officer: “Reply by endorsement why you missed this important appointment.” So I wrote this letter explaining what had happened — that I had gone to the laundry to get my clothes, and it made me late for the doctor’s appointment. The commanding officer sent back a letter saying: “Not accepted.” So I showed my letter and the answer to several of my friends to try to get advice on how I should word my letter. I made several attempts at trying to explain in greater detail how long it took me to get to the laundry, why I was late for the medical exam, etc. Each time the letter came back: “Unaccepted.” So I didn’t know what to do then.
This commanding officer was like a Vinegar Joe Stillwell. He always sat out in front of his tent at night in his undershirt smoking his pipe. This was the days of the rigid brimmed hat, like a boy scout hat. He wore his hat. He sat out each evening. So I thought I just better go find out what was bothering him about my letters. When I appeared before him, I gave him a proper salute, and I said just didn’t know what else to put in my letters explaining my tardiness at the doctor’s office. He gave me this vinegar look and said: “Lieutenant, from here on you will find that any delinquency in appearing for appointments or formations is inexcusable!” He put a lot into that inexcusable part. And he said, “Dismissed.” That’s how I solved my dilemma with the commanding officer — “No excuse.”
Summer camps were a thing with ROTC. They were a very big part of it — a requirement that you could not overlook. Also what you couldn’t overlook was the fact that you got paid. You went on a regular officer pay scale.
The second summer camp I went to was sort of my initiation to summer army camp. They usually were held in conjunction with the regular army activities and bases. One was in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. To give you some idea, we slept in big tents — maybe 12 men in each tent. There were the usual problems of trying to be a civilized citizen, while you are practicing being an army rat. One of the problems we tried to overcome was swearing. This is difficult to do, because it becomes so automatic: “Pass the ##### butter”. You had to clean up your language a little bit and say: “Please pass the butter.” To assist in this, we hung a clip board with our names on it on the center tent pole, and each time you were caught swearing, you got a black mark on this tent pole record.
A rather amusing thing occurred during this exercise. The tent next to us was from the Arkansas ROTC. When they learned of our effort to clean up the swearing, they decided to do the same. Now in these tents, it was so hot at night that you rolled up the side flaps to get some air. Consequently, you could hear your tent mates next door. And early one morning, when I woke up, there was a big argument in the Arkansas tent. They had installed our marker system about swearing. And the big argument in the Arkansas tent this morning was: Was saying underwear a swear word? The test for the word was would you say whatever this word was in front of your mother. One group was saying: “I’d say underwear in front of my mother.” The other group said, “Oh, not in front of my mother!”
Well meaning as our efforts may have been, they were not a complete success by the time camp was over. I don’t think we sounded any different coming out than going in — a little worse maybe.
Another memorable summer camp when I was in ROTC was at Fort Rily, Kansas. Fort Riley at Junction City, Kansas was a cavalry outfit, and horseback riding was number one. Well, maybe number one was dating the girls from Nebraska, who happened to live in Junction City for the summer. One of the sorority girls I was dating liked going riding. We would check out a couple of horses and ride the trails along the river. This girl was a good rider and liked jumping the horse on these trails. I was not into jumping at this stage of my equestrian career, but I had a fraternity brother who was regular army and based there. He was one of the stable officers. I could always go to him and get a selection that could jump anything without having a skilled rider. This girl, her name was Barbara (not the Barbara you will later hear about), she insisted that she and her horse could jump anything on this trail. Well, what she thought she could jump, she missed. This was a trench, five foot wide with a high bank on each side. The horse I was riding — the special selection — took the jump easily, and I circled back to tell Barbara that I didn’t advise her taking this jump. She laughed it off and about the same time went sailing through the air. The horse missed the far bank and pitched her high and wide. She landed very hard with one leg folded under her.
I tied my horse up and went back to help her, and she confirmed a broken leg as the bone was sticking out the side of her boot. I was supposed to take that boot off.
She was passing out every few seconds. I had to wait until she passed out for a long period to get the boot off, which I did. The next problem was we were deep in the woods along the river. I barely knew which direction help was. And there was no point in sitting there with her crying, and there was no such thing as a helpful ambulance to come along. So I just told her I would have to strike out by myself, since it would get dark after awhile, and I wasn’t sure that I could find her again. It was a rather serious situation. Luckily, someone did come along, another rider, and he solved our problem. He went back to the stable and got help. They had to walk out with Barbara on a litter. Fortunately she had no long-term effect. That ended that summer of equitation. The only problem was, I didn’t have a riding partner for the rest of the six weeks.