up and called as little attention to themselves as possible, time and
bureaucratic ambivalence would steadily push them up through the
ranks. And since the fastest way to call unwanted attention to
yourself was to have someone under your command get injured or
killed, my unit's commanders spent 49 1/2 weeks out of the year
instructing their troops to do as little as possible. I became quite
the solitaire player in the Guard.
But the result of all this inactivity when we arrived for our big
summer drill -- the two-and-a-half weeks we were actually expected to
do something because the Army brass was there to observe -- was
disastrous. Rusty and undisciplined, my unit descended on our
training grounds like a frat-house cruise to Ensenada. Armored
personnel carriers rolled up steep hillsides and overturned. Mortar
crews dropped their rounds hundreds of yards off range. Everywhere,
soldiers were breaking their arms or cracking their skulls or losing
their teeth, and the Army observers watched and shook their heads in
As a mortar man who spent most of my time surrounded by cannon
tubes and explosives, I found this lack of military professionalism
troubling. One minor slip-up and I could find myself punching a hole
in the ozone with the top of my head. I vowed that no matter what, I
would get through the next two weeks without getting killed or
I managed to keep that promise for two straight days, then my
platoon was sent out on a nighttime live-fire exercise. I was
standing on top of a tank-mounted mortar and had just finished
handing a live round to the gunner when my sergeant called my name
"Yeah, sergeant?" I shouted to him, taking out my earplugs at the
exact moment the gunner dropped the round into the mortar tube.
It was as if God himself leaned down from heaven and said, "Boom."
I would never hear the high notes on a violin again.
I rolled on the ground for 15 minutes clutching my ears, while my
platoon sergeant stood over me and -- I assume -- asked me if I were
"--- ---- ----?," the sergeant asked.