War. Okay, you got the scenery? War brings up a lot of images when I say the word. I'll say it again: WAR. Some of the images are good, too. Like heroism. Men with a mission. We are climbing the hills to protect the world for democracy or whatever it might be. Then, of course, there's the other side. The other side you don't even know about. But it's the in-between side where you really learn things. Because you never learn anything from the actual scenes of violence you see in war. For one thing they're too quick, too fast, too loud, and too many other things are happening for you to actually learn anything from them. Do you learn anything from an automobile accident on the turnpike? You don't. You think you do but you don't.
So it's the in-between things, not the violent ones, okay? So I'm seventeen years old and not really shaving yet. I have seen Don Ameche movies, I have seen Errol Flynn giving it to the enemy in the Pacific. You know all the old movies you see on TV? You're scared to go and at the same time there's a mission. It's a very complicated feeling at the time it's actually going on.
Before I realized it, I filled out some forms in a rash moment in high school. They told me if I filled them out it would be okay, I wouldn't have to go for a long time and they'd send me to school. All they wanted was my name on the line and they got it. It took me about ten minutes to get home and the orders were already there in a big fat envelope that told me where I had to go. Immediately I feel very heroic and people have parties for me, congratulating me. I'm all excited and hollering and I drink a glass of beer and everything and eventually the day comes.
I was thinking all these images — I'm going to get examined, and they were going to swear me in. Well, when you hear the phrase "swearing in," have you ever seen this done in the movies? It's very dramatic, isn't it? So I arrived at Franklyn Street in downtown Chicago. Right in the middle of the Loop. It's an office building. There is a slight mist coming down. It's raining. I am prepared for something official, an event like a graduation. I am going to become changed; it is historical.
"Okay, you guys, you're in the army. All right, you're in the army." We've just been sworn in. You know that wonderful swearing in where Van Johnson talks and the guys cry? The thing where they play "The Star Spangled Banner"? It's all over. We didn't hear anything! And one of the guys calls out, "What about the oath?" And the corporal says, "You just heard it. Get the potatoes out of your ears, mac!" We didn't hear anything! We wanted something to happen, you know? Where is it? When does the balloon go up? And we stand around and the corporal yells, "Get out! There's another bunch comin' in!" And they push us toward the door and there's the other bunch coming in, so a couple of us holler, "Hey, they're going to give you the oath! Hey, fellows, it's the oath!" And a couple of these guys, you could see their eyes brighten a little bit and then the captain and the corporal start mumbling again.
Gradually we go down, out onto the street, and it's still raining, and it's all over. All over. I'm now in the army. I'm one with Errol Flynn and Don Ameche and all those guys who broke through the Western Front in the movies.
Somehow or another they're going to give me an eye examination and decide if I need glasses. Glasses. All right, okay. Somehow the idea of getting a pair of glasses that you never had before is exciting. So I'm sitting in the clinic, about to get an eye exam. Incidentally, this is a place that later grew to rival in infamy Pearl Harbor itself. A place called Camp Crowder. Oh, it's incredible! And I'm sitting there in the Camp Crowder clinic. I'll never forget it. There are about forty-five guys around me, and all of these goof-offs are on sick call, but I'm here to get a pair of glasses.
Suddenly they wheel in a GI on a stretcher, and we look at him. He's watching us, and he says, "Hey fellows, will you call Company D and tell 'em I'm really sick. This is Olsen here."
I figure I'm going to do something about this guy, so I say, "Hey, doctor, this man is talking."
The doctor says, "Oh, don't worry about it, he's finished."
I say, "What?"
He says, "Yeah, he's got some rare disease. He's done. Don't worry about him. Next! Who's next?"
They give me an eye examination with a machine. With the little red crosses and yellow crosses. The technician says, "Tell me when you see the two lines come together. Tell me now when they cross." The crosses move. It's very official. A few minutes after I finish the exam a captain comes over to me and he says, "Okay, soldier, here's your glasses."
I put them on and they're really tight and they pinch my nose, and for the first time in my life, I can't see. I absolutely can't see! I walk around a bit and I say, "I can't see!"
"Ah, let's go, GI," the doctor says. "Next!"
I walk out into the sunlight and I take these things off and then I can see. As soon as I get back to my company area, the first sergeant calls me into the orderly room and says, "We've got a message from the clinic. You gotta wear your glasses all the time."
I say, "What do you mean? I can't see out of these things!"
"Wear the glasses!"
I walk out. The next day we're on the rifle range. I'm with my glasses. I can't see anything — there's three people moving around in front of me all the time. And they keep hollering, "Stand still, Shepherd, you're at attention!" This goes on for a week. I have a splitting headache! And every time I'm out with the company, the sergeant says, "Shepherd, you got your glasses on?" After that week, I finally go back to the clinic. I go in and see the captain and I say, "Captain, I can't see out of these glasses!"
He says, "Lemme see 'em. What's your name?"
"Shepherd, J. P., 11098946, sir."
He says, "No, you're not. You're Simonson, L. P., 350981642."
I say, "No, no!"
He looks at me for a bit. "I gave you the wrong glasses, soldier."
I say, "Oh! Now that solves the problem, sir. Please give me my glasses."
He gives me my glasses. They are dark green. I put them on and the world is black. For three-and-a-half years I carry these green glasses at the bottom of my army trunk. They cost the U.S. Army seventy-five dollars, I understand, and today I use them as a paper weight.
From Shep's Army: Bummers, Blisters & Boondoggles, edited by Eugene B. Bergmann. Copyright 2013 Opus. Excerpted with permission.