Chapter 10
January, 1950
Fort Belvoir, Virginia
US Army Corps of Engineers
Company C, 1st School Battalion

More Dropping Out?

 Dumpy Level & Philadelphia Rod
(Previous Page)

Surveying School

 Logarithm Formula

They had told me the construction surveying course would be very intensive—and it was. Sergeant Carlson, the chief instructor explained on our first day that since we had come from a variety of levels of education, he would assume that none of us had the any of the math skills needed to be a surveyor.

So, in order to keep everybody at the same level, he would start us out learning basic addition and subtraction—and take us through college geometry and trigonometry—all in just two weeks. Then we would divide our time pretty much equally between classroom work and field work.

This sounded good to me—alternating indoor studies with outdoor work. I was looking forward to it. However, the daytime temperatures were now in the low thirties most of the time—and I didn't take to that too well.

But I survived, and managed to get pretty good grades, even though simple math had always been my weakest point in school. I was usually able to understand complicated formulas readily enough, and figure out how a problem should be solved—but I'd frequently end up with the wrong answer because of an error in simple addition.

But in spite of this handicap, I was getting passing grades in math, and did quite well with the field work—until one day when I triangulated us right into the flower garden of the Commanding General's private quarters.

We'd be sent out in groups of three to see if we could follow a map that was supposed to lead us sequentially around a string of pre-determined markers that had been placed out in the woods. You'd find these markers by using a transit, a Philadelphia rod, and a measuring chain.

Without trying to get technical, the idea was that if you measured the angles and distances indicated on the map correctly, you'd eventually end up at a predetermined destination.

Usually I did pretty well at this, but on this particular day I somehow misread a couple of angles and was surprised to find that the map was apparently leading into a garden near this rather stately-looking house just beyond the edge of the woods.

As we got close to the house, a young woman came out and said, "I don't think you're supposed to be here. What are you doing, anyway?"  Commanding General's Daughter

I was about to explain that we were just following a map when a pair of MPs came racing around from the opposite side of the house with their hands on their holsters. "Hey!" they were yelling.

Well, to make a short, embarrassing story shorter, we were told by the MPs that this was the Commanding General's home and that the young lady was his daughter and that we were lucky we didn't get shot. So I apologized and took a closer look at our map to see if I could figure out where we were actually supposed to be.

I did find my error, and quickly got us back on course. But from then on we were known around the School Battalion as the three guys who got into trouble with Base Commander's daughter.

The time at school seemed to pass quickly. The weather began getting a little warmer and the construction surveying course would soon be coming to an end.

Thinking Of Dropping Out Again

But about a week before I was due to graduate, I found myself giving serious thought to dropping out. (Does this sound familiar?) Not that I wasn't doing well—I'd been getting a B+ average, and was looking forward to getting my diploma. We had been told that Corps of Engineers Tech School graduates were needed all around the world to help build dams, bridges, and highways in what surely must have been exciting and exotic places.

But I decided to forsake all this for a desk job at Fort Belvoir.  First Sergeant

I don't remember just how I became acquainted with Master Sergeant Francis M. Baggott, the school company's First Sergeant and ranking NCO—but when he found out I knew how to touch type he asked me how I'd like to stay there and be his Company Clerk. (In those days it was mainly girls who took typing in school—so a competent male typist was a rare commodity. And Sgt. Baggott needed one.)

So what would be the advantages of remaining at Fort Belvoir?

Well, for starters, I would be out of the barracks and into a semi-private "cadre" room. I would have a steady 8 to 5 office job, with weekends off—and I would always get to go to "early chow" (meaning I didn't have to wait in the regular student chow line). An automatic promotion to corporal also came with the job, and remaining at Fort Belvoir meant I was just a few miles from Washington DC and all the interesting things our capital city had to offer. Also, there was a very nice roller rink a few miles up the road, just outside of Alexandria, Virginia.

Sounded pretty good to me, so I said I'd take the job. However there was just one catch—you couldn't just "drop out" of this kind of a military tech school. Sure, you could ask to be reassigned, but I was told the army took a dim view of spending thousands of dollars training someone, only to have him ask for a different assignment. If I really wanted to do this, there was only one way to do it—fail the course. And the only way I could do that was to completely flunk the upcoming final exam.

So there I was, looking at an exam I knew I could pass—maybe not with flying colors, but with at least a B—and was about to answer every question wrong that I could. This was not a comfortable feeling, and several times I found myself starting to erase the incorrect answers to replace them with correct ones. But then I would think of the skating rink where I'd spent many pleasurable hours, and how they might not have any roller rinks in Saudi Arabia or Formosa—so I went ahead and flunked the test.

Well, Sgt. Carlson was fit to be tied. What I'd done was pretty obvious, but he demanded to know why. And didn't I realize my test score was going to make him look like an idiot? (Well, no, I hadn't thought of that.) Then he said he had half a mind to grade all my answers with their opposite scores and pass me anyway. But he decided that would probably make him look like a bigger idiot, so he went ahead and let me flunk—but not without telling me he hoped I would have a miserable time at my new job.

"RA" All the Way

Sgt. Baggott had assured me that if I did flunk the course, he could pull the strings that would get me assigned as Company K's Company Clerk—and he did.

The sergeant was a career soldier who had close to twenty years in, and liked what he was doing. His job was mostly administrative, and struck me as being a fairly easy one. He was the one responsible for keeping the normal stream of bureaucratic red tape flowing through his office, and, with an efficient Company Clerk, he wouldn't have to work too hard at doing that. He rarely came out from behind his desk (which may have had something to do with the fact that he was about 30 pounds overweight). And he appreciated having someone in the office who could type with all ten fingers—although he was almost as fast with just two.

Well, I settled in and quickly learned the ropes. Before long I was handling all the paperwork, and even designed a number of forms to help smooth the flow of the omnipresent red tape. Sgt. Baggott appreciated my efforts and we got along well—for a while.

But I began to get restless. I had a comfortable job—and probably shouldn't have rocked the boat—but the First Sergeant and I had totally different views on military life. He was strictly RA (regular army) and didn't have much use for anyone who was just "putting in some time" till he could get back to civilian life (which, of course, was exactly what I was doing).

And if you thought Sgt. Baggott was RA all the way, you should have met his wife. I ran into her in the waiting room of the infirmary one day. Down the hall we could see a line-up of soldiers of varying ages and ranks filing slowly into another room.

(Continued in Next Column)

Mrs. First Sergeant

Mrs. Baggott shook her head sadly and said, "Oh those poor boys. Whatever are they going to do?" When I asked what she meant, she said, "They're being processed for discharge. They're going to be civilians soon, and they'll be out there hoping someone will offer them a job or give them a handout. Oh, those poor boys. If only they knew what they're letting themselves in for."

Well, I could see she wouldn't like anything I would have to say on that subject, so I excused myself and said I had to use the restroom—hoping she'd be gone when I came out. (She was.)

Got Along Well with the CO

But I got along real well with Captain Kenneth Maynard. He was our Company Commander, and pretty much of a regular guy. In fact I knew it irritated Sgt. Baggott whenever he heard the captain and myself joking and laughing in the captain's office. Capt. Maynard seemed to like me, and I knew as long as he was the CO, I'd have a job there—even if Sgt. and/or Mrs. Baggott got tired of me—which they did.

As things turned out, I stayed there for nearly two years—and for most of that time things went quite smoothly. But eventually Sgt. Baggott and I got to where we just maintained a polite co-existence and tried to stay out of each other's way. We got along—but anyone could see we really didn't care all that much for each other.

Black Sailor

But I had other friends. James Wilson was a black sailor who was taking one of the courses. Although this was an army base with schools that taught subjects normally associated with the army, about ten percent of the students at any given time were from other branches of the service. James and I were introduced by somebody who said we should have a lot in common because we were both interested in classical music. Well, James was more than just interested—he was a talented violinist, and had been playing since he was very young.

DC Theaters — No Blacks Allowed

One day, while going through the movie listings in the Washington Post, I spotted an ad for a French movie that was supposed to be about the life of composer Jacques Offenbach. It was playing at a small "art" theater that specialized in foreign films.

I wasn't familiar with the theater's location—but James had been born and raised in DC. When I mentioned it to him, and suggested going to see the movie, he said he knew right where it was. He also said he was glad the film was playing in this particular movie house, because it was one of the few theaters in DC that he was allowed into. I thought he was kidding. He wasn't.

I could scarcely believe it. Here it was 1950, and the vast majority of movie theaters in our nation's capital refused to admit blacks? I guess I really was naïve.

James and I got to be good friends, and I was invited to dinner at his parents' home a number of times. I also became acquainted with the various restaurants and theaters in Washington DC where blacks were welcome. Beyond that, I enjoyed hearing him play the violin, and he got a kick out of my magic tricks.  Hypnotism

Why Not Hypnotism?

Then one day I ran across a book on hypnotism. I'd always been curious about whether hypnotism was for real, or was it just an act of some kind? It was a big book that can't be summarized in a few words—but it said, basically, that hypnotism is indeed quite real and, when used properly, it can be an effective tool in certain types of medical and/or psychiatric treatments. The book also explained that people can't be hypnotized against their will, nor can hypnotized persons be made to do things that are against their moral values.

The book also had a lot of precautionary notes as to the potential hazards of just fooling around with hypnotism. Having said all that, however, it pointed out that it is not all that hard for one person to hypnotize another—as long as the other is willing. Then the book explained how to do it.

I was curious to try it out. So was James.

To grossly oversimplify it—the idea is for the hypnotist to get the other person's full attention—usually by having him concentrate on an object of some kind—and then by telling him authoritatively that he is going to relax—and feel good—and, ultimately, follow the hypnotist's instructions.

So one night, when my roommate was gone for the evening, James and I decided to try it. With James laying on his back, I dimmed the lights and asked him to concentrate on an object I would dangle above of him. As he stared at the slowly swinging dog-tag (army ID necklace) I told him he was beginning to relax.

I then told him how his feet were getting heavy, and then his legs, etc., and finally how his whole body was so heavy he could scarcely move any part of it. Then I asked him to try to raise his right hand, after having told him it would be too heavy to raise more than a couple of inches.

Was He Really Hypnotized?

He struggled to raise it, but could just barely get it off the blanket. (Was he really hypnotized, I wondered, or just trying to be cooperative?

Next I told him that the heaviness would go away, and that he could sit up on the edge of the bunk. He did—but I still couldn't tell if he was just trying to please me.

Then I told him to stand up, put his hands at his sides, and make his body stiff as a board. Again, he did exactly as I told him. But I wasn't convinced that I really had him under my power. I needed a better test.

Then I thought of one.

I stood behind him and said, "James, I want you to keep your body stiff and let yourself fall backwards."

I wanted to see if he would do this—or would he try to break his fall somehow?

Well, to my surprise, he began to fall straight backwards—and without making any effort to break the fall. I caught him and pushed him upright again. But here's the scary part—I started to step around in front of him while trying to decide what to do next. I'd barely taken one step when he started to fall backwards again. I had to scramble to get behind him and keep him from landing flat on his back.

Then it occurred to me—I hadn't told him to fall on the count of three, or anything like that. I had just told him to fall—and said nothing about when to stop falling.

This scared me. So, as I stood behind him with my hands on his shoulders, I said, "James, you're going to wake up when I count to three." Then I counted, and said, "Wake up, James!"

His body immediately relaxed. When I felt sure he wasn't going to fall again, I stepped around in front of him and asked, "How do you feel?"

"Fine," he said. Then, after a pause, he continued, "So—what are we doing?"

I said, "Do you remember what we just did?"

He thought for a moment, then said, "You were going to try to hypnotize me. I remember looking at the dog-tag."

Then I told him what had happened—and he claimed he could remember none of it. Well, either I had actually hypnotized him—and given myself a good scare in the process—or he was the world's greatest actor. In any case, I decided that was enough hypnotism for me, and James said that if I was satisfied it was okay with him, too.

Shortly after that James finished his course and shipped out. He had become my best friend at Fort Belvoir, and I missed him.

Another Fort Belvoir Adventure - Dance Studio Temptress.

Don Edrington's Home Page     Shy Guy from Hollywood High     Brief Bio   All Stories

Prologue   Ch.1 Alameda - Los Angeles 1939-40   Ch.2 Echo Park 1943   Ch.3 Virgil Jr Hi 1944   Ch.4 Le Conte Jr Hi 1945-46
Ch.5 Gower Gulch 1946   Ch.6 Hollywood Hi 1946-47   Ch.7 Drop Out 1948   Ch 8 Norma Jean Salina 1948   Ch 9 Fort Ord 1949
Ch.10 Fort Belvoir 1950   Ch.11 Korea 1951   Ch.12 Back to Civilian Life 1952   Ch.13 Cornet Stores 1953   Ch.14 Puerto Rico 1955
Ch 15 Signs by George 1956   Ch 16 Mexico 1958   Ch.17 Fullerton 1960   Ch.18 Fallbrook 1973   Ch.19 Costa Mesa 2000

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