The Worst Job in the World

Fifty years ago this year I was stationed in Viet Nam doing my bit for God, Country, and whatever else it was I was supposed to be doing it for. I guess that’s brought on a lot of nostalgia (I’m not sure that’s the right word) and reminded me of this story.

I made it through ‘Nam more or less in one piece, except for a shoulder problem (see a post titled “The Doctor Was a Giants Fan” from 12 February 2016), and forty-nine yeas ago I ended up at a small base in Virginia where I was doing my primary job, and the Army being the Army, a host of subsidiary jobs. One of those was to help in what we all called “The Worst Job in the World.”

One of the things the enlisted men on post had to do was drive high-ranking officers and dignitaries around the post. It was kind of stupid; most of them could drive themselves. But once you were on the roster, you were eligible to be called at a moment’s notice to go get a car at the motor pool, make sure it was gassed up, and meet the officer at wherever was designated. It wasn’t actually a hard job, but it could be boring and you had to get on your shiniest shoes and make sure your gig line was straight. There were a lot of these kinds of driving things and you dealt with them with something of a simple resignation knowing that “this too shall pass.” Except for one specific driving detail.

I was getting ready to head over to the mess hall for breakfast one October morning in 1969 when one of the company clerks showed up with instructions, “Top needs to see you.” “Top” was the unit First Sergeant (or “top sergeant”). Well, that meant either I’d done something awful or he had a job for me. So I wandered downstairs to the office and reported in.

“Get your Class A’s on (that’s the dress green uniform that is used for fancy occasions) and report to the motor pool,” were the instructions. “Make sure it’s gassed up and go over to the headquarters building. Ask for Captain (and I have no idea after all these year’s the Captain’s name). He’s today’s Casualty Assistance Officer. And take a book, you could be sitting a while.”

I knew that meant that I got to assist in “The Worst Job in the World.” My job was to drive this Captain to some address and then wait outside while he went in and informed some wife or parent that their husband or son had made the “ultimate sacrifice” in ‘Nam. At least I only had to drive. I didn’t have to go inside and inform, console, comfort the widow (this time it was a wife). But driving was tough enough because you knew what you were going to do.

The unit had a small library in the day room (it’s sort of a big rec room for the company) and I looked it over for something sort of mindless. I didn’t want anything too heavy because I knew I’d only be vaguely reading it anyway. There was one of those 1950s junior high/high school baseball biographies on the shelf (you’ve probably read something like it). It was Stan Musial and I’d heard enough about him from my Grandfather that I was sure I wouldn’t be too deeply involved in the book. So I grabbed it, changed into my best, went to the motor pool, tossed the book into the glove compartment, and headed to the post headquarters.

I don’t remember much about the Captain. I’d never seen him before and I don’t recall ever seeing him again. He was taller than me and looked absolutely awful (Casualty Assistance Officer will do that to you). As bad as my job was, his was “the Worst Job in the World” and he knew it. I saluted, we got in the car and drove off toward the nearest town (he had directions). We’d just barely cleared post when he decided to stuff some of his papers in the glove compartment. Out fell the Musial book and the ensuing conversation went something like this.

“You a big Musial fan?”

“My Grandfather loved him. Big Cardinal fan, Sir.”

” So you’re a Cards fan?”

“Dodgers, Sir. You?”

“Cubs.”

“I’m sorry.” It was 1969 and the Cubs had just run up against the Miracle Mets and lost the pennant.

“They had a good run.” I remember he liked Billy Williams, thought Ernie Banks was overrated, and adored Ron Santo.

“Who’s your favorite?”

“Big Koufax fan before he retired, Sir.”

“Good choice. I think Jenkins (Fergie) may be as good.”

“Could be, Sir.”

We talked baseball all the way to the address. It was mindless, it was trivial, but it kept both our minds off the impending job. Sometimes the greatness of sport is that it takes you away from the awfulness of what’s happening in your world to this wonderful, but ultimately trivial, world where your mind can ignore the bad things in life.

Finally we got to the address. I pulled up in front (I remember there was a sidewalk and a walkway to the front door.), got out, opened the door for the Captain. He gathered his papers and told me this might take a while. He went to the door, rang the bell. Someone opened the door (I never saw them) and he raised his hand in a salute. It was that long, slow salute you see at military funerals. I never saw the woman, but I heard the shriek. I stood by the car for a while waiting. It didn’t take long for people to come out and stare at the house. Not all of them, but some. They seemed to know what a waiting Army car meant and just stood around whispering to each other.

It’s easy, in that circumstance, to become self-conscious and I did. So I got back in the car, started reading the book, and tried, not very successfully to ignore why I was there.  A couple of people approached the car and the house, but never actually came up to either. I recall one woman was in tears.

I have no idea how long it took, but I was most of the way through the book when the Captain came back out. He saluted the widow, started down the walkway. I got out, opened the door for him. He was tired and terribly sad. We didn’t say much on the way back to the post.

“You drive one of these before?”

“No, Sir. First time.”

“Me too.”

“Sir?”

“First time doing the worst job in the world. I don’t think I can do it again.’

“No, Sir.”

I dropped him at the post headquarters, turned in the car, reported back to the First Sergeant that the job was done, and stuck the book back in the library shelf. I didn’t eat much for dinner, but I remember getting drunk that night.

I’ve been to the Viet Nam Memorial since and I can pick out, more or less, the right panel. But to this day I can’t remember the name of the casualty. I suppose that’s for the best.

 

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6 Responses to “The Worst Job in the World”

  1. Allan G. Smorra Says:

    This is a very moving, sensitive look at something none of us wants to have happen. Thanks for your service and for sharing this part of your life.
    Ω

  2. Gary Trujillo Says:

    This was an absolutely amazing read; and very sad at the same time. Thank you for sharing this story.

  3. Ron Rollins Says:

    This is the one duty I thought no one could explain. But somehow you did. I got in trouble one time at work, after I had retired, because the Manager thought I was callous in reporting the death of a worker that no one had talked to in 8 months. I told her she didn’t understand.

  4. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    A poignant post, beautifully done … and while my heart breaks, I’m glad you share these kinds of things with us. And, this sums up sport so well:

    “Sometimes the greatness of sport is that it takes you away from the awfulness of what’s happening in your world”

    Thank you, v., as always.

  5. wkkortas Says:

    Your ‘Nam era stuff is your best, and this is the best of the bunch.

    • glenrussellslater Says:

      I’ve said that many times before to V, too, W.K., and I also like the ones about his formative years the best, too, such as “The Field in the Middle of Town”, which is my personal favorite. Please, V, write more about your personal experiences; as much as I enjoy the baseball stuff, this is, in my opinion, your strongest writing.

      And, of course, thank you for serving our country. I have the feeling that if I was of age during the Vietnam War Era, I would have been too timid to go. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have been, but honestly, I think I would have been too timid, and I tip my hat to you.

      Glen

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