Stand-in for a Zebra

Accent on Living


THE striped man in olive drab, that unforgettable character known in Army circles as the first sergeant, was recently depicted in these pages as being an indefatigable worker of prodigious intellect and acumen. Not only was he shown as a paragon of the executive type, but some people would have us believe that he actually accomplishes a voluminous amount of paper work, without surcease, in the orderly room of his company. It was reported that he even refuses to leave the confines of his office until he personally completes the company morning report, the sick book, and the duty roster. We were also told that he operates with the speed and accuracy of a calculating machine and therefore is able to spend a moiety of his busy day handing out legal advice to lieutenants, supervising intramural fiscal problems, and playing the role of a Dutch uncle to wayward members of his organization who continually are flocking to the orderly room for his astute counsel.

Nothing could be further from the truth. A first sergeant who possessed these amazing attributes would find himself court-martialed and reduced to the grade of corporal for impersonating a company clerk, that unassuming work horse who is laconically listed in the Army Dictionary of Occupations as a clerk-typist.

If interrogated on the duties, problems, and habits of the company clerk, a first sergeant probably would picture him as a soldier who finds the inside of an orderly room so distasteful that he is forced into frequent debauches during his numerous spare hours after dark, and consequently finds it necessary to spend the daylight hours in the mess hall assuaging a splitting head with tomato juice and black coffee.

The headache part is true, for in addition to acting as a combination famulus and amanuensis to the first sergeant, the clerk frequently finds himself assuming full responsibility for the entire company, especially during incursions from the Inspector General’s office. On these memorable occasions, when a party of highly polished brass hats gathers in the orderly room to recite a long list of company deficiencies noted during the tour of inspection, the first sergeant will retire to a neutral corner, completely abrogate his vested authority, and delegate the company clerk as official spokesman for the organization.

The company clerk’s day begins long before the first sergeant enters the orderly room to ponder the Number One horizontal word in the daily crossword puzzle. By this time, which may vary from 0700 to 0800, depending on the amount of free beer dispensed at the noncoms’ club the night before, the clerk has already completed entries in the sick book and the duty roster and is putting the finishing touches on the morning report. He is assisted in this job by the services of an upright World War I typewriter which still wears a 1917 campaign ribbon and billets cockroaches as a side line. With this fugitive from a salvage pile, the clerk is supposed to turn out readable documents and letters.

About 0930, the monotonous rhythm of the keys may be broken by rollicking chuckles in machinegun cadence from the first sergeant, who now has abandoned the uncompleted puzzle for the comic books. The clerk is still pressing on feverishly as he types one court-martial charge sheet after another for men in the company who, in direct violation of Article of War 61, wrongfully repaired to the beer garden or home instead of the drill field.

In the interim, the first sergeant may decide that it is a propitious moment to perfect the embouchure of his whistle calls. After several staccato exercises and a few sustained notes of strident quality, he relinquishes this form of entertainment when a rescue squad bursts into the company office with fire extinguishers and buckets of water.

Without even pausing to look up, the clerk begins to prepare a new company roster in quadruplicate for the regimental dental officer, which furnishes the first sergeant with a mnemonic fillip by reminding him that he left his upper prosthetic plate in a footlocker after breakfast. While beating his gums to the lilting lyrics of “Don’t Fence Me In,” the top kick disappears in the direction of the barracks and is a casualty for the rest of the morning.

During the noon hour the clerk is permitted to take fifteen minutes off to check the mess attendance, complete his over and under ration issue chart, list the number of cash meals served in the mess hall, and type out a copy of the menu for the next day. Having completed this chow-time chore, he fortifies himself with coffee and returns to the orderly room to finish his consolidated ration report. He finds that someone in his absence has generously deposited four or five king-size sacks of incoming mail on his desk, which must be sorted and distributed to the men before drill call at 1300.

From 1300 the clerk is free to take care of the daily official correspondence, all of which must be conducted in the prescribed military manner. For those who never have had the exhilarating experience of composing a military letter, the ways and means may seem both cumbersome and bizarre. In the first place, an official communication must be replied to within twenty-four hours. Should it be impractical to furnish all the information requested in the allotted time, it is still necessary to advise the writer the reason for the delay.

The limitations are enough to discourage the most ardent correspondent. A series of top, right, and left marginal adjustments must be executed to three decimal places — and if the letter is addressed to a General, it is well to use four to preclude the possibility of error and a couple of week-ends in the post stockade.

Only one matter will be discussed in this letter, paragraph and sub-paragraph indentations will be uniform, and the body of the letter will be couched in the style of a formal wedding invitation. The clerk, mindful of all this, invites the attention of the Commanding General in the Last Service Command to note the fact that Private Goldbrick, outstanding eight-ball of the company, would like to go home Christmas Day as well as all the ensuing ones, and even is willing to settle for a Section VIII in lieu of a furlough.

Inasmuch as this letter must go “through channels,”an Army mail service comparable to the pony express for speed, the clerk is careful not to specify any particular Christmas in the request. “Through channels" means also that practically every man in uniform will have an equal opportunity to read of the private whims of Private Goldbrick, for the endless chain of orderly rooms and battalion, division, regimental, and group headquarters through which this communication must pass is as broad and deep as the Army itself.

By the time the company clerk has waded through a pile of similar correspondence, darkness has engulfed the area. As the post bugle renders taps, he enters his own name, neatly, in the sick book and departs for the dispensary to commune with a pair of aspirins.

Perhaps someone is wondering how the first sergeant has spent the afternoon. Why, the man has virtually been chained to his desk in the orderly room, up to his Good Conduct Medal in work, with scarcely enough time to borrow a package of cigarettes and a five-spot from the company clerk. Had we looked in on him at 1400, we should have seen him studiously bent over his desk, with pen in hand, peering at a War Department AGO Form number 7, the enlisted man’s pass blank, on which he had adroitly inserted his own name for a three-day pass effective at 1430.