Exert 4 - The Cussin Man

   Very soon the night closed in around us and it became almost pitch black. Flares began to "magically" appear overhead, but it was not magic at all. It was delivered by flare canisters being shot from the big guns of another fire base located several miles down the road. Their lights illuminated the area so we could see to dig in. However, the ground was extremely hard, and it quickly became clear to everyone that this job was not going to be easy. When midnight came, we were still digging. The flares kept coming, making little popping sounds as their parachutes opened above us. As they descended to the ground, they created weird shadows which danced against the jungle backdrop. The effect was enhanced by the flare, itself, as it swung back and forth below its little white parachute, giving eerie motion to those shadows.

    One of the guys in my platoon was especially perturbed about the situation. His wife had recently sent him a "Dear John" letter and I am sure that aggravated his mood even more. As he was digging, he started cussing louder and louder. He could be heard a long way off by everyone on our side of the perimeter and there was not a single NCO, who bothered telling him to calm down. We were all "bone tired" and if the truth be known he was probably saying nothing more than what the rest of us, including the NCOs, felt like saying.

    As this loud cussing streak continued, this "red faced man" became so focused on digging and cussing in cadence with every blow of his entrenching tool that he failed to see two shadowy figures quietly approaching from the direction of the big guns behind us. It was Dick and our B company CO. They managed to walk within six feet of the hole this guy was digging, without being seen by him. The battalion commander now stood directly behind and above the man, with his hands on his hips, looking straight down at him. Oblivious to their presence, the "cussing soldier" just kept digging and cussing away. It seemed like a long time but was probably no more than fifteen seconds. Finally, the man glanced up from his work long enough to notice that the rest of us were standing "dead still" looking steadfastly at something behind him. This caused him to stop digging and look to his rear as well. When he did, he immediately threw down his entrenching tool, did an "about face", stood straight up and saluted our battalion commander, which was something we really were not supposed to do while in the field. There was no return salute, as everyone including the cussing soldier waited on the inevitable "dressing down" which would surely come from Dick, or any commander, for that matter, in the First Division. Yet, the "dressing down" never came. Instead, as the soldier slowly lowered his salute, Dick, with a very measured tone in his voice, beckoned the soldier to come up out of his hole and face him face to face. The man meekly complied and climbed out of his half-dug foxhole. Then, as the man stood very still before him, Dick calmly began to speak as if he were talking to his own son. To this very day, I have never forgotten his calm demeanor or the words he said. They were not rebuking words. Nor were they angry or accusatory words. They were just remarkably short and simple sentences which stated the obvious facts. Dick said, "I know how tired you are and how hard this ground is, but you have got to finish digging this hole. It could save your life". Now, get back down there and finish the job”. As the man turned to jump back into his foxhole, Dick caught him on his "rear end" with a gentle tap of his right boot. That was the icing on the cake, in this modeled display of real leadership, being exercised not only for the benefit of this one soldier but for the other 20 or 30 of us who were "standing around" watching. The "cussin man" responded perfectly, with a loud fake grunt, which put a smile on all our faces, including Dick's. Thinking back years later, there is no doubt in my mind that versions of this entire scene had been repeatedly choreographed to perfection in our battalion commander's past, as a way of exerting his caring presence in even the most mundane circumstances. There is also no doubt that he observed this technic of good leadership as a boy while watching the interactions of his father with those who worked under him. This display was also being done, as a way for Dick to model effective leadership before our "numb-scull" company commander, Captain Brown. It is too bad that Brown lost his pencil, before he was able to take notes. After the two commanders moved on and everyone went back to their digging, far from being angry, the cussing man kept looking around at the rest of us, with that same sheepish grin on his face. That silly little grin “pretty-well” said it all. It was convincing evidence to show how a seemingly insignificant matter, which would normally be left to an NCO, could be exploited by top leadership for the benefit of all concerned. It was also a good example of how leaders can use smallest of situations to bond with those they lead long before the big the battles take place. I have remembered this moment for over fifty years, while forgetting many other times, when I was ordered around, while being shot at and mortared by the enemy. That is "proof enough" for me, of the power that a single small caring encounter can have on people. Before the "cussin man" incident, I had already come to respect this commander's judgment in the field. Now I was beginning to admire the man, himself. It would take over a half century, but I would eventually discover that I was not the only one who was left with these life-long imbedded perceptions of Dick.