The Field Expedient PT Cap
Army Officer Candidate School (OCS), Ft. Benning, GA. 1988.

Background.
The Army had funny ideas on how to turn youngsters into Officers. Near as I could tell, the primary attribute the US Army was looking for, in military leaders, was a high tolerance for being yelled and screamed at. Our OCS class was roughly a 50/50 mix of prior Army, and kids straight out of college. Not ROTC kids mind you, but college kids that had simply applied for OCS. I was the oddball, having been a Marine Corps SGT when I applied for Army OCS.

A "Field Expedient" is workable substitute for the real thing. A field expedient radio antenna, for example, could be a wire strung up a tree. If you know what you're doing, it will work. Everyone in the military has a daily occurrence of "need something but don't have it" or "shit, the <whatever> just broke", so the use of field expedient <whatevers> is very common. As an example of broader use, you could show up for morning PT in your flip flops and in response to your platoon sergeant's outrage, boldly declare your flip flops to be "field expedient running shoes". If your Plt Sgt has a sense of humor, he might respond to your moxie by reducing the # of toilets to be cleaned by  half.

The yelling and screaming, in OCS, was severe enough that, over the course of the 3 months, we lost half of the ~100 Officer Candidates that we started with. We lost roughly equal proportions of prior enlisted and college kids. The latter crumbled under the screaming, which was, in their defense, quite high quality screaming. Having been a Marine SGT only weeks prior, my self-confidence that I could endure an entry level scream-at-us-a-lot environment was pretty unshakeable. But the individual ass-chewings, as we each seemed to get our own week of special attention, were significant enough that they once even had me wondering if maybe I really was the "WORTHLESS F**KING SHITBAG" that was being asserted at high volumes, accompanied by much scowling, glaring, and dramatic gestures.

The Army prior enlisted types that had been picked for OCS had been very strong performers so they were unlikely to be deterred by standard levels of yelling and screaming. The constant high-volume berating didn't so much wear on them make them angry. Over the course of the many weeks each apparently reached the point where they feared that they would snap, give into their fury, and tear one of the cadre officers to pieces. The cadre officers being a bunch of sad sloppy angry bullies, I figured that the cadre officer wouldn't last 5secs if they enraged a prior service officer candidate into a berserker.

Officer Candidate Bernie Green was one of the funniest guys I've ever known. At 26 I was one of the older officer candidates, but at 28 going on 40, Green was positively ancient. He had been a Warrant Officer helo pilot prior to applying to OCS. When we all stood at attention in the hallway outside of our 2 person rooms, Green's place was right across the hall from me.

One of the various games the cadre officers would play with us was to routinely wake us up in the middle of the night for <whatever>. The officer candidate on duty as "Officer of the Day" (OOD) would be directed to go upstairs and knock on our rooms, holler that we were to "Fall in", which meant stand out in the hall at Attention, and he’d tell us the specific uniform that we were to wear. The uniform directed was usually Winter PT, but could also be Battledress Utilities, or any one of the more formal uniforms. The Winter PT uniform added sweatpants, sweatshirt, gloves, and a black stocking cap to the Summer PT shorts and shirt.

Sometimes getting rousted out of our bed meant standing for inspection. This could mean inspection of uniforms, rooms, fingernails, or whatever the cadre officer felt like. The only thing for absolute sure was that there was going to be a lot of yelling and screaming. The cadre would march up and down our little hallway, occasionally getting in each our faces, and scream until they were exhausted. If the hassle of the night was to be putting our rooms back together, it would start with a pro-forma inspection, which just delayed the inevitable. Getting one’s room torn up over something imaginary, or so petty as to be imaginary, was a pita. The cadre officer might find a spec of lint on a stack of shirts in a drawer, each perfectly folded to within 1mm of the required dimensions. Then we’d hear a shriek of, “WHY, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, IS THIS DRAWER FULL OF LINT???” And as you’re mentally groaning “Shit. Guess it’s my turn.” The cadre officer would then rip your room apart. Since every bit of clothes, and everything else, in the room has to be perfectly folded and positioned "just so", it takes a half dozen sleepy guys, by now experts at these tasks, about 30min to put the room back into order.

Sometimes there was some infraction, real or imagined, and we'd all have to go outside and do calisthenics for a while. This was very weak sauce because OCS was co-ed. There was a broad spectrum in fitness because it ranged from the fittest guys to the weakest girls. So whatever physical punishment was employed upon the group of us had to be calibrated against the weakest among us. The cadre officers would, for example, stick the whole group of us in the pushup position to make us strain for a while, but some of the coeds could only take that for about 30secs before they started collapsing. The PT "thrashings" in the dark, cold, and wet grass were generally so weak that not-particularly-fit Officer Candidate Green was often able to keep up a whispered monologue of hilarity through the entire thing.

The very favorite wakeup call was to make us play janitor all night. We buffed the tile floor every night, but a couple times per week we were directed to use wax-stripper and strip, wax, and buff the floors. You can lay wax down and buff forever, but the use of wax stripping solution so often ruined the floor, something we long chuckled over.

The story.
It was the second time that night that we'd been rousted out of our racks. Someone vaguely heard the OOD say the uniform was Winter PT and our cadre officer, CPT Rotskie, would be up in 2min.

We stumbled out of our beds, hit the lights, opened up our drawers of painstakingly folded clothes, grabbed all the necessary pieces that made up the Winter PT uniform, and started throwing them on as fast as we could. After about 60secs each of us started appearing in the hallway and then "braced" ourselves against the wall outside of our doors. This "braced" position is similar to the position of attention except that in an attempt to make it more awkward you're supposed to lean your head back against the wall.

By 90secs we were all out in the hallway, each pair of roommates braced against the wall on either side of their door. Rotskie was likely sneaking up the stair even now so he could dart around the corner and try to take the ill-prepared by surprise. We didn't move a muscle. With compressed unhappy lips and sleepy eyes we waited, directly across from each other, as the seconds ticked by until the inevitable explosion of Rotskie's arrival. Maybe tonight was our lucky night. Maybe he’d just rant for 20min and then go away.

Across the hall from me was Officer Candidate Green, also decked out in gray Army sweats, leather gloves and black stocking cap. When the situation, as it so often did in Officer Candidate School, called for complete sobriety, Bernie Green was always a problem. Immediately Green started making faces at me, which was one of his standard comic routines.

I ground my teeth in irritation and glared at Green. Rotskie was probably just around the corner listening. Then at any moment he was going to burst into the hallway and look to see if any of us were out of position. If we made a sound just now, he'd scream at us for the rest of the night. If we weren't perfectly braced when he darted around the corner and laid his weasel eyes upon us, we could be outside in the Dec rain for hours.

"For the love of god", I thought, "leave me alone Green". "Geeze don't make me start laughing."

But then I noticed that Green's facial expression foolishness seemed to have an odd pattern. He wasn't so much doing the usual "make stupid faces to make Gress laugh". Instead, Green seemed to be pressing his tongue into his cheek and then quietly.....I guess I'd have to call it....."tittering". I studied his series of repeating facial expressions trying to make out wtf he was trying to communicate to me. Then, to accentuate the tongue-into-cheek schtick, his pupils moved hard left, and then back to the silent tittering. That's when I realized that, without actually moving, because Rotskie was probably a half second from being among us, Green was trying to get me to look to my left.

So with a careful slow movement, I shifted my head about 5deg and looked as far left as I could.

Oh my god. We were all dead. We were all f**king dead.

One of the other guys, a couple doors down and on Green's side of the hall, had a goddamned sock on his head. Instead of the winter PT black stocking cap, he appeared to have a black Army dress sock tightly pulled down over his ears, just like one would wear a stocking cap. It looked like it was a very tight fit. The sock's "foot" hung, comically, down limply over his ear. I could not for the life of me imagine wtf he was doing. All I knew for sure is that when the entirely humorless Rotskie saw that damned sock, we were all f**king dead.

I turned my head back perfectly forward and looked back at Green. My face was full of surprise, puzzlement, and alarm. Green tho, was, well, vibrating. His teeth were clenched together, his eyes were scrunched up almost closed, and his whole body was vibrating. It took me a moment to realized that he was inaudibly howling with laughter. I couldn't hold it back and I started inaudibly laughing too. I didn't understand wtf was going on but the sight of the officer candidate in Winter PT uniform with the damned dress sock over his head, hanging down over his ear, was so damned funny I thought I was going to burst an artery trying to keep silent. Sure, we were all about to die over this, but at least we'd go down having created a legend.

Then CPT Rotskie darted around the corner. He was about an inch shorter than me, pasty-white and pudgy, with a perpetual sneer. He marched down the hallway striding between us, his shoulder were back and chin was high to radiate his authority. He started in on his planned tirade, but then stopped in front of the tall Officer Candidate with the sock on his head. Rotskie's nose was about 8" from the guy's chin. Rotskie spent long seconds looking up up at the sock stretched tightly over the head, and then dangling over the ear. Both Green and I had turned our heads and were taking in the drama with rapt attention.

Rotskie said, "What the f**k is that on your head?"

The Officer Candidate said, "SIR, FIELD EXPEDIENT PT CAP, SIR!"

Green and I exploded with laughter. Joined a second later by all the other candidates whom had seen the exchange.

Rotskie, desperate to maintain his reputation as an asshole, hustled downstairs where we wouldn't see him laugh.

What had happened is that in the seconds that we had to find all the parts of our Winter PT Uniform, the poor guy couldn't find his black stocking PT cap. That left him with a choice. He could either keep hunting and accept the risk of Rotskie bursting around the hallway corner and he'd still be in his room, or, thinking out of the box, he could put something black on his head and hope that Rotskie didn't look too close. And the sock was indeed a tight fit.

Rotskie tried to get us back, sure. But there's no counterbalancing one of the more hilarious moments of a lifetime.

 



Green is at Left. I am standing, 3rd from Right, looking earnest. CPT Rotskie is the one smirking under the black hat. Sadly, the officer candidate with field expedient sock was no longer with us when this graduation picture was taken.