He Walked Among Us and Made Us Safe: Part 1 of 2
Some men are different from the rest of us. You meet them only once or twice in your life, if you are lucky. I met one such man not knowing anything about him. Years after I knew him I remembered his name almost by inspiration and sought information about him. What I learned was surprising only in that I could not imagine my being so right about the character of the man I knew.
Fort Knox, KY, in 1960 was still a very active military base that was home to a large tank training unit, some basic training units, and a few tons of gold. I was there at the tender age of seventeen to do my basic training. After waiting a one or two anxiety filled weeks for enough raw recruits to show up to form a company we were transferred to our stark, drab and extremely functional barracks.
Age and time have erased any specific memories of how it all happened but I know that at some time we had to fall out into formation and attend to the business of the hour. We also met our cadre, the sergeants and officers who would be cracking the whip over us for the next eight weeks. We expected the worst. We got the best.
Our platoon Sargent was Sgt. Vargas. A slight, fairly quiet, and unflappable Mexican America. He hardly fit the image of the wall rattling, booming voiced, man-gorilla we usually think of when picturing a basic training platoon Sargent
Our First Sargent was Sgt. Poolaw. You don’t ask a Sargent what his first name is . . . Or much of anything else. So, I don’t think any of us knew his first name then. He was just Sgt. Poolaw. And he was impressive. He seemed eight feet tall, but probably not. His build was square, he looked like his smile had abandoned him long ago, and his words were few, but well chosen. He was Native American.
One day someone came from company headquarters, found me and told me I had to go see Sgt. Poolaw for something other than for discipline. I am sure he had an office but he did not seem like an office kind of guy. I was told to meet him at the flag pole. I met him there. For a seventeen year old boy to meet with the first Sargent was an honor beyond compare. I had lost my father before I ever got to know him and Sgt. Poolaw seemed like the quintessential father. It seemed to me that had I ever wondered what a father looked like, this was it.
I came to learn that most of the guys in my company felt the same. Even Sgt. Vargas spoke of Sgt. Poolaw in respectful tones. My platoon was not made up of really great soldiers but in the end we came to respect our leaders so much that we wanted to win the outstanding platoon award for Sgt. Vargas. We worked extremely hard to get all the bolts on our M1s to slam shut in unison after inspection arms. And they did and we won.
The Memory Lingers On
Many years went by and many sergeants went by, but whenever I thought of what a soldier was, the image of Sgt. Poolaw came to mind. One thing he said still sticks out in my mind. He said that when we left basic training each one of us must be the kind of soldier who, when our foxhole buddy looks across the foxhole at us, he should be trying to see if we are OK and not to see if we were still there. He drilled it into us look out for each other.
My three years in the Army came to an end and my civilian life began. Many more years interceded during which I often remembered that man who looked for all the world as if he were born in army fatigues. There are only a couple of people that one meets in one’s lifetime for whom there is a feeling of having been in the presence of someone with a great deal of integrity, honesty and courage. He was that person. For all the respect I held for the man had not held his name in my memory, no matter how hard I tried to dredge it up.
But, in the summer of 2011, while visiting my wife’s relatives, one of her nephews arrived. He had a fresh, very short haircut, repleat with “whitewalls” (only skin on the sides and back). The thought immediately and involuntarily ran through my mind, “That looks like a Poolaw”. I was thinking about the haircut. Sgt. Poolaw had been a stickler for Army hair fashion. He told us to get our hair cut every two weeks and just tell any barber on base we wanted a “Poolaw”. That is how the name came back to me. I wrote it down before I was robbed of it again for another thirty years. Continued....