Encounters with Sergeant Bronson by Martin Green
I was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, went to clerk-typist school after basic, then was shipped overseas, not to Korea, but to 7th Army Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. All enlisted men on the base were housed in barracks and each barracks was commanded by a sergeant. Our barracks commander was Sgt. Robert E. Lee Bronson. Like most of my sergeants in basic, Bronson was a Southerner. He wasnt a particularly imposing figure, of average height and build, but he had a certain force about him, like a coiled spring ready to leap at you, and he ruled the barracks with an iron hand.
My first encounter with Sgt. Bronson came just a week or two after Id moved into the barracks. He called a surprise inspection and he didnt think my foot locker was in good enough order, something about things not being where they should and also my socks not being rolled tightly enough. Your footlocker is in piss poor shape, he barked at me while I stood at attention by my bunk.
Im sorry, sir, I said.
Dont sir me. Im not a Godamned officer. Then in a Southern drawl, he added, Officers. Sheeeit.
Im sorry sir; I mean Sergeant.
Give me ten, he barked. I noticed that Bronsons drawl came and went.
This meant ten push-ups. Back then I was in good enough shape to do them. When I stood back up again, he said, I see you have a book in your locker. I guess youre one of them college boys.
I went to college.
Ha! Whats that book called?
Its Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Id brought this book along with me by way of asserting that although I was a lowly private in the Army I was still an individual, something which the Army detested, as in Whattaya think you are, an individual, often shouted at me during basic.
James fuckin Joyce, huh? Then he smiled. Hear he was a big boozer. Okay, youre on latrine duty for a week. Put that locker in order. When the Captain comes around think I want him to see a mess like that. Hed chew me out, and you wouldnt want him to do that, would you?
No, sir, er, I mean Sergeant.
Latrine duty was as unpleasant as it sounds, but when the Captain did come around, my footlocker passed inspection.
My second encounter with Sgt. Bronson was of a different kind. I suppose every barracks had its bully and ours was a big fellow named Hatcher. He took a dislike of me, maybe because Id gone to college; he called me college boy with a sneer every time he saw me and he made a point of pushing or poking me every chance he got. One evening when I got back to the barracks from the post library, I saw every item in my floor locker had been taken out and strewn across my bunk. My, my, my, said Hatcher. Better clean that up. Sergeant Bronson wouldnt like that, more latrine duty for you.
I didnt have to ask whod done it; without saying anything I started to put my things back in the locker. Dontcha have anything to say, college boy? said Hatcher.
I knew I had to do something; at the same time, I knew I couldnt win a fight against Hatcher. I determined though that at least Id get one good punch in. I leaped at him and hit him in the nose as hard as I could, then I waited for the beating to come. Hatcher held his nose. Its bleeding, he said. Im gonna kill you.
No, youre not, said a quiet Southern voice. Sgt. Bronson had materialized, as he had a way of doing.
He broke my nose.
Put a band-aid on it. Now get out of here before I break something else.
After Hatcher had slunk away, Sgt. Bronson turned to me. Not a bad punch, he said. But you dont throw just one punch in a fight. You should have followed up; better yet, if the other guy is bigger, kick him in the balls.
Ill remember that, I said.
Now get those things put back.
My next encounter with Sgt. Bronson came near the end of my tour and can be attributed to the German composer Richard Wagner. Id discovered that Stuttgart had an opera house and had started going to evening performances there. It made a change from the usual dreary Army life and for a while I could pretend I was back in the civilized world, attending a cultural event. On this night I went to see the last opera in Wagners Ring, Gotterdammerung. Unfortunately, it was a long, very long, opera and ran well past midnight, which was the curfew deadline for the base. I was afraid Id be stopped at the base entrance, but the sleepy guard there just waved me through. I entered my barracks with no one about. There were the usual snores and grunts. I went quietly to my bunk and was about to get into it when a quiet drawling voice behind me said, Youre back a little late, Green. Needless to say, it was Sgt. Bronson, doing his usual coming up silently act. I jumped, then tried to calm myself down. Sorry, Sergeant. It was the opera. It was Wagner and his operas really go on long.
Did you get stopped at the gate?
No, I got through OK.
What do you think I should do to you?
Ill keep that in mind. But never break curfew again. Thats considered being AWOL I had a word with that MP when I saw you werent back.
You did? Thanks, Sergeant.
I cant have one of my men going AWOL. Wouldnt look good for me, would it?
I wont screw up again. Besides, that was the last of the Wagner.
That old boy was pretty long-winded, wasnt he? But I like that last scene when everything comes crashing down.
Never mind what Ive seen. Youre getting out soon, arent you?
Yes, in three weeks.
Then youll be back in New York and you can go to all the opera you want. Meanwhile, keep your nose clean.
I will. Thanks again, Sergeant.
He snorted. Get into your bunk. Then he was gone.
On my last day I wanted to say good-bye to Sgt. Bronson. He was in the barracks, playing poker with some of the men. He looked up and said, Yeah, what do you want, Green?
I just wanted to say good-bye, Sergteant.
What, you interrupted my poker game to say good-bye! Give me ten.
I was about to drop down when he said, Im kidding, Green. I dont know how you made it in the Army. But youll be okay as a civilian. Remember, if you get into a bar fight, more than one punch. And Italian opera is a lot better than that fucking Wagner.
That was my final encounter with Sergeant Bronson. I think about him every now and then. I never did figure him out while I was in Stuttgart. I still cant, which I guess is the way he wanted it.
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