I had no idea what Lieutenant Smith meant when he called me “Private Rasputin” that morning in formation as he announced that our platoon had won the three-day pass for the upcoming weekend. One of the draftees in our platoon who had studied history in college and had read about Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, later told me he was not sure if that was a compliment or not.
It appears that this character named Rasputin was known throughout Russia as everything from a “mad monk” to a “healer” to a “con artist.” He was evidently someone who rose to power in Russia sometime late in the nineteenth century. But why had Lieutenant Smith referred to me as “Private Rasputin”?
I thought back to my first day of Kitchen Police (KP) several weeks earlier in the huge central mess hall that served three companies of basic trainees for all three meals each day. Because I was not immediately given a specific job when we arrived at the mess hall that morning, I created my own assignment. In the commotion of assigning jobs to the dozen or so privates on KP, I wandered off and found a row of huge aluminum pots turned upside down on the floor of the pots and pans storeroom.
The pots, which each were more than three feet high and a good thirty inches in diameter formed a nice wall, and they invited me to crawl behind them and take a nap—to be caught later by the mess sergeant who noticed my absence. Could Lieutenant Smith have found out about that? Or was he thinking back to the day of the infiltration course? Certainly he must have talked with his Executive Officer (XO) since then and figured out I had escaped crawling in the rain and the mud—through devious methods.
Could he have questioned the sergeants to find out who authorized me to miss the muddy part of the infiltration course and found no one actually had? Maybe my new nickname had something to do with our winning the camouflage and concealment competition a few days earlier when I was accused of having been told where everything was?
What a nightmare that had turned out to be. There we all were in the bleachers, waiting for the instructor to tell us the rules. I looked out over the open field before us thinking, “What idiot put up those sloppy camouflage positions out there?” They all looked like brown and gray covers on a field of green.
The instructor announced that there were an unknown number of camouflaged positions immediately to our front and out as far as we could see. He told us when he blew his whistle and we recognized something, we were to stand up and identify it. So long as we were correct, we could keep naming positions, but if we made a mistake, we were done until the other platoons finished. “A piece of cake,” I thought. So when he blew his whistle, I immediately sprang to my feet, gave my name, service number and platoon designation and started to name the positions I had already spotted.
“There are two men in a spider trap about one hundred yards immediately in front of us; there is another soldier in the tree about two hundred yards beyond that position; there are two more men on our left about . . . “
Suddenly I felt a firm grip on my right arm as I was pulled from the bleachers to the ground and pinned against the frame of the bleachers. Luckily, I was sitting on the end of the third row of the bleachers and the drop to the ground was only a few feet.
I looked up to see the XO poking his finger in my face. He was red-faced and his smiling beaver-like grin had been replaced by a Frankenstein grimace as he angrily shouted, “Who told you where they were located? Someone had to tell you. Which sergeant in your platoon was it? I want to know and I want to know now!”
This was unbelievable. I happened to be the first person to spring into action to report those obviously ill-camouflaged positions—positions that anyone with half a brain could easily see—and he was calling me a cheater!
From somewhere to my right, I heard that deep Alabama accent of Lieutenant Smith telling the XO to take me to the optometrist at the hospital and have my eyes checked for color vision. The XO ordered me into the jeep and drove me several miles to the optometrist’s office at the Camp Chaffee hospital. When we arrived, he explained to the optometrist what had occurred and informed him of Lieutenant Smith’s request.
The doctor nodded and picked up a black book about six or so inches square and about a half-inch thick. He gave me the book and asked me to open the book to the first page. I opened the book and found myself looking at a five-inch circle filled with colored dots formed inside a black background.
“What number do you see?” the doctor asked.
“A three,” I quickly replied.
“Look closer at the page,” he said.
“It still looks like a three,” I said, as I brought the book up and touched my nose to the page.
Evidently, his definition of what “Look Closer” meant—and mine—were not the same.
“Can you not see an eight?” He shouted—as he grabbed the book from my hand.
“No Sir,” I said. “If I had seen an eight, I would have recognized it.”
“What number do you see now?” He said, as he turned over several pages and, holding the book, asked me to identify the number on that page.
“It’s a five,” I said.
“Can you now see a six?” he said, as he traced the number on the page with his finger.
I replied that I could now see the six. He had me go over several more pages, but they all had the same results. Putting the book down, he reached up on the shelf and pulled down a shoebox and dumped about two dozen bows made of brightly colored yarn. He then told me to sort them into piles of the same color. I had no trouble sorting these bright colors into piles of bright yellows, reds, blues, and blacks.
The doctor then announced to the XO that I was red, green, brown color deficient. He asked the doctor what that term meant. The doctor explained that eighty percent of all color-blind people were men and that about twenty percent of all men had some degree of color blindness or color deficiency as I had.
Aside from not being able to fly airplanes, the doctor told the XO that I should not perform any duties involving camouflaging since my work would stand out like a sore thumb.
He went on to say that my color deficiency would also allow me to see through most camouflage done by others as though it was not even there.
I asked the doctor if I could tell the difference between blue, green and red colors like those on the bumper stickers of the cars on the Post. Blue was for the officers—and we were to salute those. Red was used for enlisted vehicles and green for civilian work vehicles on the camp—and we were not required to salute these vehicles.
However, I had on occasion been caught saluting enlisted vehicles, and, on one embarrassing occasion, a truckload of civilian workers who all laughed and returned my salute.
The doctor laughed and said, “Yes, since the stickers are so small, from a distance they would all look a dark color and to you that would be a dark blue.” That day at the recruiting center reading those colors from memory because I could not identify them—flashed before my eyes.
I was now also painfully aware of why I could never spot a red-numbered holiday on the calendar across the room, or special red pencil marks on my papers starting in elementary school.
When we returned to the camouflage and concealment course, the contest was over. I had correctly named the first three or four, and since I was correct when the XO removed me—and accused me of cheating—my platoon was allowed to continue on after I left. We ultimately won the competition—and the coveted three-day pass.
For whatever his reasons, Lieutenant Smith’s nickname for me stuck with me for the rest of my time at Camp Chaffee.
Strangely, a decade later, I would again hear that same Alabama accent of Lieutenant Smith’s—and he would remember his “Private Rasputin.” I was a First Lieutenant then, sitting in a Dunkin Donut shop in Fayetteville, North Carolina—located outside Fort Bragg—one Saturday morning, getting ready to leave for Vietnam. As I sat at the counter having a cup of coffee, I heard a male voice say:
“Son, we have to go now. I have a plane to catch.” There was no mistaking that deep Alabama accent.
“Lieutenant Smith, Sir, it’s Private Reed from basic training. I’m now a Lieutenant in Special Forces,” I said as I turned towards him.
“It’s Major Smith now, Private Rasputin.” He replied with a smile, as he turned towards me.
He broke out in a hearty laugh and then introduced me to his son and congratulated me on receiving my commission. He also told me to be careful while in Vietnam and that he would pray for my safe return.
He told me he was on his way back to Vietnam for a second tour. He looked at his watch and turned to his son and said, “We have to go now, son.” He shook my hand wished me luck again, and they left.
I would encounter the Major from Alabama one more time almost a decade later when I was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Research and Development (OCRD) in Washington, D.C.
I was walking down the stairs of the Methodist Church in Fairfax, Virginia, with my wife and daughters after church one Sunday when I again heard that unmistakable Alabama accent.
I turned to see now Colonel Smith in uniform coming out of church with his wife, young daughter and now teenage son.
They had announced in church that day that several members of the congregation were leaving that week for Vietnam—we had a special prayer for their safety. The Colonel was one of them. He was leaving—for his third tour in Vietnam.
Things were always hectic after the church service with everyone trying to keep track of small children and others trying to carry on an adult conversation. Whatever the reasons, I am eternally saddened by the fact that I did not get to speak to him on the church steps that Sunday.
On another Sunday morning several months later, the minister announced to the congregation that Colonel Smith had been killed in action during his third tour of duty in Vietnam. I did get to see the Colonel one more time several weeks later—at his funeral.
It is strange how little things affect our lives so dramatically and so decidedly. As long as I live, I shall always remember the soft-spoken West Point lieutenant from Alabama with that unmistakable deep melodious Alabama accent calling out, “Private Rasputin, front and center!”