Reacquaintance with an Old Comrade for Memorial Day

May 29, 1994|By JOE NAWROZKI

Every day, in the insufferable heat of those South Carolina mornings, I looked at acting platoon Sgt. Cecil Payton, saluted and reported that my third squad was present and accounted for, securing once more the nation's frontiers from the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung and Leonid Brezhnev.

After the squad leaders of Company A, 3rd Battalion, 1st Training Brigade (A-3-1) concluded their soldierly audit, we went on a little morning run -- three to five miles in the sand, up hills and around trees, with drill instructors screaming in our ears.

"You boys can fool around if you want," howled our wiry platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Lee Brittle. "Come Christmas, all y'all gonna be in Vietnam."

As the barracks lights were mercifully doused those nights at Fort Jackson in the summer of 1965, I turned to Cecil Payton lying on the bunk above me. We had endured the rope climbs, the frightening crawl under heavy machine gun fire, the gassings, the dressing of make-believe head wounds and the learning to kill.

"Hey Cecil, you think Brittle's right?" I asked. "Are all of us going to Vietnam?"

"Who knows?" Payton replied. "Anyway, it's out of our hands now."

Many months later in the darkness of the abyss, Sergeant Brittle's words would stand prophetic.

*

The name rocketed off the page of the state telephone directory.

Cecil Payton. After nearly 30 years, in the same town? Impossible.

While working a deadline story on Morgan State University, I discovered this Dr. Cecil Payton was the chairman of Morgan's biology department, recently promoted to executive assistant to university President Earl S. Richardson.

We finally talked and established that yes, we two -- the once-skinny guy from Baltimore and the quiet, thoughtful platoon leader from Orangeburg, S.C. -- had shared the same bunk, the same fears and leadership responsibilities through those memorable eight weeks, long ago.

And like most others in our company, we shared another common thread -- the Republic of Vietnam.

Earlier this month -- appropriate in the month of Memorial Day -- Cecil and I met with another one of our basic training mates, John Fowler. John is an East Baltimore native, graduate of Morgan and rehabilitation coordinator with the city Department of Housing and Community Development.

It was the first time we had seen each other in nearly three decades, and I approached seeing them with a decided wonderment, a certain dread. Since we had been to Vietnam, I wondered if they would be physically intact, whole as I remembered them smiling in a group shot in front of white-washed barracks. Both had hearty, infectious laughs, but were those laughs still a part of them or casualties of the war? As it turned out, the three of us had the same concern, but time and good luck had been ours.

In Cecil's office at Morgan, we thumbed through our basic training yearbook containing pictures of the men in our infantry recruit class. With our hats cocked at various, unmilitary angles, we looked more like a collection of confused cab drivers on convention than young soldiers.

A slogan on one of the pages also brought chuckles: "Wherever brave men fight . . . and die, for freedom, you will find me. I am the bulwark of our Nation's defense. I am always ready . . . now, and forever. I am the Infantry -- Queen of Battle! Follow Me!"

To those of us who eventually learned that the light at the end of the tunnel was actually an oncoming freight train, this type of cheerleading rang hollow. We wondered if previous generations who were at places like Bastogne, the Chosin Reservoir and folks from our time at Dak To and Ia Drang Valley memorized this before engaging the enemy.

The yearbook's black and white head shots revealed a guy in our company we called "Pops," the oldest recruit, in his late 30s, whose breath smelled consistently like Aqua Velva . . . the guy in my squad from the Tennessee hills who didn't know how to tie his boots . . . the chap from Kentucky who was a body double for Stan Laurel. And, of course, there was the company commander, Capt. Charles McClendon. His carotid artery would nearly explode from his neck when he became angry, which all of us gave him ample opportunity to do.

Over those first days, I learned about Payton, and he about me. He grew up on a farm with eight brothers and sisters and picked cotton and plowed behind a mule. His father was a Baptist minister and schoolteacher, and when Payton graduated from Morris College in South Carolina, he enlisted in the Army.

Because of his ROTC experience and athletic endurance built on the farm, he was appointed acting platoon sergeant in third platoon. And since nearly every Army outfit seemed like the personification of a John Ford movie, the cadre of A-3-1 decided they needed a "Ski" as a squad leader. Aldo Ray wasn't available, so they volunteered me.

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