I had recently arrived at Fort Sill. It was January of 1975. I was getting to know the guys in the barracks, and what I was supposed to do as a serviceman in the US Army. Things were going well enough, I think.
I can’t remember what the occasion was for sure, I think someone was being discharged. I can’t remember the exact date, maybe late January, but there was a big party at one of the dentist’s houses. I didn’t know the doctor, but I somehow got invited to the celebration. I’m going to guess the party was planned for a Friday or Saturday night
As you have deduced from the title, it was raining that night. It wasn’t raining terribly hard, but it was steady, and it was January. It was a cold rain.
It was also the 1970’s. When we got all dressed up for the party, me and my new buddies were adorned in flowered shirts with exaggerated collars, plaid bell bottomed pants and platform shoes. We looked like we were going to a pimp convention.
I can’t remember how far we drove off base, but it was a ways. The party was okay, I guess. There were a lots of snacks and beer and other types of liquor.
Other than the guys at the barracks that I journeyed to the party with, I didn’t know anyone at the party, and I didn’t know any of the guys at the barracks very well. I mingled, I chatted, but mostly I drank. And I got drunk.
And then I started missing my girlfriend. Her name was Maureen, and she was my high school sweetheart. I had seen her twice since I had enlisted.
The first time was after I had completed Basic Training at Fort Ord, CA. The second time was after I had completed Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sam Houston, TX.
I was totally in love with Maureen, and not being with her totally depressed me. I suddenly hated everyone at the party because none of them were Maureen. I grabbed my coat and stepped outside in the rain to get some fresh air.
Remember the movie Forrest Gump? Jenny had just visited, then disappeared. And for no particular reason, Forrest suddenly felt like running. That’s pretty much what happened to me, except I felt like walking back to the barracks, which was probably ten or fifteen miles away, easily.
No problem. I was young. I was in the best shape I had ever been in, and I was used to marching almost everywhere. So what if it was dark, I’d be able to see headlights easier. So what if it was raining. And cold. It’d clear my head, and my head needed clearing. I somehow figured out which direction Fort Sill was, and headed out.
Well, the rain and the cold didn’t do much to clear my head, even when the rain started pouring out of the sky. I started jogging, in platform dress shoes. And then I walked. I alternated between walking briskly and jogging, and I actually made pretty good time. If I wasn’t back on base after three hours, I was close. Once I got back on base, I’d be at the barracks in probably twenty or thirty minutes.
I’m pretty sure I had to enter the base through one of the two main gates, but I honestly don’t remember anything about this. I told you the rain and cold didn’t do anything to clear my head. But I do remember marching across the golf course, and that was good. The golf course was right by the hospital, and the hospital was maybe a mile from my barracks. I was almost there.
And then I encountered the drainage ditch.
For those of you that have never lived in Oklahoma, gentle rainfall is the exception, not the rule. Oklahoma is subject to monster thunderstorms–the sky opens up, and it rains like a bastard. The golf course at Fort Sill had been designed with a plan to move all that water, and by the time I approached the ditch, it looked like a raging river. I had no idea how deep the ditch was, but the water flowing in it was racing by at about two hundred miles an hour.
I looked around for a bridge or something, but couldn’t see one. Drops of water dripped off my glasses. I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. And now it was truly dark. There was no lighting on the golf course.
I stood on the bank of the ditch, trying to figure out how I was going to cross it. It wasn’t terribly wide, maybe five or six feet at the most. And that’s when I decided I could jump the ditch.
I backed up about ten feet. I was going to sprint like a cheetah, and fly like an eagle over the racing water. I made my first step, and fell flat on my face.
Those platform shoes might’ve been great on the dance floor, but they were hell on a wet golf course. They provided no traction, and what I needed to cross this obstacle was speed.
I got up, and backed up, maybe fifty feet. I could gradually increase my speed that way, I figured, and when I reached the bank I’d hit be running as fast as I could, and jumping across the ditch would be a piece of cake.
Well, the first part of my plan worked perfectly. I gradually picked up speed, and then I was running like the wind. What I hadn’t considered was how waterlogged the ground was. When I planted my right foot to launch myself across the ditch, the bank crumbled under the pressure, and instead of flying over the water, I fell in it. Face first.
I’m not a strong swimmer. In fact, I can’t swim. Period. When you consider this factor into my decision, you can see how little walking and running in the rain had done to clear my head. And that goddamn ditch was deep. My feet couldn’t touch the bottom, and I was literally in way over my head. The current grabbed me, and away I went.
The current carried me swiftly. I was smart enough to not fight against the flow, but I probably drank my way across the stream as opposed to swimming, and I managed to reach the other side. I flung my arm over the bank, and grabbed something solid. And I did not let go. I’m not sure how far the current carried me, but it was probably the length of a football field.
Coughing, sputtering and retching, I hauled myself out of the water. I didn’t think I could get any wetter than I already was, but I was wrong. My coat was waterlogged, and it felt like it weighed about half a ton. I really couldn’t see my hand in front of my face now. I lost my glasses when I fell in the water. I tried to stand, and fell on my face once more.
My right ankle was screaming in pain.
This isn’t good, I thought. On the bright side, my head was finally starting to clear. I tried standing again, and crumpled to the ground in pain once more. Well, if I can’t walk, I’ll crawl, I thought.
That lasted maybe fifty feet. There was no way I could crawl all the way to my barracks. There was nothing else to do. I had to walk.
On the bright side, I was really drunk, so I was pretty well anesthetized against the pain, which was considerable. I had to limp along at a much slower pace. Jogging was totally out of the question. I eventually limped past the Emergency Entrance of the hospital, a place I’d be visiting soon, and probably an hour later or so, I limped into the barracks, where all my new buddies were anxiously waiting for me. It was probably 2:00 AM, maybe 3:00 AM. I had been missing for close to four, maybe five hours.
“Where the fuck have you been? — We’ve been worried sick about you! — What the hell happened to you??”
I looked like I had drowned to death. Twice. I had a superficial cut on my face about two inches long that I sustained wrestling a river. And my right ankle was swollen to roughly the size of a monster grapefruit.
I offered up my senseless explanation, and told the guys about trying to jump the ditch on the golf course. My new buddies immediately drove me to the Emergency Room for treatment.
The ER doctor didn’t see the greenstick fracture of my right ankle, probably because of the swelling. He could see the soft tissue damage, and figured I had a really bad sprain.
I ran into Dan Franklin at the hospital a couple days later by accident. He saw me barely limping down the hallway and took a look at my ankle. He x-rayed my ankle a second time and saw the faint fracture, and made a splint that I wore for a couple weeks or so, and that’s how we became friends.
And I became a legend. My new buddies told my tale to everyone they knew, and pretty soon it seemed the whole base had heard about me. The FNG that walked halfway across Oklahoma in the pouring rain and swam a raging river with a broken ankle. All because he missed his girlfriend.
Well, there’s another story of my stupidity out of the way. Only another five thousand to go…