Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
Mikhail Gorbachev was in the Kremlin.
And I was in the Army, with the 1st Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade in Germany.
Those were still the days of steel pots, quarter-tons (everybody but the lifers called them jeeps) and canned food for combat rations. It was the height of the Cold War, but we knew we were winning because the post theater screened “Rocky IV” and “Rambo III” that year and Sylvester Stallone kicked the snot out of the Soviets in both movies.
I was the FNG in our platoon; an 18-year-old, mosquito-wing private. The Big Red One’s forward brigade, I was told, was a strategic speed bump in the event of a Soviet invasion of West Germany.
It was my first duty assignment. And though I had only been with my unit a short time, I already felt like a seasoned European traveler, having experienced my first German beers (big bottles of Hofbrau) at the bowling alley at Rhein-Main Air Base upon my arrival, and exotic foreign cuisine (from the all-night gyros shack up the hill from my new Army base).
My fellow soldiers made me feel welcome to the 1st with constant reminders of all the things I didn’t know, the things I would never know, and the things I didn’t need to know.
What I did figure out pretty quick was that, beyond German beer and late-night gyros, the things that other soldiers got most excited for were the initials TDY or PCS, or the chance for schooling or training that would mean a temporary escape from the day-to-day life of regular duty, which meant long hours at the motor pool or being marched out into the woods to rake leaves. (The company commander liked a tidy forest.)
One day I knew my leadership potential was at last being recognized when my sergeant told me I had been selected for specialized Army training, and that only 10 or so soldiers from the entire base had been chosen.
When I asked what sort of training, my sergeant was evasive, but said it was a school to learn how to operate a specialized, open-field, gas-operated, one-man mechanized device that required a full week of classes and demonstrated proficiency in order to obtain an operator’s license.
Must be some sort of secret weapon, I thought.
I arrived at an old air hangar on the base on the first day of the training and stood with the other student soldiers, who were much better at containing their excitement for the training than I was.
A staff sergeant entered and everyone stiffened.
“Welcome to the Lawn Mower Operator’s Course,” he bellowed. “In this course, you will learn to operate a lawn mower across various types of terrain, mostly flat, in most types of weather, except snow,” he continued.
A class on lawn mowers? I was dumbfounded. “Who needs a week-long class on running a lawn mower?” I wondered.
My mind quickly raced as I figured that the Army must not have lawn mowers that are typically seen in the civilian world, but ones more powerful, more awesome and fearsome that they were no doubt the envy of our commie counterparts to the east.
The Army in Europe had riding lawnmowers, I bet, probably fitted with machine guns, grenade launchers, armor plating and painted in woodland camouflage colors. Yes, that’s it. That’s what they’ve been hiding under the tarps at the edge of the motor pool.
The sergeant then left and returned a minute later pushing the lawnmower that we would be trained on: a bright blue but rusty Lawn Boy. My heart sank.
In the style of all military training, the weeklong class consisted of two essential takeaways, repeated again and again and again.
“You will not, I repeat, will not, use the mower to run over boulders or trees,” the instructor said.
Each time the sergeant repeated the warning, I wondered if some soldier previously had tried to mow a boulder, or attacked a small tree, with great success.
“Also, do not, I repeat, do not, place your hands underneath the mower while it is operational,” the sergeant continued.
At the end of the week, there was a test. Most of us passed.
And those who did, the last hour of the last day of the course was devoted to the graduates standing in line behind a small, folding desk as the sergeant filled out our 346s; an “operator’s license” that was a small piece of cardboard.
The sergeant tucked each one, one by one, into a typewriter and filled out the small boxes on the card. And when he came to the empty box where it said “type of equipment,” the sergeant wrote “LAWN MORE.”
So his spelling wasn’t the greatest, but he was right in the end. The captain did like a tidy lawn.
Brian Kelly is an Army veteran who served with the 1st Infantry Division overseas and with units in the Army’s Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. He is editor of the Bainbridge Review.
Ronald Reagan was in the White House.