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WOSTER: Making the grade at ROTC

Terry Woster

Spring semester of my sophomore year, I had a class called ROTC.

My family doctor in Chamberlain called it Right Off the Cultivator when I went for a check-up before I left for school and told him I was going to take the program. He also called it Rusty Old Tin Can and probably would have had several other clever phrases using the initials if he'd had more time to sit and hammer away at my knee with a goofy-shaped little implement supposedly designed to determine the level of my reflexes. I'd never heard it called those things before, and I thought it was most witty of the physician, who had gone to Creighton University, where I was headed.

I know ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) still exists, and some high schools have their own programs. Back in the middle 1960s, every male college student (or pretty close to every one of them, as best I knew) was required to take two years of basic ROTC. Even though Creighton was a private, Jesuit-run school, it offered ROTC, and the course was required for first- and second-year students. The advanced courses, for upper-classmen, were elective and led to a commission in the U.S. Army (again, as I understood things).

I was no great shakes as a ROTC student, but I did all right down at Creighton. I got an "A" for the year and went home to the farm with corporal stripes on the sleeves of my wool uniform jacket. When my big brother saw my transcript, he hooted. There is no other word for it. He hooted.

"You got an 'A' in ROTC," he asked/hooted. "Nobody gets an 'A' in ROTC."

Well, thanks a lot, big brother. He was the guy who had been in the South Dakota National Guard from the time he was old enough to sign up right out of high school. He'd been to basic training and summer camps and weekend drills for several years by the time I aced my first year of ROTC. He could have warned me there were things a college freshman simply didn't do. I didn't laugh at him for dressing up in National Guard fatigues. He didn't have to make fun of my grade.

All I knew about ROTC as a freshman was that I had classes and some drills. The classes weren't difficult if you read the books -- actually the field manuals -- and could step with your right foot when the rest of your squad stepped with their right feet. (I was amazed at how many young adult males on campus couldn't do that.)

I had a grand time when we did the shooting. It wasn't the first time I'd ever handled a single-shot .22 caliber rifle, although I tended to call the ammunition bullets instead of "one loose round," as the range instructor called them. I was more than amazed at the number of young adult males on campus at Creighton who apparently had never handled a .22 caliber rifle. I tell this story a lot, but it remains funny. One of the first rifle drills, one of the city kids down the firing line rolled from his stomach to his back, pointing his rifle at the ceiling and not at any person -- which was good. He pulled the trigger for some reason, and bits of plaster fell from the armory ceiling like snowflakes during a winter storm. The drill instructor was not amused, and he unleashed some fairly salty language for a teacher at a Catholic university.

Between the time my big brother saw my grades from Creighton and the fall semester, I transferred to South Dakota State. There, I was required to take the second year of ROTC, which I completed with somewhat less than stellar results. Somehow, perhaps through skipped classes and failure to read the books -- that is, the field manuals -- I slipped to a low "C" grade and lost my corporal stripes.

Bad enough to walk around campus with bare spots where the two stripes used to be on the arms of my uniform jacket. Worse yet, my big brother never even glanced at my grade slip to be proud of me.