October 30 – Merryville to Oberlin (58 miles)
I made it to DeRidder, Louisiana, at 11:00 a.m. Crossing the Louisiana state border brought me back to 1984. After receiving my Army commission as a 2nd lieutenant upon college graduation, I moved to Louisiana (after a short stint at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and Fort Bliss, Texas). I began my first active-duty assignment at Fort Polk outside Leesville, Louisiana. I used to drive my car through DeRidder on my way to Lake Charles for weekend parties. Some memories had faded. Others were clear, like the day I signed in to my unit at the 5th Division Headquarters building at Fort Polk, Louisiana. As I crossed the street from the parking lot headed toward the HQ entrance, I passed in front of the commanding general’s vehicle, with the general inside. I was about to learn an important lesson.
As I waited to in-process (military jargon for starting a new job), a captain walked up and asked me to follow him. I remember him saying, “You’re about to meet the commanding general of the 5th Division, Major General Leuer.” I did not know what was going on. I knocked on the door. The general invited me into his office. I stood at attention and saluted (that much I knew). He asked several questions, including how long I had been on the post. After hearing I’d arrived earlier that same day, he told me why I was in his office. The protocol is to salute the general’s vehicle when it is occupied and the American flag is attached to the front of it. I had not done that. He counseled me about setting a good example; I would soon lead a platoon of thirty-nine soldiers. He wished me well and dismissed me. I never made that mistake again.
The meeting with Major General Leuer was the beginning of my adult working life. Shortly after taking over the platoon, I met Greg, a recent graduate from the Military Academy at West Point. We quickly became friends and roommates. Another friend named Jeter, a graduate of West Point assigned to the 34th Combat Engineer Battalion, the same as Greg, also became a close friend. Jeter and I competed in mini-triathlons and bonded over many late nights and early mornings. The vast majority of newly commissioned second lieutenants bought new cars with their newfound guaranteed monthly income. Greg and I spent many weekends changing oil and washing our cars (mine a practical Honda Accord LX and Greg’s a sporty Datsun 280zx), maintaining the one piece of property we owned that was not government-issued.
One of my favorite memories was when we defeated Greg and Jeter’s unit in the post-basketball championship game. It was a close game. Their big man and company commander went up for an easy bucket on the left low post. I timed my jump perfectly and blocked it off the backboard to help seal the win. Our team, C Battery-155 ADA, celebrated, having just completed an unlikely run to the post title. A picture of that team is proudly displayed in my home office today.
My secret to proving credibility with the thirty-nine soldiers I led as a twenty-two-year-old newly commissioned 2nd lieutenant (affectionately called “butter bars” because the rank insignia looks like a bar of butter and because 2nd lieutenants have about the same value as a stick of butter) was to connect with them on the athletic field. The vast majority of soldiers I led were young African American men, many of whom were still pursuing a general education degree (GED). Many found solace on the basketball court or football field. Military service and athletic competition are two disciplines that bring out the best in people. When combined, the bonds formed by individuals are bone-deep—all brothers in arms. That kind of respect and trust are hard to replicate in the civilian world.
We played tackle football without pads. I wanted the ball so the soldiers could try to pummel me to the ground. I gained their respect by running through them and then reaching down to help them off the ground. I gained their respect by playing a basketball game after splitting my lip open, teeth exposed, in the posts’ semifinals championship game. I put a butterfly bandage on and continued playing (I look back now and realize that was not the best decision). After the semifinal game, I received several stitches and then played the finals with a significant bandage covering half of my face. I also volunteered to carry the Oozlefinch (the Air Defense Artillery mascot) on the weekly battalion training runs. It was made of wood, weighed several pounds, and was awkward to carry.
The parallels to my bike ride were eerily familiar. I was undoubtedly the “butter bar” on this journey. I did not try to pretend I knew much about long-distance cycling. I helped the group by highlighting my physical strength and positive attitude. Carrying the heavy group gear bag and keeping a can-do approach through all the ups and downs propelled me to DeRidder, Louisiana. I had begun to question why it took a bike ride across the country to bring clarity to aspects of my recent life. But I was happy to be in the present. That much I knew.
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