Kid Stuff –1959
A Tale of Youth
I don’t know if there are Bailey Bridges anymore. I suspect technological advance may have consigned them to history. But when I was an engineer officer, the Bailey Bridge was still a standard component of the military engineer’s toolbox.
It was a prefabricated structure designed to be put together rapidly, often in the face of enemy fire, and thrown across a stream or ravine so that troops, trucks, tanks and other armored vehicles could continue their attack. The truth to be remembered about the Bailey Bridge is that it was an instrument of warfare. No one would use it if there was time or leisure to construct a real bridge. It wouldn’t hold up for long-range use. But for a span whose purpose lasted only a few hours, or at most, a couple days, it was a wondrous invention.
That it was supposed to be assembled rapidly didn’t mean the process was easy. The parts, especially the trusses, were large, heavy, and cumbersome. Each piece had to be slammed into place by a team of four to six men. The connectors didn’t fit together smoothly, and when speed was the driving consideration, the job provoked strained backs, sore toes, smashed fingers, and steady cursing. A platoon at work on a Bailey Bridge was not an elegant sight, yet as they got into the rhythm of the task, and the bridge began to inch across the gap, a certain vulgar euphoria took hold, which generally expressed itself in sentiments like, “We’re going to stick this sonofabitch across that creek if we have to lie down and die when gets to the other side.” The opposite bank became the only imaginable goal and heaven lay simply in seeing the ungainly monster lurch in jerks and fits towards consummation on the distant shore.
Building a Bailey Bridge in competition with other units was a project assigned to every training platoon in the Corps of Engineers’ Basic Officers’ Military Orientation Program, or BOMOP. The BOMOPs were boot camps for young officers instituted after the Korean War, when there was deep dissatisfaction with the performance of junior officers in combat. The feeling was that these men had been neither knowledgeable enough nor tough enough, and BOMOP was the device the army devised to rectify both these conditions.
It was generally understood that among all the branch BOMOPs--infantry, armor, signal corps, and so forth--Engineer BOMOP was the most demanding. Its rigor fit with the Corps of Engineers’ standing among the branches of the army, and with the Corps’ conception of itself. Standards for entry were higher than for other branches, and the internal expectations more exacting. The Corps’ special position in the army was acknowledged by its being the only branch granted the privilege of its own distinctive buttons, and when a young officer drew on his jacket with the Engineer buttons gleaming on his breast, he trod the earth secure in his belief that compared to himself all other members of the armed forces were a pack of dim-witted candy-asses. The only trouble was, to wear the buttons, he had to pass through Engineer BOMOP.
When a BOMOP platoon went out to build a Bailey Bridge it generally arrived at the site about nine o’clock in the morning. Prior to that, the men had arisen at 4:30, cleaned their barracks, stood inspection at 5:15, run three miles in combat gear, grabbed a ten minute breakfast at 6:30, cleaned their weapons before another inspection, and engaged in about an hour of close-order drill. The day my platoon went out was in mid-July. The morning had been cloudy, if a bit sticky. The thermometer outside the mess hall read 92 degrees when we went in for breakfast. But when we got to the bridge site, the sun broke forth in full glory and the temperature ascended quite dramatically
The captain in charge of the exercise informed us that we were undoubtedly the most pitiful platoon he had ever seen come to attempt the task. He was convinced that girls could do better than we would do. Then he told us that the record for completing the job, which had been set three years earlier by the best platoon ever to go through BOMOP, was fifty-three minutes and twenty-six seconds. If these men were ever to come upon such as we, they would kick our asses just because of the way we looked. Then, after a few perfunctory instructions, he blew the whistle, and we began.
My job was to be the hammer man, which meant that when a carrying crew had inserted the joints of their truss into the cavity of the truss before them, I was to insert a steel pin into the aligned holes, drive it through, and secure it with a bent wire. The holes were difficult to line up, and no matter how hard the crews strained they could never get them perfectly, which meant that it was hard to drive the pins into them. I wanted the trusses to be lined up smoothly, and the crews wanted the pins to be driven home quickly so they could relax for a second before returning to the pile for another truss. In the beginning, neither of us did as well as the other wanted, and this was an excuse for what would today be called verbal abuse. But, as we proceeded we got better, and after a bit the pins began to go in more quickly, whether because the trusses were lined up better or because I hit harder I’m not sure.
The bridge began to snake across the gap. The father it went, the harder we worked. If I smashed a finger with the hammer, nobody said anything, neither I nor the guy to whose hand it was attached. The blood dripped and we kept on pushing the bridge. As it got closer to the other side, we were enveloped in mania.
When it was nailed down across the way, suddenly, the curses stopped. We all fell silent and turned toward the captain who stood on the near bank peering at his stop-watch.
“All right, gentlemen,” he proclaimed. “Fifty-two minutes and forty-seven seconds.”
We had broken the record. It took about a second for the truth to get through, and then the cheers erupted. Guys hugged each other and rolled in the dirt in great heaps. There was as much pandemonium as one little platoon could create.
I walked over to lean against a tree a few yards off and watched the other guys screaming and cavorting. After I had been there thirty seconds or so, the captain saw me and charged over. He stuck his face inches from mine and screamed, “What the fuck’s wrong with you Turner? Aren’t you happy?”
I stared back as long as I could without being openly insolent, and then replied, “Yes sir. I’m happy enough.”