What helps shape the story?
What does shape the story? Several people with whom I have spoken after they read my novel, Serpents Underfoot, have asked me if there are some of my life experiences woven into the story. What life experiences helped shape the story? And I answer, of course, there are.
I have about 35 years of martial arts experience as a student, instructor, and dojo owner. That experience plays a crucial role in Curtis’ and especially JD’s interest and development in the martial arts, and for JD, specifically in Isshin-ryu Karate. I based Sensei Tokumura’s character on my last karate sensei, Sherman Harrill, who helped me to understand what real karate is all about. Those who have trained with Sensei know what I mean. It was a real honor to be that man’s student.
An Army of One?
While it also helped shape the story, the military stuff is a bit more complicated. Even as a young child, I wanted to be in the military. The backyard was my battlefield where my brother and I had legions of little green army men with jeeps, trucks, tanks, field artillery, etc., all under our command. We had trenches and foxholes. It was quite a battlefield. If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d reply “I want to be an army!” I still remember my parents laughing and telling me that one man cannot be an army, but you can indeed be a soldier.
Maybe that is why the recruiting slogan adopted in 2001, an “Army of One” was so short lived and was replaced by “Army Strong” in 2006. Perhaps Army officials either talked to my parents, or they decided “Army of One” was a bit contrary to the idea of teamwork, an approach the military relies so heavily upon.
I did not just want to join the U.S. Army … I wanted to be an Army Ranger. And later, maybe even get into the Special Forces. I still remember that day, when I was perhaps 14 or 15-years-old, being so impressed when a Ranger team put on a demonstration of their skills at a park in North Adams, Massachusetts. That was what I wanted to be! The problem was I stuttered, and in my younger years, it was quite pronounced. However, this did not change my dreams of joining the military.
There was just one problem!
My stuttering seemed to lessen at least in comparison to my earlier school days. Either that or I slowly became better at concealing my stuttering depending on the circumstances. So, in July of 1979, I went down to the recruiting station in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and I enlisted in the U.S. Army. I had just blown the ASVAB right out of the water, so I could pick whatever MOS (job) I wanted. Looking back on it now, I should have probably chosen some good technical skill (maybe “in-flight missile repair technician”), but I wanted Ranger School; so that meant picking 11Bravo (Infantry) as my MOS. I had planned on an initial tour of three years, but I ended up signing a contract for four years (they offered me a $4,000 cash enlistment bonus upon completion of training if I enlisted for a four year period instead of 3 years).
On my way!
According to my contract, I was going to Basic Training at Ft. Knox, Advanced Infantry Training at Ft. Benning, and then directly to Ranger School which, if I remember correctly, was also at Ft. Benning. I guess it was because of the high ASVAB scores that I was able to lock this in. I took the oath, and the recruiter gave me a ride home to get a toothbrush and say goodbye to my parents, and we headed off to Ft. Knox, Kentucky that same afternoon. The recruiter who’d signed me up was going back to Ft. Knox, so he kindly offered to give me a ride. Several hours later, dropped me off at the induction center. Amazingly, I had not stuttered once this whole time, even when taking the oath. It was like a dream come true. I was going to be a U.S. Army Ranger.
Basic training began. And, yes it was pretty freaking tough. But, I loved it! Unfortunately, much to my dismay, some of the drill instructors discovered I stuttered. For me, it was virtually impossible not to stutter when they jumped dead in my shit; they were experts at it. I knew it was only part of the mind game they played to see who could take the stress and who would crack. If you could not handle their crap, you certainly had no business on the battlefield. I will say that, once they figured out what was going on, they did not belittle me for it. They were, however naturally concerned about me screwing up their Army. But, I was also doing very well with the training; physical training, shooting ranges, running, hand-to-hand combat, grenade ranges, mud, running, probing for mines, weapons cleaning and assembly, rain, running, heat, road marches, more running … I was eating that stuff up!
Just one catch!
Then one afternoon, I got called into the Company Commander’s office. I was pretty nervous about that, wondering what the heck I had done. Once I reported, I was ordered to stand at ease. The Company Commander was a young Army captain not much older than me. The Captain told me that the U.S. Army appreciated my volunteering, my efforts, and ambition, etc. He went on to say that by all the reports he had, I was performing outstandingly in my training. However, in spite of that, the U.S. Army could not send me to ranger school. The Captain explained that my stuttering presented too much of a risk, especially with the cost of the training provided during ranger school. I was severely bummed out! But, deep down inside, I could see their point … and I hated it. The Captain went on to explain to me that, because they could not honor the contract they signed with me, I could get out of the Army honorably if I chose to.
My choice was clear!
I did not even have to think about it. For me, that was not an option. I asked if I could remain in the infantry if I stayed. The Captain replied that I certainly could. So, I stated that I did not want out. I would continue my training. The Captain nodded, saying that he had expected no less, and then dismissed me. I completed Basic Training achieving a high score on my end of cycle test, which I felt was quite an accomplishment. I boarded a bus for the Infantry School at Ft Benning, Georgia.
One of my best memories of Ft. Benning occurred on the rifle range. We were conducting rapid-fire exercises with our M-16 rifles, and I was knocking them down. Drill Sergeant Winters stopped pacing and stood behind me for a few minutes, watching. When the range officer called for a cease-fire, I stopped and cleared my weapon. Drill Sergeant Winters looked down at me and stated, “That is some mighty fine shooting, son! Wherever you end up, they will be glad to have you.” I finished AIT by earning the maximum possible score on the Infantry Qualification Test.
Breakfast at Denny’s!
One other great memory. Another soldier and I were eating breakfast at a Denny’s in Columbus, Georgia. We were on our first weekend pass. After we had eaten, we would catch a cab back to the base. We were sitting there in our khaki uniforms when an older woman stopped by our table and started talking to us. We had no idea who she was. She was telling us how good it was to see two such outstanding young men in uniform and told us she was going to buy us breakfast, We both said thank you, but that it was not necessary. She would not argue. The woman then asked us if we knew who she was. We both replied that we did not. She told us she was Lillian Carter, the President’s mother. We were surprised, but finally noticed the men in suits standing around us. Probably Secret Service agents! The President’s mother took care of our check and then wishing us well, left with her escort. That was simply amazing!
Fun, Travel, and Adventure!
So, I served my four years in the U.S. Army Infantry. I traveled the world, saw different cultures, and did some pretty exciting things. In Germany, I was stationed at Wiesbaden Air Base with the 2/22 Infantry. Shortly after arriving, I was asked to report to the Battalion Executive Officer. My first thought was, Dang! Here I go again! I reported to the XO as ordered. He had been looking at my file and needed a driver. I took the job. I served as the Battalion Executive Officer’s driver for almost two years and spent a great deal of time patrolling our Battalion’s area of operations near the Fulda Gap. Our job was to slow the Russians down if they ever came across the border.
Finishing my two years in Germany, I got orders to Ft. Polk, Louisianna. The last place in the world I wanted to go was Ft. Polk, Louisianna! So, I went to the CO and asked how to get out of having to go there. He replied that I just needed to volunteer to go someplace else nobody else wanted to go. I asked him where. He said Alaska or South Korea. I chose South Korea.
During my year in South Korea, with the 1/17 Infantry, I did a 90-day tour on the DMZ between North and South Korea. That was pretty exciting stuff, a real mission. Real guns, real grenades, real bullets, and a real enemy you could see from the observation post. And, sometimes … even stumble on while patrolling the DMZ itself.
I enjoyed the Asian culture and immersed myself in it. This cultural appreciation certainly shaped the story. I got involved with the local Amerasian orphanage and helped put a new roof on their building and also helped feed the kids Thanksgiving dinner. My year was up way too fast!
When I got to my last duty station, I was assigned to the 1/501st Air Assault at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. We later deployed to Panama, flying down on a C-130. We were cruising along at about 30,000 ft, sitting in slippery, canvas bench seats that ran lengthwise on the plane. As we approached Panama, a light turned on, and suddenly the plane stood on its nose and dove. We all slid sideways toward the front of the aircraft. It leveled out at about 400 ft if I remember correctly, and the back ramp opened. A group of men we never even knew were there (they were sitting behind our stacked gear) stood up and ran off the lowered ramp, jumping out into the night sky. When the ramp closed, the C-130 stood on its tail and climbed back to cruising altitude. We all slid back toward the rear of the plane. We were all surprised. I would never have thought an aircraft that big could fly like that. I’d always figured the group of men was a team of Army Rangers on a training exercise, but who knows?
Invasion of Panama?
This action all took place shortly before we took out General Manuel Noreiga, and I always figured we were sent there as a show of force … hoping to calm things down. I am not so sure that worked. However we could not just sit on our collective butts, so while there at Ft. Sherman, we completed the Jungle Warfare School. My squad broke some battalion record for completing the Jungle Obstacle Course. We got a steak and lobster dinner, compliments of the Battalion Commander, for that accomplishment.
When it came time to reenlist, I did give that some very serious consideration. However, the paths I really wanted to take were essentially closed to me because of my speech impediment. So, I decided to seek my fortune elsewhere. I suppose you could say that the military adventures of Curtis Cordell and his son, JD Cordell are fantasies … depictions of the kinds of adventures I would like to have had if things had worked out differently.
All of these experiences did combine to help shape the story.