Monday, February 13, 2006

Robbins, North Carolina

Robbins is a small town out in the “boonies” of North Carolina. I mean way out. At least it was the last time I was there – in 1968. Perhaps it has grown and prospered in the intervening 38 years but somehow I doubt it. The population in 2004 was 1,214. Interestingly, 97% of the population is either white or Hispanic and only2.3% black. As I recall, there are a lot of black people in North Carolina – obviously they avoid Robbins. Wonder why? 32% of the population was born in Latin America. Wonder what the attraction is? It was a very sleepy place.

In 1968, I was spending a few joyful months at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Why? No-one was quite sure. The Army was large due in no small part to a very unpleasant conflict in South-East Asia. You may have read about it in history books – or seen it in films, like Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July or Platoon. The Army was large because of conscription and, not surprisingly, not entirely organised very well. With so many troops some were bound to get lost. I was lost for about 5 months at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, approximately 50 miles from Robbins.

There was not much to do at Ft. Bragg except wonder when and if you were ever going to get out. Perhaps the Army had really forgotten about you. It's possible. In September, some excitement. The Special Forces were having an exercise and they needed some “volunteers” to participate. Sounded uninteresting and possibly dangerous – but at least you would get to do something, so we volunteered. Here's the deal: we go out into the boondocks of North Carolina and pretend to be “guerillas”. The Green Beanies parachute in and “organise” us into a real fighting unit of “guerillas”. We wander around rural North Carolina ambushing convoys, blowing up bridges and assassinating bad guys. All “pretend” - don't worry. So, we jumped on a deuce and a half and wandered off with Sgt. Gambol in charge.

Sgt. Gambol was the most aptly named soldier in the United States Army. He loved to play Hearts (a card game) – for money. Not much money, but it passed the time. We arrived early so as to have plenty of time to familiarise ourselves with the local area. Yeah, right. We slept late, ate heartily and played Hearts with Sgt. Gambol. That's about all we did for the first four days.

Somehow on the Saturday afternoon Sgt. Gambol (he was a good 'ol boy – even if he was black) persuaded the powers that be it would be good for morale for us to pay a visit to the nearest local town. As part of the exercise, we had not shaved or had a bath for nearly a week. We were wearing civilian clothes with a field jacket over the top and packing M14's and bayonets. Nevertheless, we were deposited on Main Street, Robbins, North Carolina with a whole afternoon and evening to amuse ourselves. I'm not sure the locals were all that pleased to see us. Certainly they were not keen to stand downwind and smell us. A few of us went to the movies. There wasn't anything else in Robbins that might pass for entertainment.

A miracle! We got lucky. Very lucky. In the early evening, we got invited to a party. Yep, a real party - with booze and women. Somebody was definitely living right. It was at someone's house not too far out of town. Nice house, dirt road, lots of people our age or a bit younger, nice parents. This is about as lucky as you can get in rural North Carolina on a Saturday night. We were supremely happy - despite the fact we smelled so bad it was unlikely (unless North Carolina girls spend so much time slopping hogs that their sense of smell is profoundly damaged) that we would get close to the girls. No matter. It was a beautiful Saturday night. Balmy breezes sighed through the trees seeming to whisper our protestations of eternal friendship, and gratitude to our hosts. After all, these folks had invited a bunch of smelly, unshaven, starving rag-a-muffins masquerading as United States soldiers into their home and shared their booze and women. That's more than hospitality in my book.

It was too perfect and, of course, could not last. Some kid arrived breathless and whispers went around the gathering - there had been a car wreck down the road a piece. What car, whose car, anybody hurt? More whispers – a modicum of concern gravitated from the knot of family members towards the periphery where we stood, quietly now. I heard a sob. It was very quiet. We were stuck there – there was no way to leave. Three kids had been killed a few miles down the road. One was the family's only son.

It's probably selfish to write about my pain. I can still see his Mom and Dad to this day. We just left and walked back to Robbins, North Carolina.

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