As a young Soldier, you look around for mentors, sometimes they are easy to find, but what do you learn.
We had been released from the morning formation and I was crossing the parking lot walking towards the motor pool. My squad leader told me at formation, “just head straight down there, we were breaking down the cannon today.”
As I walked past, Sergeant(SGT) Portee was headed toward his car. He was going to ride to the motor pool. He sort of barked, “Marshall, where you going?” He knew exactly where I was going. I was a Private, new to the unit, I didn’t have a car. I stopped, came to parade rest, “SGT, hey, I’m going to the motor pool, SGT.” He said, “get in.” He was standing by a faded gold colored Pontiac Monte Carlo. It was a great looking car in its day, that was past. I noticed that the driver door was crunched up and the window was down. There were some remnants of tape and a clear plastic bag.
Was this an order? Did I have to ride to the motor pool with SGT Portee? I was a Private, new to the unit. I do what SGTs tell me.
He opened the door passenger door for me. He sure was being kind to open my door. When I got there, though, he climbed in before me and left me standing there with the door open. It became clear what was happening once he began scooting to the driver side. He couldn’t enter the driver’s door. I was getting in. I’d rather just walk.
SGT Portee was an interesting fellow. He was short, naturally muscular black guy that looked like Eddie Munster. It was how his hair grew. He was from Chicago and let everyone know he was in a gang by flashing gang signs. He didn’t seem very gangster to me. I didn’t know if he was serious or if it was more like me cheering for my college football team.
As I slid in and slammed the big door shut, I noticed that he had screwdriver sticking out of the steering column. It was a big long flat head. It was bent a little where someone had used it as a pry bar in the past. He took out the screwdriver and stuck in the hole where the ignition key should be. He jimmied it a bit and the car sputtered to life. I was amazed. He then pulled out the screwdriver and put it back in the other hole and he slipped her in gear. We were rolling.
Have you ever seen that old VW van? You know, the one that doesn’t seem to be tracking correctly. Its almost like it is slipping sideways kind of as it slithers down the road. That is what I quickly realized we were doing. This was before the times of mandatory seatbelt use. Its not a long ride though, just to the motor pool.
As we headed out for our short ride, I was glad that it would be over quickly. A right, a left, a right, and then into the parking lot. Even saved a little wear and tear on my boots. Only thing is, he didn’t make the turn. He missed the turn. Suddenly we were headed off post. I watched the motor pool fade into the background as we slipped down Yadkin Road, mostly sideways.
I asked him where we were going? He said that he needed to make one stop off real quick, no big deal. “Oh Crap”, I thought. We actually drove for a while. Yadkin Road is the typical GI town strip of barber sew and pawn shops. We used to call it Yadkin 500. It was way too narrow for the four lanes, the turning lane was like a dodge ball stand off. We drove, and drove. I guess we were making small talk. I do know that I felt like a hostage. He finally stopped at an indescript shop next to a big Pawn shop. He said that he wanted to just go in and check for a comic book real quick. I told him that I would just sit in the car.
That quickly became untenable as I realized that he would have to crawl over me to get out. I opened the door and got out, he followed and then led us into a small, tight space that was filled with comic books and collectables. I put my proudly earned maroon beret on for the quick walk inside. He didn’t bother with his, it kinda flopped around hanging out of his pocket like we used to do it. I was suddenly confused about a thing that I learned about called, “on the spot corrections.” I’m supposed to be correcting him, I think. I shut up.
I had never been in such a place, it might have been enjoyable to browse. I had never been exposed. It was interesting to watch SGT Portee look at each book. Several times he explained something like, “This one right here is a second edition, its not as valuable as the first but it has this bonus section.” I kept thinking about things like, “how are we going to get back in the car? is my squad leader going to freak out? I wonder if he could electrocute himself with the screwdriver? How long have we been gone?”
My Squad Leader was SSG Arroyo. He already had a habit of smoking me for the silliest things. He was Puerto Rican and spoke real fast. One time I didn’t quite understand what he said, he often switched between Spanish and English. I answered his question with “No SGT”. It should have been “Yes SGT”. I had to do a bunch of push ups while he explained the details of the rank structure and my place in it. Most of the time he was holding his collar to make sure I saw his rank. He always defaulted into, “I Staff Sergeant, I in charge” toward the end of each session. This had happened more than once.
Before too long, SGT Portee was done and we loaded back up into the car. I knew the drill this time and it went smooth. He placed his new comic books into a waterproof folder in a briefcase in a black plastic bag in the back seat. I think he wanted them protected. Made sense to me as I watched the tape and plastic back flap around on the driver’s side window. All the while, SGT Portee kept talking about comics and which ones were the best. I listened intently.
As we drove back I realized that SGT Portee was reaching out to me. I had never really “talked” to a Sergeant before. He was welcoming me to the unit in his own way. A new friendship was being born. Because I was a young private, I was a little confused, but this SGT was becoming my friend.
We got out at the motor pool. I walked in really worried that my squad leader was going to freak out. I guess we were gone for a while. As I walked up with SGT Portee, my squad leader was there with his hands on his hips. He pulled me off around the corner, as I did pushups he once again went on and on about the new depression that they were drawing on the map because I was going to be pushing the ground so hard I was changing the terrain permanently. SGT Portee was not in earshot that I know of. I don’t know if he knew I got smoked. I didn’t tell him.
I never had to ride with SGT Portee again. I’m pretty glad of that. He also became quite the leadership mentor for me. He showed me what not to do. The same day that I pinned on SGT, he pinned on his next rank, SSG. I was standing next to him in formation. As he mentored me he became a good friend of mine. One that I sure wish I could catch up with today.
It is rumored that SSG Portee was kicked out of the Army a few years after this. I had moved on to another unit. I was told that he was caught shoplifting a comic book from the PX while our old unit was on deployment to Texas. Must have been a first edition.