I posted this originally in 2009. With some minor editing I am presenting it again.
On a Sunday morning in June, 1966, I read a startling news article. High school graduation had been the previous Friday night, and one of my former classmates, Roger K., had died after graduating. Poor Roger. He was a pathetic character. I had graduated with my class in 1965, but Roger, who was slow, had to go another year to earn enough credits. Roger had one friend, Mike. Roger, Mike and Mike's mom celebrated the graduation. Mike's mom bought them both bottles of vodka and then the three of them got drunk.
Sometime during the night, Roger, who had never had a drink of liquor in his life before his graduation celebration, choked on his own vomit and died.
A year later I was with the U.S. Army near Nuremberg, Germany. I felt particularly stressed; I was a draftee who didn’t want to be there, was having trouble finding acceptance from the guys I was with. It was a classic case of feeling that I didn't fit in.
There were a few other guys who felt the same way and so we misfits fit in with each other. It was a Friday night and we were at the PX having a couple of beers. We had a locker inspection the next morning, which meant everything had to be clean and neat, and all cleaned field gear was to be placed in precise order on our bunks. I’d been working on it before meeting the guys for a beer. I assumed I was prepared for the inspection.
One of the guys, Patrick, had been to the dispensary that day and gotten a prescription. Patrick took the Rx bottle, divided the pills into five stacks, one stack for each of us, and we took them, washing them down with beer. It was one of the dumbest things I've ever done. I still don’t know what the pills were, or what they were going to do to me, especially with alcohol in my system.
We went back to the barracks about 9:00 p.m., and Patrick pulled out a bottle of vodka. Alcohol was strictly forbidden in the barracks, so Patrick said, “Help me finish this so I can get rid of the bottle before the inspection.”
I took some swigs out of the bottle and that's the last I can remember until I was being screamed at and punched by fists. I was urinating, but I was standing at a locker in my room, using it as a urinal. Two of my roommates were doing the screaming and hitting. It was 5:00 in the morning, and time to get up, but I was obviously still intoxicated. I realized later that the position of the lockers from my bunk was the same as my bathroom toilet from my bed at home, so I was likely dreaming.
I found a towel and helped clean up, and then the same soldier who’d screamed at me helped me get my bunk prepared for the inspection by laying out my field gear. I just stood there, stupidly watching him. When it came time for the inspection I was weaving. My eyes were blurry; I hadn’t brushed my teeth and there was a rotten odor of pizza and alcohol that I could taste. My commanding officer stood in front of me and watched me sway slightly back and forth. “Are you drunk? First Sergeant, put this man on report. I believe he's drunk.”
The First Sergeant answered with a snappy, “Sir!” and wrote my name on his clipboard. He also looked at my field gear. He got in my face. “You call this clean?” he hollered. “I call it clean,” I answered. I never would have said that had I not been drunk.
After the inspection we were excused and I sat on my bunk feeling awful. I’d just screwed up and was facing company punishment, not to mention having the mother of all hangovers. It was then my roommates told me of my night. I’d staggered in about 10:00, fallen backwards, fully clothed, on my bunk. I was unconscious, but suddenly threw up all over myself, and not only that, I started to choke on my vomit. Corporal Schrage, the same man whose locker I’d peed on, who had also helped me get my field gear ready, told me the story.
“We grabbed you and threw you in the shower.”
“With my clothes on?”
“Yeah, when you stopped puking we pulled your clothes off and threw them in your laundry bag. Luckily you got most of the puke on you and not your bunk.”
Corporal Schrage and my other roommates had kept me from becoming a casualty like Roger. I thanked them. I didn’t get that drunk again the rest of my time in Germany. The First Sergeant never did discipline me for showing up hung over at the inspection, probably because he never had a morning he wasn’t hung over. Corporal Schrage was transferred to the States shortly after.
That was 46 years ago. I’ve thought occasionally about that incident. Before my assignment to Germany my mother and father were worried I’d be sent to Vietnam and killed. How would that have been to get notified that their 20-year-old son had died, not from enemy bullets, but from choking on his own vomit?
I had a near-death experience and through the quick actions of others my life was spared. I wish poor slow-witted Roger had also had someone looking out for him.