Friday, March 6, 2015

On "See Here, Private Hargrove," by Marion Hargrove **

One of the favorite books of a friend of mine is about preparing to go to prison. It goes through the details you'll need to take care of before you leave for your time down the river--readying your financial accounts, setting up care of your house and other possessions, and so forth. Then it explains all the mundane details of signing into and living in prison: how to buy things, when you get recreation, and so forth. The first chapter of Hargrove's book led me to believe that the text was going to be much the same thing--only in this case, it was to be for new recruits to the army. It explains how the first few weeks are the toughest, how you'll receive lots of injections, how you'll be living by army law instead of civilian law, and on and on.

Then the first chapter ends and the book becomes something completely different. Hargrove claims to a horrible example of what a private should do when in the army. Don't follow him, he says, and you'll probably do fine. From there, the book becomes a kind of army memoir, told in short chapters that read like slice-of-life newspaper columns (and that probably were at some point: Hargrove was a newspaper man before joining the military and was something of a part-time journalist in the military as well).

Hargrove spends a lot of time in basic training. He's horrible at marching, at loading a gun, at getting up on time, at virtually everything--even picking up his paycheck. He is placed in the kitchen as a cook, which is what he'll be doing when he gets out of training. Hijinks follow.

I'm reminded of a story in a book that I edited, which recounted various "funny" things that military people did to one another while on duty. I suppose funny things happen, but I've always found it hard to believe that people can be such jokers and still do their life-and-death in-the-crossfire kind of work. Hargrove is largely a collection of these practical jokes and of various snide remarks about his lack of military prowess, none of which seems to add up to much.

In the final two chapters, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, and the tone of the book changes a bit. Suddenly this isn't just a book about military service or training; it's about men who are about to go and fight a war. There's a kind of patriotic send-off. And that, I suppose, is just what one would expect of a book that comes out near the start of World War II.

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