One of the things I had to do when I took Army Basic Training at Fort Dix New Jersey in the late winter of 1965 (just before the big call-up for Vietnam) was learn how to throw a grenade. Like most men my age I had played a lot of “war” when I was a kid. The churchyard across the street had a small cliff, a trench, and some rocks. It was great terrain for war play.
Pretending to throw grenades was an important part of our war games. We used rocks mostly and made loud explosion noises. Based on the war movies we watched, we envisioned grenades making huge, fiery explosions and leaving a hole in the ground where they landed.
One day we found an open box of Tampax in front of the church and figured out that they made excellent grenades. Pulling the string was just like pulling the pin on a real grenade, we thought. We had no idea what they were really used for. When my mother dutifully tried to explain it as clinically as possible, we were totally grossed out and immediately forgot what she said.
So there I was, some 15 years later, sitting in a cold drizzle at an outdoor class on grenades. The lesson was not long. You pulled the pin, held down the lever, which prevented the timer from starting, and, when ready, threw the thing, just like a baseball, as far as you could. You had three seconds before it went off. When the grenade exploded, we were told, it would spew small pieces of metal in every direction for about 30 to 50 feet. If you were in that radius, exposed, you would be injured or killed.
Then it was our turn. We filed, twelve at a time, into “bunkers” of built-up railroad ties. With each “trainee” there was a drill sergeant. Behind the line of bunkers there was a 15-foot tower with the range officer and a loud speaker. The officer would tell the sergeants to give everyone in the line a grenade, and say “Ready on the left? Ready on the right? Fire in the hole!” Then, one at a time, we would pull the pin, throw our grenade and quickly duck behind the wooden ties.
While I was waiting my turn, sitting in the cold drizzle, there was a problem with the group in front of me. One of the grenades didn’t go off. I was at the head of the waiting line which was run by a regular Army guy who said “Oh, shit” when he didn’t hear the explosion. I asked him what was wrong and he said it was his job to go out there and blow up the unexploded grenade.
“Couldn’t it just be a delayed explosion?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “which is why I wait ten minutes before going out.”
After the ten minutes passed, he went out and tied some explosive to the grenade with a timer and ran back behind the wall. Again, there was no explosion.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Wait 30 minutes and tie another explosive to the first one,” he said.
“Isn’t this a little scary?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, “but I get paid $50 extra a month for hazardous duty.”
Since I was getting $78 a month, $50 sounded better than you might think, but not nearly enough. The second charge worked and there were three explosions in a row. The dud was dead and it was now my turn to throw a grenade.
Twelve of us went out, lined up and got our grenades. The range officer shouted “Fire in the hole,” and one at a time we threw our grenades, which did not make a fiery explosion or dig a hold in the sandy soil. They just spewed shrapnel.
When the guy next to me threw his grenade, it went about ten feet apparently, and the range officer, ducking, screamed something into the mike. The next thing I knew my drill sergeant had pushed me to the ground and jumped on top of me.
There was a series of loud noises as hundreds of pieces of shrapnel bounced off the railroad ties and the tower, breaking some windows. When it was all over, my turn came, but the drill sergeant, shaken by the close call and seeing I was shivering from all that time in the cold drizzle, took my grenade and threw it himself.
So I never did get to throw a real grenade.