Sometimes a friend from way back just pops into our mind and we wonder why, after all these years. I think, in my case, it’s because in this sad time I needed a few gentle laughs and my memory bank obliged by serving up three Norbert Petryga episodes.
Norbert and I were rookie buddies at Warner Robins AFB in Georgia in 1949. I could describe him in detail, but if you think of Michael J. Pollard, the movie actor (Bonnie & Clyde’s getaway driver), you’d be close, mostly for personality. Norbert was always friendly, cheerful and a little vague.
One Sunday Norbert and I and a few other privates lounged in our barracks planning how to spend our one day of rest when suddenly another lowly airman burst through the front door and, while racing to the rear door, shouted, ” The First Sergeant’s coming. He needs three more K.P.’s.”
We were instantly on our feet, ready to flee – except for Norbert who remained sitting on his bunk smiling. Hearing heavy footsteps on the gravel path outside, I lifted Norbert up (He didn’t weigh much) and tossed him into a nearby closet. Norbert was probably still smiling in there when the Top Sarge left to search for K.P.’s elsewhere.
That same First Sergeant had Norbert and me in the squadron orderly room a week later to tell us about our temporary assignment at the base stockade. “It’s an easy job,” he said. “There’s two prisoners and the Manual says there should be two guards. That’ll be you guys today.”
The stockade sergeant was a laid back old soldier. Norbert and I sat listening to his war stories all morning. He never took us to the cell block, and around noon he looked out the window and said, “Time for you two to take the prisoners to chow. The truck just pulled up.”
“Take the prisoners to chow?” I said. “Sarge wouldn’t it be easier and safer to take the chow to the prisoners?”
“Probably,” he said, “but this is what the Manual calls for. It’s not that bad. You’ll each have your own prisoner and your own shotgun.”
Our own shotgun! I had almost no shotgun experience, yet I knew two untrained rookies carrying shotguns in a crowded messhall was a very bad idea. But then of course, there was the Manual.
I didn’t know what crimes our prisoners had been charged with and I didn’t want to know. I was scared enough already. The sergeant returned from the cell block with Norbert and his young prisoner whom Norbert introduced to me as Larry. They chatted as they left to board the truck. My prisoner was a quiet young guy named Fred. We didn’t chat. We just went outside to join Norbert and Larry.
The truck was empty! No passengers in the back! Guard, prisoner and shotgun missing! Should I fire my shotgun in the air as an alarm? How do you fire a shotgun? Where in hell is the safety?
Just then Norbert and Larry strolled around the corner of the building. “Larry said he saw a garden out back under his cell window, so we went to look at it,” Norbert explained. Larry jumped aboard carrying two daffodils. Norbert tried to join him but was having difficulty so he handed Larry his shotgun. He handed his prisoner the shotgun! I tried to look calm while I searched again for the safety, but before I found it, Norbert was in the truck and Larry had returned the weapon and got his daffodils back.
Norbert was well-liked on the base, but thank goodness, he was also well-known. So when he was spotted entering the messhall carrying his hand-held cannon, a dozen tables emptied quickly and I calmed down a little with the added safety zone. That evening we had half the messhall to ourselves during supper. I guess it was something like when Billy the Kid walked into a saloon.
A few months later, Norbert’s one-year hitch was up and three of us drove him to the bus station in town. We treated him to lunch with smuggled in beer and farewell speeches and left him waiting for the bus to take him back home to Michigan.
A month later I received a letter from Norbert and learned after we’d left him in the terminal, he’d lost his bus ticket and decided to hitchhike home, getting odd jobs along the way. Amazingly, that’s what he did, hitching and dishwashing for a thousand miles! I can imagine the soothing effect smiling Norbert had on grizzly truck drivers and tough roadside diner cooks along the way. And, if I know Norbert, he probably found his bus ticket in the bottom of his dufflebag when he got home.