Mesa Musings: Football is the tie that binds friends

A couple of Saturdays ago, I took an early-morning stroll through the Orange Coast College campus.

As I usually do, I concluded my routine walk with a few laps around the OCC track.

About 75 troopers from Costa Mesa's Army reserve unit were on the track doing their annual physical training (PT) test. They were vigorously pumping push-ups, grinding out sit-ups and partaking in a grueling two-mile run. I felt sympathy for them.

I took my share of PT tests while in the U.S. Army in the 1960s and hated every one of them. Can you imagine running two miles in heavy, non high-tech combat boots? Ugh!

The boots transform you from a gazelle into a plodding pachyderm.

Watching the soldiers grunt and groan the other day reminded me of a PT test story a longtime friend of mine once told me. He's in his early 80s now, and made his mark as a successful college football coach for 45 seasons.

My friend played football and baseball at UC Santa Barbara in the late 1940s and early '50s, and was an all-conference performer in both sports.

He was drafted by the Army during the Korean War, and did his basic training at Fort Ord, near Monterey.

One afternoon my friend found himself in the fort's PT area, preparing to take the fitness test with his basic training company.

"As we lined up for the test," my friend recalled, "I noticed to my surprise that the lieutenant who was administering it was an old football teammate of mine at Santa Barbara."

They'd been through many a gridiron war together.

"He was a year ahead of me in school, and joined the Army a year before I was drafted," he said. "I was overjoyed to see him."

My friend unobtrusively walked over to where the lieutenant stood. The officer was thumbing through a stack of PT score cards with the basic trainees' names written on them.

"I approached him and said, not too loudly, 'Hey, buddy, how ya doin'?'" my friend remembered. "He seemed stunned to be hearing those outrageous words coming from a lowly basic training private — and then he recognized me."

The lieutenant, breaking every rule of military protocol, set the score cards down and gave his teammate a big hug. The lieutenant was marking time at Fort Ord and conducting PT tests while awaiting reassignment to Korea.

"We shot the breeze for the next 90 minutes," my friend said. "We discussed football, our days at UCSB, our families and life in the Army."

Finally, the test was over and my friend had to leave the area with his company. He now faced a dilemma. He hadn't taken the PT test — not a single exercise.

"What'll I do?" he plaintively asked his football buddy.

"Here," the lieutenant whispered under his breath, while scribbling a bunch of numbers on my friend's score card. "Take this back to your company commander. You'll be OK."

The teammates bade each other farewell, and my friend went back to his company and turned in the bogus card.

Later, my friend was called to his company commander's office. He figured he was a goner.

"I assumed they were on to me and I was in big trouble," he recalled.

Au, contraire!

My friend's company commander congratulated him and informed him that he'd logged the highest PT score in the history of the basic training company. For that accomplishment, the commander was rewarding him with a steak dinner in the mess hall and a three-day pass.

For more than 40 years after serving in the Army together, my friend faced his lieutenant buddy regularly on the football field. Both were successful Orange County community college coaches.

"Before every game we played," my friend told me, "he reminded me that I still owed him for that PT test score. We got a lot of laughs out of that."

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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