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A battered old warrior and a wonderful storyteller

Damaged tanks and guns await shipment to repair stations after fighting near El Alamein in World War II. | Sun-Times Library.

I’m not sure why at this particular time I should recall Mike Dugger. He belongs to my distant youth, the ROTC drill master when I was a freshman in high school. I don’t remember what rank he held in the Army, but we called him Sgt. Mike.

He was a tall, spare-fleshed man of indeterminate age. At times his face and voice exhibited a hoarseness and weariness that was noticeable even to immature students.

OPINION

Some members of the Abraham Lincoln<br>brigade in 1938. |. Sun-Times Library
Some members of the Abraham Lincoln
brigade in 1938. |. Sun-Times Library

Sgt. Mike first experienced combat as a youth of 18 when he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

When the loyalists were defeated, he left Spain, traveled to England and joined the British Army. As part of Gen. Montgomery’s forces, he fought in some of the early battles in North Africa against German Gen. Rommel’s Africa Korps. He was seriously wounded in the fighting at El Alamein, leaving him with a crushed knee and one leg several inches shorter so he lurched instead of walking,

Finally, battled-scarred and crippled, he was discharged from the Army and ended up teaching callow high school students like myself the art and logistics of war.

“The training in discipline and knowledge of soldiering and the strategies of war you learn here, will benefit you in whatever occupation you choose in life.” Sgt. Mike said.

The best part of the class sessions with Sgt Mike were his stories of his fighting experiences in Spain and North Africa. He was a natural storyteller. Utilizing facial expressions and inflections of speech to convey the drama of the experience, we’d quickly become engrossed in his tale.

“There I go again,” he’d catch himself, “telling stories about war and soldiers instead of teaching discipline and military tactics.”

His life-battered face released a small laugh.

“Don’t anyone tattle on me to Mr. Brodkin. He’s aching for a reason to boot my ass.”

But Sgt. Mike couldn’t help himself and he’d move with ease from tactics to tales.

Because I liked Sgt. Mike and enjoyed his stories, I applied myself diligently to his class. My test papers came back marked with “A+” and “Good work!” scrawled on the first page.

One afternoon near the end of that first semester, he asked me to stay after class.

I sat down as Sgt. Mike retrieved something from the bottom drawer of his desk. When he’d raised it to his desk top, I saw a corporal’s epaulet.

“In the 10 years I’ve been teaching ROTC here,” his voice was grave, “I’ve never given a promotion to any first year ROTC cadet. But you’ve been a truly outstanding student and I wanted you to know how impressed and pleased I am. You’re a born soldier and I’m hoping you’ll choose the Army as a career. As for your promotion, we’ll announce it to the class at the beginning of the next semester.”

Pleased by Sgt. Mike’s praise and the promotion, I took the epaulet.

Then I confided in Sgt. Mike about my desire to write stories, I told him that I didn’t think school was benefiting me and that I was considering dropping out to pursue my dream of writing.

Sgt. Mike was shocked.

“Don’t do something so rash!” he counseled me. “You need your education whatever you choose to do! Without schooling you won’t accomplish anything!”

Despite Sgt. Mike’s warnings, by summer’s end I had mustered the courage to drop out of school. When the academic year began, I went to inform Mike of my decision and to return the epaulet. Hoping the summer interlude would have changed my mind, he was bitterly disappointed.

“My life has been soldiering. I wouldn’t have been any good doing anything else.” He paused, “Maybe you are meant to write, but even if that’s true. I’m not sure how dropping out of school will help. You’ve got to have the heart and the knowledge to want to soldier and the knowledge and the discipline to write.” He sighed and shook his head.” You’ve made a rash choice now and don’t whine if you come up a loser. You had your chance.”

I did drop out of school. Like a man who can’t swim jumping into the water, I began my efforts to write. Ten years of writing stories and receiving rejection slips were to pass before I sold my first story. Another five years passed before I wrote and published my first book. And two more years elapsed before I earned enough from my writing to make it my occupation. During this time, I married and a year later we had our first son. That was followed by my wife birthing two more boys. We became a family and I became a writer.

From time to time through the years, I thought of Sgt. Mike. By that time, he had to have been dead for decades. One of my life’s regrets is that he would never know that things worked out for me and that my life didn’t tumble into disaster as he feared. Despite cutting short my education, I had managed to become a writer, publishing my books and stories.

I believe that battered old warrior and wonderful storyteller would have been pleased.

Author Harry Mark Petrakis, at his home in the town of Dune Acres, Indiana on Friday, October 10, 2014. | Michael Gard/For Sun-Times Media
Author Harry Mark Petrakis, at his home in the town of Dune Acres, Indiana on Friday, October 10, 2014. | Michael Gard/For Sun-Times Media

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