By San Antonio Rose
A/N: This story refers to the Hogan’s Heroes episode “A Klink, a Bomb, and a Short Fuse” and the F Troop episode “Old Ironpants.”
It really had been a simple mistake, Carter forgetting to put film in the camera. Hogan had said it could happen to anyone, and it could. And once the excitement of getting the real bomb defused and getting both Carter and the code out of the tunnel died down, he saw no reason to continue the blame game. So when he came into the main room in the barracks to find LeBeau heaping abuse on Carter for endangering everyone and Carter clearly being just as hard on himself, Hogan snapped at both of them to let it drop and went back into his office to bury himself in a book.
He was relieved to overhear the two making up. But a few moments later, a hesitant knock at the door surprised him. He looked up to see Carter peeking timidly into the room.
Hogan set down his book and swung around to get down from the bunk. “Hi, Carter. C’mon in. What’s up?”
Carter entered, looking less like Little Deer Who Goes Swift and Sure Through Forest than like Little Deer Pursued by Wolf. “S-s-sir… I just… I wanted… I….”
“Carter, if you apologize again, I’ll have Klink throw you in the cooler.”
“Yes, sir.” Carter paused, looking at his hands, then looked Hogan in the eye. “Sir, why are you so nice to me? I don’t deserve it.”
Hogan’s heart sank a little to hear his tender-hearted munitions expert’s question, but he resolved to give him an answer that he hoped would stick. “Sit down, Carter.”
Carter took the proffered seat on Hogan’s lower bunk. Hogan sat down at his desk.
“Have I ever told you about the time I met Wilton Parmenter, the Scourge of the West?”
Carter’s eyes grew wide. “No, sir.”
“It was when I was at West Point. That was a day I’ll never forget….”
West Point students generally do less milling about before class than most college students do, but they do some, although they know to be in their seats and paying attention as soon as the instructor enters the room. So everyone was surprised one day when the clear call of a bugle sounding Assembly rang through the lecture hall at the beginning of class. Naturally, the students scrambled to their seats.
When the silver-haired bugler finished and sat down on the lecture stage, the officer he sat next to, who must have been over ninety, said, “You know, Hannibal, you play that better every time I hear you. How long did it take you to learn it?”
“Uh, four years, I think, Colonel,” the bugler, who didn’t look like a Hannibal, confessed.
The instructor stepped to the podium. “Gentlemen, as you recall, I told you last time that we would have some special guests this morning. I would like for you to have as much time to listen to them and ask questions as possible, so without further ado, I present to you Colonel Wilton Parmenter, hero of Appomattox and Scourge of the West, and Master Sergeant Hannibal Dobbs.”
The class politely applauded as Col. Parmenter, aided by Sgt. Dobbs, took the podium.
“You may be wondering why I bring Dobbs along on these lectures,” Parmenter began. “Trust me, it’s not because I’m as frail as I look. It’s just that he’s seen me take too many pratfalls in my time to be confident letting me loose on a lecture stage unattended. He’s afraid I’ll fall off and break my leg.”
The Civil War veterans shared a smile while the class laughed, and Dobbs sat down again.
“There is also a reason I ask him to blow Assembly at the beginning,” Parmenter continued. “Well, two reasons, really. One is that after all this time, I’m still proud that he can do it. As you heard, it took him four years—was it really four years? I thought it was just three.”
“No, sir,” Dobbs replied sheepishly. “Four.”
“Four years to learn the tune and how to play it correctly. The second reason is that had I not learned the lesson I am about to share with you now, he might never have learned to play the bugle at all.
“Gentlemen, you are training to be officers. You will not have the responsibility thrust upon you as I did, and I sincerely doubt your first post will be as difficult an assignment for you as Fort Courage was for me. However, there is one lesson I learned the hard way out there that I believe every officer should learn and apply throughout his career, no matter what his circumstances might be. And I can sum up that lesson in one word.”
Rob Hogan wasn’t at all sure what to expect, but like his fellow cadets, he was, by this point, hanging on Parmenter’s every word. And he was shocked by what came next:
“That word, gentlemen, is compassion.”
Parmenter allowed the stunned silence to last for a moment. “Yes, I know that wasn’t what you expected me to say. I know that as officers, you will probably be in situations that require you to harden your heart against the pain your men are experiencing. And yes, there are soldiers who will take advantage of a soft-hearted officer. I lost count of the number of times my men put one over on me. But it was just such a deception that taught me this very real, very important lesson: There comes a time when you need to see your men as men, not just as soldiers.
“When I got to Fort Courage, F Troop was short of men, and the men who were there… well, by most people’s standards, they didn’t belong in the cavalry. They were misfits—a bugler who couldn’t bugle, a lookout who was legally blind, and so on. Of course, if you know the story of what really happened at Appomattox, you know that I was a misfit myself; that’s why the Army sent me there. But all of the other men in my family were regular Army and proud of it, so I had some preconceived notions of how things work that just couldn’t apply at Fort Courage.
“Early in my command, the Army sent me to a training course under General George Custer. At the time, I admired him greatly, although my later experiences at Fort Courage and his later exploits would eventually change my opinion. In any case, I came back to Fort Courage determined to be as strict a disciplinarian as Custer was. And the men….” He paused and took a deep breath. “The men mutinied.”
Hogan wasn’t sure who looked more ashamed, Parmenter or Dobbs.
Parmenter pulled himself together and continued. “Granted, the ulterior motive for their mutiny was one of Sergeant O’Rourke’s schemes—they had all sent for mail-order brides, and they couldn’t get into town to meet and marry them because I’d confined them to the fort.”
Dobbs chuckled and shook his head ruefully.
“But they were right to object to the new me… ‘Old Ironpants,’ Agarn called me. I wasn’t being a leader; I was being abusive, insulting Dobbs for his lack of talent and so on. I saw then that I’d never get any improvement by beating them into the ground. I needed to give them a chance, give them encouragement. And could I honestly say I’d ever done anything that gave me the right to look down on them? I earned my rank by a sneeze!
“So ‘Old Ironpants’ was history. Certainly, I did my best to get the men into shape and maintain discipline. But I’d learned the hard way that you don’t earn respect by being an unholy terror, especially in a small unit and a post that brings you in close contact with your men on a daily basis. A situation like that requires better relationships, and compassion is what you need to build those relationships. You can’t be soft-headed, but you can’t be hard-hearted, either.”
“And it didn’t take us long to see that he was right,” Hogan concluded. “We ran into too many officers for whom life was only SOP, rules and regulations, no humanity at all. There may have been a few who were too lax, who let their men run rough-shod over both them and the standards of Army, but most were at the other extreme—and they were hated for it.” He paused. “Even after all those years, Dobbs still flinched at the name ‘Old Ironpants,’ but he just glowed when Parmenter bragged on him. Parmenter was right; any other officer would have refused to give Dobbs the time he needed to become a real bugler. And Dobbs would never have learned that he did have some musical talent after all.”
Carter looked down at the floor and nodded slowly, digesting the information.
“You’re a good man, Andrew,” Hogan said softly, causing Carter to look up at him again. “A good soldier and a good human being. You may not always do the right thing, but you try. And as exasperated as I might get with you sometimes, I don’t forget that.”
Carter gave him a small smile. “Thank you, sir,” he whispered.
Frank Burns, who had been yelling at Radar O’Reilly, paused in mid-sentence and turned to see an irate Col. Potter coming toward him. He straightened and saluted.
“Can’t you leave this poor boy alone?!” Potter shouted.
“Don’t you ‘but, Colonel’ me, Frank! What gives you the right to abuse Radar for an honest mistake?” Frank opened his mouth, but Potter cut him off. “ESPECIALLY after you almost killed a man in surgery this morning?!”
“But, Colonel, that was an honest mistake!”
“SO WAS RADAR’S! And HIS didn’t come anywhere CLOSE to COSTING A MAN HIS LIFE!”
Frank opened his mouth and shut it again. Deflated, he walked away.
Potter watched him go. “He owes you an apology, son,” he said to Radar. “And I’ll see to it that you get it.”
“Thank you, sir,” Radar said quietly. After a pause, he added, “Sir, where did you learn… well, to be you?”
Potter chuckled and put an arm around Radar’s shoulders. “Radar, have I ever told you about the time I met Wilton Parmenter, the Scourge of the West?”