Reading Assignment: A Message to Garcia

In 1993, I joined the U.S. Army Infantry. I saw the movie “Stripes.” How bad could it be?

I had just spent four years studying pure mathematics, hadn’t yet discovered the joy of applying it professionally to computer programming, didn’t want to become an actuary, accountant, or statistician, and had no direction. I decided to do an American thing and take a road trip. On midnight of the Thursday after the last day of school, we stopped by Tower Records, bought $70 worth of cassette tapes, and started out to drive Route 66.

Three months later, I had no money, no job, lived with a Irish bartendress who had started to discover all the reasons why we shouldn’t live together, and just needed something to do. I felt ready to change the world and had no vehicle with which to do that. So, I chose a direction that provided that vehicle in the form of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Two weeks before my twenty-first birthday, I walked into the U.S. Army recruiting station dressed in vintage tweed sports coat, jeans, and combat boots. I said, “I want to join the Army.” The recruiter looked at me, smiled, and then screwed me.

I write that facetiously. Without the experiences I had in the Army, I would be a much worse person. I’d be a person that I wouldn’t like from my current perspective. Those changes came from hardships, boredom, shooting every NATO weapon created, and the teachings of Captain Larry Aikman.

After learning how to shoot my M16, shine my boots, and shave in subzero weather at Ft. Benning, GA, the Army sent me to the 2d Armored Division (“Hell on Wheels”) at Fort Hood, Texas. One month after arriving, my First Sergeant, the guy in charge of beans and bullets, came and said, “Schlak! Didn’t you go to college?”

“Yes, First Sergeant!”

“Come with me. The Battalion Sergeant Major is looking for a driver with some education.” I followed him to Battalion headquarters for the 1/41st Infantry (“Straight and Stalwart”). There, I sat for 30 minutes until this bulldog of a man barked at me to enter his office.

“Tell me about yourself, soldier!” Everything this man said ended with an exclamation mark. I explained that I had finished studying mathematics and English the previous year. I started to explain my studies in Abstract Algebra and he interrupted with, “Come with me! The Brigade Operations shop is looking for a new clerk!”

We walked across Battalion Avenue to the 2d Brigade “S-3 shop,” a 45-year old building on the west side of Battalion Headquarters, where I ended up working as a glorified typist, go-fer, map maker, and driver for the next year. That first day I met Captain Aikman, a lean man that considered his duty as a commissioned office in the United States Army as one of the highest callings any person could hope to attain. I cranked out good work for a month and became Captain Aikman’s go-to person for getting things done. Every other day, I would come running to his desk in response to him calling my name only to find out that he had encountered something irritating and yelled the word, “FUCK!”

One day he actually yelled, “SCHLAK!,” and I came running that ended with a snap to attention at his desk. “Schlak,” he said, “I have something for you to read.” He handed me a thin book, a treatise, a hard-bound pamphlet that totaled no more than 20 pages. “Read this and we’ll talk about it.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. I took the book back to my work area, set it down, and promptly forgot about it until a week later when I responded to another bellowed “SCHLAK!” At his desk, I reported, “Yes, sir?”

“Did you read that book I gave to you?”

He had counseled me previously that the best answer is an honest answer. “No, sir.”

“You’ve had a week, Schlak. Why haven’t you read it?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Right.” He opened a drawer, took out an 3×5 index card, grabbed a Sharpie, wrote some words on the index card, all the while saying, “Schlak, I want you to carry this card in your left breast pocket until I tell you to not carry it anymore. Every time you see me, I want you to stand at attention, take the card from your pocket, and read it aloud to me in a military voice.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied as I took the card from him. On it, in large block letters, he had written


For nine days, at least eight times each day, I stopped, took it out, and said aloud, “I am a slug. Sir!” The first 20 times, I felt embarrassed. By the end of the nine days, I owned that phrase.

I read that book the first night after receiving the card. Written by Elbert Hubbard in 1899. The inspirational essay briefly tells the story of Captain Andrew Rowan who, dropped off on the shores of Cuba with a letter for Calixto Garcia, one of the leaders of the Cuban revolution, delivered the letter with the simple instructions, “Get this message to Garcia.” It goes on to extol those virtues of self-sufficiency, avid determination, and the intestinal fortitude to complete an assignment with a “stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them [you] to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, [and] concentrate [your] energies.”

Since reading that, I have failed the ideal described by “A Message to Garcia.” I have failed that ideal more than once. However, I like to think that, on the balance, those scales would tip in favor of actions and attitude similar to those of Andrew Rowan.

And, I try every day, to continue carrying that message to Garcia.