Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mac Hyman, No Time for Sergeants


Opening Passage:

The thing was, we had gone fishing that day and Pa has wore himself out with it the way he usually did when he went fishing. I mean he went at it pretty hard and called the fish all sorts of names---he lost one pretty nice one and hopped up in the boat and banged the pole down in the water which was about enough to scare a big-sized alligator away, much less a fish, and he spent most of the afternoon after that cussing and ranting at everything that happened. And all he caught was one catfish which warnt much bigger than the worm he was using, and he got finned by that, so by the time I brought the boat back in, he was setting in the front with the back of his neck red and his jaws moving in and out, the way he gets when he is upset, not speaking to me at all.

Summary: It turns out to be exactly the wrong time for the officials to come by and say that his son, Will Stockdale, has been drafted, and should have already reported, and will have to be taken into town; the result is a funny standoff over shotgun and barbed wire, which only a lot of talking manages to get around. Finally he negotiates a deal, in which Will is going to walk to town on his own rather than be taken back in the car like a miscreant. Will, who wouldn't have minded riding rather than walking the twenty-seven miles to town, is not wholly thrilled at this bargain negotiated to preserve his dignity, but he goes along with it, and the backwoods Georgia boy ends up in the Air Force (which at that time was still part of the Army).

No Time for Sergeants is an Invincible Innocent story, and Will Stockdale is the Innocent or Fool. What makes him so is partly that he just goes along with whatever, but he is also sarcasm-deaf and guilelessly honest: he takes everyone at face value. In an Air Force in which commanders regularly talk sarcastically to recruits, he is oblivious to it all; if a commander were sarcastically to tell him to take it easy since the Air Force didn't want to trouble him, he would thank them very kindly. When, as inevitably happens, the other person blows up over it, he just takes it as a peculiarity of people -- some people just don't have any sense sometimes -- and goes along with it. Unfazed, and unfazeable. And always friendly, even to Yankees, who, he is surprised to find out, actually make up a considerable portion of the Air Force; he, never one to insist on people's faults, is very careful not to let on that he's figured out that they are Yankees.

There really isn't much of a plot, being somewhat episodic, although to some extent the story is structured by the interaction between Will and Sergeant King, who plays the Malvolio or Inspector Dreyfus in this little comedy. By the end of the story, Will Stockdale has been pinned with a medal -- and his Air Force superiors very kindly do everything in their power to arrange for him to be a Private in the Infantry.

The humor is not always completely successful, but the story does stay funny throughout the entire book, and what really makes it work, I think, is Hyman's nearly perfect consistency in tone. The whole story is told by Will, and he never ceases to be that guileless, sarcasm-deaf honest young man who finds the Air Force filled with bafflingly inconsistent people, and simply has no clue how much of a juggernaut he is. There's some weird and not always comfortable racial humor, although not malicious, arising from the fact that Will is a Georgia boy who means no harm but has never been taught better. It is used to somewhat interesting effect, since to the extent that Will has any racism it's just been born and bred and he means nothing by it, and he shows himself perfectly willing to change when his friend and fellow recruit Ben lectures him on the matter; whereas the Yankees, mocking the Georgia boy for his racism, clearly show themselves to be more racist than he is. It's probably the part of the book that least stands the test of time, though.

Favorite Passage:

...I said, "Well, I guess I'll start getting packed now. I guess I'll see you around before I go so I can say good-bye, won't I?"

And then this fellow next to me said, "No use in that. He's going to gunnery school himself. He'll be right with you."

Well, ti was the most surprising thing! I looked at Sergeant King and he just kept setting there staring out the window, and I couldnt get over it for a little bit. Me and Ben and Sergeant King would all be together. "It just goes to show you," I said, " that nothing bad ever happens, but what some good dont come out of it one way or the other," and Sergeant King, he agreed, I think. But he still didnt say nothing, just set there staring out the window for the longest sort of time. (p. 144(

Recommendation: It is a quite funny book in a Mark Twain sort of way; if you like military humor, you will certainly like it. You probably aren't missing a huge amount if you haven't read it, but if it comes your way, it's worth a gander through the pages. But reading the book does make me want to see the Andy Griffith movie based on it.


  1. Enbrethiliel3:12 AM


    Will Stockdale seems a lot like Forrest Gump!

  2. branemrys10:41 AM

    He is very much a Gump-like figure, although I think Hyman works hard to make it more a fish-out-of-water situation than a matter of stupidity. I suppose it's easier to follow a stupid hero watching from the outside than it would be in first person. And interestingly, from what I've seen of the Andy Griffith movie, it plays up the stupidity angle a bit in comparison even to the teleplay (also starring Andy Griffith), in which Will is our actual narrator. Perhaps when we don't have a narrator, it's easier to show people as stupid than as simple?


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