The Big Schnitzel is the final installment of Steve Smith’s 3-part autobiography of his 22 months “in” the U.S. Army in the late 1950s. I put that first “in” in quotes because, as I’ve noted in my reviews of the first two books, while Smith was in the Army, he was never really a part of it, a reality he wore with more than a little pride.
But Book 3 is lacking something that Book 1 (Single Striper) and Book 2 (Close Enough for Jazz) had. That something is conflict, specifically conflict that involves Smith.
Let’s step back for a minute. In Book 1, Smith resists and avoids the Army’s best efforts to turn him into a soldier and then into a radio operator. He and his fellow junior enlistees then face and largely frustrate petty tyrant Staff Sergeant Billie C. Bracie. In Book 2, having escaped Bracie, Smith joins the Kitzingen Area Band (the KAB), known around their home base of Flak Kaserne as “the f***ing band” for their lackadaisical attitude and avoidance of most soldierly duties.
In Book 3, though, when Smith’s self-admitted wanderlust strikes again and he leaves the band to become a pitcher for the Kitzingen Red Sox baseball team, the fight against the machine of Army bureaucracy evaporates. Military sports activities, particularly in the Army in Europe, was a big deal from the 1950s through my tours in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s. Soldiers, at least in Smith’s time, were relieved of their other duties during their sport’s season to play what amounted to semi-pro baseball, basketball, or football. Sports teams weren’t just tolerated by Service leadership, they were actively supported.
So instead of first-hand stories of Smith and his mates thumbing their noses at Army structures and strictures, Smith mostly retells second-hand stories of his former band partners, or in one occasion, a baseball teammate who’s kicked off the team after beating up a couple of Military Policemen. The worst potential trouble Smith and his buddies get into is breaking into the basement storage room for the military kitchen next door to steal food.
Otherwise, we’re given a chapter on the various ways to throw a fastball, backstory of Smith’s pre-Army days when he tried out with various professional baseball clubs and played for west Texas semi-pro teams, and tales of the sexual exploits of some his current teammates.
A particularly ugly chapter has to do with the philosophizing of that cop-beater, who cherry-picks quotes from Friedrich Nietzsche to disparage the German citizens Smith and the others only interact with in bars and brothels. The wounds of WWII were still raw in the late 1950s, but that’s no excuse for the Ugly Americanism this soldier displays. Smith doesn’t sugar-coat or cover for his ex-teammate, whose opinions we can see in the attitudes of some Americans toward foreigners in our own lands today.
As an excellent contrast, Smith introduces us to his girlfriend’s/fiancée’s/wife’s Danish family, and a nicer group of people you would not want to meet. This material is a much-needed tonic to the attitudes Smith sees in the soldiers around him.
At the end of the book, Smith has returned home to El Paso, married (although his wife is still in Denmark with her family) and even a bit more mature than when he left home, preparing for a last-chance series of try-outs with major league baseball teams.
I have a couple of other quibbles with the book. The titles for Books 1 and 2 had clear connections to their stories: Smith was indeed a “single-striper” (a Private, whose rank insignia was a single chevron) in Book 1; “close enough for jazz” was a quote from one of his bandmates in Book 2. But who or what was “the big schnitzel” in Book 3? The best explanation I can come up with was that because Smith was one of the ace pitchers on his team, instead of being their “big cheese,” he turned the description into “the big schnitzel.”
Second, the book’s subtitle, “Outflanking the Corps with the Coffee Call Commandos of the KAB” has little or nothing to do with the book. Smith himself never returns to the band, mustering out of the Army right after the baseball season ends, and only parts of the book deal with his ex-bandmates’ exploits.
In the end, The Big Schnitzel was a disappointment for me. While easy to read, as Smith’s other books have been, it lacked the spark of the first two in the series. Soldiers of that era, or of any since, are less likely to find a connection to their own experiences in this book because so few of them had the opportunity to leave the Army behind in a way, while still drawing an Army paycheck for the privilege of playing a sport. This isn’t anyone’s fault—certainly not the author’s. It’s simply a reflection of the story this one sort-of-soldier had to tell of his time in the Service, but not of it.