A note from a 1955 Ballantine Book remarked about how one author – a former serviceman – arrived in their New York offices with his Stars and Stripes drawings and a story of a “brilliant military career, where he rose through the ranks to become a PFC.”
That newly-minted civilian was Shel Silverstein. And he did rise through the ranks to become one of the most celebrated American writers.
A quick perusal of the books on his website will show a body of work that uses all his many talents.
For decades, Silverstein entertained and delighted children with poetry like “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and stories like “Giraffe and a Half.” His children’s book “The Giving Tree” is widely considered one of the best, though to some divisive, of its genre.
But there is at least one book missing from that list.
It was during his time in the military that Silverstein began to draw cartoons, at times finding himself at odds with military censors. He later wrote enough cartoons to make a compendium of his best works.
“Drop Your Socks” was published in 1955 to the delight and entertainment of the new peacetime Army and the old war veterans alike.
The young artist was attending the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts when he was drafted into the Army in 1953. According to his biography in “Stars and Stripes,” the Army “without realizing its error, assigned him to the Pacific Stars and Stripes, read by thousands of Army men in Japan and Korea.”
But Shel Silverstein didn’t join the Army of WWII or Korea. It was a new Army, one not at war, but supposedly at the ready to fight for peace. Silverstein never knew the Army that “fought the wars with live ammo and read V-mail and liberated towns and kissed French girls and caught bouquets and wore baggy pants and a six-day growth of beard.”
Shel Silverstein’s Army was made up of “ordinary guys” who “dragged through two years [the amount of time a peacetime draftee normally spent in the service] cleaning grease traps, bugging out of details, and forgetting their general orders.”
As he wrote in the book’s introduction, “there’s no war now, no casualties, no rationing, and no immediate danger … people’s attitudes are bound to change.”
But legendary military cartoonist Bill Mauldin, in writing the book’s introduction said, “the thing about real military humor is that when a soldier says something funny, he is mainly trying to ventilate his innards … he expresses himself in a wisecrack because if he said it straight, he’d simply bust down.”
“Motives and methods of warfare change from generation to generation,” Mauldin continues. “But soldiering stays pretty much the same messy proposition. … I suspect Shel Silverstein would have amused the cootie-pickingest Roman centurion.”