Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Last Chance Gasp

It was my olive drab trilogy.

Three Army bases that formed the nucleus of my two years of military service. In those three strikingly different environments, were three motley collections of soldiers who each came with their own unique storyline and take on life. They were either fellow draftees, R.A.s (Regular Army) or lifers who walked the walk and talked the talk. Among them all were the irascible characters whose actions and backgrounds are the stuff of legion and became fodder for a writer’s imagination.           

Presidio of San Francisco

Fort Polk, Louisiana

Fort Lee, Virginia

The Army bases came in three distinct flavors. First, the Presidio of San Francisco was the high point of my career there. Then Fort Polk, Louisiana during the summer of ‘65 became the lowest point. Sandwiched between that summer in hell and an early discharge came Fort Lee, Virginia.

Fort Lee provided the least memorable of my military experiences and yet in retrospect still garnered some poignant memories as well as some sad ones too. It was the last six months of my military life so it didn’t really matter where they sent me. Anyplace was better than months of ninety degree weather with matching humidity. Besides, autumn in Virginia can be pretty nice.

Fort Lee represented the last phase of my military existence.  It was all coming to an end and somehow I understood there was no going back to what used to be. My outlook on life had changed along with a renewed focus on education, travel and personal growth. Those changes were permanent.

By that point in my brief military career, the marching and inspections and KP were pretty much over. We couldn’t march outside because it was wintertime. There were few inspections and I was a sergeant by then so KP was a thing of the past.

My Army buddies and the assorted souls that inhabited that time period could fill the scrapbook of any aspiring writer. They were real and alive and as crazy as any comic book character. Some of them tortured souls and others just putting in their time. Each came with their own unique story to tell.

After I jumped the rabbit fence and made my way north, I heard from several other friends who had also escaped Fort Hell.

Max Camarillo (Mad Max) got out early to go back to school. He was one unique operator who truly knew how to game the system. He was Trapper John from ‘Mash’ and John Belushi’s (Bluto) from ‘Animal House’ wrapped up in one colorful character.’ In the Nam, he would have been a ‘dog robber’ providing much needed goods from unnamed sources. If you wanted it Max could probably get it…for a price. There were no moral scruples here. It was strictly business for Max.

Not surprisingly, there were no fare-well parties or blow-outs for Max. I’m told he simply was there one day and gone the next. No surprise. Nothing vanishes faster than a man who’s done his time in the Army.

There were several others that left around the same time. With them there was usually a brief flurry of activity, a few over-the-shoulder goodbyes and then silence as more empty bunks filled the barracks. There is no place more somber and solemn than a barracks room empty of old friends.

Another friend, mad-man Cornelius got an occupational discharge. Corny left even faster than Max. He didn’t even bother to get all the necessary discharge forms signed. He just signed them himself and left his bunk untouched. Minutes after his departure, it was stripped clean. His blankets, sheets and pillow became barter material for the newest resident ‘dog robber.’

45 Days to go before discharge from the Army
Like a lot of other servicemen, I’d promised myself I wasn’t going back home while I was on leave. The pain of having to leave home again wasn’t worth the few weeks spent there.

Staying true to that promise, I opted to spend the Christmas holidays with a friend in Pittsburg. Perhaps not the smartest decision I made since there was someone back home at the time. But I was young and dumb and pretty thoughtless when it came to relationships.

And like my weekend sojourns to Beaumont, Texas when I was in the southland I spent many a weekend in D.C. mingling with the masses and pretending to be a civilian. That was when you could traverse the mall at night or journey into the darker parts of town in search of a cold beer and not worry about getting mugged. The art galleries and Smithsonian and bookstores all provided a welcome relief from a year and a half of khaki blandness.

There was one Grey Line tour of New York thrown in but that only proved to me that the Big Apple was too big a bite for a Midwestern neophyte like me.

Every base has its own select group of entrepreneurs. Ours was no different. There was one lifer whose family lived in D.C. Every Friday night he would park in front of the mess hall and wait for eager recruits clutching their weekend pass. The cost was $25.00 bucks for a round trip passage to downtown D.C. Then a pickup nearby on Sunday afternoon.

The van driver was making a fortune each weekend just by driving home to see his own family and girlfriend. At $25.00 a head, five bodies each weekend, four weekends a month, he was clearing $500.00 a month and no taxes. And that was in 1966.

You could always tell when someone reenlisted. There was usually a new car, often a Chevy super sport or similar muscle car, prominently parked in the enlisted men’s lot. What most of those poor saps didn’t know was that their next assignment was usually Vietnam or Korea where their new cars would never follow.

Two friends stick out in my mind while I was at Fort Lee. Both were deep in their own inner turmoil brought on by reckless decisions and deep regrets afterwards.


The first was my friend Jerry or Gerard as he was known in his native Ireland. He had been in the U.S. Army for several years in Germany then left when his enlistment was over. His dream was to be a full-time playwright and novelist. But he said there were more playwrights in his native Dublin than regular people so he wanted to give New York a try.

He did so for a while and then decided he wanted to visit Vietnam as a reporter. So naturally, he enlisted again in the Army at age thirty. I could never wrap my understanding around why he re-upped. He was a brilliant guy, very quiet and probably gay which would have put him on unsteady ground in the 60s…in the military. Why he didn’t travel to Vietnam on his own, I’ll never know.

Nevertheless we had wonderful conversations at night, sitting around the office or sharing a coffee at the post restaurant. When I first meet him he was bidding his time at Fort Lee before his new papers came through and he was off to Southeast Asia. The times we shared talking theater and writing and story-telling still linger with me to this day.

While writing this blog I looked him up on Google. I came across a number of dispatches and newspaper articles Jerry wrote for Stars and Stripes from 1966 through 1967. I have no idea if he was transferred back stateside after that, got killed over there or just disappeared into that vast caldron called past friends and acquaintances. He was one of a kind. I treasure the few pictures I have of us together.

Another friend’s story whose ending remains a mystery to this day had to do with one hasty decision and six years of regret.

One of the first guys I met in my office was the staff photographer. We both shared a love of the Beatles, rock and roll music, travel and pretty girls. The Beatles we could listen to each night. Rock and roll followed us on his transitory radio. Travel for me were exaggerated tales of that city by the bay and my summer in hell. He hadn’t done much traveling at all.

The pretty girls were a figment of our lusty imaginations. At least for me it was. With exception of the girl back home, the imagination had to suffice where real wasn’t around.  His was a much sadder story.

Upon their graduation from high school, his girlfriend had traveled to Florida for summer work before college began. He stayed home and dreamt about their time on campus in the fall. When she returned she was two months pregnant from a foolish encounter on the beach with a hand-some lifeguard. My friend was devastated. His entire world had just blown up in his face.

Without talking to anyone, my friend marched down to the nearest recruiting office and joined the Army for a six year enlistment. Less than a month later, his girlfriend was back in his life begging for his forgiveness and understanding. She was willing to give up the baby if that’s what he wanted.

But it was too little too late at that point. By then my friend was in his first week of basic training and ready to kill himself.

Fortunately he survived that drama in his life and by the time we met he had resigned himself to five and a half years left in the service and the girlfriend back home who had betrayed him. We’d stay up late at night talking smack and expressing fond hopes for the future. I was always careful not to mention his remaining time in the service or that girl back home.

I never did find out if he got together with his old girlfriend again…or if he found someone else to fill that void…o somehow found peace with his five and a half years left in the service. I hope something worked out for him. He was a great guy; one of the nicest I’d met during that period in my life.

Several weeks before my discharge, the captain called me into his office. With patriotism and confidence written all over his face, he reminded me that I had volunteered for duty in Vietnam back in 1964. Smiling broadly, the captain assured me…no, he guaranteed me…that with my reenlistment I would be on my way to Vietnam within the month. He quickly pointed out that as a newly ordained sergeant this was my last great chance to continue a stellar career in ‘this man’s army.’

 I politely declined his most generous offer.

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