This is the second installment in a series written by a friend of mine -Steve who served in Viet Nam. You can read the first installment here
“So, OK, I got myself into this mess on my own. It is what you do when you haven’t any real plan as to what is next in your life. For as long as I can remember, and it is still true today, I have never known what, exactly it was I wanted to do with my life. It’s not that I lack skills and abilities, certainly I have them. It is more knowing exactly what it is that you want to do with those skills or that ability. Secretly I have always admired someone who for whatever reason, woke up one day and said, “By golly, I want to be a lawyer! That is what I want to do and that is where I’m going to pour all my energy!” When you are that cock sure of yourself, it makes everything work for you, there are no detours in the road, you won’t waste your time and energy doing stuff because you are clueless what it is you want.
Well, for many of us, the biggest detour in the road of life was the military. Even with the Army making decisions for us, they often were no surer about what they wanted than we were. Often the military showed its hand and they had squat. It wasn’t long before we could see the mindlessness of the United States Army, it seems to be a part of the procedure to convince you the only way this sucker works is to let these fools handle everything and never, ever, think for yourself, it only gets you in more trouble!
When I finally was called up, I was living in Texas. That required me to make a bus trip all the way back to Iowa. Believe me when I say this is not a trip you ever want to make unless you feel it necessary to feel like a homeless person. Not having had a decent ten minutes sleep in a couple of days and when you ate nothing but food out of a vending machine at three AM will you know something of that lifestyle. You feel grimy, Greyhound isn’t known for its exceptionally clean rest room facilities and certainly, they have no showers.
Anyway, I drug myself back to Des Moines only to catch a flight to Dallas, Texas; obviously, it had to be the place I had started from to get back to Des Moines, why else would they route the flight that way other than to make me look like an idiot. Once we arrived in Dallas, we were grounded waiting for a flight to take us to Fort Polk, Louisiana. I’m surprised they didn’t call a bus company and drive us there. Our next link in the airline chain was an outfit that is now long gone called TTA. The acronym TTA stood for Trans Texas Airways, but was locally known as “Tree Top Airlines.” I think that about says all you need to know about the reliability of this outfit. Our grounding at Dallas was for repairs and we were about three hours waiting to get moving again.
By some stroke of brilliance, I had determined Louisiana was likely to be my basic training location, and concluded that if I was going to basic I was going to be in a warmer climate during the winter for this experience. I set up the delayed enlistment plan for late October and it was fortunate I didn’t get sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky or Fort Reilly. Kansas, as it would have really foiled my plans to leave Iowa winters behind. As it was, the high humidity in that little hell hole of a place was enough to chill you to the bone at 5AM but would boil you in your own juices by 11 in the morning. Basic Training sites seem to be created in places not fit for man or beast, no matter where they are located; it must be a rule. After the general harassment, you always expect coming into a basic, with its yellow foot pads painted on the tarmac and a DI screaming at you for no apparent reason, we were finally off to a holding company barracks. They throw you into such places until you have been issued clothing, have started the vaccination process, gotten the obligatory haircut and such as that.
It was here I discovered not all privates are created equal. Although I don’t remember his name, there was one professional golfer who had signed up for the National Guard. He, of course, had to complete basic training before returning home to do his six years of meetings. He lasted about three days in the holding company and after his discovery, never showed his face anywhere except on the Fort Polk golf links giving tips to general officers on their golf game. The fact he could manage getting assigned to a National Guard Unit was in itself an amazing feat. For any poor kid in Iowa, there was a waiting list for the National Guard of over a year, mostly because the guard didn’t go overseas. While Vietnam was eating up men, they eventually found ways to activate the guard for missions in Vietnam. Something that today is so obvious wasn’t so during Vietnam for a time. Basic training is like every story you ever heard about such things. In our case, they were in a hurry to get people into the field, and that meant Vietnam.
My first official day in the Army was October 23, 1968. Our “training” finished up before Christmas that year. Hardly the usual cycle of basic training, but for us, we could careless, the sooner it was over the better. Another feature of my basic training company was its racial make up. We had a bit of everything but one of the most important features of my company was its large contingent of Cajun’s and blacks from Algiers, Louisiana.
It was an eye opening experience for a kid who had grown accustom to predominately white folks and the occasional foreign exchange student. I found these crazy and fun loving fellas enlightening with their devil may care attitude. As far as they were concerned if the Army wanted to cycle them through basic training several times it was OK by them! Usually that was considered a threat for failing some portion of your training, but these guy’s had it figured out. The sooner they were out of there the sooner the bullets would start to fly, you couldn’t get shot in basic! Naturally, no one failed basic, that would be unheard of! There is little to say for the basic training experience that hasn’t been heard a dozen times before. It consists in tearing you down to the point no one thinks independently and then they train you to work together in a group process. It is dehumanizing with other interesting ramifications especially when their intention is readying troops to kill other people. Reducing your enemy down to something that sounds less than human-dink, zipperhead, gook, slope, etc. makes them easier to kill since they obviously aren’t human in the first place. It took awhile before I realized this was a part of why they did what they did.
The only thing I remember of importance historically was while I was there Johnson gave his I will not run speech. Less important was the mean and nasty assistant DI who booted Griffin in the hind end on the PT grounds. Louisiana gets lots of rain and all the outside physical training areas are filled with sawdust, more like saw mud. Griffin was a long gangly black guy from some poor slum in the south. He generally was a happy go lucky sort who couldn’t help himself when it came to a broad smile at every opportunity. He sported two very large gold teeth right smack in the middle of that smile. Because he was so gangly he often had an awful time doing push ups and laughing at him only made it worse. While holding himself in some sort of suspension bridge sort of push up stance, he started to laugh as his suspension bridge pose started to sink towards the sawdust pit beneath him. Without his knowing it our mean little Mexican DI came up behind him and drilled him square in the behind with his boot. Knowing something was up behind me after the sergeant had finished his deed and a large contingent of Louisiana boys were laughing heartily I turned to look back behind me and all I could see was those two gold teeth plowing a furrow in the wet sawdust! Griffin was none the worse for wear, and after spitting out some excess saw dust turned on his smile once more, there was no undoing what was just a natural part of Griffin.
Our short cycle was so short they managed to cut our graduation exercises completely out. To this day I have never marched in any sort of formal function as my advanced training graduation was also canceled and the rest of my time I spent in Vietnam. Somehow, I don’t think I was cut out for that sort of thing. I have always been somewhat left footed when everyone else was on the right, so maybe it was all for the best.
Since basic was finished just before Christmas, Wes C., a troublemaker who I looked up to, offered a ride in his family station wagon back to Iowa. The reason he found himself in the service was Wes burglarized a state liquor store in Toledo. It was in those days you could be sentenced either to the reformatory or to the Army, Wes chose wisely. Another guy named Jim Taylor from Ames also got an invite and our trip back north was about as memorable as any I’ve made.
Our first night on the road found us at Fayetteville Arkansas. The three of us clowns got a room of our own and set out to see if we could get lucky and score some beer about town. The three of us monkeys with class A uniforms on and hair only a shadow of what had been ours a mere few months before, stood out like a ROTC drill team. We were trying to play the poor veteran card since none of us was old enough to buy booze in Arkansas. It was a Saturday and the town seemed to be jumping, we had no clue as to why. From one establishment to the next we were maintaining a very poor record in getting lucky at beer buying. We saw a particularly busy joint called the Huddle Club, and thought maybe if we headed to the back, they would over look us and sell us a pitcher of beer. While we waited for the next rejection, a boisterous group settled into a rather large round table right in front of our booth. Instantly they noticed our uniforms and invited us to join them! Eureka! We finally would score some beer on someone else’s nickel! A GI’s dream comes true.
The place was jumping and the servers didn’t have a chance to give us so much as a passing glance, everything was finally working! It appears it was a football weekend and we had managed to find ourselves sitting with the winning teams coaching staff.
Once things quieted down the wait staff soon discovered we were not of age and we were asked to leave. Not wanting to create a scene we were intent on withdrawing quietly. Our host was incensed that GI’s couldn’t expect to drink beer in a tavern but would be expected to go to places like Vietnam and fight for this country. The staff at the club was insistent, but so was our host, when he finally decided it was a lost cause, he announced he would take us to a liquor store and buy whatever we wanted if they weren’t going to serve it there.
Finding this an acceptable compromise, we were happy to save face and remove ourselves for a trip to the booze shop! We also got a ride back to our motel room where we iced our refreshments down in the tub and proceeded to celebrate our good fortune! Jim kept saying there was something familiar about that guy, but he couldn’t place it. Not being college football addicted I had no clue and I think Wes was otherwise occupied with criminal activity to not pay much attention either. The following day, Jim finally concluded the person who had treated us so well was Johnny Majors, former coach at Iowa State and at the time coach of the Tennessee Volunteers.
Twenty-five years later I ran into Jim Taylor in Ames. He told me he had gone to a function at the college in the previous year where Johnny Majors was a guest. He went through the reception line and asked Majors if he remembered three shave tail GI’s at Fayetteville, Arkansas that fateful day when he served us illegally. He said he sure did remember it and it still pissed him off they wouldn’t serve people who were fighting for the country! Jim shook his hand and told him he was one of the three that had been involved!
This part of the story is not of great value, but does show there were at least a few people who believed in us at the time to at least buy you a beer. In due time we arrived at our destination of Toledo Iowa; Wes’ dad gave me a ride to the bus depot and being a good sport bought my ticket home from there. I never saw Wes or his family again, but I still remember his Dad wishing me a safe trip home and a hardy handshake.
Last I knew, Wes made it home alive and somehow found a good job at John Deere, I never looked him up, probably because I didn’t want to find out that at some point it had all fallen apart and Wes had found himself like a lot of my friends, on the wrong end of the shit stick.
Taylor, well he too made it home, he managed to get himself wounded three times, an amazing feat for someone who worked on electrical generators, but these things happen in war time. Nothing was to serious as I recall, he had wandered about the country some but eventually had come back to Ames, thinking he could help out his dad in his office service business. His dad, like my own, had been in the second world war, had come back to his hometown and built a fairly decent business for himself. By the time Jim got involved with the company, it was all but on the verge of bankruptcy, and for no fault of his dad, really. Jim’s father was honest to a fault, he paid his full complement of taxes, no fudging on anything. But of course, people who write tax code don’t expect people to be so fastidious, they are only trying to make sure the chiselers pay something. The end result is the company was going down because all the cash was going out to pay taxes. Jim took a firm hand, he bought his fathers failing business from him when no one would have and gave him a more than fair price for it. Last I knew, Jim had righted the business, eliminated lots of dead weight and had bought a condo for he and his wife to live in.
I made only one visit and like Wes, left things on a happy note, much better to remember old friends doing well than finding them crushed beneath the weight of a failed marriage, alcohol and drug abuse or a host of other problems that haunt many a returned vet.
Sometimes it is best not to know, even if things work out well, you always have that feeling of impending failure, when will the other shoe drop sort of feeling. All part of that isolation stuff so many of my vet friends talk about.
Naturally it was December in Iowa at the time, I personally could do without the snow, but it is just a fact of life here. My leave was for only seven days and I had to be at Fort Eustis, Virginia January 2. Nothing is particularly memorable about that leave, I had moved out of my folks house while I was still in High school and graduated while living in a rooming house in Monticello at the time.
Maybe this was when I established there was only enough good will to allow me to be under my old man’s roof for one week before all hell would break loose. It seems to have been a rule that stood me in good stead.
The only thing I can remember about that time are two things, my sister had one of those instant camera’s that gave you a picture on the spot. You had to wipe some sort of chemical on it to fix the photo but I took a couple of pictures of the snow in front of the house looking toward the barn. I had them for quite a long time in my wall locker in Vietnam.
The other thing is I told my mom that I was very likely going to be in Vietnam by the following Christmas. If that happened, she didn’t need to send me any Christmas packages but one thing I did want was a home grown Christmas tree. We had grown trees on the farm for a number of years, I doubt we ever made a dime on them if you compared the amount of money spent buying the trees and the old man’s liquor bills entertaining all his customers. Getting a Christmas tree from us was a whole different game for the swarm that came out, especially if the old man knew you, he had to offer you a drink or two or three. Let us say, Christmas cheer overflowed the Christmas tree business by quite a bit. Anyway, I felt that it was my turn to have a tree for my next Christmas since I had planted hundreds of the damned things, I should at least have one for myself! After that I forgot about it and soon my time was up and I was on a plane for Virginia.”
to be continued….