Three seminal events led me to enlist in the US Army at the height of the Cold War in 1964. None of them had anything to do with patriotism. I really didn’t see what I could do to affect the stalemate that existed at the time …
The first of these events occurred a few years earlier when I’d daydreamed a plan with a close friend to spend a year abroad in Florence, Italy. Over time, like so many other such teen buddy schemes, the harsh light of reality exposed ours for what it truly was … a pleasant fantasy and nothing more.
However, while the Florentine scheme faded, my spend-time-in-Europe dream continued to shine as bright as ever, if not brighter.
I had but one burning desire inside of me, a bonfire really, and that was to live in Europe. I had but one ambition driving me, and it constantly nudged me towards Europe. I had one consistent vision … I could see myself roaming free in the Scottish Highlands and in the boot of Italy, with whim and fancy as my close friends.
It all sounded so exciting, so glamorous and so much fun!
The second seminal event was the return of my friend Mike from a tour of duty with the army in Germany. He was a bright classmate from Vallejo Senior High who’d enlisted with Uncle Sam for a three year hitch after graduation.
While that was one year more than a draftee served, in return Mike got a guaranty that he’d be sent to Europe (he’d suffered from the European adventure virus too).
Mike and I shared an apartment briefly when he returned to Vallejo at the same time I took my hiatus from Berkeley. Evenings he’d regale me with stories about Europe … well, to be honest, it was just one story, but he repeated it over and over again.
It was about Barcelona. That’s where he spent each and every one of his thirty days of annual leave each year.
He didn’t go to Paris, Rome, London or Athens. Nope! It was always that Catalan city on the warm, sandy shores of the blue Mediterranean! He loved it … well, more specifically, he loved the weather and most particularly, the escorts he met there
He’d pine over Kodak color photos in which he stood with his arm around them, a dandy dressed to the nines posing with elegant, sophisticated ladies whose haughty carriage had its roots in flamenco.
They were beautiful, stunning … and, best of all, inexpensive! Mike lived like a king for one month each year!
At the time, Spain had long suffered under a dictator called Franco who owed his power to the defeated fascists of Germany and Italy. As the sole fascist left standing after World War II, he and his government were international pariahs, a consequence that, along with its neighboring European countries’ long, tortuous climb out of war’s devastation, had severely depressed the country’s economy.
As a result his people placed their trust in the US dollar, and, according to Mike, these escorts harbored a particular fondness, one could almost say lust, for greenbacks.
Mike had surely found his European version of happiness in the ancient city founded by Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal, in the third century BC. He’d hire his escorts for a week at a time and dance with them, dine with them, drink with them, laugh with them and live with them.
He’d tell me how he bonded with them too, and how much he liked them. They liked him as well … at least according to Mike. Whether there was some, none, or a whole lot of bonding on their part was beside the point. He believed they did and that was the point!
In defense of Mike’s assertions, however, one must consider that during his high school career, many of Vallejo’s prettiest girls blatantly angled for ways to date him. But then, he wasn’t just smart, he was a handsome dog as well!
Although he hated his eleven months a year as company clerk for an infantry division in Germany, Mike would lean back and smile when thinking over the miles and time zones to his amorous Spanish adventures and remark, “Man! It was all worth it! It was worth it all, man!”
I never shared Mike’s concept of happiness as Catalan escorts for my European holiday, but it did send a strong spark to the plug in my gotta-go-to-Europe engine. I wanted to see Barcelona. And I wanted to see London and Canterbury, Paris and Marseilles, Stockholm and Helsinki, Rome and Venice, Athens and Vienna, and all points in between.
But even though this dream of living in Europe, of becoming a Old World vagabond burned within me, it wasn’t enough to push me over the tipping point. The third seminal event, however, did!
It came in the form of a letter from my Selective Service Board directing me to report to Oakland for my draft physical! It came without preamble or warning and stunned me beyond belief!
At the time LBJ and his inside-the-beltway bunch had been gearing up for war in Vietnam for a year! Every month, the more and more troubling news tumbled out of that unfortunate place, and on the way out it passed a growing flood of deadly military supplies rolling in … enough to provision an entire army!
The US had been playing a game of global dominoes with the Soviet Union for years. The dominoes were a geo/political metaphor advanced by one John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under president Eisenhower, who posited that if one country in an area were to fall to communism, then others surrounding it would fall as well … like dominoes.
Consequently it really didn’t take a genius to figure out which army that stockpile in Vietnam would supply!
So after getting gut-punched by my draft board’s letter, and after passing its physical exam (the one test I truly wanted to fail), I paid a visit to my friendly draft board’s office to inquire exactly how long I had before receiving the infamous “greetings” letter from the president … the letter that instantly transformed you from private citizen into government property for two long years … at a minimum!
The lone clerk in the dead-quiet office that was stuffed with Steelcase filing cabinets listened patiently to the young man leaning on the counter with the semi-desperate countenance and semi-shaky voice.
After finger flipping through a stack of recent physical examinees, she found my index card. She read it, looked up at me, and with an slow grin spreading across her wrinkled face, politely informed me, “You have 30 days.”
It literally felt as if my stomach had dropped out and fallen to the floor! I could barely move or speak! I mumbled something incoherent and stumbled out of there for I knew … my life had just changed!
Coming next! How I Won The Cold War, Part 1 … LBJ SAVES THE DAY!
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