I volunteered for the army in 1964, taking my enlistment oath in Oakland.
At the time foreign travel was still something rare and costly, but as I longed to experience Europe, and based upon my former roommate’s experience, I joined for three years, one year longer than the draft’s mandatory two years. In return the army guaranteed me, in writing, they’d send me across the Atlantic.
At long last I’d get to see Europe! Of course what I’d do while stationed there remained a complete unknown. It was a gamble, but the allure of Europe was powerful, as was my aversion toward being part of the tragic mess developing in Southeast Asia.
I could only pray that I wouldn’t be assigned to the infantry or some other such live-in-the-mud MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) … but, if fate cast me in the mud, at least it’d be European mud!
After taking the oath that stripped me of my freedoms, Uncle Sam bused me, along with dozens of other pitiful specimens, to Fort Ord, a two thousand acre chunk of real estate just off the Pacific Ocean near Monterey.
Our army career began at a place called the reception center where we recruits were systematically stripped of our individual identities through sleep deprivation (reveille at 4 am, a tactic I found particularly jolting for, at the time, I’d hit the sack at around 5 am); constant harassment (both seen and unseen … the entire complex was wired with loudspeakers which would reprimand us with “if you’re walking, you’re moving TOO SLOW!”); trashing our civilian clothes; and shaving us bald.
We were outfitted with army fatigues and boots, given a battery of tests over a period of several days (I actually enjoyed this, especially the one that invented an imaginary language which was absolutely fascinating); inoculated against diseases of all description; and generally readied for our coming eight week ordeal on THE HILL!
The Hill was the staging ground for basic training. It’s where we learned to follow orders, fight, make our beds, shoot, spit polish our boots, kill and do all the other little things that make a soldier.
We also had to recite the Geneva rules of war (after being reared in Vallejo where you didn’t grow-up, you survived, I found the concept of having rules for war as nonsensical as having protocols for street brawls … but I guess it made everyone feel better about killing each other), as well as the army motto, “if it’s a fair fight, split” (now that’s a rule that made sense!).
That this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park became apparent immediately upon our arrival on the hill. We were transported there in cattle cars, large topless semi-trailers, into which, upon stopping, our new DIs (drill instructors) flung down the ramps and charged into the cars screaming and yelling like mad men.
They immediately started pushing, kicking and shoving us down the trailer ramps, throwing duffle bags filled with our new army gear after those who panicked and ran down the ramps without them.
When one of us broke an arm undergoing this rowdy reception, we all realized that this was a good time to keep our mouths shut and our feet shuffling … which is precisely what we all did!
Following introductions to our drill sergeants and our individual assignments to companies and platoons, we marched to our barracks, ready to be transformed into new American warriors.
To say the first week was hellish, brutal and unbearable would be a gross understatement. In addition to my natural inclination to do the opposite of anything someone orders me to do, in the few short years following my hiatus from Berkeley, I’d found innumerable ways to degrade and generally deteriorate my physical well being.
I couldn’t run much further than a block (my two pack a day cigarette habit certainly didn’t help), manage more than a couple of pull-ups, execute one proper push-up, or understand why we needed to scrub perfectly clean floors and latrines.
This was no ordinary week. We’d jump out of bed with the rising of the sun for PT (physical training), eat full meals in five minutes or go hungry (no problem here as we’d worked up our appetites to a point were we could care less what the army culinary experts splashed on our plates, as long as it was somewhere in the neighborhood of edible), run like a duck (running while squatting and quacking as loud as you could, a trick that masked the pain), do hundreds of pushups a day, march and learn all of the other things learned by soldiers since before the time of Alexander.
But one thing that bugged many of us white guys in my company was coming face-to-face with racism. Our drill sergeant was a super fit black man who seemed to love what he did, which included marching, running, push-ups, and harassing honkeys.
He promoted black guys in our unit to platoon leader based on race alone, completely disregarding their fitness for the job. Like any population from any demographic some were suited for this leadership role, and others weren’t.
It’s useful here to remember that our demographic wasn’t representative of the the general population. At the time the army had much lower admission standards than it does today. Consequently we had a wide variety of characters, a few of whom truly wanted to become soldiers, others who didn’t think ahead and got caught by the draft (the vast majority), still others who joined for a specific vocation or location (like yours truly), and those who choose to volunteer when given the choice by a Superior Court judge between joining the army or rotting in jail.
It was from the latter that our sergeant choose to be our platoon leader. This fellow was a veritable Sampson, a LeBron James look-alike, but with a face scarred by innumerable knife fights he’d had in Oakland. And although he possessed many attributes that made him a superior warrior, his leadership capabilities were somewhat limited, a fine point that none of us were inclined to debate with our sergeant.
So, during those first couple of weeks on the hill, the rest of us were not only subjected to the agony of endless hours of PT intermingled with countless class hours of instruction on military protocols, the arts of warfare and the conventions of camp life (they geared these classes to the pace of the slowest among us, which would’ve made a slug look like an Olympic sprinter), we were under the harsh thumb of reverse racism.
Now I’m sure there are those who’d find this somehow both ironic and equitable in their tit-for-tat justifications of such infamy, but I can assure you that at the time none of us found comfort in such conjecture.
In addition, whenever confronting charges of racism and white privilege I think of the photo of my great grandfather, George Washington May, sword on his shoulder, proudly standing with his Civil War comrades at the Grand Army of the Republic’s 1890 reunion who counted among their accomplishments freeing the slaves! I always had to ask myself, “Shouldn’t I get a least one brownie point for that?”
Perhaps it was due to some leftover karma from great grandpa May’s glory days, or simply dumb luck, but fate stepped in to help me deal with this noose my comrades and I found tightening around our scrawny white necks.
About a year before I donned my olive drab army fatigues, I’d heard of a dream job … that of diplomatic courier! I heard you’d simply hang-out at a US embassy somewhere around the world, and when needed grab a pistol, handcuff a briefcase to your wrist and carry it too another embassy.
Wow! Glamour! Intrigue! Foreign travel! What a great job!
However, after going to the post office where most government jobs were posted, after talking to anyone and everyone I could think of regarding the courier gig, I found no one who’d even heard of it. So I decided to write the president for guidance.
I didn’t presume the president would take the time to help me, but I figured some obscure secretary deep in the bowels of the White House might direct my letter to the appropriate State Department channels, thereby getting me at least to first base in the matter.
As I heard nothing back from the White House after writing the letter, I forgot all about it. However, I did eventually get a response, and the timing couldn’t have been more exquisite.
It arrived during my second week on the hill. Our super-fit sergeant, who could run in stiff starched fatigues about twenty miles before breaking a sweat, was conducting mail call. This was a ritual at day’s end during which we grunts stood silently around sarge, who distributed our letters,
The day my letter arrived, he shuffled through the stack of letters as usual, standing stiff as a ramrod, routinely shouting out each recipients name in a booming military fashion. But all of a sudden he stopped, his voice lost its authoritarian cadence, his eyes opened as large as silver dollars, and he yelled out, “Illing! You got a letter from THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!”
For a split second I had no idea what in the world he was talking about, but before I looked too befuddled, it dawned on me! The White House had responded to my request for information on the diplomatic courier job!
I calmly walked through the stunned throng of privates, took the letter from the now speechless sergeant and strolled to a semi-secluded spot where I could read my form letter from one of LBJ’s low level secretaries informing me that she’d sent my request to some low level secretary at the State Department.
And that was it. I never heard again about the courier job, but then it really didn’t matter. After all, my calendar was filled for the next three years.
I never mentioned the contents of the letter to anyone, in spite of my comrades‘ repeated demands, requests, and protestations. I figured silence was my best ally in this matter.
The letter did ameliorate our DI’s attitude towards us … dramatically. From that point forward he never could quite make me out, and though he didn’t show me or anyone else noticeable favoritism, it did seem to moderate his sorry attitude towards those of European, Asian or Hispanic ethnicity.
The letter had no impact at all on our mean spirited platoon leader, however. As he had cared little for written communications, he remained a problem we’d have to figure out a solution for later.
As we would, for as they say … timing is everything!
Coming next! How I Won The Cold War, Part 2 … OUTSMARTING ‘EM
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