Camp Roberts lies midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, on the hot side of the coast mountains.
It was the very hot side when we arrived in a convoy of busses from Fort Ord about half-way through our basic training ordeal. The army sent us there in order to give some California National Guard sergeants a go at training us.
We called them weekend warriors, a term tinted with a smidgeon of derision, a morsel of jealousy and just a pinch of gratitude.
You see even though we, the lowest of the low, found these guardsmen generally an inferior lot when it came to soldiering (probably out of pure envy, inspired by a feeling of intellectual inferiority, i.e. not being smart as they were, unable as we were to plan our lives beyond a horizon of a week or two in the future), the time we spent at Roberts seemed like a bit of a vacation compared to the rigors of Ord where drill sergeants had fully mastered the art of totally obliterating individuality while morphing flab into fighting fit.
But no matter how skillful the practitioner, it seemed to me that the imprints the DI’s made on us were largely cosmetic. Take, for example, David from North Beach, home of the beat scene. He’d just begun to experiment with a herbal substance that, in 1964, had little currency … few of us had even heard of the stuff outside of a line in a song we all sang in our elementary school, the Mexican revolutionary tune, La Cucaracha (“marihuana pa’ fumar”).
David, right after our one and only escape from basic training (a weekend pass, halfway through our eight week Ord ordeal) when most of us visited our girl friends and families, he hung-out with his beat buddies in North Beach.
When he got back he brought back some of his marijuana, anxious to share nirvana with me. And true to our already demonstrable lack of intelligent foresight, we sat right down in the middle of the barracks and lit-up a huge joint.
Out of the hundred or so guys walking in and out past us, unpacking, changing or busily spit-shining boots, only one other soldier recognized the pungent fragrance emitted by the small bonfire in the middle of the room … and he immediately sat down with us to form a circle like an island in the middle of a swift flowing river.
I say luckily because had anyone held a strict view of drug laws enforcement recognized that toxic odor, we would have spent the next 20 years of our lives at hard labor in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas!
As I sat there, stoned, I thought of the pageant unfolding all ’round me, the spectacle of seeing the creation of an army from its raw ingredients … us! “But surely no one man can truly master that inner core of another,” I mused, “not the elemental person! It takes a miracle for that!”
Looking back I now have to add, considering the circumstances and our naivete, “It’s also true that angels look after fools!”
I did find it astonishing though, when a little over three years later I returned to Berkeley to find pot had become ubiquitous. It was the new beer! It was everywhere. Zig-Zag rolling paper’s logo was an icon!
It’s fascinating to watch how quickly things can change during one’s life, especially those things endorsed by pop culture, promoted by big business, overseen by a morally corrupt president and a self-serving congress. Absolutely fascinating!
We had little time to ponder such profound philosophical questions at Ord however. No sooner had we come back than they bused us off to Camp Rogers to serve as week-long toys of the National Guard.
I’ve got to hand to ’em. The sergeants at Camp Roberts did an admirable job of trying to train us, but they lacked the essential mean toughness of their Ord peers. I guess no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t overcome the softness long exposure to real humans had done to their military psyches … why it made them almost embarrassingly humane.
The brutal, infernal heat of the place, however, did us in! It more than made up for any deficiencies in the weekend warrior toughness department. Our agenda was filled with day after long day of physical exertion; suffocating, hot nights;, and heat so intense that by mid-day you couldn’t see clearly from one side of the parade grounds to the other.
However, our time there did affirm the old proverb, “It’s an ill wind that blows no one good.” You see, we still had the street-fighing, mean-spirited, orc-like platoon leader to deal with. And he’d gotten much worse as the heat wore him down.
Something had to be done about him!
And then, providentially the sizzling Camp Roberts’ furnace produced an ally just in the nick of time … one who proved to be an extremely capable indeed!
We found our desert savior quite by accident … in a hole. We’d been in the field since early morning, learning fascinating stuff like the military crest of a hill, and useful skills like how to stab someone with a fixed bayonet when around mid-morning a sergeant bellowed, “Take 5!”
We all laid down in a clearing and were fascinated by all the holes bored in the ground around us. It was like a map of Manhattan manholes. One of us emptied a canteen into a hole to see what it might flush out (by mid-mornings our water had become too hot to drink) and in not time at all an ungodly creature crawled out of that hole!
It was enough to open your eyes to the size of donuts when a huge, hairy, king-sized tarantula with a body as large as a billiard ball and eight legs, each as long as a finger crawled out of that hole!
Had we all not been so hot and as tired, we probably would have jumped out of our skins! But we were hot and tired … so hot and so tired that none of us cared to move. We just laid back watching the antics of the fellow who’d pored the water down the unfortunate monster’s nest.
This fellow happened to be an avid spider enthusiast with a particular weakness for tarantulas. He grabbed the hideous arthropod and, as he petted its grotesque hairy back he made low cooing sounds like a woman trying to comfort a baby.
It was a downright embarrassing, and it came as no great surprise when he tucked the hideous creature in his backpack!
Then, what with crawling through the Camp Roberts chaparral and learning how to roll over logs under machine gun fire, we all pretty much forgot about our new company mascot until after supper, which was when our platoon leader went out and our tarantula lover went to work!
He grabbed his pet, snuck it into the big guy’s private quarters and tucked it in for the night … in our platoon leader’s bed! When the victim finally returned, we all pretended to be busy shining our shoes or cleaning our mess kits while he rumbled past us completely unaware of his bedroom surprise!
He entered the room, slammed the door shut and we waited for what seemed like ages until we heard his blood curdling scream … like a little girl having a nightmare! Then the door almost flew off its hinges as he came running through.
He ran to the far end of the barracks, turned, pushed his back up against the wall and crouched as if he were going to fall into a fetal position. He kept one shaky hand pointing back at his room while attempting to articulate a complete sentence. He was unable to do so and he just kept pointing back at his room and mumbling something.
Our friendly spider master rushed into the room, retrieved the creature, and ran over to our babbling leader. He held out the monstrous thing with an outstretched arm with all eight of its legs grotesquely clawing the air and politely inquired “Is this it? Is this it?”
That did it! The giant slumped, practically sobbing from fear. It was so pitiful we actually started to feel of sorry for him!
It’s hard to tell if that spider caused the transformation we witnessed in him, or if a series of incidents led up to the arthropodic catharsis, but afterwards the fellow’s disposition dramatically improved, as did his people skills!
Maybe it was because he just didn’t want to see another such bunk mate again, or maybe it was a more profound transformation, but whatever it was, he acted like a new, and much more agreeable guy from that point forward, right through the remainder of basic training!
You’d have to say it bordered on the miraculous! And I have to believe it had a longer lasting effect than all of the psychological conditioning practiced on him by all of the drill sergeants of Fort Ord or the weekend warriors at Camp Roberts. I guess, in the end, you could call the whole thing basic people-skills training!
Sometimes I wonder what became of him and if he ever made peace with his acute arachnophobia?
Coming next! How I Won The Cold War, Part 4 … GEORGIA, GEORGIA, NO PEACE I FIND
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