Monday, November 30, 2009
WELLCOME TO THE ARMY
My first day at Camp Blanding, Florida was a little like a recurring dream I had as a boy. I would stride down the street in Daytona Beach, where I was the only Spanish speaker. Suddenly I would fall through the ground to another level where everything seemed strange, but identical to the world I had just fallen from. I fell from my comfortable "Grandma’s boy" world into a completely different and topsy-turvy under world ruled by people in uniforms with little chevrons on the sleeves yelling orders that HAD to be obeyed; promptly and smartly, or else... I was awakened before four AM to go on KP (Kitchen police) duty. When I finally got to bed again a good 16 hours had passed and I had to get up early again next day. I have not, to this day been able to find my way back to the normal and orderly world I used to live in. Things just deteriorated from then on. There was having to crawl under machinegun fire. That wasn't too bad except for a pair of black recruits, who happened to come face to face with a rattler. They jumped up from the fright. Too bad, so sad; the machinegun that was just then sweeping over them practically cut them in two. (or so goes the camp legend) There was the Capt. demonstrating explosives. How he managed to embarrass himself in front of the class by blowing himself up didn't do much for my sense of reality. Digging holes to lie in while tanks pass over you might be allright in some places, but our little nests in the Florida sand did NOT feel unsquashable. Today’s headlines are to me, simply a continuation of that first slide into the surreal. A second lieutenant tried to drill the phrase: “Don’t Think. React into our brains. Though his reasoning was impeccably correct as far diving for cover instead of conducting a mental debate when you heard approaching artillery shells, He opened my mind forever to questioning authority and its pronouncements. On bivouac: Trying to spear wild pigs with a bayonet while on "pig guard" provided more work cleaning rifles than it did entertainment. Those damn pigs would stick their snouts into the tents and rip open the duffle bags so they could eat the soap, toothpaste, shaving cream, candy and anything else they could find. They would even dig the trash out of ten foot deep burials. My compensation came when I felt a sense of “expansion” while looking out the tent over my feet into the sky one night. I felt my being expand into the heavens till the very stars became part of my body! Ever since then I occasionally dream I am in a space ship on a never ending trip through infinity. The first time I shot a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) it became alive and jumped up and landed on its side. My finger was still clamped on the trigger so it kept shooting and swiveling towards the firing line. I managed to let go before shooting anyone. (My brother shot the thumb off of a guy who stuck his hand out while holding up a target) Talk about a white man! A Pole from New Jersey was as white as it is possible to be. He shouldn't have spent the whole day at the beach in nearby St. Augustine That evening he began to scream till the ambulance took him away with third degree burns. We never saw him again. We did see Friedman again, though. He was of the age limit, 45, and he didn't think his enlarged heart allowed him to do the strenuous exercise we had to do as radio operator trainees, carrying our "handie talkies" and light carbines while we ran and drilled for hours every day, so he wrote to his friend the congressman back home. Sure enough, a letter showed up from the congressman asking the nice Camp Commander to pretty please consider his friend Friedman and transfer him. Always eager to please a congressman, the commander complied and Friedman disappeared from our sight for about a week. We were trotting along with our nice little carbines hanging from our shoulders when we were overtaken by another company trotting along right past us! It was a "heavy weapons" Company, carrying machineguns and mortars at a breakneck pace. You can guess who galloped by with a heavy mortar base-plate strapped to his back... Poor Friedman didn't have enough strength to wave at us as we choked in the dust his company raised in its mad dash towards combat readiness. My musical training helped me compete successfully for top speed Morse code manual operator and got me sent for advanced radio training at Fort Benning, Ga. land of the paratroopers. That was quite a fancy place after basic training, as can be inferred from it being labeled “Fort” rather than “Camp.” We practiced Morse code on different shifts and I only remember one outstanding incident from the whole six weeks training. I was sleeping comfortably around 10 AM when "Frenchy" (he used to sell porno postcards in Chicago) shook me awake and asked me what time it was. I reacted properly, springing out of bed and whacking Frenchy as fast and as hard as I could. He appeared surprised and retreated rapidly but without dignity. All I ask is to not be woken up except for life and death situations, that's all. I also remember the luxury of a fancy potato peeler that scraped the skin off the spuds with a rotating granulated cast iron disk. Three of us passed the highest possible hand written Morse speed, but I outsmarted myself at the end of training. If I hadn’t broken my glasses, necessitating my staying behind till they were replaced, I would have lost the thrill and privilege of 'attending' The Battle of the Bulge as an infantry replacement. Instead, I would have been sent to Fort Hood, Texas with the rest of my class, where I would have wasted taxpayers money training as a radio operator in a brand new armored division rendered useless by the end of the war. Then there came Camp Miles Standish somewhere around Massachusetts. I thought the commanding general had a garbage fetish until someone explained kickbacks and pay offs to me. The pig farmers got the edible garbage and the general got the glory and the money. The first Sgt. would give a spiel about Don't (or do, I don't remember which) put egg shells and coffee grounds in the edible garbage. Put the edible garbage in the edible garbage can and the inedible garbage in the inedible garbage can, etc. etc. It sounded like a religious litany with edible and inedible reverberating back and forth the whole time. My big day came when an olive drab limousine with little starry flags on the fenders stopped in front of me just as I was dumping the garbage. I stood at attention facing the car with my garbage lid smartly at the ready as the general dismounted. He noted the label on the can, (edible) and peered into its depths to see if the contents matched. They did! The general congratulated me and even saluted smartly. That was one of the high points of my military career. Even the Sarge was proud of me and the whole unit felt I had upheld the company honor. If I had known then that in the future medals were going to count points towards getting discharged sooner from the army, I could/would have probably wrangled one then; maybe just a Bronze star. I'll tell you about the weekend in New York getting drunk with my brother and going to Carnegie Hall with a hangover some other time. Shipping out from Boston also provided some action. We were on standby to ship out and couldn't leave the camp. That day a German sub was spotted INSIDE Boston harbor. This delayed our departure so I was among those that jumped the fence and headed for Town. All the others wasted their time bar and girl hopping. Not me, though, young Mr. Goody Two Shoes went to the Boston Symphony and heard the premier of "The Miraculous Mandarin," also witnessing one of the last appearances of Bartok, the composer. You might get a kick out of the story the music describes. This Mandarin, you see, pays a prostitute for her services but her confederate stabs the Mandarin in order to rob him. I guess Mandarins expect to get their money's worth. This one does, so he chases the girl all around the apartment with his tool at the ready, refusing to die before getting his money's worth. I pulled one worthy of a "most embarrassing moment" video. I wanted to take a leak during intermission but darn if I could find the latrine. I spotted this young fellow in a fancy uniform, so of course I thought he was an usher. Wouldn't you have? I eagerly asked him to point me the way to the bathroom. I noticed he seemed self conscious and a bit confused, you might even say bothered, but he pointed vaguely in a direction to get rid of me, and I happily ambled off. I turned around to observe the whole scene. I realized the poor guy was a West Point cadet talking to his girlfriend and her mother. I managed to get back to camp in time to listen to the adventures of "Silver Tongue" (self named) and Perdikes the Greek, etc. with all the nasty girls. I didn’t believe the things he claimed to have done. We shipped out next day on the USS Washington, a formerly beautiful cruise liner converted to a troop ship. Talk about a weird feeling! There was no horizon to separate the gray sky from the gray sea. I rode a ship full of lost souls heading out into gray endless space, wending day and night towards Hades. Our passage through the Gulf Stream stirred the plankton and made it fluoresce. It seemed we were rocketing through the sky, leaving a shiny wake, as we left behind everything we had known and loved. We were sailing through the unseen and into the greatest unknown of our lives.