One Toke Over The Line

When Colorado passed the Marijuana Initiative  I couldn’t help thinking about the “old days”.  By that I mean the mid to late sixties of my impressionable years of youth.  The Baby Boomers were the last generation to have to face a military draft.  So many of us were shuffled through the military as callow youths and two or three years later we emerge, on average, no worse for wear.  True a few died, many more were wounded to some degree, and then there were the walking wounded.  Those are the ones who came back with the problematic conditions of being unable to adjust to the realities of life.  I am not sure has this comes about.  For every middle class kid who goes off to serve his country there are several working class kids who do the same.  Some of us, like myself, come back with a lot of built up anger inside.  Call it the accumulation of mistreatments we collect every day for two or three years.  Or perhaps it’s just the fact that we don’t deal with stupidity well.  Others see things that cause them to retreat from life.  One way to deal with that harsh reality of war, severe wounds, mangled dead bodies, and the loss of your buddies to escape into that blurred world of drugs.  I must admit that I had a serious problem in tech school.  I go addicted to tranquilizers, pain killers, and muscle relaxants.  For a couple of months drugs own my mind before a doctor made me go cold turkey.  For others, things like boredom, pressure from superiors, the general treatment received in service life, all these were excuse enough to try a little pot.  You see, beer wasn’t that easy to get as an enlisted man and hard alcohol damn near impossible unless you new an NCO who would buy it for you.  Besides, the beer was a joke, all the government would sell was 3.2 and you’ll piss it away long before you get enough of a buzz to make much difference.  On the other hand, there were half a dozen dealers in your company and the supply of pot seemed almost endless.  They tell me it was good stuff, too, like Hanoi Red, and Thai stick (combined with opium), and some good Cambodian weed.  the names were colorful and I have forgotten most of them.  But drugs weren’t to my liking.

 

On the other hand, some of the grunts I worked with thought nothing of toking once, twice, maybe three times a day.  I was not in a combat unit.  My group was communications and we laid the telephone cables, placed the poles, strung the wire, did the repair, all that stuff that rarely gets you killed.  Yeah, we had a casualty at least once a month because someone got careless or was in the wrong place when the rocket landed, but we were not the hero types.  Some of us, when our hitch was done went to work for the phone company.  That is where I met Bob Day.  He was hired a year before me because he was a draftee, two years active and one reserve.  I was a full three year man, regular Army.  There was a guy from combat engineers working on the crew, another who had seen all his service in Germany, lucky dog, Louis Diaz, ex door gunner, Gene, three year Navy man on a submarine, and an ex marine, saw action in the DMZ.  The other members were older and may have had their draft time and may have not, didn’t really matter.  I think there were two guys our age whose draft numbers were high and never got called.  Out of all of these guys, Bob was the most personable, that popular type in high school.  I would bet he never really had much in the way of any real achievements in life but he was popular.  Good with the jokes, seemingly even tempered, you know the type.  He probably would have made foreman in three to five years if he had had any ambition.  From what I could tell, you made foreman for one of three reasons: you were popular with men on the crew, you had some arcane technical knowledge, or at least they thought you did (one of the foremen was suppose to be a wiz at using a piece of equipment in trouble shooting but I never saw him use that equipment effectively, always some reason why the machine failed), or you were good buddies wit the second line manager.  On occasion the company would screw up and actually promote on real merit.  Yeah, I though Bob was on the track for promotion.  Now me, well, I’ve never been popular, can’t play the kiss kiss game, and don’t have some great and glorious technical knowledge.  If I got any special favors they would be few and far in between.

 

I talked with Bob on occasion, he seemed to be a nice guy.  He never saw combat, had been a desk jockey in supply.  I suppose that is where he acquired his pot habit.  I mean, this was not the recreational use stuff promoted by pot smokers in Colorado.  He had no war wounds for which he needed pot as his painkiller of choice.  He just had a habit that he indulged several times a day.  For him it was at least one a day while at work and if Red was around, Dave Mueller, then why not another hit?  Dave was another one of those popular types and eventually they were both put on the same crew doing important but minimum work.  About a year later I remember chancing upon Bob near the end of the day.  He needed help with a particular operation and since I was the closest one I was elected.  As we worked together he started telling about his marriage and how hi wife was leaving him.  He was a bit depressed over the fact that she was moving about two hundred miles to a different city and taking their little girl with her.   Well, one of my rolls is father confessor and since I was more stranger than friend he chose to confide in me.  It is almost a fact that we will tell strangers far more of our troubles than our friends since we don’t care what strangers think of us.  I could tell Bob was having his problems.  I don’t care what potheads tell you, it affects their work, I’ve seen it too many times to farr that that nonsense.  Bob had been making mistakes and finally I just shooed him on back to the garage while I finished up.  The next morning he came up to me and was thanking me for helping him.  He seemed to be a little worried that I might tell the rest of the crew.  So I reassured him that, hey, no problem, we all have one of those days.  but a couple of months later it was obvious that he was having one, then two, then three of those days too many.  And one day he had an accident, broke his arm.  I didn’t see Bob for about six weeks.  Then one day he showed back up for work.  I don’t think the time off had done much for him as he looked a little haggard.

 

A month after that I chanced to work with Bob on a job.  We got along okay, I’ve had better partners and I’ve had worse.  “My wife obtained a restraint order against me, said I was a bad influence on my daughter.”  “Really, why is that?”  “She thinks I smoke too much pot.  She says it’s not good for ‘her’ daughter to seen me smoking pot.  Like the kid can really tell the difference between my joint and the cigarettes I smoke.”  “You’d be surprised, Bob, kids notice far more than we think.  They may not be sophisticated but they ain’t dumb.  Know what i mean?”  He thought about that for a couple of minutes as we worked side by side.  “Maybe you’re right.  Yeah, maybe yo’re right.”  We stopped for lunch an hour later and I could tell that Bob still had a lot on his mind.  It was as if he was trying to come to some understanding, some decision.  Just before we buttoned the work up for the day he told me.  “I think I’m going to change, at least cut down on my pot.  You know?  Got to see my little girl again.”  I didn’t work with Bob or even speak with him again for another two months.  I had to stop by his job site to let him know I would be working in the same cable, a sort of courtesy call.  We passed the time of day for a few minutes, then he told me, “It’s really hard to stop.  I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t do it.  I just can’t….you understand, don’t you?”  “Yeah, I understand.  Like trying to quite smoking.  You know, I quit smoking before I went in the Army but every think the drill sergeant said ,’smoke em if you got em.’ well, I just had to start up again.  You know?”  “Yeah, thanks, I know, yeah, ah…, yeah, you’re right.”

 

I wish I had a better something better to offer Bob right then.  He needed more than I could give him, he needed what he could give himself and yet wouldn’t.  I never saw Bob after that.  He had gotten a transfer to some remote corner of the state.  I heard indirectly that he had acquires one girl friend after another and had almost lost his job.  I lost contact with most of those guys I worked with when I went inside, started working in the electronics side of the phone company.  That was a whole nother world, as they say.  Most of the linemen and cable splicers as well as the installers were laid off and went to work for contract companies.  No union so you had to hustle if you wanted work.  I doubt Bob would have made the transition, he was always one toke over the line.

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Moma Told Me Not To Come

For those of us who weren’t fortunate sons, as Dan Foggerty sang, we have our various war stories. Now some are the stories about the horrors of war and others confined to the horrors of simply being in the service and at it’s mercy.  It’s all part of having been in, usually against one’s will.  How many of us have suffered at the hands of the friendly sergeants and the all too charming lieutenants.  In the three or four years that you serve you run into your share of characters.  Now for the average fellow, life is bearable.  I mean, you have your moments of degradation but you kiss and make up and life goes on until your enlistment runs out.  Then the lieutenants and sergeants try kissing your hand and foot to make you re-enlist, for the bennies, of course.  It’s always for the bennies.  Why if they had no benifits no one, even the generals would re-enlist.  You’ve got to admire that logic.  But most of us are captive civilians, if you know what I mean.  The introduction never really takes hold, we are never quite convinced that Uncle Sam’s way is the best.

 

So we fight our battles where we can.  Mostly it’s a guerilla warfare thing, hit and run, hide in the day and strike at night routine.  For those of us who have a little more intelligence that the average friend sergeant and charming lieutenant, sanity is a highly prised state of mind.  Thinking for oneself it the ultimate revenge on all the idiocy the institution of a formalized army or navy or air force can impose.  The irony is that adaptation to changing circumstances is highly prised by the  services and yet is rarely done.  But we, the dedicated trouble makers know how to adapt.  In a sense, we write the rules for those lifers to follow.  I mean, it’s really a matter of not just beating the system but using it against itself without it knowing that is exactly what is happening.  As an example, a friend of mine from a previous assignment had three months left before his enlistment ended.  He had no intentions of re-enlisting, he was going back to university to finish his degree and get a real job.  But in 1970 the Air Force decreed that all E-4s had to take the 5-level test.  that is the qualifying test one takes in one’s speciality if one wants to advance to E-5 or sergeant, non commissioned officer.  Williams didn’t want to take the test.  He had to work graveyard, since he was on an E-4 and rank has it privilege, and that meant staying up during the day to take a needless test.  Funny thing about all these smart officers, college grads to the man, is that they rarely understand what they are doing.  So the test is multiple choice.  But there are added features.  Some officer thought there should be a column “F” so that it would be marked if a question was to be eliminated from the test.  Hey, that’s a license to steal.  Mark the ones you know to be correct and then mark everything else void.  Well, surely the computer scoring these test would know which test questions were suppose to be eliminated and show that a “fraud” had been committed.  Nope, not on your tintype.  He “aced” the test with three questions marked correct.  Well the colonel was impressed and gave him a three day pass.  When he got back, having less than a month to serve, he told them how he got that perfect score.  The shit hit the fan, as it always does, and the worst they could do was not to recommend him for re-enlistment.  Do you detect a bit or irony?

 

As for myself, I pulled two great feats when I was overseas.  The first started out innocent enough.  The Squadron had crammed four men into two man rooms.  Compared to the other services, that might have been considered a luxury.  Basic training had been the standard open bay barracks and training school had been eight man to a room.  Three men to our room was tolerable and the last one in, or two, in this case had their lockers out in the hallway.  Quite inconvenient not to mention the lack of privacy we thought our due.  So as we lost one roommate I decided to replace the door tag with a new name.  I gave the man a serial number (the first four numbers determine where a man enlisted), gave him a rank, and gave him a duty station.  I really didn’t expect to fool anyone, just a little prank.  As luck would have it, I lost the other two roommates about two months later.  Hey, we hadn’t been burdened with a replacement for the fourth man, why not try it again for two more fake airmen?  So I make up two more door tags and placed them in the slots.  Well, a month went by and no new roommate.  I was enjoying my streak of luck and it was nice to have a room all to myself.  Since my shift was graveyard I had a sign to that effect on the door to forestall any inspection, not that one of the friendly sergeants wouldn’t have come in anyway, but at least if they did they came in quietly.  Now the other thing I did was to get extra sheets and blankets and kept the beds made.  Lhe lockers all had locks on them.  And nothing like a few personal affects like pictures of girlfriends.  I mean, if you want the prank to work you need to take care of the details.  You know, I got away with that charade for a little more than four months.  Then one day the first sergeant caught up with outside my door.  The poor man had been lying in wait.  He came up to the door and asked about one name.  Who is this guy and what do you know about him?  I said I work graveyard and never saw him.  Then he asked about the other two.  Well, I said, I really don’t pal around with them at all.  He then asked me a direct question.  These airmen, they don’t exist, do they?  Ah sarge, you got me.  You’ll have two new roommates this afternoon was all he said and left.  I found out that there had been quite a few queries back to the various departments searching for these people.  the name were in the file and so were the serial numbers, but nothing matched.  At least he earned his pay for a few months.

 

I worked in communications as what we termed “Titless WAF”, that’s a teletype operator.  It also encompasses telephone operator as well.  Both of these specialities, such as one could expect, were hardly cutting edge technology.  But back in 1967 and 68 digital transmission was just starting it’s infancy.  We had a couple pieces of IBM equipment, things today’s techie has never seen or touched, but were new and exciting.  I learned how to program a 407 accounting machine using the wire straps.  I worked on the graveyard shift and message traffic was a bit slow.  So I read the manual and played with the machine.  The 026 keypunch was another piece of equipment and I learned how I could automate card cutting (punching out the holes in the IBM card),  and we had the 089 sorter.  But the piece of equipment that fascinated me was the 3654 Duplex/Simplex Transmission unit.  That was the machine that one either sent digital transmissions by using IBM cards or received digital transmission by it cutting IBM cards.  After about six months I had my own little duty station all to myself.  The fact was, the sergeant who taught me rotated back to the states and I was the only one who knew how to operate the machines.  Every once in a while I got dragged in during the day or evening to take care of something important, but this was my “command”, as it were.  Here, I was king, I was “sarge” to everyone else.  That went on for some eight months.  Then one day I was called in and told I had stateside orders.  I had to hurry up and get all the red tape paperwork done and don’t bother to come back to the comm center.  I had only three days to get out of Dodge.  You can guess what happened?  There was no one to replace me and I hadn’t trained anyone.  It never occurred the the master sergeant to see that another airman knew how to operate those machines.  Well, what do you want, he had been a tail gunner in a B-28 bomber in Korea.  SNAFU, if I remember correctly.