So Many Stars

Julia once told me, “Dreams are the stars and only come out at night.  There are so many stars from which to choose.  I wish I knew which one is right for me.  Just so many stars, so many stars.”  Wistful dreaming of a young woman, I suppose, but as good an analogy as any these days.  Our need for the ‘right’ dream is a part of human nature, the part that seeks hope in the futures.  I say futures because for the most part our lives intertwine with the lives of others.  When one is fourteen one rarely acknowledges such an occurrence.  Such is the twilight zone of youth.

 

I went off to war, such as it was then, while Julia went off to college.  Perhaps if I had actually liked school and bothered to study and obtain good grades that would be acceptable to a number of colleges and universities I would have had a different dream in life.  She was accepted to a small liberal arts college in upstate New York.  Her dreams were different.  “Jack, I want to study literature and art.  Maybe learn French and spend a year in Paris.  And maybe I’ll find a man I can love and who loves me.  I want to share his life, see him become successful.”  My dream was much simplier.  Get through my service commitment, find a job, and buy a decent used car.  I never could see as many stars in the heavens as Julia.  True, I had fantasies but I knew these were not common dreams that would ever come true.  And her dreams always left me feeling wistful and I envied her ability in school and her imagination.  “Jack, I know my dreams will come true, i feel it in my heart.”

 

That first summer I spent in boot camp and advanced training before I was posted to Ft Benning for three months.  Julia and I exchanged a few letters, about one a month.  Army life is a drag, dull and dreary for the private with little money and little time to spend it.  But she had her first full time summer job and was able to save a tidy sum for her first year at college.  Freshmen were put upon then, all the rules and the on campus dorms, each with its wicked witch guarding the door to paradise.  “Jack, the upperclassmen ignore us and the lowerclassmen are such immature jerks.  I thought it would be different when I came here.  Got a paper due, have to cut this short.”  I was looking forward to Christmas break and seeing her again but no such luck.  My dream just turned into a nightmare.  End of November we headed to the far east and jungle warfare school, often referred to as the course on how to survive K-rations.  Christmas I received a card from Julia with a few scrawls inside.  “Hi Jack, back here of break and so many parties to attend.  Hope you are well.”

 

Into the second half of her freshman year I was into my year of hell.  My dream was survival, count off each day on my reverse calendar and make it through the year.  Her letters were shorter and fewer during that time.  Towards the end of my tour she started writing about the new stars in the night sky, the new possible dreams.  “Dear Jack, I must tell you that I found out I have little talent for art.  I’m good at drawing but poor at composition.  It’s time for me to change my major.  Besides, all those old dead white men and their stories are boring me.  I want to read the exciting fiction of the future authors.  I want to see and feel the other cultures that our own culture has suppressed for so long.  I’m leaving at the end of my spring session.  I want to take the time off and find myself.”  I had about a month to go when I got hit.  It wasn’t a bad wound but it was inconvenient.

 

The question became, what was my next dream?  I was now a corporal recovering from my wound.  Another year to go before that my big decision.  Do I stay or do I go, and if I go, to what?  The only skill I had at the moment was carrying a rifle.  The captain said I should re-enlist.  He would promise to get me into some sort of job training.  What would I like to be?  Take a week or two and think about, go visit some of the specialist groups and talk to them.  “I’ll arrange it.” he said.  I became a heavy equipment operator in the Engineers, seemed safe enough.  One day I found a letter in my box.  “Dear Jack, I’ve been living in a commune.  Everyone is so understanding.  We spend our time growing our own food and sharing the chores.  Some of the men are jerks but the women are very supportive of one another.  We’re on our way to a peace rally, we are fighting to war in Vietnam.  Have you left yet?  You must get out and stop supporting the government’s war against women and children.  You could come and join us.”  There was more about a few of the people in her commune.  David was so brave because he opposed the war and wouldn’t register for the draft.  And Paul have been arrested for leading a sit-in held in the local draft office.  all these heroes were so brave, at least to her.  And she was going to have Paul’s child.  Meanwhile, Paul had been arrested for the arson of an Army recruiter station.  He would face ten years in the federal penitentiary.  But she would wait and they would then live their dream.

 

Finally the day came when I would have to pay for my training again.  We were shipped out to Vietnam where we were needed to do all manner of work.  I found myself being dropped onto small hill tops so I could grade landing strips for helicopters and observation planes.  A platoon of us would be ferried into the new area where firebases were to be established and an infantry company was assigned to protect us.  You’d think I’d be safe.  Four months later own hill top was over run.  Several companies came to our rescue, if you can call it that.  Half our engineer platoon were killed, most of the rest of us were wounded to one degree or another.  The original company assigned to us took very heavy casualties.  During the night I lay concealed in the brush i looked up.  Most of the stars were gone.  The next day they evacuated what was left of us.  The return to semi normal began but the road would be long.  Some officer decided that I deserved a couple of medals and I didn’t dispute that point.  I already had a new dream.  I dreamed that I would recover sufficiently to start civilian life.  I dreamed I could put these hard years past me.  I had not heard from Julia for over a year.  I figured she was busy raising a child and doing what she needed to wait for Paul.  Besides, I didn’t have her address and her father wasn’t speaking to her.  Her mother would have given it to me but I couldn’t see the need.

 

A year after I left the service my mother forwarded a letter from Julia.  She had addressed it to me at the base where I had last served and thanks to the slow efficiency of the service and post office it had been sent to my “official” address, my parents’ house.  I was working for the gas and electric company operating a backhoe and occasionally articulated loader.  The boom in housing tracks assured work for many of us returning veterans for the next decade or two.  Not exactly my dream job but it would do.   Julia wrote, “I’ve had a miscarriage and Paul was angry.  Said I wasn’t taking proper care of myself.  He will be released from prison but I really don’t want to be around him.  Paul has become bitter, he feels his sacrifice was in vain and no one really cares.  I left the commune, the once friendly and hopeful people have become selfish and greedy.  They are more worried about their future now.  I’m not sure what to do now.  All my dreams never turned out the way they should.  I can’t go home, Dad is still angry with me and Mom is of no help.  Oh sure, she manages to send me a little money now and again and I have a drudge of a job.  I get by but that is about all.  All those dreams, what happened?  The sky is black at night.  Maybe it’s just the big city lights that have killed all the stars, I don’t know.  Think of me sometime.”

 

I had a week of vacation left so I talked to my boss and the following Friday I was in my pickup heading for the city.  There wasn’t much to go on.  Not sure about the address, it was almost six months old.  But maybe I could find her.  Heavens knows what I could do for Julia.  We had never been sweethearts.  she was the dreamer and I was the realist, not much in common for more than a friendship.  Hell, I almost forgot what she looked like, funny how time does that to people.  But I tried to figure which neighborhood would fit her circumstances.  It was Wednesday the next week when I stopped in at a cafe for lunch near the local university.  Julia was waiting tables.  She looked at least five years older than her age.  I only recognized her because of the name tag she wore.  I asked for coffee and a a sandwich.  I don’t think she ever really looked at me.  The bright light in her eyes had gone out and she was going through the motions of taking orders and ferrying plates from the counter to the tables.  I asked her when her shift ended and she gave me that irritated look of don’t bother me, you jerk.  “Julia, it me. Jack.  Your old friend from the neighborhood.”  She stood quite still for several minutes looking at my face with that quizzical look of non belief and surprise.  I thought she was about to flood the room with tears.

“Jack.  Is it really you?  My god.  You look so different.”

“Yes, it’s me.  So when do you get off?”

We spent half the night catching up on old times and all the water over the dam.  Gradually I could detect the old light come back into her eyes, life started to blossom again.  “So what do you want, Julia?”

She turned her face away from mine and stared deeply into the wall.  Maybe five minutes passed before she turned to look directly into my eyes.  “I want to dream again.  Do you think there’s a chance?”

I wished I had an answer.

 

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An Ordinary Life

Small towns are populated by ordinary people who lead ordinary lives.  It is a plain truth.  Small towns rarely ever stay the same, most decay, their reason for existence forgotten.  Their populations drift away, the young looking for work, the old die off, petrified of change.  A few small towns grow a little, perhaps lay claim to having a Walmart in their midst, although Walmart build on the outskirts of these towns and collapses what had been a viable block or two or three of businesses.  Or perhaps the interstate came through, boosting business.  Of course that only works for a few small towns that grew a little larger.  These small towns may have been large enough to have their own high school, maybe a graduating class of fifty.  Local farms with local services for farmers.  Maybe five thousand inhabitants making a living, making a home, making a family.  Paul Johnson was one of those inhabitants.  He went to war an eager youth.  He came back a quiet man.  His father ran the local machine shop and repair business.  That’s where he went to work each day save Sunday.  Religion serves those who serve, or so it is said.  You could find Paul sitting with his mother and father four rows back on the north side of the aisle.  They were Lutherans as were there forefathers and foremothers.

 

In small towns most people rise early, there’s work to be done and best be about it, right Paul?  Right, he’d say, got to open early for the farmers, they get here round seven and don’t leave till six or sever, maybe.  “I got John Greyson coming in this morning with a mower blade that busted on his side mounted hay mower. Got to braise the two pieces together strong enough to get him through the haying season.  Them blades ain’t cheap, you know.  Yes sir, they ain’t cheap.”  He pushed the two sliding doors to each side opening the two story work shed for business.  Paul then drove the two ton truck with its welder and tool boxes on the sides into the parking lot.  Guess I’ll have some time later to go out to Frank Buck’s place later this morning.  He’s got a grain auger that needs welding.  I’ll collect those saw blades that need sharpening, he can collect them when he comes in to pay his bill.  Here comes Dad with the thermos now.

 

After fixing Greyson’s mower blade Paul will go on over to the high school.  Half a dozen boys, all farmer’s sons, want to learn how to weld.  They’ll learn on the Lincoln welder on his truck.  It may cut into his business but Paul doesn’t mind.  There will always be business, they say the town is growing.  Yes sir, that’s what they say.  Later Paul heads on over to the Buck farm.  Frank is waiting.  “Howdy Frank, got here as soon as I could.  that senior welding class took a little extra time this morning.  You know Duffy O’Malley boy, don’t you?  Well, dang fool touched one of the weld seams with his bare hands.  Burned it pretty good.  He’ll have a scar but he’ll live.”

“Them O’Malley boys always were fools.  Just like their father.  I don’t think he’s be right in the head since the war.  Do you?”

“Frank, I can speak ill of Duffy.  He saw some hard times in the Solomons.  I never speak ill of a man who did his duty.  So let’s drop it here.  Okay?”

“Sorry, Paul, I forgot.

 

Work done, Paul driving back to town with the half dozen saw blades to sharpen, Duffy didn’t have it any rougher than the rest of us on the island, he just took it worse.  Maybe if he could stop drinking.  Naw, I doubt it.  Hold on steady, Paul, ain’t nothing you can do about it.  Shame, really.  Drinkin just makes it worse.  I’ll stop by the shop and pick up Dad.  I’m getting hungry.  Wonder what’s for lunch.  As if I didn’t know.  Cold butter milk and sandwiches with the leftover beef roast.  I hope Mon doesn’t start trying to fix me up with girls again.  Just not ready for marriage, that’s all.  Just not ready.

 

Many years have passed.  The O’Malley boys had graduated and become roust-a-bouts in a Texas oil field.  Both have rebelled against their father.  Got married young, spawned a couple of children, and then divorced.  Both drink too much, fight too much, the excess of youth one might say.  Neither one has been back to see their mother.  Neither one came back for the funeral. Duffy’s old Hudson was found mangled beyond all comprehension, no real idea of what happened.  Paul stood by the widow at the grave yard.  The VA paid for the plot at the edge of the cemetery behind the church.  He was a Catholic but the Lutherans were tolerant.  Paul wondered at the service.  An honor guard from the VFW, a flag folded into a triangle, a small flat marker with the Marine Corps emblem carved in it.  A gift from Paul lest anyone in town forget.  Would it have made a difference in duffy’s life if he had been awarded one of the silver stars given to him?  Duffy was the one who dared to act and save three of his comrades.  The Captain said he had been the brave one.  Yes, he had gone out and dragged Duffy back to the aide station.  But that was after Duffy got the other’s back, when he dared a second time to save just one more.  Duffy didn’t know the man was dead, his wounds had been for nothing.  Maybe duffy felt cheated of his reward.  I don’t know.  Would a medal have made a difference?  Does a medal cover the scars a man gets in a war?  He pondered these thoughts until they men started shoveling dirt over the coffin.

 

It’s almost the turn of the century.  The town is down to a dozed families.  All the businesses have left.  Many of the houses are abandoned, sold by the children who will never visit again.  Only the main highway receives any maintenance, the side streets are reduced to patches of concrete and rubble.  Wooden buildings have borne the brunt of the weather, termites, and fire.  Most have collapsed into heaps of rotten board or piles of ashes.  the few brick buildings on main street sit with roofs collapsed.  Some have worn down brick standing, ready to burst apart.  Others suffer from the leaning tower of Pisa syndrome.  The church is boarded up, no services, not even a funeral, has been held there in twenty years.  The life of an ordinary town has been grown down by erosion and indifference.  Paul spends part of his day tending the graves in the cemetery.  To his knowledge none of Duffy’s children or grandchildren have been to visit the gravesites of him or his wife.  A traveling nurse comes to see him once a month and continues to urge him to seek a retirement home.  Doesn’t anyone look after him?  The daughter of an old friend, Frank Buck, brings him groceries every week.  But she is getting up in her years and may not be able to continue in the future.

 

So Paul waits, as he did on the island.  Waiting for death to advance, to charge his position.  Meanwhile there are graves to tend.  the dead can’t do it for themselves.  It is his last call to duty.  This is his command and he will defend it against all the weeds and developers.  Well, what developers?  The town is no more and it’s out in the middle of nowhere.  Just like the island.

My Heros Have Always Been Cowboys

Times were hard for me back when Bob Dylan once sang, ‘ you’re all alone and you’re out on your own like a rolling stone’….I was in Cincinnati working in a small factory for minimum wage and lucky to get that. I was looking at life and almost terrified of the future. When a man, or perhaps a woman, is young a year seems like a life time. Anyone over thirty is ancient history and should be praised for living so long.  Living in the YMCA downtown Cincy my only advantage was my Pennsylvania driver’s license, that stub of an IBM card printed with graphite instead of ink.  Take a razor and gently scrape away the graphite and use a number four pencil to change that last digit of the year of my birth.  Viola, I was twenty two, drinking age for all that it was worth.  I could buy real beer not that 3.2 crap.  When you’re new in town friends are difficult to make.  I mean, where do you go who do you meet.  I could take a hike toward the University of Cincinnati and find some beer bar and dance hall that catered to students, that was good for a night of dancing with the coeds but none of them were going to ask you back to their dorm.  I couldn’t afford a television set, things cost too much back then.  No, I was just breaking even at my rate of pay and no promise of milk and honey in the future.

 

But I did by chance meet the old man of the “Y”, well as far as I knew he might have been a hundred or thirty five for all I knew.  He lived in the “Y” for many years as far as I could find out.  The staff called him the Old Timer.  As such, he never seemed to have much money on him and always trying to mooch off the others, new strangers were his targets.  I guess he figured I had more money than sense.  He guessed wrong for a man can part with what he doesn’t have.  I think I said that right.  But I could buy a couple of cans of Colt 45 malt liquor every Saturday and I didn’t mind sharing.  So I’d go to his room and we would talk.  Actually he did most of the talking.  Loquacious is what it’s called and he was very.  I think though his world was more dream that reality.  Still, it was worth the can of malt liquor just to hear him talk.  I remember the first time he circumlocuted his way through that vast mine of memories.  The nuggets he pulled out were huge and sparkled like gold in the noonday sun to a youth of little experience.

 

“Bill, my heroes have always been cowboys.  I remember as a young kid going down to the Bijou and handing over my nikel to the woman in the cage in front of the theater just so I could see Tom Mix on that big silver screen.  Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard were larger than any men I ever knew.”  His face would brighten some as his eyes became slightly moist.  “You know they never drew down on a man first and never shot a man in the back.  No sir, never.  They were true to the code of the cowboy.  Yes sir re bob.”  Then he’d take another sip from the can, pause in thought for a moment, then look far off into the distance, far beyond the walls of his room, perhaps as far away as Hollywood.  “My how them fellas could ride and shoot.  All real good shots too.  You got to time it just right when you shoot from the saddle.  I just knew that was the life for me.  A man’s word is his honor, Bill, don’t you forget that.”  I said I wouldn’t, yes, I would be truthful.  I thought he was an old fool.  Never saw him go off to work or do much of anything.  Just a old man down on his luck.  He’d been kicked out of the television room and I can guess why.  The set would only show two channels and most people wanted to watch sitcoms or cop shows.  The few times that anyone was foolish enough to turn on a western that old man would be talking over the volume.  He’d be expounding about everything western, from horses to bunkhouses.  Might as well turn the set off.

 

Another sip and more reflections.  I listened.  For a couple of hours I was halfway entertained.  The only other thing I could do was to walk about the city for a couple of hours wishing I had friends and a nice place to live and a girlfriend.  At least I could sit and drink a little, smoke my cigarettes and hope the old timer had something interesting to say.  “Now we lived in New Jersey in Camden.  Never saw a horse in my life until I left home and headed west.  No sir, weren’t no horses in that city.  It was the Depression, Bill, when I left home.  My father was out of work and my mother had to take in washing and ironing just to get by.  Me and my brother, John, well, there just wasn’t any work for us.  So we left.  I quit school like my older brother cause I knew my mother was working herself to death trying to make ends meet.  You got to do what’s right in life, Bill.  Come hell or high water, you got to do what’s right.”  His voice trailed off, almost as if he was watching the past on those big screen eyes of his.  Another sip, man he had it down pat, how to milk the liquid out of a can of beer, make it last for hours.  He wasn’t as successful with his money.  Don’t know where he got that little pittance of his.  I only know there was too much month left after he paid for his room and weekly meal ticket.  The only life he seemed to have was his memories.  But I was young and callow and absorbed in my own lack of success.

 

“I rode the rails then.  Rode them all over this country.  Sometimes the bulls would get you and you might do a month on the farm.  Then out you go, run out of town and not even a nickel in your pocket.  I wanted work, but nobody was hiring.  Even in Montana and Wyoming, there I thought I could get work as a cowboy, you know.  They all laughed at me, call me a goll dern tenderfoot.  Well, that’s part of the code, telling the truth.  I was a tenderfoot.  What did I know about riding a horse?”  He took another sip and settled into that stare of his.  It always left me hanging until he would start again.  Perhaps he was teaching me a little bit about patience.  How to let a man tell his life’s story with out interruption.  “Never speak ill of any man, even if you’ve got a grudge.  Go walk in his boots first.  Yes sir, you’ve got to be gentle and kind to women and children and animals.  Especially animals cause they cant speak for themselves.  No sir, never harm anyone or anything less’n you have to.  You know, protect yourself. It’s the Cowboy Code, Bill, and a darn good one.  Yes, a darn good one.”  His voice trailed off again into that stare of his.  Another sip and some more thought.  You know, I made it to Los Angeles in ’36, Hollywood is near by there.  I tried to get work in the studios.  I though I could be a cowboy or a stunt man or extra.  They all just laughed at me.  Sent me packing.  I’d sneak onto those sets, find the ones where they was doing a western, you know.  Eventually they got so used to seeing me that I became one of the prop men.  Me, in Hollywood.”  He showed that sense of surprise at that thought.  His eyes moisten slightly and he held his head a little higher.  “All I did was stand around and move props when they told me.  Couldn’t do nothing else.  They wouldn’t even let me be an extra, said I had to join a union for that.  We didn’t make much, a dollar a day and that’s more than the extras could do seeing as how their work wasn’t steady.  It was the depression, you know.  I was grateful for any work.”

 

Another sip and another thought appeared on his brow.  “The war came, Bill.  Being patriotic is a cowboy’s duty, so I went down to enlist.  The gave me all sorts of tests and then said they couldn’t use me.  Imagine that, Bill.  They said they couldn’t use me.  Well the pay got better for us set workers and I use to volunteer at those canteens for the service men.  And every year I’d go down and try to enlist.  But is was always the same answer.  We don’t need you.  We don’t need you.”  Another stare into the wall, then another sip and another thought.  “Anyway, I got hurt in an accident on one of the sound stages, couldn’t work no more.  They pensioned me off, said they couldn’t use me anymore.  Just like that, they couldn’t use me any more.”  I could hear the pain in his voice.  I could not understand it then as I do now.  Most of his life had been full of pain.  Yet his cowboy code bade him to bear it without complaint.  It became just another sip.  Months later I’d be in the service, seems they needed me.

Operator

Everyone has a picture of what they believe their life will be like.  Some are so sure that they have this movie script complete with technicolor.  But that time between teenage adolescent and adulthood is a slipper slope and some find to going difficult.  to say there is often confusion in the minds of these young individuals is to issue a broad understatement.  When I was in the service my speciality was communications and I had my fingers in a lot of pies.  I dealt in a black market, but I took payment only in favors, never money.  Money is too easy to trace and I was no fool.  an article fifteen is not the same as a military court marshal conviction and ten years in Leavenworth.  Besides, favors are a lot harder to trace and easier to cover.  The service is a harsh teacher of life and successful attitudes.  Either one performs or one doesn’t and in Vietnam that difference could prove deadly.  So I traded favors.  I also formed a network of favor traders.  I mean, maybe someone wants a 45 caliber sidearm he normally wouldn’t be issued.  Well, what do you have to trade for it?  Maybe you can’t directly trade but maybe you know one or two others who can assist you in this trading business.  You know, this is how economics works, the whole present value thing reduced to what do you have to trade and what is it worth?  Bartter operates on the idea that everyone has something to trade and wants something in return.

 

Now this kid came to me because he had heard that I could arrange things.  He seemed to be a good kid, unassuming and somewhat truthful.  Well, you’d be surprised how truthful people can get when they want something and you press them hard enough.  I deal in black market favors, you know, I don’t have time for clowns and idiots nor do I want to spend ten years in Leavenworth.  And true enough, given a little time I could usually find a way to satisfy all parties.  I didn’t deal with officers for the simple reason that they couldn’t be trusted.  They were two faced sons of bitches and I did them no favors.  An officer and a gentleman my ass.  But sergeants were different.  I knew how to get around inspectors when it came to imports and exports.  You just had to have something to trade.  Back to the kid.  He was a driver in transportation, a PFC driving a two and a half ton straight truck between the big bases.  He was in a jam because, as he put it, he wanted to make sure that his girl knew he wanted to marry her when he got back.  You know how that goes, you’re gone and the girl thinks you have access to harems and somehow you are going to forget all about her.  Hey, it’s a legitimate concern and this kid wants to make sure that she is tying the yellow ribbon around his tree and not some other guy’s.  So he wants a phone call or as many as he can get, back to the states.  He didn’t know it, but he had something to sell.   The only guys who had direct line back to the states were the SAC people.  One didn’t believe that the SAC people were on any of our bases, but they were.  sure, the B-52s were out of Japan, Okinawa, and guam, but the older B-47s were SAC and the Australian Air Force.  They called them Canberra bombers but these were the older Boeing made bombers.  The question was, what did the SAC telephone operators want?  Well, maybe a few cases of beer would do the trick, so I sent the kid to enquire since he wanted the telephone calls.  Well, he came back crest fallen.  They wanted a couple of quarts of Jack Daniels.  Not that hard to come by if one knew where to look.  What did a supply sergeant for the officers club need?  He wanted to send a bunch of souvenirs back to his brother in the states.  But all shipments were to be searched for drugs and AK-47, while not exactly drugs were automatic weapons.  Okay, the MATS guys had the C-140s, what would they take to slip a couple of crates aboard their aircraft?  They flew out of Cam Ram Bay and they wanted better quarters.  Would they settle for their own clubhouse?  Yes they would.  Wow, this is getting very complicated.  Let’s see, who would build the clubhouse?  Ah. Seabees, of course.  What would they want in return?  a couple of cases of Jim Beam.  where do we get the supplies for the building.  Ah, Army Corp of Engineers.  What did they want?  They wanted a walk-in cooler and quite a number of cases of beer.  Uh, no can do.  But how about a couple of refrigerators and say twenty cases of beer?  Done deal.  You see, barter is about locating the various wants and needs so that they can be exchanged.

 

Now one of the advantages of being in communications is that quite a bit of “intelligence” moved through our hands.  I knew where to locate a couple of refrigerators that had been destined for officers clubs.  Those brass hats would never miss them, just send more next time.  Besides, it was easy to duplicate request and get extra in country.  And as I suggested to my boy in transportation, why not use that five fingered discount to supply the SAC operators?  It was easy enough to sent some messages to the right people to have him assigned to pick up goods at certain warehouses.  I mean, I was developing a license to steel here.  Eventually the favors get done because people have the ability to fudge one way or the other.  You see, it is really just a matter of keeping track of the favors owed and delivered.  As for the kid who just had to talk to his girlfriend back home, that went on for several months.  He kept that spark of romance alive while he served his time.  In the meantime he became one of my trusted transport workers.  You know, with a little bit of ingenuity one can transport a B-52 under the nose of any MP, or officer, for that matter.  The MPs are a little smarter in my book.  He was a hard worker and I do believe that we own him more favors than he collected.  But he was a gracious individual and declined more than he needed for his own use.  I mean, that is the meaning of teamwork, seeing that people feel they have a stake in the system and that the systems gives them their due.  Why generals find that so hard to understand is beyond me.  So this kid, name was Eddie, by the way.  Kind of figures it should be Eddie, you know.  He was a good guy, a stand up kind of guy.  Put one of his buddies into the program.  That is enough to renew your faith in human nature.  Yes, many of our deals came to pass and those that didn’t, no hard feelings.  But as I said, the minute you turn it into a cash operation you leave a trail and hard feelings.  So when it came my turn to rotate to the states I left my operations to a couple of gentlemen who promptly went to a cash and carry system.  Last I heard, they were doing ten years in Kansas.  Yeah, they tried to implicate me but there was only their word.  No Office of special Investigations would bother me when there was no evidence to tie me to anything.  A favor is quid pro quo, but greed knows no such bounds.  It’s your word of honor the way cash never can be.  A man’s honor determines his character, cash has no honor or character.

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.

Born To Be Wild

The problem with being in the service when you are posted overseas is that you are a stranger in a strange land. The military service is an extraordinary experience in itself. First of all, one can’t simply quite and and find something else to do, these is no choice. One will service time one way or another. Of course there is the ultimate authority issue. One either has rank and authority or one doesn’t. Most of us had little of the authority of rank that comes from being at lease a non commissioned officer. Corporal or airman first class or whatever the Navy rates as an E-4 has little value. Your authority comes from the sergeant and not your rank. Not too many ever make E-5, non commissioned officer in their first hitch. Of course that is one of the proffered benefits or re-enlistment, that promise of becoming a non com. But promises are easily broken unless one has the foresight to “get it in writing”.  And when one is stationed overseas, one rarely speaks the local language and the locals don’t particularly like you.  They like your money well enough, but you, they can do with out.  Of course back when I was shanghaied we would receive a booklet about the country we were posted and I remember that one little phrase.  “Remember, when you go downtown looking for the action, you are the action for all the locals.”

 

Now the base usually had the various recreation facilities such as gyms and movies theaters.  There were pool tables and ping pong tables and swimming pools.  And every major base has at least one very good golf course.  The biggest obstacles on the golf course were the officers.  Usually every base had a library and the larger ones might have several.  There were bowling alleys and even skeet shooting.  The reason for all these facilities was that boredom set in after awhile.  The minimum tour for a single man, enlisted or officer was eighteen months and some were as long as three years.  Anything shorter was a war zone.  War zones were special because the amenities were very limited.  True, there might be clubs for the officers, non coms and enlisted, but don’t count of floor shows and fine dining.  So one had to find some release according to one’s tastes.  For a few of us, it was motorcycles.  Now once could try and depend on the base bus system or walk, which is good for you, but having your own personal transportation was preferred.

 

I bought an old Lambretta motorscooter.  As an E-3 I couldn’t afford anything better.  It had three gears and a two stroke motor.  Of course the acceleration and top speed were pitiful.   It was slow, couldn’t do more than 35 mph on a good day.  One of the guys has  Norton 500, a single cylinder bike that was loud.  Loud is good.  You may not travel any faster but at least it gives the illusion of doing so.  In our barracks we had about twenty cyclists.  some had Honda 90s, some had larger motorcycles.  But we all shared that comradery of two wheel transportation.  I found that I could improve the performance of a tired old engine but reducing back pressure.  The exhaust pipe from a Honda 305 Dream fit on my lambretta and boosted by sped by ten miles per hours.  It was also considerably louder.  I could not ride with the big boys.  And we would take trips on the weekends, get out on the roads for a couple of hours.  Okinawa was a unique place.  It had enough automobiles and trucks to cover the roads three vehicles deep and an island wide speed limit of 35 mph.  We weren’t going to go anywhere fast.

 

On one morning we had gathered and started our rid on the west side highway of the island, headed north.  Traffic was a bit thick and the only way to make any speed was to constantly pass the slower four wheeled vehicles.  Hell, I think we might have been averaging a little over 40 mph when the Military police stopped us as a group.  They were going to give us all tickets for speeding.  that meant a big fine and suspension of our driving privileges.  Now on of the guys had bought one of the first Honda trail bikes.  This was a sort of mini motorcycle.  The wheels were slightly smaller than my Lambretta and the frame was shorter.  I think it had a 60 cc engine but it was a quick little thing.  Well, the owner, I have forgotten his name, said, “Look, we couldn’t have been speeding,  my speedometer only goes to 30 mph.”  the Mp took a long look at that and said,”My error, I guess our speedometers need to be recalculated.”  They let us go, no tickets.  The military police aren’t chosen for their brains.  that bike could easily do 45 mph.

 

Our first sergeant hated motorcycles, said they were too loud and caused lax discipline.  We were always having run ins with him.  Now we had gotten a new squadron commander, a Colonel McIlroy.  Our last commander was an old timer out of touch with the world.  An idiot, if you like, all brass and no brain.  This new guy was different and made a point to visit with his men.  So one day about noon we found him out in the parking lot looking at our bikes.  the man could take shop about the cycles and was curious about my modified Lambretta.  But what caught his attention was that Honda mini trailbike.  the airman who owned it was there with a few of us and when the Colonel was admiring the bike, the E-4 said, “You want to ride it?’  Well, of course he did.  so the E-4 handed him the keys and said, “Take it for a spin.”  With that, McIlroy hopped on the bike, started it up and commenced to ride it around the parking lot.  After a few minutes, the First Sergeant came out yelling, “You airmen, I told you next time I caught you making all that noise”…and then he saw the Colonel ride up to him.  He saluted and said, “Sir, good to see you here.  Anything I can do, Sir?”  McIlroy just said, “Carry on, sergeant.” and drove off.  We never had any more problems with our First Sergeant about our bikes after that.

 

 

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.