Vietnam and the Army Print

No, I don't have any profound thoughts about Vietnam.  I don't weep and wail about it.  I don't castigate our government or anyone else about it, except perhaps to say that Congress, as usual, made a hash of it and should have let the military do its job.  Suffice it to say that I went there, volunteered to stay (twice!) and was fortunate to come back safe and sound.

I will also say that the Army was really good for me.  I went in when I was 19 years old and, like virtually every other teenage male in America, I was an opinionated, ill-informed, ungrateful, immature jerk.  A good dose of discipline and structured education from the Army was really good for me and I still think that military service of some kind should be mandatory.


After a year and a half at USC I decided to quit school for a while.  My parents and everyone else I know told me not to because I'd get drafted and, of course, they were right.  The Army picked me and 50,000 other guys for service in May, 1966 and sent me to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for basic training. 

There, I learned all about running two miles every morning before breakfast, double-timing to every class because our CO scheduled them on opposite sides of the post to make us get the exercise, firing an M14, walking into a building filled with tear gas with no mask so we could all see what it was like, and eating Spam and eggs for breakfast.  As luck would have it, I'd been eating Spam for years and have always liked the stuff, so that wasn't bad. The weird thing was the SOS there--they made it out of hamburger instead of dried beef.  My mother made SOS (properly known as creamed chipped or dried beef) for my dad and me frequently on weekends and we loved it.  When the Army made it out of hamburger, it sucked.

I also learned about smoking unfiltered cigarettes.  Like a lot of people, I smoked back then.  The Army teaches you about littering.  You don't ever drop your cigarette on the ground and crush it out.  You field-strip it by pinching off the coal, which you can drop on the ground and crush out, because it will decompose almost instantly.  If you're smoking filtered cigarettes, you then must take the filter and put it in your pocket until you encounter a trash can.  A bunch of us decided that carrying those filters around in our pocket was disgusting, which it was, but instead of quitting, we started smoking unfiltered cigarettes so there would be no filter.  Very clever.  Hello, Lucky Strikes.

Before we could even get started, we went through a battery of testing that took several days.  The purpose was to ascertain what special skills each soldier might have, including brainpower.  As a draftee, you were in for two years active, two years active reserve, and two years inactive reserve, and you did what you were told.

On the other hand, possessing a better-than-the-average-bear IQ and being able to type faster than anyone there, the Army offered me Signal Corps Communications Center school instead of Combat Engineer school, if I was willing to enlist.  This meant three years of active duty, and three years of inactive reserve.  Being much better at sitting behind a desk using my brain than building things on the front line, I signed up.  When you're 19, time has little meaning. 

Here, and later at Fort Gordon, I turned down Officer Candidate School.  Most people thought I was nuts.  What struck me, though, was that once you're an officer, you're subject to recall for active duty for the rest of your life.  I wanted a definite end to my Army service.

When basic training was coming to a close, we were all looking forward to our two-week leave between basic and advanced training.  I knew I was going to Fort Gordon, Georgia, where the Signal Corps was located, to attend Communications Center school.  This had to do with a better-than-average IQ and the ability to type faster than anyone else.

Anyway, there was this problem with an airline strike--American, United and TWA were all grounded by striking employees, and service into Kansas City, Missouri was basically non-existent.  Lots of guys were chartering buses to take them home.  This was going to take five days and the thought of losing five days of leave time in a bus was repugnant, at best.  Somehow, a few friends and I learned that it was possible to get an airline ticket home at the post airport, so on a weekend pass one day we went there and found that, sure enough, we could buy a ticket through Ozark Airlines from the Fort Leonard Wood air field to LAX.  My parents wired me money, I bought the ticket, and the day we graduated, those of us who had those tickets got a ride in an open deuce-and-a-half to the air field (in light rain) for our flight home.

What was waiting for us was a DC-3, whose production started in 1935.  We entered via the rear door, walked uphill in the plane to our seat (the window next to mine leaked a little bit) and began our adventure.

We flew from Fort Leonard Wood to Harrison, Arkansas, where we landed on what looked like a drag strip.  At the end, we turned around and taxied back, leaving the engines running, whereupon the back door was flopped down, a few bags of mail were exchanged, and another person or two climbed on board.  The door closed, and off we went.

This routine was repeated in Fayetteville, Arkansas and then we landed in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.  Quite a lot of air service in Arkansas, there. This is even more amusing when you look these places up on a map.  You'll see that Ft. Leonard Wood is only about 70 miles from Harrison which, by the way, isn't too far from Yellville, Flippin and Gassville.  It's about 35 miles from Harrison to Fayetteville.  And, it's about 30 miles from Fayetteville to Ft. Smith.  And we flew to all these places.

At Ft. Smith we changed to a twin-engine turbo-prop aircraft and flew the 85 miles or so to Paris, Texas, where we stopped for some more people, and then flew the remaining 60 miles to Dallas.  There, we went to the Delta Airlines terminal where we eventually boarded a 707 for a non-stop (yes!) flight to LAX.  It took well over eight hours to complete what could have been a sub-three-hour flight, but it sure beat spending five days in a bus. 

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After a nice two-week leave at home, I flew to Atlanta on a Delta redeye and took a cab to the Greyhound Bus station downtown.  There, in the August early morning heat, the terminal had just me and a few vagrants who were sleeping on the benches.  When the concessions finally started opening I was starving and bought a luke-warm hot dog for breakfast. 

My bus finally left after 10:00 a.m. and was largely filled by a group of young girls who were ditzy, vacuous and, at that time, really annoying.  I settled into my seat and tried to make the best of the situation, which was tough, given the surroundings and the fact that the bus was really old and had an exhaust leak into the passenger area.  I tried to sleep but at one point awoke to the sound of the girl in front of me throwing up on my right shoe.  She didn't even say she was sorry.

It didn't seem to bother anyone else, either.  That puddle of vomit stayed right there, and as more and more people boarded the bus at every stop and it became an SRO ride, people were standing in it, dragging their luggage through it, and generally ignoring it.  I finally did, too.

I got to Augusta, Georgia late that night and caught an Army bus up to Fort Gordon.  While standing around waiting for in-processing, I bought two hamburgers from a pizza truck, since I hadn't had anything to eat since my breakfast hot dog.  This turned out to be a major mistake--after I finally got to my unit, I awoke with massive diarrhea. Thankfully, no one paid much attention to me that day and I was free to lie under a tree and recover.

The Army screwed up my payroll records in the process of transferring me from Fort Leonard Wood to Fort Gordon (which, by the way, was really a dump).   As buck privates we were all earning the princely sum of $85 a month (but it included three hots and a cot!) which went largely for cigarettes and occasional beers in the PX.  I didn't get paid the first two paydays and the duty sergeant--a world-class asshole named Francis Pope--told those of us who didn't get paid the third time to line up outside the mess hall, which we did.  After a while he came out and announced that for those people waiting in line for lunch that had been paid, congratulations.  For those who didn't get paid--"Sorry 'bout that shit"--and went back inside.

I went to see First Sergeant Ayres, who called post payroll, got someone with a brain (and a heart) and put me in a cab to go there and collect my back pay. Pappy Ayres was a great first sergeant.  SSG Pope was a shithead of the lowest order who should never have been allowed to pose as a leader.

Anyway, I went through eight weeks of comm center school and then, after getting my secret security clearance, two weeks of crypto school, and then sat around doing details and awaiting orders for about a month.  Shortly after Thanksgiving I finally got orders which, like lots of others, were for Vietnam.  I knew that I was going to the 41st Signal Battalion, but that was it.  I learned from Robin Moffit, with whom I had gone from LAX to basic training and on to AIT at Ft. Gordon, that the 41st was in Qui Nhon, on the coast between Saigon and Da Nang.  (Coincidentally, I saw Robin again in 1970, after I'd started working at Continental Airlines.  He was a friend of Ron Adams, whom I had met at Continental.  Small world.)

After a day or two, I collected my plane ticket home, packed my stuff and left for a two week leave in preparation for duty in Vietnam.