Monday, February 15, 2016

EXCERPT 5 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — MARRIED LIFE


The following is an excerpt from Chapter Two of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires.
Virginia (left) partying with exchange student friends at Bowling 
Green University. Why would she want to leave to be an 
Army wife?
By the time Virginia arrived in LA for spring break, it all seemed so clear to me that I took it for granted she would feel exactly the same as I did. I was so sure of this, that I almost figured I’d pick her up at the airport one day and marry her the next. When I drove to LA International in the Ford Bronco I’d borrowed for the occasion from my Army buddy Dave Zeiss—my car, a ’63 Chevrolet Nova 400 I’d bought the year I was at Ohio State, had remained back in Ohio with my little brother—we were, as always, overwhelmed to see each other, and so much in love that it was a feeling not unlike hunger. But as soon as I brought up the subject of marriage, she said we had to talk. She wasn’t all that sure that Door Number Two was that great of an idea right now. She had a full scholarship to the university! That wasn’t something you just threw away. And how would we live on what I was making in the Army? And what would happen to her if they sent me someplace overseas where she couldn’t go? Besides, if she left school, she’d lose her student visa. Then what?
Reception for 4 at Shakey's Pizza and a couple of 
days of sightseeing around LA. That was our 
honeymoon. But I was ecstatic.
Without having any idea what I was talking about, I told her that all of these things would work themselves out. Love would will out. Everything was going to be okay, nothing to worry about. Besides, who could know the future? If we were this much in love, shouldn’t our first priority be finding a way to be together and let everything else take care of itself?
Eventually, after much talking, she agreed. We were wed at the LA County Courthouse. An Army buddy of mine and his wife were our witnesses, and the only guests at our “reception”: lunch at Shakey’s Pizza, a place that had a great pepperoni pizza and a palatable dark draft, and that showed classic silent movies on the wall of the dining room all day long. It wasn’t much, but it was the best we could afford.
Marching in LA with the 72nd Army Band. I'm the one with 
the bass drum. 
Our all-consuming love for each other was about all we had that first year with the Army, living in LA—in the port district of San Pedro, actually—on my Spec 4's pay. I was paid a hundred and sixty dollars a month and our rent for a rundown apartment was a hundred and twenty, so that marriage and the pittance paid me for “dependent support” was almost a survival move. Still, we were together, getting to know each other more intimately, and everything we did together seemed special—the breakfast rolls we bought from the local Italian bakery, the ninety-nine-cent bottles we selected from the “wines of the world” basket at the grocery, walks together at Royal Palms on Western Avenue,  on oil-stained Cabrillo Beach at the mouth of the Port of LA, or in Averill Park on Dodson Avenue, and the occasional carry-out pizza from Nuncio’s, where when you called in an order, it was Nuncio himself who answered the phone and always ended by saying, “Sheeza ready tenna minute.”  I gave percussion lessons after work at a place called The Grey Institute of Music to help make ends meet. It was a difficult but romantic year, in which we played grown-ups and visited friends and had friends visit us as a married couple, and saved what we could, despite our poverty, for the occasional luxury. Like when we put a jar on the nightstand in our bedroom and tossed in whatever coins we had at the end of the day, until it was full. All totaled, about ten bucks in pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, enough to dress up and go out to a little Italian place in San Pedro for spaghetti and a couple of glasses of house claret, a meal that still sticks in my mind today as an uncommon event.
On leave from the Army in Buenos Aires, here with Virginia's 
mother Teresa and sister Alicia in December of 1971.
But for making it through that first hard year with our love intact, for our second year of marriage we got a treat: The Army sent us to Europe. Before I shipped out, however, I took thirty days leave and Virginia and I went to Buenos Aires for a visit, my second to her city. After that, I was more convinced than ever that, someday, I wanted to spend a lot more time there. General Alejandro Lanusse was president and the country was breathing a new and vibrant feeling of impending freedom following the rigid dictatorship that Onganía had imposed. Lanusse was a military moderate who was in charge of planning for future elections. He was walking the jagged edge between promoting a return to constitutional democracy and finding a way to leave Perón and Peronism out of the mix. And doing it all in the face of the rising violence bred by leftwing and neo-Peronist guerrillas who were rendering Buenos Aires a dangerous place for multinational business executives and local military officers. It would be, clearly, a democracy dependent on the permission of the Armed Forces and extorted from the military through armed terrorist violence, but a sort of fledgling democracy all the same—and, with the glaring exception of a Peronism led by Perón, a highly pluralistic one, with over a score of parties participating, some of them branches of Peronism by another name.
In a palace coup, moderate General Lanusse (right) replaced
hard-line General Onganía (left) as President.
Largely ignorant of these details at that time, however, what it all meant to me was a feeling of renewed vigor and vibrancy in the city, and I basked in those thirty days of military leave, pretending I was already living in that European-style metropolis and that I was a civilian again. It felt, for all the world, like a dream come true. And the welcome I got from Virginia’s friends and family was even more heart-warming than on my first visit three years earlier. Now I was part of the family, a brother, a son, a full-fledged friend to be embraced and integrated into the fold.
The only sour note was provided by the United States Consulate. Wanting to make sure that my new bride’s legal status in the United States was taken care of before returning to California to pack and receive my orders for the trip to Germany, I took Virginia with me one morning to the consulate’s offices that were then downtown, and was almost immediately dissuaded of the old myth that if an alien marries an American, he or she is immediately given a green card. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Virginia on the California coast. It didn't matter that she
was married to a soldier. If she wanted a green card, she had 
to leave the USA and petition to get back in.
It quickly became clear that this was a complex process that would take, not days, but months. In the meantime, if she was no longer going to the university, her student visa would automatically expire. She would, in any case, have to leave the United States and petition from abroad to be let back in, if she was to be granted a green card—subject, of course, to presentation of all pertinent documentation and to the outcome of our interviews with consular officials.
The more they talked to us—in that superior, we-have-the-pan-by-the-handle tone that consular officials are wont to take—the angrier I got and at one point a vice consul and I were arguing so loudly that a couple of Marine embassy guards came over and stood behind the vice consul staring fixedly at me as if to say that they would like nothing better than to bounce my Army ass onto the sidewalk outside, so better I lower my voice a notch.
“Look,” I said, “I’m serving in the Armed Forces, I only have thirty days leave and we have to resolve this before I go back because they’re shipping me overseas.”
The vice consul, who looked to be only a couple of years older than I was and fresh out of college, set his jaw and shrugged. “Sorry, rules are rules. She’ll have to petition for re-entry. She can do it from here, or, if it’s more convenient for you, from Mexico, some place closer to your base. But she’ll have to go through the entire process, like any other alien. There are no exceptions for the dependents of Armed Forces personnel.”
“She’s not my dependent,” I said. “She’s my wife. And she goes where I go.” Again he shrugged, as if to say, “So what are you going to do, desert? Because she’s not going anywhere without my say-so.”
Virginia on the German-Austrian border: She wasn't about to 
wait around on the US Consulate. She went to the Germans and 
had 
a visa in a week. 
And so we began The Process—a little like death by a thousand cuts—by which foreigners must thoroughly humiliate themselves in order to (perhaps, if the shave-tail vice consul on duty so decides) eventually, almost arbitrarily, merit a green card. There was no word from the consulate by the time my leave was up, and, once again, we were separated, as I was forced to return to LA alone and leave her waiting for her visa in Buenos Aires.
A wise and resourceful big-city girl, however, Virginia wasn’t about to sit around waiting for Uncle Sam to decide her future. She simply went to the German Embassy in Buenos Aires and asked for a temporary residence visa there. And almost immediately, they gave her one. Amazed at her success, she asked a helpful German consular official why it was so easy to get a visa from them when her husband’s own consulate was making things so complicated.
“Vee don’t know,” the man said. “Vee are not Amerikan, vee are Cherman.”
In the end, I arrived in Germany in late January and Virginia was there by mid-February, minus her green card but with a shiny new German visa stamp in her passport. When did her green card finally come through? It arrived about a month or so before we were shipped back to the States, after my fourteen-month tour of duty in Germany was up.
Luckily, there’s more than one way to skin a consular geek.
THE BOHEMIAN LIFE...ALMOST
On tour with the 30th Army Band in Europe.
Army bands don't do much. And I made Spec 5 (sergeant’s pay) fast, so my salary wasn't bad by the European standards of those times. We did concert tours and then got a lot of compensatory time off. As newlyweds, Virginia and I made the best of it, traveling, seeing the sites, hanging out weekends in Paris and Heidelberg, using comp time to visit Switzerland, France, Italy and Monaco, reading everything we could get our hands on and enjoying life thoroughly. Except for having to wear my hair short and dress up in my soldier suit a few times a week, I might have been just another bohemian writer and musician, on the lam in Europe. I was writing short stories and playing with a little jazz group on the side. The sort of life you get use to fast.
On the lam in Paris.
Then my tour of duty was up and it was back to Ohio. After living what could only be described as a free-wheeling lifestyle in Europe (and living it as a musician and writer), Ohio seemed less than attractive. This was especially true for Virginia, who quickly found herself being treated—in a part of the country then unaccustomed to seeing so-called Hispanics (in fact, she is of Italian descent on both sides of her family)—as an “alien”, something that had never been the case in Europe or in her days as an exchange student, when she was treated as “a guest”. And as I say, it also wasn't made better by the fact that, while I had been away “at war”, the steel and automotive belt of northern Ohio and Michigan had fast been turning into “the rust belt”. The Vietnam War was winding down after a decade of providing support to the American economy. 
Feeding the gulls in Monaco. Except for the Army, 
a generally bohemian life. Ohio was a return to 
cruel reality.
Formerly accustomed to playing four to six nights a week in house bands at posh night clubs, I came home to a cruel recession in which there were no longer any steady gigs for musicians. So, it was back to one-night stands, weddings and VFW dances on weekends, and whatever work I could get during the week—loading dock and maintenance hand, then department-store carpet salesman for Montgomery Ward, and finally, shoe clerk at K-Mart. To make matters worse, Virginia was terribly homesick and depressed, and loathed the only job she could get as an administrative clerk in the cardiac care ward of a Catholic hospital. Neither of us had the money to go back to school, not even with the help of the GI Bill.
So that was how, on a certain morning in the summer of 1973, I found myself in the midst of a panic attack, struggling for breath at the wheel of my VW, and quickly decided on my next move.
When I arrived home that evening I turned to Virginia and said: “Hey, what do you say we go to your country for a year?”
She looked at me as if I had gone completely insane and said: “What are you going to do in Buenos Aires? You can't even speak Spanish!”
“I'll learn,” I said, and within a month, we had sold our Spartan houseware items, furniture and car, and were heading south.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

EXCERPT 4 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW


The following is an excerpt from Chapter Two of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires.
But first a little background. In 1970, the US government came up with a new method of drafting soldiers for the Vietnam War. It was a lottery system in which young men’s destiny was decided by the spin of a drum. I was in famous company that year, since the birthdays of Oliver Stone, Sylvester Stallone and Donald Trump were also in that drum, although nobody knew who they were, or whom they’d be, back then.
That year 195 out of 365 birthdays of boys who were soon to be men were drawn to receive letters from the President “inviting them” to serve their country in the Army or Marines (not a choice but an assignment, although the vast majority went to the Army). Oliver Stone’s day was drawn 113th, but by the time his number came up, young Oliver had already joined the regular Army and volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded and earned serious credentials as a combat infantryman. Sly Stallone, who would first taste fame as a motion picture boxing hero, but who would grow even more famous by playing a highly decorated but disenfranchised Vietnam vet who takes his fight to everybody who ever disrespected an Army veteran, spent a couple of years teaching soccer in Switzerland at the height of the draft. But he wouldn’t have had to, since his number came up 327. Nor did The Donald’s daddy have to buy him out of the draft (though I have little doubt his son would have asked him to) because his birthday was drawn 356th (this, for anyone who wonders just how much luck has played a role in making the man a billionaire who had the gall to question former Vietnam War POW John McCain’s heroism).
As for me...I came up No. 43 and there was no way I wasn’t getting drafted.
I hope you enjoy this latest chapter and look forward to your comments.

YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW
I struggled through a year of music education studies at Ohio State—although I really majored more in beer-drinking, hanging out in the library and sitting around in cafés writing short stories—discovered I was a lot more interested in literature and writing than I was in being a high school band director, and dropped out “to travel for a while”. A new lottery system had just been introduced for drafting cannon fodder. There were three hundred sixty-six birth dates in a drum. Low numbers went to war. High numbers got a pass. How unlucky could I be?
How unlucky, you ask? My birthday came up forty-third out of three hundred sixty-six. There was no way I wasn't getting drafted. So I talked to a recruiting sergeant in Lima, Ohio, who made an appointment for me to try out for the Army Bands. Bright and early one morning that same week, I drove across the Ohio line into Indiana and auditioned for the warrant officer commanding the band at Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis. I was immediately accepted and went back to the recruiter in Lima to sign up for three years, with a one-year guaranteed posting to the band in Los Angeles, once I had completed Basic and Advanced Training. The better part of Year One I spent, first, in Basic Combat Training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (home of the Eighty-Second Airborne, as we were reminded daily) and then at the Army Element of the Navy School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia. (I guess they had read their Clemenceau—or their Groucho Marx—and didn’t trust the Army to have a music school of its own).
There, I was one of a scant two hundred dog-faced soldiers on a base populated by some five thousand sailors and Marines (or squids and jarheads as we more familiarly knew them), and I ended up learning a lot more about hand to hand combat in the local watering holes than I had in Basic Training. Survival Rule Number One around a base that was a training ground for amphibious assault forces was, whenever a fight breaks out, hit whoever stands in your way with whatever you can pick up and get the hell out while you can still run. Though it seemed senseless and stupid at the time, it turned out to be great preparation for a lot of other potentially dangerous situations in my life later on.    
Meanwhile, Virginia had returned to Ohio from Buenos Aires on scholarship to Bowling Green State University. My first regular posting, as per my recruitment contract, was to be to the 72nd Army Band at Fort MacArthur in Los Angeles, four hours from Ohio by jet. But at the School of Music, I “accelerated out” of the seven-month training program by passing a couple of tests with flying colors and by knowing my left foot from my right when I marched. As a result, despite my brief time in grade as a Private First Class, I was given a meritorious promotion to Specialist 4 (same pay grade as a corporal) and, because of my former civilian day job as a musical instrument salesman, was given a posting in Instrument Issue.
It was a cushy job—in addition to playing with the school’s symphonic and marching bands and pulling occasional guard duty. The “staff” in Instrument Issue consisted of just myself and a Navy petty officer first class called Nelson. Our task was to order, repair and issue instruments for the school. We were only loosely supervised as long as we did our job and got our reports and inventories in on time, so we also managed to get in some fishing on Chesapeake Bay and to make some extra money on the side with odd (really odd) jobs Nelson came up with—like installing stage curtains in school auditoriums and theaters in the Norfolk area. We had most weekends free and regularly got three-day liberties. This meant that, in the seven months I was there, I often flew military standby back to Ohio to visit Virginia. As a result, I got to thinking this was where I wanted to stay “for the duration”, since the only places closer to home were the base in Indiana where I’d auditioned and Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio, where I’d been inducted. The first one, alas, didn’t have an opening for me and the second didn’t have an Army Band. I mentioned in passing to Nelson that I wouldn’t mind staying on at Little Creek. He mentioned it to his chief, who, in turn, mentioned it to Commander Adcock, the CO of the entire School of Music.
The Naval School of Music at Little Creek VA
As a result, Mr. Adcock called me into his office one day and asked me pointblank if I’d like to stay there for the rest of my enlistment. I said that I would be delighted. He said, “Too bad you didn’t enlist in the Navy, son, but, don’t worry, we’ll make a sailor of you yet. I’ll talk to the Army and get new orders cut for you. Consider yourself hired.”
A few days later, however, our top NCO, Command Sergeant Major Janenco, saw me walking past the door of his office on the way to Instrument Issue and bellowed, “Newland! Front and center!” I backed up to his office door and stuck my head in. “Yes, Top?”
“Come on in, Newland. Sit down,” he said.
“What’s up, Sergeant Major?”
“Tell me, did you have some kind of run in with the Old Man?” He was talking about Captain Lindsey, who was head of the Army Element of the School of Music and my direct commanding officer.
“No, Top,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve ever said anything more than ‘good morning, Sir’ to him and he ‘as you were’ to me.”
Janenco shook his well-cropped bull’s head, rubbed a meaty paw over his big red face, in a perplexed gesture, and said, “Well something’s sure as hell up because he’s madder than a wet hornet. Said you’ve got forty-eight hours to get the fuck off of his base or he’ll send the MPs for your ass…I’m quoting here, son.”
“Oh wait,” I said. “This must have something to do with the change of orders.”
“Come again, Newland?”
“Yes, Mr. Adcock called me in and asked if I wanted to stay here in Instrument Issue instead of going to Fort MacArthur like my recruitment contract says.”
“He what?” Janenco looked dumbfounded. “And you said?”
“I said yes, Sergeant Major. I like it here.” This last was an ironic phrase often used by non-lifer types like myself and responded to the explicit orders of top NCOs like Janenco, who were forever commanding, “You will do this and you will like it!” 
“In case you hadn’t noticed, trooper,” he said, without raising his voice, “Commander Adcock’s in the Navy, and as far as I can tell, those greens you’re wearing are still Army-fucking-issue. You’ve created a veritable cluster fuck here, son. Your answer should have been, ‘I respectfully request time to get permission of my CO.’ That would have been smart, but you obviously had your head up your rectum at the time.”
“Well, I meant no harm, Top,” I said. “Maybe I could apologize to Captain Lindsey?”
“Too late for that, son.”
“So what do I do?”
“Get the hell off the base, like the man said. I’ll take care of the captain.”
“Where do I go? I’ve got no leave or orders.”
“Go home.”
“To Ohio?”
“Well, yes, if that’s home, goddamnit. I’ll cut you some special leave orders and get you some travel money. Leave me your home address and number. We’ll send you your new orders there. Just pray they’re not for Nam or the Korean DMZ.”  
Though I worried myself silly about what the notoriously vindictive Captain Lindsey had in store for me, however, when the orders arrived, they were for my original assignment in LA and I ended up having two weeks extra leave in Ohio before going. It was around Christmas time and I spent as much of it as I could visiting Virginia. This made parting all the more intense, since, for the purposes of our relationship, Virginia might as well have been back in Buenos Aires or I in Vietnam. Ironically, Virginia was the real reason I had quit school, with the idea of saving some money and going back to South America, where, I fancied, I would write an exotic novel or two, full of suspense and intrigue, and become an instant bestselling success. Now here she was, a stone’s throw from home and the Army had me traveling all over the United States. 
Fort Mac, as it was familiarly known
I arrived in Los Angeles in early January—dressed in the scratchy wool winter greens and heavy Army-issue overcoat I’d worn against a sub-zero chill when I took my plane in Dayton, only to find that it was sunny and eighty degrees in LA—got processed in and immediately started getting re-acclimatized to barracks life. But I was miserable.
The band rehearsed in the morning when we didn’t have a gig, such as playing for naturalization ceremonies held downtown at the Civic Center or for the myriad awards ceremonies held to honor the soldiers whose bodies were being repatriated from Vietnam. But afternoons and evenings, when we didn’t have parades, awards ceremonies, military cocktails or special events to play for (General of the Army Omar Bradley’s seventy-eighth birthday celebration, a campaign shindig with Vice-President Spiro Agnew at the Beverly Hilton, a garden party at President Nixon’s private residence in San Clemente, etc.), dragged endlessly for us barracks rats who lived on base in the same World War II-issue building we worked in and didn’t have wives or families to go home to after the workday was through.
I read and wrote a lot and practiced my instruments. I even volunteered—something soldiers always warn each other not to do—for special duty, as assistant to the band librarian. He was a hilariously zany and often hysterical Spec-5, who, in the days of strict don’t-ask-don’t-tell, was the “confirmed bachelor” of the barracks and ranking NCO when the Old Man, the Top (a master sergeant of World War II vintage), our one sergeant first class and our four staff sergeants went home to their off-base housing at night. I also took over from another Spec-4 like myself as Day Clerk (basically the CO’s secretary), when my predecessor was discharged at the end of his three-year tour. That job tended to keep me off of kitchen and guard duty, which was why I took it. And then too, like all soldiers, once I made a few buddies, we found other pursuits to while away the time, most of which had to do with drinking and trying to keep down (often unsuccessfully) huge quantities of beer, while shooting pool, eating pizza, burgers and Mexican, tooling around in the car of whoever had one and generally making a nuisance of ourselves in places whose owners were always less than thrilled to see a carload of GI-looking guys walking in.  Some of us even camped in the desert together a couple of times and attended a drunken going-away bash at a beautiful house in Canyon Country, owned by the folks of a well-to-do fellow bandsman who was being re-assigned to Saigon for his last fourteen months in the Army.
But none of it could take my mind off of how much I missed Virginia. I called her when I had the money to, and when I didn’t, I wrote. My letters were melancholy and single-minded. All I could talk about was how much I missed her and loved her and how much I hated the Army for keeping me away from her. Hers, on the other hand, were full of news about school and the friends she had made and her studies. Despite being head over heels in love with her, I was vaguely irritated that she didn’t seem to be nearly as devastated and miserable as I was about our parting. But then again, it was only natural. She was having the time of her life, on her own as a college girl, while I was giving up three years to the Army because that was my only practical choice. She might have loved me, but she hadn’t been dropped on her head as a child. Door Number One: A full scholarship to study at a fun-time American university. Door Number Two: Tie your wagon to a soldier with no resources of his own and a paycheck for a hundred sixty dollars a month and move to the working class neighborhood adjacent to the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. Which door will it be?

ALL SHOOK UP
Still, after several months of writing her letters and wondering how things in my life could have gotten so fouled up, I finally half-talked Virginia into coming out to California for Easter Break. One night, I called her at ten o’clock California time, forgetting that, back in Ohio, it was two in the morning. I told her I’d been thinking about it a lot and that I wanted to be with her no matter what, that, stuck in the Army for another two years, I knew I had nothing to offer her, but that I couldn’t stand the separation any more. In return, she asked me if I had any idea what time it was. I apologized, but pushed for an answer: Would she come out to California on spring break and marry me? She said we’d talk later, that right now, her roommate was trying to sleep. “Just say yes and I’ll hang up,” I bargained.
“Okay, okay, I’ll think about it,” she said. And contented, I hung up. Turning to my buddy, Dave Zeiss, who was waiting for me outside the public phone booth in the company street near the barracks, I said, “Congratulate me! I’m engaged!” We were both a little drunk at the time, but he knew I was serious.
The barracks at Fort Mac were WWI and WWII vintage
I only screwed up the courage to ask Virginia to drop everything and marry me—what did I have to offer her, after all?—following yet another (literally) earth-shaking event: the February 9, 1971, San Fernando Valley earthquake. It was a Tuesday morning. Formation wouldn’t be for another two hours and we barracks rats were still fast asleep at 6 a.m. when the earth moved. In my case, I felt a rhythmic shaking of my bunk, as if someone were rocking it, rather roughly, to try and wake me up. Muttering, “What the fuck!” I sat up to see my seven-foot-tall, olive-drab, sheet metal locker “walking” side to side across my cubicle toward me. I hopped out of bed and, as soon as I stood, felt dizzy and nauseous. Gathering my footing, I groped my way out of the cubicle, hanging onto its door frame, to see the other ten or so troops who lived there with me also peering in alarm from their cubicles.
“It’s an earthquake!” cried Spec 5 Don Knot, who occupied the NCO quarters at the east end of the upstairs bay. He was standing in his Army-issue white boxers and t-shirt in the doorway to his room with a hand gripping each side of the jamb, against which his feet were planted at the bottom. As I watched, that doorway twisted side to side around him, going alternately out of and back into square, as if a giant were trying to wrest it apart. I would later reflect that we were quite possibly saved by the fact that ours was an old World War II barracks, made of wood, with open beam and rafter construction that flexed and absorbed the shock of the 6.6 intensity quake without collapsing. But right now, it sounded like it was about to fall down around our ears as it creaked and groaned and squeaked and pitched.
Like a drunk on the deck of a small ship in heavy seas, I weaved and lurched my way to the far end of the barracks to peer out of the big windows there. As I reached them, one of the panes cracked before my eyes. Our barracks was situated behind a tall, government-issue, chain-link fence less than fifty feet from a wide rectangular swath of water that formed part of the Port of Los Angeles. On the side opposite ours, I could see by the lights on the pier how a huge gray Navy cruiser anchored in its berth rocked like a baby’s crib, tugging at the thick cords of rope tethering it fast to the concrete pier. From my second-storey vantage point—our rehearsal hall and offices were on the ground floor and we barracks rats bunked upstairs—I could look down on the little wooden hut that the LA Fire Department frogmen had down below a concrete retaining wall, right on the waterfront, beneath our building. A couple of the divers were outside in their skivvies, watching how their tiny shack trembled on its foundation. At one point, I could actually see the shockwaves rolling under the blacktop in the parking lot, making the surface flex slightly under the glow of the orange sodium streetlights that were still on at that gray pre-dawn hour.
The shaking seemed to go on forever. In reality, it lasted for one full minute. Certainly long enough for panic to set in. Now, down below, I could see the rest of the barracks rats scrambling out of the building onto the parking lot tarmac to wait the quake out there. But I remained where I was, gripping the window frame, fascinated yet scared half to death. I knew that if I lived through this, it was an event I would remember forever. I turned to see if anyone else had remained behind and saw that only one other guy had: a strange young fellow called Paul Riser, a PFC who kept to himself and always seemed a little cracked. If you talked to him long enough, though, you realized that his vagueness and oddity were drug-induced, a product of the California LSD and “hash” culture of the day. Now, he was standing in the main doorway of the dormitory bay. He smiled a strange, panicky, half-sick smile at me and raised his index finger to draw an imaginary square around himself, as if to show me that, standing there in the doorway, he was in a protected zone, a magical rectangle in which he couldn’t be harmed. It was a gesture as deliberate as that of a priest bestowing a blessing with the sign of the cross. Protected or not, however, that same morning, Paul dashed up the hill to the post command building and volunteered to go to Vietnam. When we asked him why he would do something that idiotic, he said, “Man, this place is doomed. Any day now, it’s gonna break off and fall into the ocean. I’ll take my chances in Viet-fucking-Nam.”
Though PFC Riser’s reaction may have seemed a little extreme to most of us, the main quake and its five major aftershocks were enough to make us all think about how nature could simply flick you off of the face of the earth, like a fly off of a pile of cow dung. Sixty-five people died that morning as a result of the tremor. Two hospitals were destroyed—one of them a VA facility, where some of our comrades in arms were interned. A picture in the LA Times showed how the upper two floors of one of the medical centers had turned to rubble and sifted down in a pile over the ground floor. The other hospital building shifted more than a foot off of its foundation, causing the ground floor to lean over and collapse like a house of cards. Damage to the bulwark of the Lower Van Norman Dam brought a panicky order to evacuate forty thousand people living beneath it in the San Fernando Valley. Two freeway overpasses also caved in. A lot of the married guys in the band did the commute to formation each day. None of us could help thinking how many more people might have died had the quake happened an hour or two later. Anybody listening to 93 KHJ Radio at that early hour heard popular DJ Charlie Tuna say that he’d had “a shaky feeling” after a dream he’d had earlier that morning. In the middle of the side he flipped onto the turntable right after that, he proved himself clairvoyant, as the quake struck and everybody was having that shaky feeling right along with Charlie T. 
After that experience, I felt genuinely shaken up, much in the same way I had after the car accident that Virginia and I had been in two years earlier. Much too, as I had been during Basic Combat Training when the hand to hand techniques, the bayonet training, the hours of practice on the rifle and quick-kill ranges started making sense, when  it really dawned on me that this wasn’t all some game, that when my year in LA was through, Uncle Sam might well send me to a combat zone. In my head I could still hear the voice of the drill sergeant singing the cadence as we marched:

“And if I die in a combat zone,
Box me up and send me home…”

It was a typical taunting couplet filled with a drill instructor’s sardonic humor, but it was also a reality. You went where they sent you and, sometimes, shit happened. It had happened to a high school friend called Mike Oen. Killed by small arms fire on June 4, 1970. If I die in a combat zone / box me up and ship me home… Back in our home town, I had attended his funeral, in full dress uniform, when I was there on leave right out of Basic. Mike had been twenty years old.
Wait to get out of the Army? Wait to finish school afterward? Wait for Virginia to graduate? Maybe that would have been the “smart” thing to do. Maybe it was what my parents would have counseled me to do. But what if none of that ever happened? What if we never again got the chance to be together? My mother and father had faced these same questions in World War II and wouldn’t have followed their own advice either. They hadn’t chosen “smart”. They had chosen each other.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

EXCERPT 3 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ – WHEELING AND DEALING


The following is an excerpt from Chapter Two of the memoir I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires. This entry continues describing the events leading up to my decision, following discharge from the US Army, to move “for a year” to Argentina. I hope you enjoy it and look forward to your comments.
Like I said before, at the time, I was doing pretty well as a rather precocious professional nightclub musician, musical instrument salesman and percussion teacher, and had been already for several years before I graduated from high school. After graduation, I did even better, picking up a steady five-night a week gig with a jazz trio at one of the area’s top clubs. I played every other date I could get as well, worked six days a week at the music store in Lima and managed to assemble fifty private students between individual and group classes.
Within a few short days, I was the owner of a ’63 standard 
Chevy Biscayne.
Shortly after the accident and Virginia’s departure, an insurance representative showed up at the music store to deal with me directly on a settlement. This must surely have been illegal, since, for all intents and purposes, I was still considered a minor back in those days when eighteen-year-olds were old enough to go to Vietnam and die but not to sign contracts, drink hard liquor or vote. But that didn’t stop the insurer.
“Son,” the adjuster said, “the accident you were in was clearly our client’s fault. We aren’t going to dispute that. Luckily for everybody, there was no serious bodily injury. Anyway, your car bluebooks at three hundred and fifty dollars.” As he said this, he was retrieving a checkbook and signoff form from his briefcase. He laid both on the glass-topped counter where we were standing. His back was to my boss and store manager Bruce Sims, who had mentored me ever since I had started working for him and who was now sitting at his desk, smoking his pipe and looking our way with more than curious interest. “Now I’m authorized,” the insurance man went on, “to pay you that fair price for your car right now, no questions asked.” Behind the man’s back, Mr. Sims bit down on the stem of his pipe, furled his brow and shook his head. He gestured, palms up, to go higher. 
I too shook my head and said, “You saw my car, right? It was in really cherry condition before your client wrecked it.”
The man said, “Well, I’m only authorized to pay Blue Book, son.”
I hesitated. Mr. Sims shook his head vigorously.
“Sorry,” I said. “But I can’t accept that price.”
The insurance man raised his eyebrows, rolled his eyes upward and sighed. “Look, you seem like a nice young guy. I’m going to go out on a limb here.” He drummed his fingers on the glass counter, as if thinking, and feigned a worried expression. “I could get my pay docked for this. I could even get fired. But I’m going to offer you ten percent more. If you take it right now, I’ll write you a check for three eighty-five…and I’ll take the consequences,” Again, behind the man’s back, Bruce Sims shook his head, rolled his eyes and made a fiddle-playing gesture, as if to say that I shouldn’t fall for the guy’s sad story about risking his job.
“Sorry,” I said, smiling. “No dice.” 
Now the insurance man looked stern and sighed again, but this time with something like irritation. He lifted his leather-bound attaché case onto the counter, popped it open and returned the checkbook and form to it with a very deliberate gesture. He dramatically shut the lid, snapped the two catches and folded his hands on top of it.  He leaned forward and, in a confidential tone, said, “Son, I been doing this job a long time and it’s my experience that turning down these outright offers is a mistake. The company might turn the case over to the legal department and it could take ages for you to get your money and there’s no guarantee it’ll be anywhere near what I’m offering you.”
But I wasn’t thinking about what he was saying. I was thinking about an article I’d read recently covering what were being called “whiplash-associated disorders”. It was one of the top claims that insurers in the United States were compelled to pay, since even if X-rays and other modern testing methods showed no sign of trauma as such, it was next to impossible to prove that a claimant wasn’t suffering whiplash symptoms in the back and neck caused by compression and decompression of the vertebrae.
“So what’s it gonna be, son?” the guy was saying. “Do you want to take a second to rethink my offer, or should I walk out of here right now?”
“Well,” I said, with a grimace, reaching up and taking hold of the back of my neck with my hand, “I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve been having a real bad pain in my neck ever since the accident. In the background, I saw Mr. Sims grin and raise his fist in a victory salute. Then he got up and walked off into another part of the store, as if to say, “Okay, I’m outa here. You don’t need me anymore.”
The insurance man’s eyes turned cold and hooded and a sardonic smirk twisted his lips. “Okay, kid,” he said, “what do you want?”
“Four eighty.”
“I’ll give you four and a half.”
“Four sixty-five.”
He opened his briefcase again and wrote me a check for four hundred sixty-five dollars. He held it in one hand while he handed me the release form with the other and then handed me his pen.
“Sign by the ex,” he said, and when I had, he handed me the check and walked out of the store.
Left to my own devices, I would surely have ended up blowing the money on some overpriced flashier car than I ended up buying. But this time, my father intervened. The Ol’ Man was a real horse-trader when it came to buying cars. I’ve never heard of anyone who got better deals on cars than he did—with the possible exception of his Uncle Dale Newland, a star used car salesman, who was always welcome to work for commission on just about any used car lot from Detroit to Miami.
“Hey, by golly,” Dad said when I told him the story of how I’d gotten top dollar for my car, “I just heard about a grocery company that’s selling off its sales fleet.”
“What kind of cars?” I asked.
“Good serviceable ones, three-speed stick-shifts with reinforced springs and no frills. I’m sure I can get you one at way below market.”
So I put dreams of a flashy ride out of my mind and let the Ol’ Man work his magic. Within a few short days, I was the owner of a ’63 standard Chevy Biscayne. It was a car that would easily fetch six-fifty on the market. Thanks to Dad, I got it for simply endorsing my four hundred sixty-five-dollar insurance check.

Gimme a Ticket for an Airplane
That car ended up being my ticket to adventure.
At the end of that same year, I decided college and my playing career could wait. To my family’s utter amazement, I quit the jazz trio, got a passport, drew part of my savings from the bank, sold my five-year-old Chevy at a two-hundred-dollar profit, bought an airline ticket and was on my way to Buenos Aires for a month. I celebrated my nineteenth birthday on the flight. I ordered and the Pan Am flight attendant served me the first vodka and tonic I had ever drunk without stealing it from a liquor cabinet, and I drank it watching the moonrise from the window of a Boeing 707, on a direct flight from JFK in New York to Ezeiza International in Buenos Aires.
Took a Pan Am 707 Clipper out of JFK
By noon the next day, Virginia's mother was rushing me through Customs. She spoke no English, but gave me a warm hug, made me understand who she was and motioned me to follow her. At the last minute, Virginia also showed up at the Customs desk and we were all hugging and laughing and paying little attention to the irritated Customs officer, who finally handed me back my passport and waved us through, just happy to be rid of us. It wasn’t usual for common everyday civilians to be permitted to hang around in the Customs area with incoming passengers, but Virginia's mother had made up a story convincing enough to get the MP at the door to let her through. When the same guard stopped Virginia, she asked him why the “other lady” had been let through if she couldn’t go in.
"Secret Service," the guard said.
"Secret Service my eye," Virginia said. "She's my mother!" and the guard let her through too.
Those were obviously gentler times in Buenos Aires, despite the rigors of the dictatorship of General Onganía, whose days were already numbered. An unapologetic dictator, Onganía made no pretense of being a constitutional caretaker as had other coup leaders before him and as would others afterward. Instead, he was bent on establishing a new political and social order in Argentina, in which the Armed Forces would be the legally established rulers.
I celebrated my 19th birthday on board
For now, I knew next to nothing about any of this. I was simply an enamored Midwestern teen, who had followed his heart to an exotic city in South America. I fell instantly in love with Buenos Aires, with its people—who, I learned, were called porteños—with the lifestyle, with my girlfriend’s family, with their friends, with practically everything.
From the very first day, Virginia’s family and friends went far out of their way to make me feel at home. They took me on personalized tours of the city, took me out to bars, restaurants and night clubs, to movie theaters downtown, to a Christmas party in the suburbs. They made me an integral part of the family’s year-end celebrations. They even took me on what then, before the days of four-lane highways, was a seven-hour car trip to the Atlantic resort city of Mar del Plata. As a Midwestern boy, it was my first glimpse of the ocean, and once I’d seen it, I never wanted to leave.
Buenos Aires itself was my first experience with urban life in a major world capital and I was fascinated. Even the subways, buses and trains that were part of the most mundane of the city dwellers’ world seemed to me an almost magical environment teeming with the stories of the millions who road them daily to the common events that formed their separate lives and that crossed their destinies in random fashion.
First passport  - the trip had only whetted my 
appetite. 
If I had fallen in love with Virginia when we had met and dated back in Ohio, I was now to the point of no return. I wanted to be with her, to share in her life and to invite her to share mine. And far from satisfying my wanderlust and my yearning to delve into her world and into other exotic destinations, this trip had only whetted my appetite for more. 
I returned to Ohio promising I would be back. The pain we’d felt when she returned home from Ohio was now intensified by this month of daily intimacy that we had shared. And the image I carried with me back to Ohio was of her waving tearfully from the observation deck at the old Ezeiza Airport as my plane taxied away from the terminal to the runway.
Truth be told, I would gladly have stayed on in Buenos Aires right then. But for now, I didn’t feel I had any choice but to go back home. I had made a commitment to the musicians who had mentored me, to my high school band director, and, I felt, to the opinion of my community, which expected great things from me in the arts. I had also made a commitment to myself, to get a music degree, and to study writing as well, to eventually be a writer by day and a musician by night, to garner a career that would someday lead to New York or LA and what I saw as my destiny as a renowned writer and musician. It was, in the end, the theme of the great American novel: small-town boy makes good. And back then, there was no question in my mind that this was to be my happy fate, even when I had no real idea how I would go about achieving it.
Nor could there be any delaying the next step. It was the Vietnam era and you were either in school or you were drafted into the Army. Simply staying in Argentina was out of the question. Although I was against all of the underlying reasons behind the Vietnam War, I had no thought of dodging the draft. Draft-dodgers—as Thomas Wolfe might have said—couldn't go home again.