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.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

EXCERPT 2 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ – DESTINY


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 describes 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.
Back from the Army
As I say, the decision to move to Buenos Aires was a long time coming. It hadn’t by any means been a foregone conclusion when my wife and I married three years before. Nor had it been when I first got out of the Army. My loosely structured plan had been to go back to exactly what I’d been doing before the Army interrupted my life, to return to being a nightclub musician five or six nights a week and to give private music lessons in the daytime, while seeking a way to return to college and get a dual degree in music and creative writing or journalism. I mean, I wanted to go back to Argentina for a while someday soon, but there were some other priorities I had to take care of first: education, a career, security, a pathway toward my ultimate dreams.
But then one hot summer day, on the way to my new job in the shoe department of a K-Mart store in Lima, Ohio—which wasn’t at all part of the plan I had outlined for myself—the decision kind of took itself. I can't pretend it was a revelation, exactly. But suffice it to say that just before arriving at work, I had to pull my VW Beetle off into the parking lot of the Westgate Lanes bowling alley, where I promptly stripped off my tie, ripped the collar button off of my shirt and then sat there gripping the wheel with both hands until my cold, sweaty knuckles turned white. I was hyper-ventilating like mad while my heart pounded like a trip-hammer and the blood sang in my ears so loudly that I couldn't hear the roar of the traffic whizzing by me on ever-busy North Cable Road. I was suffocating—almost literally.  Nothing, I realized, was turning out the way I’d planned. My young life was swiftly going down the toilet. Since I’d been away, the world had drastically changed. Now, I too was in desperate need of a change—for the better.
It wasn't the first time this had happened to me in that fateful 1973, the year they shipped me home from Europe and discharged me after a three-year tour in the US Army. Nor was the choice of Buenos Aires some wild whim. In fact, the series of events leading to this decision had developed almost in the manner of a Shakespearean comedy of errors ever since the winter of 1968, the year I graduated from high school. That was the same year that Virginia Mel, my future wife, came from Buenos Aires to my high school in Wapakoneta, Ohio, as an exchange student with the Youth for Understanding program.
It wasn’t like she hadn’t tried to get out of it, when they told her where they were sending her. Who wouldn’t? I mean, why would any young foreign person want to go to Wapakoneta, Ohio, when there were such well-known and fascinating places in the United States, as, say, New York, Washington, LA, Chicago or San Francisco?
Long story short, however, her sponsor talked her into it. He said, “Virginia, you’re the luckiest candidate of all. You’re going to have a unique experience, totally different from the ones the kids going to big cities will have. I think you should take this destination. It’s fate.”
  So she came, somewhat reluctantly, to Wapakoneta in the winter of 1968, having finished high school in her own country a couple of months before. My attraction to her was immediate and powerful. Her American “sister” (the children of the homes where exchange students stayed were referred to as their “sisters” and “brothers”) was a childhood friend of mine, so although my friend, Jeanie, had already arranged to use her mother’s station wagon to take Virginia to her welcome party at a local gun club that had been booked for the occasion, I talked her into making up some excuse why she would be arriving later, so that I could stand in as designated driver for the guest of honor. 
Virginia (right) "luckiest of all"
Late that afternoon, I picked Virginia up at Jeanie’s house in my sleek, waxed and polished, ’61 Dodge Pioneer. I was proud of my car. I had worked since I was twelve and was now eighteen and doing well for myself as a professional musician, musical instrument salesman and private percussion teacher, besides going to high school. This was the second car I had owned in as many years, and a real step up from the rust-laced ’57 Dodge Royal that I had previously purchased for fifty bucks when I was barely sixteen. So I felt flattered when I held open the passenger-side door for her to get in and she said, “What a beautiful car!”
For a while, that was pretty much the extent of our conversation. We both felt shy and couldn’t think what to say. She was so beautiful that I felt awkward and unworthy. The gun club was about eight miles away, out in the country. It was a leisurely drive on two-lane country roads and I tried to think of something to ask her about her country or herself that wouldn’t make me sound like a stupid jerk from the outset, but my mind was a blank. Suddenly, she broke the ice.
A sleek waxed and polished '61 Dodge Pioneer
She said, “Would it bother you if I smoked?”
In response, I smiled, reached into the inside pocket of the winter coat I was wearing, and took out my Philip Morris Multi-filters in their classy plastic box, thumbed open the lid one-handed and shook a cigarette part way out, offering it to her. “Here,” I said, “have one of mine.” I handed her my fashionable, grown-up, Ronson gas lighter and watched out of the corner of my eye as she lit up. It seemed to me that I had never seen a more beautiful or sophisticated profile and I knew right then that I was in love. Using the car lighter, I lit a smoke for myself and opened the ashtray on the dash between us.
For a few seconds we smoked in silence. But then we started to talk and now the words came easier. The first thing she said was that her accent embarrassed her. I said that she hardly had one, that her English was excellent, “kind of British,” and that, anyway, I thought her Spanish accent was charming.
We had started out with plenty of time to get to the gun club. It was winter and the sun was already setting, but, on the spur of the moment, I decided to show my exotic guest some local color. So I drove a few miles out of our way and took her to see Grand Lake Saint Marys. With its thirteen thousand five hundred acres, Lake Saint Marys had once been the largest man-made lake in the United States and remained the largest inland lake in Ohio. It was built in the early eighteen-hundreds as a reservoir for the Miami and Erie Canal system, which carried cargo on mule-towed barges the length of the territory, from the Ohio River in the south to Lake Erie in the north, before the days of railroads.
Virginia was duly impressed, and it was a stunning winter evening so I parked and we took a walk along the now frosty shore in the abandoned state park grounds, where picnickers, water skiers, boating enthusiasts, anglers and beach-goers thronged in summer. It was freezing cold and daylight was fading fast, the sun now a creamy ember-orange glint on a snow-clouded horizon beyond the lake. But we strolled there in the dusk for a time and watched the last light of a stunning Midwestern winter day reflected on the breeze-ruffled surface of the water that was frozen along the edges. When we got back into the car to go to the gun club for the welcome party, it was as if we already had a tacit understanding between us. We liked each other…a lot.    
Despite countless efforts by Virginia’s surrogate American “mother” to get her to go out with other boys, we fell in love, and by the time graduation rolled around months later, we were doing what was known then as “going steady". There was even a picture of us in the high school year book, dressed in evening wear, at the Junior-Senior Prom. The theme for the dance was “Around the World” and the caption read: “Virginia Mel and Dan Newland are shown deciding what country to visit next on their round-the-world prom trip.”

Such Sweet Sorrow
The last time we went out together before she left town to return to Argentina following graduation turned out to be an oddly fateful experience—one that made us both think deeply about life and death and our own parting. I had taken Virginia out to a steakhouse called The Buckingham, in nearby Lima, for a fancy dinner, not with wine, of course, but with a glass of what was then known as three-two beer, which, at age eighteen, was all we were entitled to drink. But tonight Virginia and I felt very adult, like the protagonists of a romantic novel.
Virginia and Dan at prom night:
The theme was 'Around the World'
 Even so, it hardly felt like a celebration. We were both in a state of something like mourning, since we had fallen hard for each other and in the last months of her stay, had become deeply intimate and inseparable friends. Her leaving to go back home, halfway around the world, seemed a definitive and final event. It was indeed possible that this would be the last time we would ever see one another. The thought filled us both with a kind of dispair, but also with fateful resignation. While she thought we would never see each other again, however, I—eternal optimist that I was back then—had already convinced myself that we would, and I told her so. She refused to believe it. Her face was so sad and beautiful that I felt my heart would break when I looked into her eyes.
Now, we were headed back toward Wapak. She had to pack, get ready to leave the next day, spend a little time with her host family. I knew I had to get her back early, but I didn’t want the ride to end. So I bypassed I-75 South, which would have had us back in under twenty minutes, and decided to take the longest back way home that I knew, along country roads and county pikes on that warm summer evening.
It was as we were coming over a rise on one of those roads, somewhere between Lima and the village of Saint Johns, that I found myself face to face with another car, coming at us head-on in our lane. The other vehicle was a brand new American Motors Javelin, a hot car of the day that would garner success and recognition in Trans Am racing—just not this particular unit, which ended its days as a pile of junk on the side of that otherwise quiet country road. It would later be established that the driver was “test driving” his new car accompanied by his girlfriend, that he was moving at a speed high enough for the State Highway Patrol to consider it “reckless operation”, that he was passing on a blind hill and curve, and that I had done everything possible to avert a head-on collision.
I had started driving farm machinery when I was fourteen, having worked a few weeks on a spread west of town that year, helping harvest winter wheat. I had also secretly driven older friends’ cars on country roads after that, before I was old enough to have a license, and had practiced with my father in the family station wagon once I had a learner’s permit. I bought my first car a few weeks before I aced my driving test at sixteen. Since then, as a professional musician, I had put a couple of thousand miles a month on my car, driving to nightclub gigs and to schools in other towns, where I gave private percussion lessons after classes. So I had a lot of driving experience by eighteen and had also taken driver’s education in school to get even more. I had an eye and a talent for it. I was clearly no stranger to the road, yet all I could think of when I saw that Javelin coming at us head-on at, perhaps, ninety miles an hour or more was, “We’re dead!”
At the last second, however, my young reflexes won out. In a heartbeat, I managed to get two wheels and Virginia’s half of the car onto the berm, so that the point of impact was on my side. The other driver also swerved at the last second and we took the crash force at right about the driver’s side headlight. The fact that we both swerved meant that the impact was a glancing blow, after which the lightweight Javelin continued, in the manner of a thunderbolt stripping the bark from the trunk of a tree, ricocheting off of the heavy frame and body of the solid Dodge, while I managed to hold my ground and keep us from rolling into the deep ditch off of the right side. The battering ram sideswiping motion of the high-speed Javelin was so powerful that it drove the heavy door and frame of the Dodge in better than six inches, so that the armrest cracked one of my ribs and knocked me temporarily out from in front of the wheel (there were no seatbelts back when my car was built). I managed to keep my hands on the wheel, however, and to bring the car under control, coming to a complete stop on the gravel berm and grassy bank of the ditch. The Javelin continued to careen out of control for another couple hundred feet, before it rolled once, sailed off the road and landed right side up at the bottom of the deep ditch.
For a moment, there was just silence. Still gripping the wheel, I turned to look at Virginia. She was sitting there looking blank and stunned. I tried to see if she was bleeding anywhere. She didn’t seem to be. Incredibly, the windshield was still in one piece. Our side windows had been rolled down. So the only shattered glass was all over the backseat, from the breakage of all of the rear windows.
“Are you all right?” I asked. Virginia just looked at me. “Are you all right?” I asked again, louder this time and taking her by the shoulders.
She nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I think so.”
Automatically, I tried to open my door, but since it was crushed in halfway to the steering wheel, it obviously wouldn’t budge. We got out on Virginia’s side and she stood in the grass by the Dodge, while I made as if to walk back along to road toward the Javelin. It was only then that I felt the sharp pain in my side. I touched my shirt under my left arm with my opposite hand and the tip of my finger came back bloody. I pressed there again and winced with the pain. Despite the heat, I reached into the backseat, retrieved my blazer, shook the glass off of it and put it on to conceal the injury before walking back to the other car. I didn’t plan to spend my last evening with Virginia waiting to get X-rays at the emergency room.  As a new car, the Javelin did indeed have seatbelts and, to my amazement, neither of its occupants, a man and woman in their twenties, was badly hurt either. But they were sitting dazed and crying in a twisted mass of unidentifiable car wreckage that made me realize how close we had all come to sudden death.
When the State Highway Patrol arrived, I gave my version of what had happened to one trooper, while the driver of the other car gave his statement to another patrolman. The tall, burly officer who interviewed me said the on-scene evidence seemed to bear out what I had said. Seeing that he was—to the extent a policeman ever is—“on my side”, I took advantage of the opportunity to explain our situation: that Virginia was a foreign exchange student, that it was her last night in town, that I needed to get her home as quickly as possible, and so on. He gave no response, but within an incredibly short time, he had taken down our personal information and freed us to call my father to pick us up. I made the call from the conveniently located Army’s Wrecker and Salvage Service, which was just a hundred yards or so up the road, and to which both cars were temporarily towed.
My father always surprised me in situations like these. For more than forty years he suffered from what today is called “bipolar disorder” or “chemical imbalance.” Back then it was known as “manic depression”, which tended to make him an obsessive-compulsive worrier. But in situations such as these, he was always extraordinarily calm, collected and rational. When he picked us up, he asked about the accident, listened to my explanation, then said, “Well, all that matters is that neither of you got hurt. Too bad it had to be tonight.” He knew how much I was already missing Virginia, even though she was still here. He had married my mother toward the beginning of World War II and, a few short days later, had gone off to fight in the European Theater for three and a half years. He knew what it felt like to say good-bye and not know when or if you would see each other again. So when we got home, without a word, he handed me the keys to he and my mother’s second car.
I should have taken Virginia right home, but didn’t. Instead, I drove past the house where she was staying, out a little way into the countryside and parked off the side of the road. I lit cigarettes for both of us and we sat there smoking, holding hands and looking at each other, not knowing what to say. Then she said, in a quiet hoarse voice, “If my plane crashes, it won’t matter, because we will have had this time together.”
I was stunned. It was the first time I realized that she really believed we would never see each other again. And, truth be told, it was also the first time that I had realized how much I truly believed that we would. I knew we would and told her so. It wasn’t like I had a plan or anything. I simply had a gut feeling. I figured a relationship as star-crossed as this one couldn’t simply end because graduation and summer had come and it was time for her to go back home. Something would happen to bring us back together again. I said just that and, although she looked as if she wanted to believe me, she also looked at me as if I maybe belonged in a straightjacket. What kind of crazy, impractical optimist was I, to actually think there was any chance at all for a boy from a Midwestern farm town and a girl from Buenos Aires?
“You don’t believe me right now,” I said, “but you’d better get used to the idea. Before you know it, we’ll be seeing each other again.”