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.
|The Naval School of Music at Little Creek VA|
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.”
“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|
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|
“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.