Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Historical Vignet

It was Easter, any year between when I was born in 1949 and 1963 or so, and we colored eggs. We used the old method back then. Hard boiled the eggs, let them cool. We filled coffee cups with a mixture of vinegar and warm water and made designs on the eggs with wax crayons. A small dye tablet, each a different color, was put into each cup of the mixture and the eggs were dipped in and held there for a few moments. The longer we held the egg in the vinegar solution, the deeper and darker the chosen color became.
Near the end of the exercise, we mixed the colors all together and did a special egg. It turned dark greenish brown and looked like the olive drab of an army uniform. This was always designated as Dad’s egg because he was in the army during WWII.
I have seen the pictures and heard a few stories about life in our household before I was born. My sister and brother were born in 1942 and 1943 respectively. Dad got drafted in 1943 and was on a troop ship in San Francisco in 1945 when Japan surrendered and the war ended. They let him off the boat and sent him home with his military commitment complete as be had children at home.
The only significance in my mind of mentioning the story about my dad having served in the US armed forces is that he was drafted and did his duty when called. I did too when I was drafted in 1968.
Fast forward then, to April of 1968. I was drafted into the army and I went and served. I did my duty as called as well. In fact, I spent the first five months at Fort Polk in Louisiana, close to Shreveport, near the small town of Leesville. I was trained there. Infantry training, at a place called Tigerland. I went in mid April and was there all Summer, through August.
The sign at the gate of Tigerland at Fort Polk, Louisiana

I don ‘t know how many of you know how hot and humid it gets in the deep south that time of year, but let me say that it was brutal, especially on a slightly overweight out-of-shape kid from Chicago. I was strong. I had big shoulders. The drill sergeants recognized this immediately and pulled me out of the crowd often to humiliate me.
While in training, my size and weight meant many a barrage of extra calisthenics, all meant to get me trim and fit, but at the time, I saw it as harassment of the fat guy. I got through it all and came out slimmer, stronger and meaner than most others. I tested out at a high IQ, (US Army criteria, I’m not bragging here), and was taught how to operate a mortar. All that meant was when they eventually sent me to Vietnam I would have to carry a rifle and some part of a mortar and be part of a gunnery platoon.
In September, when the training was complete, I was sent home for a fourteen day leave and had my orders to report to a duty station beyond that. I was sure I was going to be sent to Vietnam, as they drummed this fact into our heads. The whole of the training was to teach us how to kill The Viet Cong and the NVA, North Vietnamese Army, combatants which were identified to me as our enemy.
They taught us how to aim, fire, clean, service and maintain an M16 fully automatic rifle. In my case, they taught me how to do the same with both an 81 millimeter and a 4.2 inch mortar. Here’s some army wisdom for you. One is in millimeters, the other is in inches. I don’t know why and I never cared why it was this way. There are a lot of things like that in the army.
They taught us hand-to-hand combat with a bayonet attached to the business end of a rifle. We used pugel sticks with thick pillowed ends to fight each other. Parry and thrust into the chest of your combat brother in arms during training and then remember this to jam the bayonet into the chest of those they called the enemy if the circumstance of hand-to-hand combat ever arose after they send us to Vietnam.
Bayonet attached to a fully automatic M-16 rifle

We trained with an array of early morning exercise and running. Turning flab and fat into solid muscle. And even though many of us smoked, we managed to build up our lung capacity and sustain a brisk pace of walking for at least 12 miles without a rest, all while carrying a pack of about 40 pounds on our backs. Having a loud voice that could be projected and heard throughout the columns of marching soldiers, I pulled the duty to call cadence and marched alone on the other side of the road, adding more expenditure of air with my voice while marching, than that already expelled from the March itself.
Basic training was the first eight weeks, then you were given a military occupation. You were sent to training for that military occupation. Some went to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for artillery. Some went to Fort Benning in Georgia to learn how to parachute. The army had a certain fort that specialized in the training a soldier needed for the occupation they said you were going to be, all based, supposedly, on that military IQ I mentioned earlier.
I stayed right there in Fort Polk, Louisiana and went to Tigerland. Advanced Infantry Training, AIT, for my Military Occupational Specialty, my MOS. Right there, in the deep south, amidst the buggy, hot, humid, low elevation, river bottoms of the Red River, during the hottest months of the year at the height of summer.
When I say humid, I mean really humid. We’d shower after a day of training. We were issued small white towels and dried ourselves, then hung the towel over the rail at the foot of the military bunk bed to dry. When we were woken up at Oh four thirty AM, those towels were wetter than when we hung them up to dry!
The sweat would pour off our bodies. Our clothing saturated. White cornstarch-like salt lines were etched into our uniforms when the wetness dried. The salt from our bodies dried in the pores of our skin and it felt like needles poking us in our backs when we laid down on our bunks.
I mentioned that I finished training for my MOS at the AIT at Fort Polk in Louisiana and was sent home for a fourteen day leave. What surprised me was that I didn’t go to Vietnam. My orders sent me to Fort Carson in Colorado near Colorado Springs. This was in September of 1968. I was nineteen years old.
Yours truly, at 19, sporting a pipe, in the barracks at Fort Carson, Colorado

What a difference. Hot and humid summertime in the deep south swamp to the fresh mile high altitude of the front range of the Rocky Mountains in September. I spent five months in Colorado beneath the shadow of Pikes Peak. 
The current sign for Ft. Carson, CO

That time in Colorado was different from the five months of training in Louisiana. I was assigned to a motor pool and wore the patch of the 5th Mechanized Infantry Division, During training, I was a private E-1, the lowest common denominator rank in the US Army. After training, I became a private E-2. I wore no stripes, just the insignia of the unit I was assigned to, which in this case, was this red diamond.
Patch of the 5th Mechanized Infantry Division to which I was assigned at Ft. Carson, CO

I knew the rules as training was fresh in my mind. Salute the officers, stand at attention when told to and at ease when directed. I knew to keep my shoes and boots shined, buttons buttoned, head gear on or off as directed, insignias properly displayed and creases clean and sharp in my clothing. I did my own laundry and sewing if I needed a button or had a small tear. My foot and wall lockers were neat and tidy and didn’t contain much in the way of personal items that wouldn’t fit into a small space the size of a cigar box.
I could leave the base every night after the work day, provided I signed out at the orderly room, and had to be in attendance every morning for roll call. We worked a half day on Saturdays but Sunday had no requirements.
My duties during the day were to report to the motor pool with the unit I was assigned to. My job was to fiddle with jeeps, trucks and trailers. Change the oil, clean and wipe, touch up paint, and do the same with the buildings these same vehicles were housed in. Every so often, we’d have an exercise and actually drive the vehicles out of the motor pool and into the hills south of the base. This allowed us to have something to clean and polish when we returned.
These maneuvers included many over night bivouacs and army training exercises designed to keep our minds sharp and focused in the event we were called to combat duty.
It was in 1968 and I did stand in a gravel area for two days waiting to board a plane and be taken to Chicago or Detroit where riots were out of control from the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention and the displeasure of the American public in regards to the war in Vietnam and the blocking of civil rights for Black Americans across the nation. I had plans to go AWOL, Absent With Out Leave, if they sent me to my hometown. I’m from Chicago, and I remember thinking that if they sent me there, I’d leave  the unit and go see my girlfriend Judy for sure.
Instead, we stood in the lot, full gear at our feet, in one spot, and were fed in an outdoor chow line set up. This is how many meals were fed to me while in Vietnam, with a mobile army kitchen. Eat, sleep, work and shit in one spot.
Typical Vietnam chow line set-up. Food was kept in insulated containers. The cook/server and equipment brought in and out of the field position by helicopter

I did have many fun experiences in Colorado Springs during that time however. I was only 19. I was trim, young, and some have pointed out, good lookin’, if I may be so bold to say that. I learned to drink with the help of an altered Military ID card that added two years on to my age and brought me to 21. I remember the days and hours it took to slowly and carefully peel the laminate off of my Military ID, erase and retype the “9”, in 1949 to a “7”, to make 1947 as year of birth, and resealing the card with a new plastic laminate.
Beautiful Pikes Peak. My daily view while stationed in Colorado

A fellow from Detroit had a car there. I stayed as a tolerable pal to have around and mooched a ride into town as often as I could. We mostly sat in a joint called Sill’s barn and drank beer while listening to the music of the day and bikini clad girls dancing in white go go boots.
We’d get paid once per month, on the first, and go to Denver the first weekend after getting paid. Colorado Springs the next weekend and Pueblo, which we called “P Town”, the third. By the fourth weekend of any month, we were broke and pooled our money together to buy cheap bottles of muscatel, Bali High, tawny port or Mogen David 20-20 and drank it in the parked car, which was usually out of gas.
Mad Dog 20/20 Elixir of the gods

I was promoted to Private First Class E-3 and given a yellow stripe to wear on my sleeve before I left Fort Carson in January of 1969, I was sent home for a 30 day leave with orders to report to Oakland, California in February of 1969 to be processed for an all expense paid trip over seas to the Republic of Vietnam.
I’ll be returning to Colorado Springs and Fort Carson in September this year, 2012, exactly 44 years after I was sent there in September of 1968, to attend the reunion of the military unit I was assigned to while in Vietnam, the Triple Deuce of the 25th Infantry Division. 


Jeannie said...

So far, it all sounds like a big adventure - the mood changes after this I'll bet.

It seems crazy to send 18/19 year olds off to fight. Despite the fact that kids feel invincible at that age, they are not.

I'd say you were pretty hot at 19 - although in 1968, I was only 9 - you would probably have gone for my sister instead.

rebecca said...

how can i top jeannie's comment?
except to thank you for writing straight from your heart with such genuine candor. i haven't shared with you that my mother painstakingly gathered all the letters my father wrote to her/us from vietnam. a letter for every day for a year. they began may 24, 1967. i plan to read them one by when on the same date my father wrote them all those years ago. it is a profound gift, like getting my father back for a year to listen to his stories and deeply caring heart. i love just looking at his handwriting.
i am sure i will think of you so much as i make this intimate journey you too experienced.
i imagine your blog will be just as important to your children and grandchildren. so glad you take the time to share so deeply.

A Bit of the Blarney said...

My best wishes to you on your journey to Ft. Carson. Ron was raised in Colorado Springs and after his basic at Ft. Belvoir VA he was assigned there with the Corps of Engineers. Thought we'd spend his time there and we'd be fine. But God had other ideas and they transferred the entire battalion to Ft. Ord, CA. And we've only been "home" to visit since. We do our pilgrimage every year! Enjoy! Cathy

Fran aka Redondowriter said...

I was absolutely fascinated and read every word of this post, Joe. I'm a little older than you, but those VietNam days are etched in all our hearts. Except--I was a young mom raising kids and didn't know the details like you describe here. I'm so glad you are one of the ones who made it home. I have family in Pueblo and back in those days you describe, it was nothing like you describe--real farm and cattle company. My cousin was a John Deere dealer. Yes, you were (and probably are) handsome--you look a lot like my ex, a fine Sicilian man. Did you marry Judy? I don't visit you enough to know if that's your wife's name.