Oceanport, New Jersey 1969
The importance of FREEDOM cannot be overstressed. My first true understanding of it occurred when I climbed out of the rear of a deuce-and-a-half truck wearing my US Army dress uniform at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. I stood alone with my duffle bag in tow as plumes of smoke puffed out of the truck’s exhaust while it made its way back to Fort Lewis, Washington.
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I had graduated from basic training. So long Drill Sergeants Gratts and Gaines—thanks for the memories. No more yelling in my ear. No more three a.m. harassments and forced marches. No more crawling with a rifle at my jaw while live ammunition burst over my head. Yeah, I suppose I was proud of myself, too.
The flight to New York was a dream. I ordered a Bloody Mary drink. The United Airlines stewardess gave me two small bottles of vodka along with a smile. I took a sip of the tomato drink and extricated the previous six weeks with the biggest sigh of my life.
The City was thrilling. At the same time, New York City with its skyscrapers and hoards of people tried to intimidate me. The taxi driver attempted to overcharge me when he stopped outside Port Authority, near 42nd Street. I had been forewarned. The driver didn’t get a tip.
I headed to the subterranean bowels of Port Authority, a place where travelers were sources of income for mostly black men engaged as shoe shiners, purveyors of merchandise hidden inside their jackets, and various cons—I had been forewarned.
Three hours later the bus door slammed behind me after the driver let me out at the Fort Monmouth gate with, “Good luck soldier.”
The company clerk assigned me to the fourth floor of a dormitory-like building that was a cut about basic training quarters although I had the same bunk, footlocker and gray cabinet. I had a class that began at ten p.m. and lasted until six a.m. The good news was that it exempted me from K.P. (Kitchen Patrol) duties until the next class in two weeks.
My MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) of 26V called for several weeks of training from basic electronics on up to the operation and repair of the microwave radio equipment types used by the army worldwide. I looked forward to it.
The FOREBODING news came right at the start. Two Staff Sergeant teachers had been to ‘Nam, at STRATCOM (the Strategic Communications Command). They told us right off the bat that we would all be going to Viet Nam to be assigned to a countrywide microwave radio relay system (or a tactical unit with the grunts–the infantry–if we were unlucky).
The class assumed that the trainees knew absolutely nothing about electronics. Since I had taken an electronics class in high school and had built some electronic projects I was well ahead on the learning curve. The class began with “Big Boys Race Our Young Girls But Violet Generally Wins.” Staff Sergeant Jenkins replaced “Race” with “Rape” and chuckled, but at midnight no one saw the humor.
The “Big Boys…” statement was a mnemonic to remember the resister color-code: Black (0) Brown (1) Red (2) Orange (3) Yellow (4) Green (5) Blue (6) Violet (7) Gray (8) and White (9).
To attempt to teach a two-year radio communications class in a few months was a daunting task, but apparently the Viet Nam War needed microwave radio technicians ASAP. Staff Sergeants’ Jenkins and Ellsworth would conduct a written test at the end of class. If you failed, you would have to repeat the class. If you failed a third time you were reassigned to the infantry (God forbid).
I buddied up with two classmates—Roy and Frank. Frank was a hapless character from the Bronx who under normal circumstances I would have never associated with. He would go home every weekend, like a part-time soldier. Frank boasted that he would never get on that plane to ‘Nam. Asleep in class, he failed the test after the second week and had to take the class over again.
Roy and I got a long well. He looked at the Fort Monmouth assignment as an opportunity. We visited Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City (several times). Roy always knew the right bar to pick out.
I reflected on how lucky I had been. I had accidentally accompanied my buddy Scott to the recruiter station in Lomita, California. When Scott bailed out of the commitment, without giving it a second thought I signed on the dotted line and took his slot at Fort Monmouth.
I passed all the classes and finished my training just before Christmas. How I got assigned to Donnersberg, Germany instead of Viet Nam was a small miracle. Every class before me had been sent to ‘Nam. The army let me take some leave and I headed home to California for the holidays before flying to Germany after New Years.
Footnote: I later received a letter from Roy through the APO. Because he had failed two of the classes he had been held back and assigned to Cam Rahn Bay, Viet Nam. He said he had heard from Frank, who had flunked out of Fort Monmouth. True to his word, Frank had his brother break his leg with a sledge hammer to prevent him from leaving to Viet Nam.