17. Daddy, EnglandAFB, and Off to War

Daddy, England – and off to the War

October/November, 1970

My assignment out of UPT was EC-47‘s – old twin engine C-47 cargo planes tricked out with a million dollars worth of nav and electronic surveillance gear and an E added to the aircraft designation (actually the EC stood for ‘Electronics Counter-measures,’ but I don’t think they bothered to make that delicate distinction clear to us). Training was to be at England Air Force Base, Alexandria, Louisiana, so after a month at home — and a visit to Albany – I was off to England! Not quite Germany, but it had a nice ring to it.

Alexandria is pretty near dead-on the geographic center of Louisiana, on the Red River (whose main job is separating Texas and Oklahoma, which is a pretty important job, because if you’re from Texas, you damn sure don’t want to end up in Oklahoma and not know it, and vice-versa I suppose!) and just north of the bayou region.

It’s an old city with brick streets in the industrial district and very little to remind you that it’s in the same state with New Orleans. It was pretty quiet, but that was just as well, since we only were there for a month and that left no time for much else but learning to fly the airplane that would take us to war. Funny how knowing you’re going to war puts a lot of things in perspective. I had always hated running, had to force myself to do enough of it to meet the 12-min.-mile-and-half standard, but at England, I started running every day, several miles, and in combat boots. It was easy. I’d just think about what it’d be like to crash in the jungle and have VC hunting for you. Pretty motivating. I began to feel like I could run forever.

Though it wasn’t exactly a high-status assignment, I was thrilled to be flying the C-47. Most of the aircraft were older than I was, but as airworthy as anything flying, nonetheless. The C-47 is the military version of the Douglas DC-3, the classic airplane of the early 20th Century:  “The Douglas DC-3 is a fixed-wing, propeller-driven aircraft whose speed and range revolutionized air transport in the 1930s and 1940s. Because of its lasting impact on the airline industry and World War II, it is generally regarded as one of the most significant transport aircraft ever made.” So says Wikipedia. This is the airplane that made commercial air transportation viable. More DC-3s were manufactured than any other single aircraft, and it’s probably appeared in more movies than any other airplane.

I was excited and proud to be flying a ‘real airplane’ and loved the feel of the control surfaces against the wind. Most modern planes have artificial feel programmed into the yoke or stick and rudder pedals by a computer. The ailerons and rudder on a C-47 are connected to the controls by a system of cables, without even hydraulic assists. It made flying a very physical act, especially at low speeds, when  the rudder pedals traveled the full extension of your leg, and the yoke sometimes moved over a foot back and forth.

Most significantly, it’s a tail-dragger. Which means it has no nose wheel to steer it when on the ground, so taxiing and take-off roll are pretty exciting. The famous term ‘three-point landing’ comes from the way these planes were designed to be landed, at least on a perfect day: all three wheels, the main gear and the tiny little tail-wheel, all touch the landing strip at the same time. This required great skill and lots of practice. The Air Force didn’t teach us to make three-point landings, probably because they just didn’t have the time. We were taught wheel landings, which is essentially flying the airplane onto the runway, or close enough to it to cut the power and drop. It wasn’t pretty, but I suppose it was safer. Most of the places we were likely to land had more than enough runway to stop a C-47 easily, so that wasn’t an issue. Getting  the aircraft slow enough to flare into a three-point attitude without ballooning or stalling took more finesse than one month of training could provide. So there were lots of rough landings. ‘A good landing is any landing you walk away from,’ we were told. ‘Get the damn thing close to the ground and pull back the throttles!’ was the basic instruction.

One thing we got plenty of in Alexandria was weather. The late summer mornings were fairly clear, but by noon, there were always big cumulus clouds starting to stack up, and sometimes training would be cut short by vicious thunderstorms. Despite the rough weather, we never worried that the aircraft would be hurt: there are more rivets in the wing of a C-47 than there are in a battleship. Well, almost. According to the DC-3 Historical Society, there are 500,000 rivets in the airframe, which lined up end-to-end would extend three miles. It was, and still is, one of the most solid, dependable airplanes ever made. There was very little that could go wrong with it that you couldn’t fly through. It would fly almost as well on one engine as it did on two. If the hydraulic system that raised and lowered the main gear malfunctioned, you could unlock the gear and snatch it into a down and locked position. Either that or piss into the hydraulic fluid reservoir, or so a flight mech told me.

Flying in this airplane, unlike the two-seaters I had been trained in, was a community experience. There were always an instructor, two students, and a flight mechanic on board. Sometimes we’d have a few extra crew members as well. There was often someone standing in the door to the cockpit to talk to as you flew, even if the guy in the other seat was taking a nap. You could feel the presence of generations of flight crews in these aircraft. And you could open the side window for fresh air while you were flying, though you didn’t want to open it too far, because it could suck small loose objects – like your lunch – right out the window.

The month went by quickly, and I was packed up to head back home on leave. I went to bed early, planning to get a very early start on my 13-hour trip the next morning, but I was awakened by a knock on the door and someone in the hall yelling, “Hey, you got a phone call in the lobby!” It didn’t sound good. I ran down the hall, trying to clear the fog from my mind.

It was my mother. My father had had a heart attack the day before and was in the hospital. She said it was bad, but she hadn’t wanted to call me until she knew I was done with the program. She said the doctor said there was probably extensive damage, but he was in ICU and stable, she just wanted me to know before I started home the next morning.

“I’m leaving now, Mom. Look for me before lunch tomorrow.” I grabbed my duffle bag and guitar and headed for Georgia.

I didn’t want to stop to think about what had happened, what it meant, or what would happen next. I just wanted to be there. Mom tried to sound okay and brave, but I knew she was scared. So was I. This was not supposed to happen to us.

I drove across Alabama as fast as I thought I could get away with, which was much too fast on the long empty stretches of I-20, and then cruised through the Georgia night on US 280. Mom was still washing the breakfast dishes when I walked in. We hugged and didn’t say much, and then she took me to the hospital. We had known Daddy was at risk for heart problems, and I had seem him in the throes of kidney stones that turned him ashen with pain, but nothing prepared me for the sight of this vibrant, booming-voiced man lying in bed like a fragile gray leaf, surrounded by wires and tubes and beeping monitors, smiling weakly and barely able to speak as I came in. He seemed very happy to see me. He took my hand and looked at me, and the love in his eyes broke my heart. He smiled and squeezed my hand and said, “Hey, son!”

I told him about the final days of C-47 training and how happy I was to be out of Louisiana, and he smiled some more. He said he was feeling pretty good, just weak, and dropped off to sleep.

Suddenly all the things I had agonized over, the flying that had filled my life, and the war that had seemed imminent, were far away. My dad lying in a glass room, my mother’s strained face and frightened eyes, a future without Daddy, were all I could think of. All my agonizing doubts and frustrations about my own situation, even my concerns about the war, seemed petty and selfish. And every hint of resentment at Daddy that had ever crept into my heart came back now to torment me with guilt and shame.

Any remaining doubt about what I had to do was gone. I was my father’s son, his first-born. That fact, and my love for him, left me with no choice. I would honor him and his expectations of me.

Mom told me the doctors were encouraging, saying that he had some damage, but would be okay after a few weeks of rest. The only problem with that was, as the editor of a small weekly newspaper, when Daddy rested, the paper didn’t get out, and if the paper didn’t get out, there was no income to support our family, nor my uncle’s (Uncle Dan was the advertising manager) nor the five other employees who depended on the newspaper. So the responsibility fell to me, the oldest child, and the one who had worked at the newspaper since I could see over the tops of the counters where the papers were stacked, to get the news… and to get the paper out.

I got extended leave until October 11.

I had been working with them for several months before I went into OTS, so it was fairly easy to drop into the flow of things. Daddy wasn’t supposed to be involved, since the stress of the weekly newspaper was a big factor in his heart attack, but he invariably asked what was going on and gave his input. The newspaper and its role in the social, political and economic life of the community was his life, so he couldn’t just lie back and say ‘have at it boys! It’s your problem.’ It wasn’t in him.

Daddy was a preacher’s kid, and went to Mercer, the Baptist university where his father taught, but he chose journalism as his pulpit. He had not worked as a journalist before going off to war, and as best I can discern from the stories I heard, he was not especially serious about his life as a young man. His fourth mission over Germany, as part of the Allied mission to disable the Nazi ball bearing factories, changed all that. The Nazi military command depended heavily on its tanks, and tanks ran on ball bearings, so the factories were heavily defended, mostly with anti-aircraft guns, what Daddy called ‘flack’ or ‘ack-ack.’ His plane took a direct hit, and the crew bailed out. As Daddy was swinging in under his chute, he looked up to see the plane explode just seconds after he jumped out.

In that moment, he gained new perspective on his life, convinced that God had saved his life for some particular purpose. He spent the next fifteen months figuring out what that purpose was.

As that ‘chute came down, daddy descended to earth near the town of Freden – that the town’s name echoed his own, Fred Eden, further convinced him of the cosmic significance of his mishap. His favorite story of all this, one of the few he told about the whole experience, centered around the arrival of the local police captain and a group of farmers armed with pitchforks, hurling hatred and Germanic epithets at him. The good captain, who was apparently unarmed himself, took Daddy’s big .45 automatic pistol, pointed it at Daddy and tried to fire. Unaware of the operation of this American firearm, the captain didn’t know how to chamber the first shell, but kept trying to get it to fire, in Daddy’s direction of course. Finally, he gave up in disgust, throwing the weapon to the ground and spitting out, “Dum-dum! Dum-dum!” Which Daddy took to mean he thought the gun was only a fake. At any rate, the fact that he survived this half-hearted attempt at murder gave Daddy even deeper conviction that he was being saved for a purpose.

That purpose, which he came home convinced of and lived out his life in pursuit of, was to bring intelligent, dedicated, moral leadership to the people of his community. It was a goal which he by and large accomplished, as anyone who knew him would testify to. He was the personification of the crusading country editor, and turned down a number of far more lucrative jobs over the years in order to continue to pursue it. Nothing so trivial as a heart attack was going to sway him from that path.

My job was to keep things going until he could take over again, and to keep him calm and unstressed in the process. To the best of my ability, I did it. In a day, I stepped from one life, one future, into a totally different life where the future, and the war, seemed unreal. With lots of help from Uncle Dan, I began collecting and writing the news of a small south Georgia town. My days were filled with chats with the Mayor, meetings with the Chamber of Commerce, phone calls to politicians, and social events. Not to mention hours at Daddy’s old typewriter.

The most interesting news – and the most problematic for me — was of public meetings over a controversial proposal to build a dam that would flood a large area of the county to create a recreational lake. After hearing the developers and the opponents speak about the Groveland Dam project a few times, I knew it was a bad idea. I was convinced that dams in general are a bad idea, and the flooding of a number of small churches with accompanying cemeteries made this one even worse. But I knew my Dad was a major supporter of the project for its economic development potential. Ours was a small agricultural county with no industry beyond a fruit cake factory and a poultry plant, so the reservoir would bring in needed tourist dollars.

So again, even at home, I was caught in an ethical dilemma: follow my conscience or live up to my responsibility and my father’s trust. I tried to report the story objectively, keeping my doubts out of it, and left the editorials to Uncle Dan. But I felt wrong and confused, because I wanted to give a voice and support to those who opposed the project. It seemed that the cool, analytical and superior tone that is the standard in newspaper writing unavoidably gave undue weight to the experts, the promoters, the officials who were pushing the project, and made the opponents sound carping and stupid, as much as I tried not to. I felt unable to write the truth of the story using the journalistic idiom.

I stopped worrying about it when one of the farmers, a young man not given to idle threats, stood up in one of the meetings and drawled: “We’ve been coming to these meetings, listening to you fellas talk and trying to tell you that we don’t want this dam even if it makes us rich, and you don’t seem to want to hear what we have to say. So I’ll just tell you this: you go ahead and build your dam, and when you do, we’ll blow it up. And you go back and build it again, we’ll blow it up again. So you just go ahead and build your dam, and we’re just gonna go home.”

The dam was never built. I left for my own war soon after, so I don’t know how the developers managed to back down gracefully from the proposal, but I do know very little was said about it after that meeting. The Canoochee River still flows unfettered through Groveland, and the bones of the ancestors lie undisturbed in their graves, at least in Evans County.

By the time my extended leave was up, Daddy was back at his desk and things were back to normal. I was never able to talk to him of my reservations about being in the Air Force, my anger at the war, my despondence at going off to fight for something that I did not believe in. It didn’t really seem like something I could bring up, under the circumstances, so we didn’t argue, but I felt sick inside all the time.

Sometime about the second week of October, Daddy drove me to the airport to fly out to Fairchild AFB. It was the most painful goodbye of my life. The whole family was there and we cried and they all hugged me over and over.  Mother relates that as the family watched the little Delta jet take off, my brother Stewart, who was just 18, stood crying quietly, pounding his fist into the roof of the station wagon over and over, denting it permanently.

He expressed perfectly how we all felt.

I was off to war. With a few stops along the way. That was one of the differences between this war and my Daddy’s war. When Daddy’s generation went off to save the world, they went down to the dock and sailed away into the teeth of battle, waving glorious goodbye to the folks back home who crowded the shore. With us, there was no such clear break. I left Georgia in mid-October, bound for war, but it was well into November before I even saw Vietnam and near the end of that month before I flew a mission. Along the way was Survival School in Washington, a few loose days in San Francisco, Jungle Survival in the Philippines, and hours and days lost in the alien worlds inside various aircraft.

Survival School

Survival School was primarily designed to convince us that we’d rather die in the jungle than get captured by the VC. It all began – like many Air Force training experiences – with long hours in a classroom where some old sergeant made us all feel like shit even though we were the ones wearing brass bars and silver wings and all he had was a sleeve full of chevrons.

—-

“So, this next part is my personal favorite – at least in the bail-out scenario presentations…” The old sergeant grinned as he looked around the room at the young lieutenants shifting in their desks.

“You’re gonna find out what that big ole orange knife that lives in that little pocket on your flight suit – yeah, the one right there under your crotch – is there for.” He grinned again. “Here’s the scenario: you just punched out, your ‘chute opened as advertised, everything’s working perfectly, except – you’re coming down over the desert and the wind is blowing like hell. You’re hanging underneath the ‘chute at about a twenty degree angle, and nothing you can do will turn you into the wind. You hit the ground moving laterally way too fast, and despite all your efforts to roll, you’re on the ground and the chute is dragging you – face down. Whaddya think’s gonna happen?”

The young pilots looked around at each other now, wondering what this was leading to. Nobody volunteered anything. Not that green.

I remembered the time early in UPT when we were practicing getting out of the parachute harness in the water. The Sergeant had asked if anyone was WSI, and stupid me, I raised my hand. I got detailed to dive to the bottom of the pool each time and drag the heavy harness back to the side for the next guy. Almost fucking drowned before our flight was done with the exercise, and then I had to try. So I acted like I didn’t understand the question.

“Well, if you’re dragging along the ground, it’s highly likely that everything’s gonna get pretty clogged up with dirt, and the slightly unfortunate consequence of that is that your windpipe gets clogged up and then – then, you can’t breathe. Not a good situation. What do you think you do about that?” The Sergeant was enjoying himself, his superiority clear.

“Does it involve the knife?” some brave voice called from the back.

“Give the gentleman a toaster! Exactly the knife! So whaddya gonna do with it, cut your throat?” No more bravery from the back.

“Well, you sure are!” the sergeant continued, obviously pleased with the shock that ran through the troops arrayed in front of him. He grinned and looked at the confused faces. “Almost anyway. Here’s what you do. You snap open that handy little pocket, pull out your survival knife…” He held the knife high for all to see. “…then, you open this big blade here, and you put your thumb on the blade about a half inch from the tip, like this.” He displayed the knife again, thumbnail firmly pressed against the flat of the blade, slightly over half an inch of blade visible. The room was quiet.

“Then you take that blade and you find that little slot right here in your throat…” The fingers of his left hand reached to his throat and he fingered the larynx. “Feel those two little bumps..?”

Fingers went to larynx in each of the desks, serious looks fixed each face.

“Yeah, right there in your Adam’s apple… right in between those two little bumps is where this knife is gonna go. Now ya’ don’t wanna be shy about it, or it’ll hurt, you just wanna line it up just right there and be sure you got a good grip on it, and then, zip! You just shove it in there right up to the thumb— Hey!! Don’t go trying it now!” The sergeant took a step toward one of the war-bound pilots. There were chuckles around the nearly self-wounded lieutenant.

“I mean that’s what you’re gonna do if you can’t breathe!” He returned his attention to the full group. “Now you believe me, you may not think you’ll want to be sticking any knife into your throat, but you start missing that air, pretty quick, you’ll not worry about that little prick in your pretty little neck.”

Pilots stretched and rubbed their necks all over the room, not meeting each other’s gazes, mulling over the whole situation. The sergeant took long paces back and forth across the front of the room, grinning ferociously as he surveyed his captives.

“So – you slip it in there real quick, and then you very gently twist the blade 90 degrees so that it opens up that little slot into a nice little hole that leads right into your windpipe and Voila! Suddenly you’re sucking wind again! That should work long enough for you to get that clog outta your mouth and start breathing normal again – maybe jam a stick…”

My mind lost focus, and the words blurred into the murmurs from my fellow students. The idea of such a scenario was revolting and frightening, yet I marveled at the ingenuity of the proposed solution. Wonder if I could really do that, I thought. I imagined taking in a deep breath through my larynx, closing the opening and then exhaling sharply to try to force the blocking dirt out. Wouldn’t be much fun!

That night we entered the compound phase of training and I found out what ‘not much fun’ really meant. The compound training was clearly designed by the most sadistic group of sergeants they could find.

It was dark and cold, there were explosions flashing around all in front of us, and each flash revealed a large field filled with barbed wire, ditches, wooden walls, and other obstacles whose exact form was unclear. The black-clad sergeant standing at the edge of the field slapped my shoulder and shouted, “Go!” – the signal I was to begin the obstacle course. I began running, jumping, climbing, and crawling my way through the dark, constantly reassuring myself that the explosions were harmless and there was no live fire involved in this exercise.

I arrived at the end exhausted, muddy, cold and terrified nonetheless. As I ran forward, not knowing what to do next, suddenly several men in black carrying weapons ran shouting from behind a wall. My terror increased exponentially when they grabbed me roughly and covered my head with a bag, then began dragging me away. I struggled to stay upright, running to keep up, completely confused. What the hell is happening, I thought? Who are these people?

There was no chance to ask questions. The shouting continued and I was pushed and dragged along, my breath ragged and my heart pounding. I could hear other shouting all around, and the sounds of some kind of strange, tinny music that grew louder as we ran. Finally, we stopped and I heard the metallic sounds of a door opening. Suddenly the bag was snatched off my head and I was pushed into a small cubicle and the door slammed behind me.

I came up roughly against a wooden wall, turned around and shouted at my captors, but the strange wailing music was so loud I could hear no answer. I collapsed on the ground, leaning against the wall and looking around in the dark, trying to see where I was. The cubicle seemed to be about six feet in all directions, and empty. When I recovered my breath I tried the door; there was not even a handle on the inside, and it gave no indications it might yield to my shaking and kicking, so I soon gave up the struggle. I sat down on the ground again and tried to clear my mind.

The compound, I remembered. This is supposed to be the compound. I couldn’t remember being told anything that prepared me for this cubicle. Something about interrogation, they had said. Nothing was making much sense. The noise, the explosions, the race across the field with my head covered had so disoriented me that I could hardly remember where I was, what was supposed to be happening. I tried to rest. Not in shape for this kind of stuff, I thought. I had been in pretty good shape for a while, but hadn’t been doing any running lately. The music made sleeping impossible, and I began to try to sort out what it was. Chinese, I thought at first, or maybe Vietnamese. I had no idea what Vietnamese sounded like, but this could be it. A plaintive, wailing, sliding voice, warbling notes that seemed discordant and out of time with the twangy accompaniment, played through cheap rattling speakers. Must be Vietnamese. Nothing like any music I ever heard before.  Nothing I want to hear much more of, either.

I had just begun to drift off when loud banging on the wall aroused me. Someone was outside shouting and banging on the wall some distance from me, getting closer. Then the banging was on my door, loud, frightening, then moving on. Down the line. I realized there must be a number of these cubicles around me, as the noise moved away and then began coming closer again. Maybe several rows. I began shouting, trying to communicate. If someone was next to me, maybe they’d hear, answer. Again, my efforts were thwarted by the maddeningly insistent music. I stood again and walked around the perimeter of the space, confirming my estimation of its confines. The banging and shouting continued to wax and wane with occasional pauses. I was mystified, and begin to be worried.

What the hell are they up to, I wondered. Maybe these sergeants who seem to hate us so much have just gone off the deep end, taken this thing over and decided to teach us some real lessons. Clarity was slipping away.

The banging was approaching again. This time it stopped near my cubicle and the shouting was intelligible – someone was being rousted out! The door slammed and the banging began again. Again it moved away and I drifted off.

A loud slap against my door woke me abruptly and the door flew open. “Let’s go, Yankee pig! Get up! Let’s go!” shouted the man entering the little space, grabbing me and spinning me around. Again, the bag went over my head and I was grabbed by the elbows and hustled out the door and away. Several stumbling minutes later, I was dragged inside again, told to sit on the floor, and left. I hear anxious shouting all around me, mumbled instructions, chaos filling my mind.

I was still breathing hard and trying to clear my head when I felt myself being pushed again, gruff instructions and shoves directing me into a small space, the door to the space closing, forcing me in, and I’m inside a box, head barely clearing my knees, arms wrapped around my legs, panic starting to rise. Just breathe, I think. Try to relax. I could always sit on my heels, feet flat on the floor, without tipping over. My long-legged family thought it amazing. I remember seeing guys at the repair garage down the street from Daddy’s office squatting just that way as they worked on a tire or a generator. “The Sapp squat”, someone called it. It was coming in handy now. I could sit like this for hours, I thought. Stay calm, don’t panic.

I could hear others shouting around me, voices full of panic, probably in boxes too, not happy about it. Shouting all around me, and banging on the boxes. “Hey, shut up in there!” the gruff voice again. The more you yell, the longer you’re gonna stay in that box, I think.

Then it hit me:  this is supposed to be torture. They’re torturing us. Fuck that. I ain’t gonna be tortured, I’m just gonna sit in this goddam box ‘til they get me out. Not giving them the pleasure of hearing me yell. I just sit there. Breathe. Then the door’s opening, a quiet voice, “Okay, come on out.” Pushed against the wall, not so roughly now.  I know what’s happening here now, and I’m okay. It’s all some kind of game. The game of torture. I can play that game.

Before long, five minutes, an hour, five hours, who knows. Before long, though, someone grabs my arm, stands me up, “Let’s go!” in that gruff voice. Thinks he’s scary! I see behind the mask, now, though, and I’m not scared any more. It’s just a game. Pushes me into a room and snatches my bag off, slams the door behind me, bright light floods my eyes, I can’t see, blinking and rubbing my eyes.

Someone’s in the room, shouting at me again, and gradually I see a plain gray desk, the shouting man sitting behind it. “Can’t you hear, you slime! I asked you your name!” He’s wearing a black tee shirt, black fatigues bloused over black boots, and a black beret. Cool outfit. Goes with the little Hitler mustache. He slams a short stick on the desk top and screams again, asking for my name. Oh yeah, I remember. Name, rank, and serial number.

I blurt out the requested info and the tone changes. Now he’s calm and smooth-talking, asking me innocuous questions about my family, acting like he knows them, knows me, says something about Georgia. I’m in such a fog I don’t say much. So he’s shouting again, stands me against the wall, slides me down to a sitting position only there’s no chair. He’s yelling and slapping the desk with his stick, and my thighs are starting to burn, he’s asking more questions, threatening. I’m getting pretty scared of all this yelling and slapping. The guy is over the top. Then I remember, interrogation. Finally, I remember: this is all a game. It goes on for a while and then the guy with the bag comes back and I’m back sitting against some wall. Pretty soon – three minutes, two hours, who knows – we’re all hoisted up again and marched out, back to our cubicles, complete with music and shouting concierge.

Several days or hours later, we all get moved en masse, somewhere. The bags come off and it’s light outside and there’s fifteen or so of us in this old bunker. We’re given bowls of rice with small pieces of fish by our surly captors, and instructions about coming up with an escape plan. Nobody has any bright ideas, so we eat our rice and complain. Some of the guys report finding cots and refrigerators in their cubicles after being there awhile. Only the cot disappeared when he tried to lie down on it, the reefer vanished when he tried to look inside for food. There are other planned activities later in the day, more fun and games with the black-suited ones, but nothing near as much fun as the cubicles. Boring stuff really. But we survive. Isn’t that the point?

Spokane didn’t offer much in the way of entertainment for young pilots headed for Vietnam in 1970, but Coeur d’Alene just across the state line was a different story. Allegedly, legal prostitution was an option, but the group I was with on this night – our last night of freedom before we began the wilderness survival part of the wonderful USAF Survival School experience – decided to make the rounds of the topless bars and strip joints.

We didn’t get far. The first place we went in had a huge semi-circular bar fringing the stage. The bar was filled with men and the stage was filled with girls. The girls danced, or otherwise, in front of the men, and the men stuck money into various places in the girls costumes, or otherwise. After a hour or so of ogling and drinking, I realized that the denomination of the bill seemed to have a direct relation to the the time – as well as some inverse relation to the distance – involved in the dancer/customer relationship.

I remembered Jackie, in Jacksonville, the night before my induction physical. Some of us had had the bright idea that if you got drunk enough the night before, you’d fail the physical. Wrong. You were just extremely miserable – sick and throwing up and head aching – through what was already an extremely miserable situation. And I never even pissed in the cup. At the end, however,  my paperwork indicated ‘urine sample normal’. It was my first lesson in the ways of the military

Jackie was the white-booted go-go dancer on the table in the club where we went to see how drunk we could get, and one of the first of many lessons on the folly of love. Despite my declarations of love, and the bills I stuck in her boot, she left with her boyfriend about 2 a.m. and I was slobbering on the sidewalk.

Before we left that bar in Coeur d’Alene, some of the guys discovered that the denomination of the bill held in the teeth also had a relationship to which part of the body the dancer might use to retrieve the offering. I found myself wishing for a hundred dollar bill.

The next morning early, we boarded the buses for the long ride up into the dark green forested slopes along the Canadian border. The air was crisp and cold, but the ground and the skies were clear of snow or threat. We unloaded our 45-lb. poncho packs, and paired off. I got partnered with Adrian, an eighteen-year-old Airman from Detroit. The kid seemed nice enough, but he didn’t have much to say. He kept looking at the trees all around us as if he expected to see something there besides trees.

Adrian and I found a place to set up our sleeping gear, which involved simply opening our ponchos and lacing them together over a line. Then we collected spruce boughs and made two thick piles of them under the poncho tent. The double down mummy bags went on top and that was home for the next three days. I wondered why there was only one ration pack and a small plastic bag of vegetables if we were to be there that long.

I didn’t have to wonder long. We soon found out that we were expected to forage, hunt, trap or otherwise extract food from the surrounding forest. What the instructors failed to mention was that there had been thousands of guys in these forests practically continuously for a number of years now, and the likelihood of any actual game within a hundred miles was somewhere between slim and none.

We set snares and traps that would make a boy scout proud, but nobody came up with anything remotely resembling food. I put a piece of corn on a hook and caught a handful of fingerling fish, which I wrapped in foil – whole – and roasted. Nothing I ever ate tasted quite so good. My little bag of vegetables was gone long before the three days, and I had nothing but thin onion soup for the last day out. I’ve never much liked onion soup since.

We woke up to snow on the ground and ice on the poncho inches from our noses, we orienteer-ed in the deep north woods at night, we hiked to the top of some little mountain with the ropes holding our poncho-packs cutting into our shoulders, and we wondered what any of this had to do with surviving in an Asian rain forest. But we survived.

Orienteering was Adrian’s biggest challenge. He had never been in the woods before, much less big dark woods like these, and the idea of the two of us walking out into them with a flashlight and a compass was terrifying to him. We were supposed to go out for a mile, use the compass to make a 90-degree turn and hike a mile across, turn another 90 and come a mile back in, make another turn and come back to our starting point. Something like that. It sounded good in theory. I was used to being in the woods, though not the cold, and I felt confident I could go out far enough to be out of sight of our instructors, cut over, and come back to the starting point without getting lost. Adrian just hung onto my jacket, whimpering quietly as we tramped through the woods. He held the light each time we stopped to check the compass and be sure we were staying on the heading. I counted steps to keep all the legs of our little box the same length, and tried to reassure him that we wouldn’t get lost and there were no bears.

Somehow we survived. Maybe the point was to teach us that if we were lucky we might survive this whole war. I was never quite sure.

The flight to San Francisco was memorable. I watched the sun set behind a layer of strato-nimbus, and then again over the Pacific Ocean as we came in to land. I had a couple of days there before my flight out of Travis, so I stayed in a hotel downtown and wandered the streets, remembering how the city had seemed to represent the ultimate in freedom and abandon back before the war pushed us all to one extreme or the other. I went to a presentation of Hair, saw Mungo Jerry in concert, and checked out the naked dancers in North Beach.

I convinced myself I was having fun, though the strip bars all seemed rather lifeless, a parody of striptease. I remember watching one of the dancers in a North Beach joint as she sat at the table in her housecoat. The music began, she killed her drink, shook her head in a “one more time” gesture, stood up, sloughed off her robe and plodded up the stairs onto the narrow carpeted stage and began listlessly dancing. I finished my $8 drink and left. Whatever happened to the mystique and drama of a good strip joint?

As I walked the streets, I thought of my options. I could easily disappear into the underground life of the city, hitchhike north and be in Canada within a couple of days. What was stopping me? Some sense of myself, to put a positive spin on it. Fear of the unknown, reticence to toss my life out the window and likely never see the people I loved again, to look at the negative side. It was hard to think through it all, to see it in any rational context. I thought about skipping out; I knew I could do it, but it just didn’t seem like the right course of action, however wrong the war might be.

So I showed up at Travis, made my flight, and with about as much drama and fanfare as checking out of a hotel, I was, finally, off to war.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s