Orange Socks & other colorful tales.
by j.s.lamb [copyright 2015]
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"Thanks. . ."
America’s Veterans of Foreign Wars
This book began as a series of short stories that I’d occasionally share with family and friends. One of those friends — Sam Harris — suggested I write down these tiny tales and put them into a book. That effort became “Enchanted War,” a manuscript rejected dozens of times by publishers, agents and the like. My son, Jesse, helped me re-work EW’s random, rambling passages into a single, strong framework, which eventually became “Orange Socks & other colorful tales.“ Special thanks to Sam and Jesse, without whom this little work would not have been possible — thanks also to the many encouragers along the way whose thoughtful words helped keep me going. j.s.l.
NOTE: Page #s are from a PDF and do not equate with TheProse.com version.
Prologue ....................................................................................................................1 Welcome to the War ..................................................................................................3 Rocket Attack, Part I ..................................................................................................5 Before the Fall ............................................................................................................6 Great Lakes ...............................................................................................................12 Long Distance Information .......................................................................................14 S2F as in “Stoof ” ......................................................................................................16 For Days, Gone .........................................................................................................20 A Mind Waking Up ...................................................................................................22 And Baby Makes Three ..............................................................................................23 Dark Daze. ................................................................................................................25 San Fran ....................................................................................................................27 Hi, Bozo ....................................................................................................................30 Coffee, Mate ..............................................................................................................31 Enchanted War ..........................................................................................................33 Click ..........................................................................................................................35 Rocket Attack, Part II .................................................................................................38 Ho’s Mouthpiece .........................................................................................................39 The M16 is Your Friend ..............................................................................................40 Paint, Mate .................................................................................................................42 Oh, Christmas Tree .....................................................................................................44 Hope-less Holiday ......................................................................................................47 Dr Pepper and B\E\E\R ..............................................................................................51 The Streak ..................................................................................................................55 Face-to-Face ...............................................................................................................57 Fingers and Razor Blades ............................................................................................60 Trouble in Paradise .....................................................................................................63 Orange Socks .............................................................................................................65 Climbing Mount Fuji .................................................................................................70 The Artful Dodger ......................................................................................................73 Stealing Psalm 40 .......................................................................................................75 Treasure Island ...........................................................................................................78 Epilogue .....................................................................................................................81
In 1957, my Mom, brother Doug and I flew from Pennsylvania to Florida to visit my Dad in Orlando. The company Dad worked for had been hired to upgrade a hotel along the perimeter of Lake Eola, a small pond created by a sinkhole and known for its fountain that produced dancing waters by day and an enchanting, multi-color, water-laced light show each evening.
The boss told Dad — a construction superintendent — to knock a hole in a wall between two rooms, thus putting both in the “under construction” category and assuring that the Lamb family would enjoy upscale lodging during its brief visit.
As great as the rooms were, they did not make nearly the impression on my spongy young brain as the sleek Constellation flown by Eastern Airlines that brought us safe and sound to the Sunshine State. The aptly nicknamed Super Connie was an elegantly graceful aircraft sporting a knock-your-socks-off look. I determined at the time — age 10 — that I would one day fly on just such a plane as a grown-up. The odds of that possibility, however, were prohibitively long because Boeing’s first jet airliner, the “Seven Oh Seven,” would soon make piston- driven aircraft like the Connie obsolete.
In the same year as my excursion to Florida, the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, visited the United States. President Dwight D. Eisenhower provided Diem
with his personal aircraft, a Constellation named after the Columbine, a lovely flower known for its beguilingly sweet nectar that entices bees, hummingbirds and butterflies.
During his visit, the South Vietnamese president received a standing ovation from the United States Congress, a ticker parade from the city of New York and the tag of “Miracle Man” from Life magazine for the success of his staunch anti-communist stance. When Diem left American soil that year, on Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, there were fewer than a thousand American troops in Vietnam.
Within a dozen years, both presidents would be dead: Eisenhower of congestive heart failure; Diem, victim of a bloody coup. The number of U.S. troops on the ground in Vietnam had increased to more than a half-million, the number of deaths to 40,000-plus.
And me? I’d be one year shy of stepping onto a Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star, a military configuration of the plane that had teased and tickled my imagination as a youngster. Destination: Da Nang.
Welcome to the War
My first memory of Da Nang is walking into the squadron’s Administration office and seeing lemonade in the water cooler.
"This place might not be so bad," I thought.
It was hot, and I was thirsty after the long flight from Japan. The air was thick, warm and heavy. You didn't walk through it. You wore it, like a sweater. The Admin office had a fan, but all it did was redistribute the humid, suffocating air. While my fellow sailors were checking in, I walked to the lemonade cooler to get a drink. Nearby were those cone-shaped paper cups that don't hold much, just enough to wet your mouth. I filled up my cone, flicked my wrist toward my face, and waited for the cool, bittersweet drink to splash onto my lips. But it wasn't sweet. It wasn't bitter. It wasn't even cool. The mystery liquid tasted sort of like warm, gritty water. I studied the cooler the way you look for fish in a murky aquarium. The water was yellow, all right, but not from lemons and sugar. Floating in the cooler was sand. Fat, beige sand.
"Welcome to Vietnam," I thought. "Welcome to the War."
I’d arrived in-country in the spring of 1970, after the Tet Offensive, but well before the Fall of Saigon.
At the time my wife, Bunny, was involved in the peace movement. She’d told me that I should refuse to go to Vietnam. Make a statement. Take a stand. Problem was:
When I joined the Navy, I knew Vietnam was a possibility. How could I suddenly claim to be a conscientious objector?
According to Navy records, I spent 11 months in Vietnam. That means I received hazardous duty pay 11 times. But if you add up the days, you'll find I only spent about seven months in-country. This was no accident. I was on rotation from my home base in Atsugi, Japan, sometimes ending up in Guam, sometimes the Philippines, sometimes Da Nang. (Atsugi, by the way, is where Lee Harvey Oswald was stationed in the early 1960s. It was a nest for spy planes, like the U-2. My squadron, VQ-1, a reconnaissance outfit, was based there. Big planes. Long flights. Secret missions.)
The duty rotation was devised in such a way that the squadron ferried us to Da Nang just before the end of the month, which meant we'd each get a month's worth of hazardous duty pay ($55 as I recall) even if we were only in-country three or four days.
My suspicion is that someone in the Pentagon came up with this arrive-early approach for morale purposes. A low-budget perk. And it was a great incentive, at least it was for me. Fifty-five dollars goes a long way when you don't have to pay for food and board, and cigarettes cost just 15 cents a pack. At those prices, I smoked three packs a day. Mostly Pall Malls, non-filtered. In the red package. I wasn't worried about my health. I figured a Viet Cong rocket would take care of that. I could just sit back and enjoy life.
Rocket Attack, Part I
Rocket attacks did not happen every night in Da Nang. Days would go by, and the evenings would be quiet. Then, after you’d gotten into the routine of sleeping well, there'd be an assault. Maybe two or three rockets in a single night. And one or two the next. Then none. Soon, you were spooked. (The “gotcha” effect.) Afraid to go to sleep and waiting for the big one, like the rocket that hit a nearby Air Force barracks during one of my tours (I forget how many died that night). Soon you'd be counting the steps from barracks to safety. Ready to roll. It was a path I knew well.
One night I woke up in the confines of a sand-filled, heavy-duty corrugated bunker, cuddled up on the floor, dressed only in skivvies. My blanket was covered with little burrs. My pillow (which I carried through nearly four years in the Navy) was wrapped around my head. A single bright light bulb hung from a wire in the far corner.
“What happened?” I asked someone who huddled nearby.
“Rocket attack,” he explained.
“How’d I get to the bunker?” I asked.
“You were already here when we arrived,” he said.
I’d made it to the bunker without quite knowing what had happened, which is pretty much how I ended up in the war in the first place. Here’s some background...
Before the Fall
I met my wife, Bunny, on the set of a Shippensburg State College production of “Our Town” during the fall semester of 1966.
As I recall, Bunny was an assistant director. And me? Howie Newsome, the Milkman.
The differences between me and she were not cavernous, but they weren’t inconsequential, either.
Me, Iron City Beer. She, Rum & Coke.
Me, T-shirt and jeans. She, Wanamaker's.
Me, construction worker. She, DuPont.
I could go on, but what’s the point?
On the other hand, we were both Catholic — not that we actually went to church on a regular basis.
The first date (that I remember anyway) was at the campus café. Small talk. Chit-chat. That sort of thing. At one point, I took a cigarette and just barely touched the cellophane in which it had been wrapped. The hot ash created a caramel-tinged circle.
“I bet if I taped this to the windshield of a car, it would look like a bullet hole,” I blurted.
Bunny laughed profoundly. Then broke into a beautiful smile. A thought exploded in my mind that moment, like fireworks: “I’d like to spend the rest of my life making her smile like that.”
From then on, I decided to pester her into marrying me. She said “No” each time. But she said “No” with a smile, so I kept trying.
Sometime after the last performance of “Our Town,” Bunny and I eloped. We drove to North Carolina because there was no waiting period and we met the state’s age requirements, even though we were only teenagers. Along the way, on the morning of Nov. 17, there was a stunningly spectacular meteor shower. I took it as a sign.
In Roanoke Rapids, we found a Justice of the Peace. He looked like Lyndon Johnson, except in a wheelchair. He married us, then sent us on our way.
We both dropped out of college. For a while we lived in Windber, Pennsylvania. I took whatever odd jobs came along. When opportunities to make money dried up, we moved to Kennett Square, where we lived with Bunny’s Mom.
Bunny became increasingly irritated with me. Two incidents stand out.
Once, during dinner, I was using a butter knife to nudge peas onto my fork so I could shovel them into my mouth. She got upset. Unsure of “the proper way” to eat peas, I mixed them with my mashed potatoes. She got even more upset.
The second incident was my attempt at humor, with disastrous results.
I walked into a room where Bunny was sitting. Beside her chair was an end table where a cap I occasionally wore sat. I picked up the cap, stretched out my arm and dropped it to the floor.
Bunny looked at the cap. Looked at me, and appeared puzzled.
Leaning over, I picked up the cap a second time, stretched out my arm and deliberately dropped it again. She appeared even more puzzled.
“I owe you an apology,” I said, holding back a smile
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I was starting to think that you’d get mad at me at the drop of a hat, but I was wrong.”
Instead of laughing, she got angry and chased me out of the room. After that, I pretty much kept to myself.
I looked for work, but without much luck, being what some dubbed “Draft Bait.” Finally, a temp agency placed me at a laundry. Originally, I was supposed to toss large net-like bags filled with dirty sheets and pillowslips into giant washing machines. But the son of the owner found out I had some college, so he promoted me to driver.
It was one of the best jobs I ever had. The thing I liked most was that there was a solid routine, mostly pick-ups and deliveries of bed sheets and pillowslips to commercial facilities such as motels and nursing homes. (The stench of the pick-ups at the nursing homes was balanced by the fact that, by and large, I was my own boss, as long as I hit my schedule.) I was smoking Lucky Strikes at the time, a perfect cigarette for quick breaks. They were short, intense and the pack slipped nicely into my pocket. On hot days, I’d wrap a pack into the left sleeve of my T-shirt. I still remember the brand’s slogan: LSMFT — "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco."
The highlight of my week was the chance to visit my favorite truck stop with its great coffee and even better apple pie. I’d maneuver my little Chevy box truck into the parking lot alongside the big rigs and join the brotherhood at the counter. Then I’d light up a Lucky, order a cup of black java in one of those classic, off-white ceramic mugs and wait for my pie. I loved being a trucker, even though it was on such a small scale.
In earlier years, I’d lived in the middle of nowhere near a truck stop on Old 56 in Bedford County, Pennsylvania. Though the truck stop is long gone, the red ceramic-tiled stone house that I lived in is still there. Before getting my driver’s license, I worked at the truck stop’s restaurant, washing dishes to get enough money to play the pinball machines at five cents a pop. To get into town, I’d hitch with one of the drivers and watch intently as these maestros of the open road double-shifted their twin-stick, 18-wheeled dragons, sometimes steering with their elbow, all the while eye-balling the winding, double-yellow, narrow two-lane road as they geared and growled to their destinations.
It was heaven.
By the time of my senior year in high school, my family had moved from Bedford County to nearby Windber, a coal town in Somerset County.
In recent years, the county garnered some notoriety: On September 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 augured into an open field in Somerset as passengers and crew fought to prevent the plane from being used to attack Washington, D.C. Then, in July 2002, an accident at Quecreek Mine in Somerset captured the nation’s attention as rescuers worked to save nine miners trapped underground for three days. Both were captivating, inspiring stories. It seems odd, somehow, that Somerset County could have been around for so long in relative obscurity and then burst onto the national scene twice in less than a year. But back to my story...
So I was driving a laundry truck. Not because that was my life’s dream but because the job I really wanted, foreman in a steel foundry, had fluttered away when my draft notice arrived the Saturday before I was to start. I contacted my boss-to-be and told him that I could not in good conscience take the foreman job because I understood the long-term investment they would be making in me at a time when, by all reasonable expectations, I could expect to be whisked away by the military any day. I had no such qualms taking the laundry truck job because, within days of my training, I was on the road making deliveries.
To avoid being drafted by the Army, I eventually joined the Navy. Why? Because at the time I liked those heavy wool, dark blue peacoats worn by sailors. Ironically, after I got out of the Navy in 1971, I gave my peacoat to my buddy Wayne in Evansville, Indiana, because someone had stolen his. It’s funny how some choices we make seem right at the time though later, in the broader context of our lives, they are little more than random tosses of the dice. Still, I miss that coat.
I cannot tell you much about boot camp, except that it took place at Great Lakes. The entire episode is a murky blur of marching. And marching. And marching. Punctuated by sundry activities.
A few examples:
- The haircuts were all the same. Buzz cuts. Zoom, zoom and you’re done. One barber with a sense of humor asked the guy next to me what he’d like. “A trim,” the guy said. The barber smiled. Then, zoom, zoom. Buzz cut. And he was done. As it was with me.
- Bunny sent me a letter addressed to Jim “The Body” Lamb. As the fella handing out the mail yelled out what she’d written on the envelope, the barracks filled with catcalls, who-hahs, and provocative innuendos that I cannot adequately replicate here. I’m embarrassed whenever I think about it. Still, wherever that “Body” is, I’d like to have it now.
- I remember my drill instructor losing his temper during a practice for the march down the parade field for graduation day. He was a short, wiry, intense man with a mean streak. During the practice he ripped the pole from one of the flag bearers and pulled it tight against the young sailor’s neck, dragging him to the ground, cussing along the way.
- For a week I manned a small mess area for officers that entailed making fresh coffee and placing Danish and other sweet rolls out for them to partake. I was surprised at how well the officers treated me at the time, knowing that I was, in the popular vernacular of the day, “lower than whale $!@# at the bottom of the ocean.”
- During one of many boot camp inspections the clothes that I had washed, dried and carefully folded were pulled from their small locker, stepped on and kicked around the area near my bunk. It was the beginning of a long line of less-than-happy outcomes regarding inspections in which I would participate.
There were other pebble-sized events that occurred, but hardly memorable. Besides, the repetition was so substantial that it’s difficult to isolate one day from the next.
I do remember that the morning I left Great Lakes it snowed soft, quarter-sized flakes. I felt sorry for the incoming sailors who were about to spend a long, cold snow-filled winter in Michigan, but happy for myself that I would not.
Long Distance Information
I left Great Lakes and after a brief visit home went on a six-month stint at Aviation Electronics School at Memphis Naval Air Station.
About the only thing I knew about the town was from the song by Chuck Berry. That and the fact that Memphis was home to “The King,” Elvis Presley, in a legendary place called Graceland.
But it turns out that the base on which I was stationed was located in the city of Millington, not Memphis, a town that I was never to visit.
Three history-changing events took place while I was at Memphis NAS:
- President Lyndon Baines Johnson, my Commander-In-Chief, announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek re-election to the presidency. The radio address was piped into our barracks and seemed ordinary enough until the end when he said something like, "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” I had worked as a volunteer for LBJ during my freshman year in college, not so much because I liked the man, but because he seemed destined to carry the torch of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, someone I deeply respected and admired. But Vietnam in general — and the lethal one-two punch of Eugene McCarthy’s primary challenge and the ill-fated Tet Offensive — KO’ed Johnson’s presidency.
- Just days after LBJ’s announcement, Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis. The civil rights leader was in town to help bring attention to the plight of the city’s sanitary workers. The assassination put the city off-limits for naval personnel.
- About two months after the death of Dr. King, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed in California. I thought it was the end of the world. Bobby seemed the last best hope for rationality in a world gone crazy. But the jarring chaos then was only a hint of what was to come as riots during the Democrat Convention in Chicago seemed to suggest that the era of America as a lighthouse of freedom had faded and was about to be extinguished.
Historical events aside, my time in Tennessee was day- after-endless-day of training, as the Navy compressed a two-year electronics school into six months.
The highlights? Not many:
- The flight into Tennessee was on a two-engine reciprocal prop aircraft (Delta Airlines, I think). I fell into a deep sleep along the way, only to be awakened in a dripping sweat when we were buffeted by a brutal storm that tossed the plane around the way a frisky kitten tosses a toy.
- I spent my 21st birthday at the Naval Air Station, but was not able to have a legal drink because I was on duty. The next day I went to the base bar and downed a draft beer.
- One day, someone invited me to a church service to hear an evangelist speak. Having been brought up Catholic and mostly attending the Mass in Latin, I had no idea what I was in for. The minister preached in a powerfully emotional sing-song pattern, quoting Bible verses that had me in tears for reasons that I could not understand. I left the services as soon as I could, making my way back to the base swearing that I would never again attend such a heart-wrenching event.
With electronics school finished, I headed to VT-27, a training outfit at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas.
S2F as in “Stoof”
The Grumman S2 Tracker had lived a noble life as an anti- submarine warfare aircraft. In Corpus Christi, however, they were gutted of their more sophisticated electronic gear and relegated as trainers. Still, they maintained a certain dignity, operating as rugged Jeeps of the air.
During my first few weeks at VT-27, I helped gas and oil these twin-engine workhorses with their 70-foot wingspan, 42-foot length, and 280-plus maximum speed Their wings folded so that they could be parked more efficiently when on an aircraft carrier.
Gassing planes was not my forte, especially in the early morning hours when I was less than equipped to be alert and focused. I remember once letting the fuel overflow, covering the top of the airplane and the bottom of my body with av-gas, a lapse in judgment that produced a most unpleasant sensation, like a sea of red ants all biting at the same time.
When my character-building days of fueling aircraft was over, I settled into the routine of early-morning inspections, all-day work sessions, and evenings in the barracks.
Like every other “swabbie,” one of my many expected responsibilities was guarding the squadron of Stoofs assigned to VT-27. I can’t tell you how many times I did that for God and Country, knowing full well that the chances of anyone wanting to steal or spy on these planes was zero or less.
Watches, as they were called, were usually about four hours long, either within the confines of the hangar or out on the flight line where the planes were tied down.
For me, watches inside the hangar seemed to go faster, while those on the flight line were painfully expansive, both in time and space.
To make the four-hour flight line watches go faster, I counted the spaces between the planes on my first go- around and then “napped,” eyes closed, while walking between the planes. This required a certain amount of relaxed concentration to pull off. On at least one occasion, I miscounted and ran smack into the side of a parked plane, falling to the ground abruptly, flat on my back — then jumping up to my feet in an instant, hoping nobody had seen the incident.
At Corpus Christi I gained a reputation as a solid troubleshooter who could be trusted to work the night shift, alone, going through the seemingly miles of wiring to track down a problem. This was more tedious than it sounds. The wiring manual for the Stoof — a relatively uncomplicated plane compared to the computerized dynamos of today — was still substantial. The book, perhaps 5 or 6 inches thick, had pages that when unfolded, stretched out 6 feet or so. To troubleshoot, you started at the outliers and worked inward (half-by-half) to narrow down the location of the problem. Sometimes this trouble-shooting technique produced results in an hour or so. Other times, it might take days, tracking down a single, illusively difficult problem.
I remember one time inheriting a radio communication problem that had plagued my colleagues on the day shift and that had been passed along to me, but I simply could not replicate the problem (an intermittency) on the ground, so I asked to be taken on a flight.
The Stoof is a four-seater, with pilot and co-pilot up front and two support personnel behind. During the flight, I sat behind the pilot in the general vicinity of where I thought the problem should be.
During take-off and climbing, everything worked just fine. Then, when we made altitude and began to execute various maneuvers, the radio kicked in and out. I determined that the issue had to be located in a cubbyhole behind and below the pilot where a large, thick wiring bundle cozied up against the airframe. Sticking my head around in the tight quarters with a flashlight nuzzled between my neck and shoulder, I noticed what looked to be a small, flat, gray-black object nestled below the bundle. It turned out to be the heel of a shoe. When the plane moved in certain ways, the nails in the heel short- circuited various wires and produced a variety of symptoms. I removed the heel and the radio worked properly.
While my troubleshooting skills were appreciated, my utter lack of attention to all things Navy was not. The head of our department, a Chief Petty Officer of Native American heritage, felt that a week in leadership school would help straighten me out. I resented the intimation that I was as flawed as he thought because my work record was rock-solid. So I decided to throw myself into the week of training sessions, tests and speeches. In the end, I was selected as the top person in my class, which prompted my Chief Petty Officer to lament, “What have they done to my Navy?”
For Days, Gone
There was a coffee shop on base that was my refuge. It had one door in, one door out. I’d go there sometimes. To think. To write. To draw. But it wasn’t the coffee or the food that drew me in.
The jukebox at the Corpus Christi NAS café wasn’t one of those glitzy Wurlitzer-types. Instead, it had about as much personality as an aluminum screen door. But it held something I treasured, like a diamond ring nestled in a dime-store gift-box.
That something was a song.
"Four Days Gone" was track number four on the Buffalo Springfield’s Last Time Around album. It was not the group’s biggest hit. That would probably be “For What It’s Worth,” a haunting, lyrical anti-war song. And here I was, part of the war machine. A blunt rivet, somewhere in the back-shadows of America’s arsenal.
I liked the song because the guy in it was running away. And was, most likely, never coming back. Even if he wanted to. I was too much of a coward to run away. But I could — in two-minute, 57-second intervals — hide amongst the words, phrases and notes of “Four Days Gone.”
It begins with light drums and even lighter cymbals. A piano meanders in. Next comes back-pick movements on a rhythm guitar, with sound-effected brightness that gently nudges the notes a bit past their fading point as the guitar player mutes the strings to get a crisp stop and after-echo.
The words are homely, in that good way. And they move the story along just fine:
The singer meets “two kind people on the road.”
He notes that he’s “three miles shy of my town.”
And, finally, he’s “four days gone into running.”
The interlude is understated. Not one more note than needed. Just enough to get the point across.
And the ending? As simple and direct as the rest of the song.
A modest song, but in 1969 it offered more comfort than I was finding anywhere else in my life. So, when I had pocket change and time to spare, I’d head over to that little haven, bribe the music box in the corner to play “Four Days Gone” — then sit back, brooding, until the few first notes unlatched my mind's door so I could escape, if only for a little while.
A Mind Waking Up
From time to time, there are vulnerable moments when a certain longing of the heart suggests there is more to existence than what we see and hear. We just want more of... something.
In Texas, I searched for that “more,” often going to the base library and digging through what books I could find.
The two names that I remember most are Jeane Dixon and Edgar Cayce. Dixon was a popular astrologer and psychic at the time who was said to have predicted the assassination of John Kennedy. Cayce, who died before I was born, was also considered to have psychic abilities. He would go into a trance-like state and produce a wide range of “readings,” from assessments about a person’s health to revelations about the future.
During this time of random research, I picked up a book called “A Mind Awake,” which I mistook to be a compilation of sayings by Cayce. It turned out to be an anthology of C.S. Lewis. The mistake was ultimately life- changing. Lewis, who died on the day that Kennedy was killed, was a remarkably intelligent, thoughtful and articulate Christian apologist. “A Mind Awake” re- calibrated my thinking away from the occult and towards a position where I could at least consider the claims of Christianity. I made no decision at that time, but the book had a substantial effect on me. Many years later, to honor his memory, I made a pilgrimage to The Kilns, Lewis’ home in Oxford.
And Baby Makes Three
I spent the first few months in Texas living in the barracks. I was a bit older than most of my colleagues, having spent about two years in college before I’d received my draft notice. That kept me from getting terribly close to anyone. Plus, I was married, even though my wife was not living with me at the time. She was at home with her mother and grandmother.
Later, when we learned she was pregnant with our daughter-to-be, Kate, she moved to Texas with me, initially in an apartment off-base and later in an old, dusty wood-framed house near the base.
I was, in many ways, a terrible husband. I’d wanted to be a rock star, but my talent ratio was so low as to make such a goal delusional. I was a marginal singer, a clichéd writer and a merely adequate bass player. Plus, I hung around mostly with druggies and misfits of varying degrees, a recipe for disaster if there ever was one.
What was I thinking?
Kate’s birth was apparently tough. I say “apparently” because in 1969, when she was born, men were not generally involved in the labor process. All I remember was a nurse cornering me into the wall of the hospital, putting her nose to my nose and informing me that the baby was born and that (referring to my wife) I better “treat that little girl right” or she (the nurse) would come after me.
Message sent; message received.
Kate was a charming little baby. My favorite memory of those days is of she and I watching football games together on Sundays. My wife and I kept a lambskin rug in front of the TV so Kate could watch the games. She would push up with her wobbly arms so she could see the TV screen. Occasionally, her neck would get tired and her head would drop into the fluffy wool, but she’d push right back up again so as not to miss any of the action.
What a sweetie.
It wouldn’t surprise anyone who knew me at the time that I had a drug problem. It wasn’t dramatic like Frank Sinatra’s in “The Man with the Golden Arm,” the 1955 movie directed by Otto Preminger and co-starring Kim Novak.
In the film, Frankie Machine (Sinatra) was a junkie, caught in a complex web only partially of his making. He struggled to extract himself from a wickedly raw, drug- enticing maze, only to get pulled in deeper and deeper before he finally (with Kim Novak’s help) found redemption by going “cold turkey.”
Unlike Sinatra’s character, I was a dabbler, mostly in marijuana, with an occasional straggle into hashish, and a single foray into LSD. I won’t elaborate, but my acid trip, which started out well with a mix of mind-enhancing music and swirling bright colors, ended poorly when a scorpion unexpectedly showed up, tossing my mind into a splintered cascade of tears and terror.
Not long after that bad trip, I began trying to distance myself from my druggie friends and acquaintances, but by then it was too late. Too many sailors in Corpus Christi were using too many drugs, and it was just a matter of time before the powers that be caught on. Though I was not a major player (having neither bought nor sold drugs) I hung around with those who did. I woke up one day being called into the commander’s office and told that I was being processed for an undesirable discharge. It was not one of my better moments.
The charges were later dropped for a number of reasons, but I gather that the main three were that (1) there were so many sailors involved that they cut back the number so as not to embarrass the leadership on the base, (2) I was a new father and they figured they would show mercy, and (3) I was such a minor player that charging me was like going after a sand flea with a full-fledged Navy Seal team.
For whatever the reason, I was happy to see the charges eventually dropped.
While trying to deal with the day-to-day pressures of having a dishonorable discharge hanging over my head, I decided to visit the base chaplain and try to get some answers about possibly salvaging some part of my life. The chaplain was a no-nonsense, barrel-chested officer with a skeptical, stone-hewn face and a gruff voice. I emptied a full measure from my contrite heart as a sin offering, splashing flashes of emotion around his neatly organized office. He did not say much. All I remember was, “Get a haircut, boy.” I did, but having done so, felt neither redeemed nor reassured.
After the debacle in Texas, I was happy to see some new scenery. My orders sent me to Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, California, near San Francisco. That gig lasted about eight weeks or so.
Thanks to the inefficiencies of the Navy, details of my problems in Texas never made it to Sunnyvale, probably because I was there temporarily for training. My actual duty station would be Japan.
For that reason, I was able to take the test for Second Class Petty Officer and be judged on my test results rather than on my most recent escapades. “Dodging a bullet” sounds like a cliché, but in this case it’s an apt description. The promotion added a little more money to the till, most of which I sent home. Plus, after months of ego-draining, heart-grinding set-backs, it was nice to have a whiff of success.
Unfortunately, that was not all that I inhaled.
You’d think that someone who had survived tap-dancing along the brink of hell would settle down and turn his life around. Nah, that would be too easy. Once more, I poked fate in the eye.
As is my wont, here are some highlights and lowlights from my California tour of duty:
- Stanley Kubrick's ”2001: A Space Odyssey” was like a mesmerizing message sent from a dark, complex cult leader to his drug-dazed followers. We were the hairy creatures ooh-oohing as we danced around the glowing mega-monolith. We were the past. We were the future. I remember going to the base library and signing out the soundtrack so I could close my eyes and relive the film experience over and over and over again. When the strains of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” began, I felt like I was leaving my body and traveling to Kubrick's lair outside the time-space continuum. Floating through space, drifting among the stars, slouching toward Armageddon.
- My Great Aunt Katherine invited me to her house, ostensibly for dinner, but in actuality for a surprise birthday party for me. For whatever reason, I did not make it. But instead of telling her early enough for her to make other arrangements, I called hours after I was supposed to be there. That wickedly whimsical, irresponsible act was a metaphor for my life at the time. I was unreliable to the point of inadvertently hurting the very people who were trying to help me, and shortchanging myself in the process.
- I do not recommend that anyone use sense-enhancing, mind-altering drugs in any situation, but most particularly not while watching Walt Disney’s “Fantasia.”
- Hangar One at Moffett Field is one of the world's largest freestanding structures. During the day it looks like a
huge, oversized version of the Confederate ship CSS Virginia, perhaps better known as the Merrimac, which battled the USS Monitor during the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862. But at night, it looks eerily like a spaceship from “2001.” On evenings when I could, I sat outside this massive structure that covered multiple acres and meditated: “Ah-ooooooomm. Ah-ooomm. Ah- ooooooooooomm.”
- Lest you think that there were no Naval duties going on during my Moffett moment, let me assure you that there were. It’s just that they were less than memorable. There was the time that I got tricked into latrine duties because I did not volunteer to clean up the urinals, toilets, etc. The next time they asked for volunteers, I was the first to raise a hand. Of course, that time they did take the volunteers. And then there were the classes. My primary training was on a high frequency radio that, as I recall, was the HF 102. It was a great radio because it broke infrequently and when it did its factory-sealed sub-units had to be sent out to be repaired. What a beauty. I was also trained on another unit that I think was called the VHF 101. I didn’t learn much about that one because the fella who taught me had taken training the week before and wasn’t exactly sure how it worked, let alone how to troubleshoot it. So we spent the class playing with little remote-control cars, being assured by our trainer that we’d probably never have to work on the complex unit. Famous last words. . . but more about that later.
My wife did not join me in California because that tour was so short. She did not join me in Japan because of the uncertainty of my status, a fact well brought home once I arrived in Atsugi. By that time, my drug-tainted records had caught up with me, and I was immediately called to the Administration Office and told that at the first hint of trouble I was going to be all but keel-hauled if I stepped out of line. I took the message to heart and never used drugs again, even though I wanted to.
I arrived in Japan knowing virtually none of the language, with the possible exception of “sayonara,” and that I learned from a movie based on a James A. Michener novel of the same name.
It’s little wonder, then, that I might misunderstand a few things here and there.
On my first morning of work, a gun-metal-gray bus arrived at the stop near my barracks, and I asked for a ride to my squadron’s hangars.
The driver said, “Hi Bozo,” which offended me a bit, but I rationalized that perhaps this was part of some systematic approach to integrate a new gaijin (a.k.a. foreigner) into Japanese culture.
Not much later that morning, when I asked for a cup of coffee at a tiny kiosk just outside squadron headquarters, the little Japanese woman behind the counter said, “Hi Bozo.”
"Hmmmmmmmm," I thought, word travels fast around here.
When I approached a co-sailor with my “Bozo” concerns, he explained that the Japanese were actually saying, “Hai, dozo,” which means, essentially, “Yes, alright.”
It was not the last time I would misunderstand something when I was overseas.
Coffee is the lifeblood of the Navy. Don’t let anybody tell you different. No coffee? No Navy. It’s that simple. And, no, it’s not the caffeine, though that’s part of it, a big part no doubt.
Drinking coffee is what you do when you’re waiting, and when you work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week — as we did in Da Nang, for example — you spend a lot of time waiting. One reason why was the length of the flights for big birds like the Lockheed Super Constellation, or Super Connie, as we called them.
The Connie is one of the world’s most beautiful planes, a four-engine prop job with swoopy lines and a tri-tail configuration that accented its already striking design. As I mentioned in the prologue, my family and I flew in one from Pennsylvania to Orlando, Florida, back in 1957. As I recall, the plane was under development before World
War II. But the war delayed its implementation as a passenger plane.
My squadron, VQ-1, used the Super Connie for reconnaissance. The flights were long, eight hours and more, and a ground crew had to be on call to swap a radio, fix an intercom button or replace a headset. That meant waiting, lots of waiting. So, to kill time, you drank coffee, plenty of coffee.
The first rule of Navy coffee protocol is “Never Clean the Pot,” which I learned the hard way.
I was filling in for a night watch in Atsugi for the air traffic controllers, and one of my duties was to start the coffee about 3 a.m. As I recall, it was one of those big hundred- cuppers, so as to provide coffee for the next shift throughout the day. Problem was, the stupid thing wouldn’t perk, and I was not about to face the incoming shift without fresh coffee.
After disassembling the unit, I peered into the tubular spindle through which the water was supposed to rise, perk and then drip down through the basket, thus producing the coveted brew. The spindle was clogged.
After pondering my options, I took a coat hanger, unbent it into a relatively straight piece of wire, and shoved it into the spindle repeatedly, the way Civil War soldiers used to load their rifles.
What came out was not the “goop” I expected. Instead, the innards were coated with a hard, limestone-like substance, that (after repeated strokes) shattered into tiny, hard brown crystals that fell out the other end. Eventually, I got the spindle clear, put the coffeemaker back together, and the brew flowed forth.
Proud of my efforts, I walked out the door after my shift with a bounce in my step. Then someone in the background yelled, “Who the hell cleaned out the coffee pot?” A comment that prompted me to walk a little faster — and without the bounce.
On our rotations in Da Nang, my buddy John and I learned early on that the little fern-like plants around our base were enchanted. If you touched the plants, even slightly, the slender green leaves would slowly curl up and close. It was like watching a ballet. One of us (I don't remember which one) discovered that if you breathed on the plants, the tiny leaves would dutifully respond.
One day, for my benefit, John worked this cause-and-effect exercise into a little comedy routine. He knelt down and began talking to the cluster of ferns, exhaling forcefully in between phrases, thus causing the leaves to close.
John’s conversation, delivered in the sort of sing-song, rise-and-fall tone you'd use when talking to a small child, went something like this:
“How are you today little plants? And how are the little elves and fairies who live there with you in the enchanted forest? I hope you are having a wonderful day . . . Oh, now, don’t be afraid. Don't try to hide. I'm just trying to be friendly.”
He cracked me up. I leaned against the Admin wall, laughing hysterically . . . until I saw our commanding officer coming up the walk. I froze. The C.O. stopped to observe the extravagantly animated man-to-plant monologue. Eventually, John realized that I was no longer laughing. He turned slowly, saw the officer, then shot to attention.
“Just talking to the plants in the enchanted forest, Sir,” he said.
The C.O. stared at John for a moment, then gave a passing glance at me, eventually walking away, his head bowed slightly down, slowly nodding from side to side. John, still at attention, just grinned. There was a drool traveling down the side of his mouth. He looked like a mad man.
Click — as in Camera
Another buddy, Dennis Click, was a camera guy, so his last name fit him well. To call Dennis an “evil genius” is to misunderstand his contributions to the welfare of our squadron in general and to me in particular. His mistake, at times, was to become so absorbed with getting a photo that he crossed the line into obsession. Like the time he bought a Nikon underwater camera, filled his bathtub with water and then plunged in head first to photograph the drain because he didn’t have the patience to wait for a chance to go diving. (Notably, he wore the camera on the outside of his poncho during the monsoon season, as a sort of badge of honor.)
A story Dennis told me of his youth helps illustrates his obsessive manner. It seems that his brother’s 1957 Chevy model car turned up missing and Dennis was accused of stealing it, an accusation that he adamantly denied. The allegation eventually was dropped and faded into memory — until a photograph of the vehicle exploding into a million pieces turned up.
What happened was this: Dennis had indeed stolen the car. He then took it to his attic, implanted a cherry bomb inside, lit the fuse and then recorded the event using a stop-action flash. Great picture. Even better evidence.
But the exploding car episode was minor compared to one of the elaborate schemes he conjured up in Da Nang. It started, innocently enough, with Dennis bringing some tea bags and a handful of little wooden stir sticks back to the trailers where he and I worked. These trailers were not like those found in some mobile home parks. These were far more substantial, air-conditioned, and sported heavy- duty shelving to accommodate the many pieces of test equipment that we used to check the airplane radios and other electronic apparatus used in the squadron.
Anyway, Dennis allocated a portion of his workstation so he could execute his diabolical plan. He slit open several bags, extracting the tea. He then cut the bags into a number of small swatches, which were overlaid unto a template, trimmed and set aside.
He then carefully trimmed down the wood stir sticks into tiny yet precise, pre-configured cross-members.
When he glued all the pieces together, he ended up with a beautifully crafted aircraft — about two inches in length — that easily rested in the palm of his hand.
I marveled at his patience and precision. But the plane was merely the first step.
Next, Dennis took two small peanut canisters and removed the plastic lids. Then he took one of the containers and sliced off the bottom, thus creating an open-ended cylinder. Into the middle he pressed down a lump of gooey, pasty yellow-orange cheese, after which he covered the top and bottom with the lids, all the while holding the container sideways.
I could not imagine why. But I was soon to find out.
With cylinder in hand, Dennis strolled over to the garbage area where flies gathered freely. He took the ends off the cheese trap and waited for a fly to amble in, which happened almost immediately. Dennis, ever quick, snapped the lids on, quite proud of his trapping skills, and headed back to his workstation. After we arrived, he placed the fly-containing cylinder into the freezer of the fridge that we kept in the trailer for snacks and things.
I began to suspect his plan.
Dennis explained that the freezer would lower the body temperature of the fly, putting it in a state of suspended animation. When the fly was duly dulled, Dennis would remove it from its freezing chamber, place a dollop of glue on its tiny belly and then attach the fly to the miniature plane he had previously built, to exacting fly-proportional specifications.
The result was a fly-powered craft that he would photograph in mid-flight.
But something went wrong.
Perhaps the freezer wasn’t cold enough. Perhaps the glue did not set fast enough. Or perhaps, in his excitement, Dennis had not taken into account all the variables
involved in his experiment. Whatever the reason, the fly woke up while the glue was still a bit moist, thus altering the angle of his head relative to the nose of the plane. The slight downward shift in trajectory meant that instead of buzzing upward into history, the reluctant little pilot flew downward, smashing his little fly-head into the side of the workstation. It was a painful sight to watch. The fly had to be euthanized. Dennis did not try to reproduce the experiment. And I never brought up the episode again.
Rocket Attack, Part II
You'd think that in the middle of a war nobody would go to a war movie, but we did. One night “Kelly's Heroes” was playing inside the Admin office. Clint Eastwood starred as Kelly. Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Donald Sutherland were also featured. It's one of only two full- length movies I can recall from the many I saw in Da Nang. The other was “The Cross and the Switchblade.”
For a while the antics of Kelly (a.k.a. Clint) and crew held my attention, but then the absurdity of it all hit me:
"Here am I in a war zone watching a war movie. What a waste."
I walked out.
Soon there were sirens and multiple ground-shaking booms from V.C. rockets. I grabbed my helmet and flack jacket and ran to an above-ground bunker, which should
have been filled to standing-room-only capacity. That night it stood nearly empty, except for me and a few stragglers. Later I figured out that the rocket attack came at the precise moment of a big battle scene in the movie. The guys watching the film were unaware of what had happened until we later told them. “Great special effects,” they must have thought.
I've always considered that war-movie-in-a-war-zone incident a near perfect parable for the entire war.
Her name was Hanoi Hannah, and the officers told us not to listen to her — so of course we did. She was funny, without intending to be. In the taunting tradition of Tokyo Rose from World War II, Hannah told us via her crackle- laden broadcast that our wives and girlfriends were cheating on us back home while we here in Vietnam fighting an unjust war.
But it was the music she played that was most entertaining — homegrown, as it was, from the good ol’ U.S. of A.
My favorite was an anti-war tune from Country Joe and the Fish called “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.”
It wasn’t so much that the song was great, but that it was being delivered, propaganda-style, courtesy of Ho Chi Minh’s favorite female mouthpiece. Plus, Hannah apparently had a massively warped vinyl copy of the record that would speed up and slow down in an erratic manner and at unpredictable times.
Eventually the fear of getting caught outweighed the humor factor gained from listening, so that was the end of that.
Besides, we had Armed Forces Radio...
The M16 is Your Friend
About the only thing I remember from listening to Armed Forces Radio was the military equivalent of a Public Service Announcement concerning the M16. It basically said that if you take care of your M16, your M16 will take care of you.
I did not learn until later this was not a mere platitude.
After the Marines were pulled out of Da Nang, my fellow sailors and I were given a class on these rifles. We were told the M16 had a tendency to jam at inopportune times, and that we’d have to learn how to break one down and put it back together — in the field. Knowing my lack of motor skills, that was never going to happen, so I walked out of the training seminar about half way through.
I was ill-prepared for handling arms. I don’t think I shot a gun more than a handful of times prior to going into the service. At boot camp, I was given a single-shot .22 on the practice range, hardly a weapon to prepare for war. And the .45 automatic I was given for use during guard duty had a rusty barrel and sand in the clip.
One night while standing watch, there was an alert, with lights flashing and sirens running. A Vietnamese infiltrator wired with explosives was on base. I headed to the bunker, but was told I had to protect the entrance from this low-budget Kamikaze mission.
Here’s the first problem: How do you stop someone who wants to blow himself up in order to blow you up? Do you point a gun at him and say, “Stop, or I’ll
shoot!” (That assumes that he or she understands English.)
The second problem: I had not been authorized to load my gun, let alone shoot it. I know it sounds crazy, but rules are rules, even in a war zone.
And, finally, the guys looking for the Kamikazette were Navy — with shotguns. For all I knew, they had about as much firearm training as I did. Which is to say, “None.”
That’s all I needed, to be shot by a fellow sailor. Try explaining that to your family.
There are any number of stories that I could tell you that would typify what it means to be in the Navy, but this one works best.
The workstation in the portable trailer where I tried to fix radios was solid, if not fancy. Much government equipment may be over-engineered, but that’s why it lasts so long. For example, I was told that the barracks at Memphis Air Station were built during World War II as temps, but the Navy was still using them in ’68 when I was there.
Another example: One of VQ-1’s workhorses was the Connie. It had been designed before World War II. When I left the Navy in ’71, Connies were still doing their job.
So how is it possible to continue to use buildings that were supposed to be temporary and fly planes way past their expiration date.
The answer: Maintenance, baby. Mindless maintenance.
Which brings me to my story...
One day I noticed that the bottom of a drawer in my work area seemed lumpy. At first I ignored the bumps. (After all, they were doing me no harm.) But like the perfectionist husband in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” and that crazy guy in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale
Heart” who became obsessed with an old man’s “vulture eye,” I couldn’t let well enough alone.
The lumpy bump began to disturb me as if it were “a crimson stain upon the snow.” Finally, I tracked down a paint scraper to “thus rid myself of the eye for ever.”
And what did I find? Washers, a screw and a bolt or two that had been painted over so many times that they had long since betrayed their true identity. Think about how many layers of paint it takes to pull that off.
But more than that . . .
You just know that the first guy who painted over these trinkets was aware of their existence. And probably the second and third guy, too. But at some point these everyday items morphed and achieved a transcendental oneness with the paint.
Until I came along, like a worker at an archeological site, peeling away layers of time to discover their true identities — and that’s the essence of how the Navy operates.
Oh, Christmas Tree
It’s tough being away from home for the holidays. You want something to give you a warm-fuzzy, everything-is- going-to-be-okay feeling. Some memory. An aroma... a song... anything...
I remember my mom sending me a shoebox full of cookies. But the package had been tossed around so many times that, instead of cookies, I got crumbs. Chocolate chips mixed with oatmeal cookie crumbs and orphaned raisins, long since separated from their once-secure cookie abodes.
I looked at the discombobulated mess and cried. When I settled down, I grabbed a handful of the crumbs and shoveled them into my mouth. They tasted great...
But how to make everybody else feel better?
As often happens, my mind began to gnaw on the problem the way a puppy gnarls a steak bone. Gnaw. Growl. Gnaw. Growl. Gnaw.
Then it happened. I saw one of those big green blotter things on somebody’s desk.
“Where can I get me one of those?” I asked, nearly hyperventilating.
“Supply cabinet,” he said.
I went to the supply cabinet, pulled out the blotter, grabbed a pair of scissors, some glue, and tape. Then I trotted away like a fox with a hen dangling from his jaws.
Back at my workstation, I began lovingly cutting the large, rectangular blotter into two equal triangles. Then I took those two triangles, reversed them so as to create a big green triangle and taped it to a bare wall that could be seen as you entered the portable trailer.
There it was. My Christmas tree. But something was missing... ornaments. My brain began to gnaw again, growl again. After awhile getting nowhere, I went back to work.
Now, as anyone who has ever worked on a radio knows, electronic gear is made up of a lot of tiny parts. Resistors, capacitors, tubes, condensers, coils, cables, wiring bundles. And a lot of that stuff is color-coded. Sort of like miniature ornaments! So I gathered up all the spare parts I could find and attached them to my tree.
As I worked to transform this blotter into a bona fide faux- tree, word spread through the squadron about what I was up to. Periodically, people would sneak around to check on my progress. I shielded my project as best I could. By the time I was finished, it was evening and the work trailer was shut down except for my work area. My final
touch was to take my desktop goose-neck lamp and clamp it on my work table in such a way that it gave a warm glow to my tree.
It was wonderful.
I was too tired to trek back to the barracks, so I moved aside some radios and crawled onto a shelf under my workstation to get some sleep. As I drifted off, I heard a noise. Startled, but keeping quiet, I watched as three of my fellow sailors stood before my blotter tree with its odd little trimmings. They stayed for a few minutes, silently, then left.
It was a blessed moment, one that still warms my heart.
Bob Hope was coming to Vietnam, and I planned to see him. I’d watched Bob Hope my whole life and I especially liked his televised visits with the troops. Now I could be one of them. Maybe this whole war thing was going to work out after all.
Somebody up the food chain of command decided it would be nice to send some troops “Home for the Holidays.” Now, when they said “home,” they meant home-base, which for VQ-1 was Atsugi, Japan. For my buddy Hank that was a good thing. His wife was there waiting for him. But for me, and my other buddy, Dennis Click, that meant little because we had no one waiting for us. So, of course, Dennis and I were chosen to be sent “home” while poor Hank was stuck in Da Nang.
Makes perfect sense . . . in that Navy way.
When Dennis and I straggled out to the plane that was to take us to Japan, we were told it was full. Since that was the last flight our squadron had scheduled, we figured we were home-free and (Bob) Hope-full.
We skulked back to the Admin office, feigning disappointment and told the duty officer that we’d been turned back, like Mary and Joseph at the inn.
Guess we’d have to stick around and see Hope and Crew after all. (Jerry Colonna, Les Brown & his Band of
Renown, and, of course, beautiful, glittery Hollywood starlets. God Bless America!)
The duty officer informed Dennis and me that we had orders cut for Japan, and Japan was where we’d better be going.
“How do we get there?” we asked.
“That’s your problem,” he said.
So we did what sailors always do when they’re in trouble. We called the Marines.
Our Marine Corps buddies had a C-130 heading to Atsugi. But there were a few minor hurdles.
First, we had to make the case our papers were in order, which turned out to be easy. Then we had to be checked for contraband. Dennis and I weren’t sure what that meant. He had some chemicals to clean the lens on his Nikon, and I had a seedy-looking thing that I’d been carrying around as a good luck charm.
The Marines had an empty 50-gallon barrel into which passengers could drop contraband, “No questions asked.”
In went the chemicals. In went the seedy-thing.
We headed to the plane.
C-130s are workhorses used for transport. Nothing fancy about them. This one was rigged to carry airplane parts. Since there were no seats to speak of, we lashed ourselves to the inside of the fuselage with cargo strapping.
The plane had an uncharacteristically steep take-off angle that abruptly shifted my equilibrium to the point I thought blood was about to gush out my ears — not that you really needed ears once in-flight because, between the battering sound of the engines and the brutal vibrations of the plane itself, it was nigh impossible to hear anything or anybody.
All seemed well until we unexpectedly landed early. Turned out the plane was being called back to Vietnam, so Dennis and I were unceremoniously dumped off on Okinawa.
Abandoned by the Marines, we turned to the Air Force.
The good news: We found a flight on a passenger plane headed to Atsugi, courtesy of our “Wild Blue Yonder” brethren. That meant real seats.
The bad news: The Air Force guy reviewing our paperwork noted that while we were authorized to fly into Atsugi, we were not (technically) authorized to be in Okinawa; therefore, it was a “No go.” The only people who could change our orders were somewhere other than where we were.
Dennis and I meandered about until we bumped into a Third-Class Petty Officer whose job it was to help
stranded sailors find their way out of Hades. After explaining our predicament, our new best friend took the paperwork, filled it out appropriately and signed it with authority.
Back to the Air Force guy we went.
He glanced at the paperwork, nodded and sent us on our way, never asking how we were able to get it signed, since no one in our command was anywhere near Okinawa.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. As was the trip back. When we asked Hank how the Bob Hope show went, he told us that nobody from our squadron got to go. Turns out the Captain locked up the tickets for safe keeping and they never got handed out.
Ah, the military. Ya gotta love it.
Dr Pepper and B-E-E-R
Twice overseas — once in Vietnam and once in Japan — I was in charge of a barracks. That isn’t bad duty to pull. The Japan hitch was so uneventful that I can only tell you one thing about it: Dr Pepper.
Since I was in charge, I had to get up before anybody else. That was a problem. I am not a morning person. What to do? While pondering the issue, I noticed that the barracks soda machine carried Dr Pepper, which I hate.
An idea began to gel.
What if someone were to give me an open Dr Pepper first thing in the morning. And what if I were on top bunk, so I didn’t have anywhere to put it down. That would be a dilemma. If I tried to put the can on the mattress, chances are it would spill. The most likely result: a sticky mess that I would have to clean up. The other option? Drink the soda, which meant I probably wouldn't make it back to sleep.
So that was my plan.
Each night I’d give money to the guy on watch duty and tell him to buy a can of Dr Pepper, open it, come to my bunk, nudge me a few times, and then put the open can of soda in my hand.
“You must really like Dr Pepper,” each new guard would inevitably say.
“Nope,” I’d retort. “I hate it.”
“Then why drink it?”
And that’s when I’d explain my diabolical, twisted plan.
Now, the cynic might think: “What guarantee was there that the guard would actually perform his duty?”
Ahhhhhhhh, but that was the exquisitely brilliant part of the arrangement. Having established my dislike for the drink, the guard would gleefully hang around to watch my face go through a variety of Silly Putty-like contortions as I gulped down my breakfast brew. Who would want to miss that?
So that was in Japan. My time running the barracks in Vietnam was one of the pinnacles of my naval career, though it started in a most humble way.
Our barracks in Da Nang were nondescript. All of them were rectangular and double-storied, with horizontal wood slats. Each one looked like the other, but ours had a secret. There was a storage room in the back of the first floor that, in addition to a lot of junk, contained some treasures: tables, chairs, a reel-to-reel tape player, a flat-topped refrigerated cooler, and even a countertop that could serve as a bar.
The place had tremendous potential, but with no budget to pretty it up, it was going nowhere. After doing some investigating, I uncovered a long-lost allotment more valuable than the Fountain of Youth. Beer. Pallets of beer.
And with beer, came power.
The beer cache was low in alcohol, and I was told that it was laced with formaldehyde as a preservative — so it probably tasted terrible. But still, it was beer.
I stealthily explored the base, scavenging around for suitable supplies. If I saw something I liked, I’d start a conversation. It’d go something like this:
“See ya got some nice flooring tile there.”
“Yeah, it’s okay I guess,” the mark would say.
“Some people might like to get their hands on a few boxes of tile like that.”
“Oh yeah? Well I got lots of tile like that. But it ain’t going nowhere for nothin’ — know what I mean?”
“Well, I wasn’t suggesting nothin’. I was suggesting somethin’... in the liquid family.”
“Yup, liquid. Like in wet.”
“You mean wet, like in . . .”
“Like in B-E-E-R.”
“Well, a man would have to have a lot of b-e-e-r to even talk about quality tile like this. We ain’t talkin’ a six-pack here.”
“No. We’re talkin’ cases”
“How many cases?”
“Depends. You got some adhesive to go with that tile?”
“And a hand-scraper or two?"
“You bet . . . but . . .”
He’d bob his head back and forth a few times, squint a bit, then tilt his head to one side, with his eyes opening wide.
I’d smile, and then hand him a really cold can of beer.
He’d pop it open, sip it, then smile right back, and we’d shake hands.
I did the same sort of deal for paint, and everything else we needed. Piece-by-piece our little saloon grew. We bought some new tapes for the reel-to-reel. As I recall, the most popular song was “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos — or maybe it was “Lola” by The Kinks.
While most of the guys who came to the backroom played poker or gin or some such thing, I played Cinch, a card game that I had learned from my Uncle Paul, who was also a Navy man.
I taught the guys the game. They loved it. We began to have tournaments. Lots of laughs, good music, cold beer, and no fights. The backroom seemed packed every night, and each subsequent get-together was better than the one before. As that rotation ended, my tenure was done. Our squadron started rotating assignments in Guam and the Philippines at that point, in addition to Japan and Vietnam. I never pulled barracks duty again.
Around that time my athletic prowess was peaking — and my proficiency at Ping-Pong was the primary beneficiary. Typically, there’s not a huge home-field advantage in Ping- Pong, but VQ-1 offered me a distinct edge. Why? Because the table was in a corner of the hangar in Da Nang that made it particularly susceptible to shifts in the wind as well as backwash from nearby aircraft.
For some reason, call it an alignment in the heavens, I went six weeks undefeated playing Ping-Pong on VQ-1’s table, a streak that provided me my Bill Mazeroski moment: Swing... home run! Pirates win!
The streak started modestly enough. You don’t claim a perfect season because you’ve won three straight. But at some point, a streak gets a life of its own. I’d beaten everyone in the squadron multiple times. That’s when strangers started showing up. It was like being a gunslinger in a B-Western.
I’d be at my workstation, troubleshooting a radio or making an adjustment of some kind, and some guy would walk in. He’d have a serious look on his face. Sometimes he’d have a custom-made Ping-Pong paddle in his hand.
The conversations would go something like this:
“I hear you’re pretty good,” he’d say.
“Maybe,” I’d say.
“Well I came here to find out just how good you are.”
Sigh. I’d shut down the radio I was working on, and head for the hangar.
Now I’m not saying I was a great player, not even during the streak. But the spin on my serve was so pronounced and unpredictable that after it crawled over the net and hit the board, it was virtually un-returnable. And my ability to take a serve and return was just plain spooky. For a split second, my paddle hugged the ball the way peanut butter holds raisins to a celery stalk. Then, like an electromagnet when it’s turned off, the ball would escape, spiraling to my opponent’s side of the table.
On days when I wasn’t completely on my game, a plane would show up at an opportune time and the air would swirl wildly within the hangar in ever-changing directions as the big bird turned. My opponents would become unhinged, and I’d slam my way back into the game — and win.
But, as the Good Book says, “Pride cometh before a fall.” After six weeks of incredible Ping-Pong in Da Nang, I went back to Atsugi. My first opponent there was a Japanese woman who held her paddle upside down. She had moves I’d never seen before and a quickness that left me stunned. She battered me three games in a row. It was humiliating. I never fully recovered. My reign was over.
One time, after landing in Guam following a deployment in Da Nang, I went to a local civilian laundry and turned over all my clothes except what I was wearing — thinking how nice it was going to be having everything professionally washed and neatly folded.
On the day before I was to pick up my clothes, I was told that I’d been redeployed back to Vietnam (basically, a four-day turn-around) because one of the other sailors in the squadron had a family emergency, and I was his backup.
My plane was leaving early the next morning, before the laundry opened. That meant I had what I was wearing plus five sets of shoes and a knapsack in which to carry them. (Five pair of shoes may sound excessive, but it’s not. You got your steel-toed work boots, your work shoes, your dress shoes and your Vietnam-issue “Jungle Boots,” with canvas slats to aid in ventilation. I also kept a pair of deck shoes to relax in.)
I asked a buddy to pack up my clothes and send them to me in Da Nang on the next available flight. I figured I could live with one set of clothes for a day or so.
A week went by... and no delivery. I finally went to a fella who handled such things, and he said something like, “Well, yeah, the box came here, but I sent it to Japan, because that’s where I thought you were.”
Turns out that although the squadron had sent me back to Da Nang, nobody had bothered to update the duty roster. And it got worse. I later found out that when the box got to Japan, they thought I was still in the Philippines, so my clothes were shipped there.
Meanwhile, I hand-washed my clothes with gritty Da Nang water, and at the end of two weeks, my shirt and bell-bottoms had the texture of cheesecloth. (Another two weeks, and they would have been like gauze.)
There was a side-benefit, however. The washing and re- washing gave my outfit a well-aged look. Something we Navy guys called “Salty.” So there was that.
As it turned out, the primary duty of the guy on emergency leave — for whom I was the only replacement — was to work on the VHF 101. You may recall that while I did attend a one-week class on that particular piece of electronics, my instructor had no previous hands-on experience whatsoever, so he was ill-equipped to teach me anything. He’d played with remote cars instead —
assuring the class that we’d probably never be called on to fix a 101. Thank you, Mr. Murphy, your law has been proven to be true, yet again.
It gets worse.
Although I had little meaningful background on the equipment, I had a good reputation as a troubleshooter. All I needed was the manual. But, of course, we had no manual in Da Nang.
One by one, each VHF 101 in the squadron failed until there was only one left.
Defeated, I tracked down the biggest box I could find and shipped the broken radios out to be repaired.
Finally, word came that my replacement was scheduled to arrive — and soon. I was relieved. Then my buddies saw the bulletin board listing the name of my replacement. They became hysterical, but refused to give me details.
“Go see for yourself,” they said.
So I dropped what was I was doing, and headed on over. They followed, tittering like grade-school kids during recess, encouraging others to tag along. Soon I had an entourage.
When I got to the bulletin board, I read the name of my replacement: “Lamb, James S.” VQ-1 had me flying in from Japan to replace myself in Da Nang.
My buddies guffawed like a herd of drunk donkeys. When they stopped, I spoke up.
“Can’t wait until tomorrow,” I said, smiling.
Puzzled by my remark, they asked, “Why?”
“Because I want to see the look on my face when I get off that plane.”
Fingers & Razor Blades
When I was a little kid, I had a knack for getting hurt. Not in heroic ways — like breaking a leg while making the winning play in a big football game — but rather in stupid, embarrassing ways. Like the time I caught a baseball, and it dislocated my little finger so bad that it tilted out to a 45-degree angle. Or the time I managed to have my hand slammed in the hood of my grandpa’s new car. I screamed, madly. Problem was, since the car was new they weren’t sure how to open the hood. I stood there howling as my fingers were crimped, turning black and blue. Or the time I got a redwood splinter in my hand, and my fingers turned plump and discolored, like an overly- ripe plum...
Stuff like that.
My naval career provided some equally odd moments. Like the time I was working a vertical drill, and the slender bit — about the size of the lead in a mechanical pencil — unexpectedly broke and went spiraling though my finger.
But that was nothing compared to the razor blade incident.
One day I was walking back from work and took a shortcut through a cluster of abandoned barracks. I decided to poke around one of the bathroom areas, where I picked up an old, rusty razor blade from a ledge in front of a mirror. Then, in a moment of dissociated incongruence, I wondered to myself, “Did I shave this morning?” As I put the blade down with my right hand, I leaned my face toward the mirror, slowly moving my left hand to touch my face. In so doing, the still-sharp blade neatly sliced through three fingers on my left hand. Thin streams of blood soon followed.
On the walk to the medic’s office, I tried to think of how I was going to explain this slice-and-dice episode, but I decided to just say, “I accidentally cut myself.”
The medic on call was sleeping in a room behind the small medical office. He stumbled through some military blankets repurposed as drapes. It appeared that he was coming off a particularly rough night, so I kept relatively quiet and left him to do his duty, as he scrubbed my fingers, applied some sort of ointment and wrapped each finger, individually, with gauze.
Then, in a flash of untimely humor, I remembered a line from a Three Stooges movie that I’d seen as a kid, and before thinking things through I posed a question to the medic.
“Will I be able to play the piano?” I asked.
“I don’t see why not,” he said, a bit puzzled
To which I responded, trying not to smile: “That’s funny, I never could before.”
He glared at me with a gaze as sharp as that rusty razor blade.
“You want I should cut your fingers off the rest of the way?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I said, and walked away.
Trouble in Paradise
Guam was part of my squadron’s regular rotation. It’s is a small ragged dot of an island, just a smidge over 200 square miles, engulfed by the bluest waves of the Pacific Ocean. To call the crystalline skies that crown its shores “spectacular” is to diminish the word and the Guam experience. If there’s a more beautiful place on Earth, I have not seen it.
On Guam I spent a fair amount of time with a friend I’ll call Makisig. a Filipino word meaning “handsome, manly,” and he was both. He sang like a chain-smoking angel and drove a rusty, green MGA. I was his wingman, such as it was. Though we served together on several rotations, Guam was our Bali Hai.
Our most concentrated conversations were about the Bible and theology. I was brought up Catholic; he, Protestant, so the potential for fire and brimstone was great. We produced, instead, a series of lively sparks, more akin to agitated lightning bugs than lightning strikes.
Makisig was intense and emotive, but disciplined. When angry, he raised his voice with precision, but never yelled. When making his point, he did not flail his arms like an out-of-control windmill, but instead struck the air with his forearm and hand in a decisive, surgeon-like chop. Plus, he was always singing. His voice was raspy, controlled, inspired, and one time it saved me from serious injury.
We were driving around one afternoon. He was shifting the floor-mounted, 4-speed, manual transmission with one hand and alternating between driving and playing cigarette-jockey with the other — all the while singing hymns. I was reading my Bible, hunched over, searching for answers to life’s great questions.
Suddenly Makisig stopped singing, causing me to look up just in time to see a car swerve into our lane. I put my hand up to protect my face, and ended up getting a severely bruised forearm.
My right leg was less lucky. The rust-laden car had a number of vulnerable points that cracked or popped when hit. A ragged edge of metal sliced through my dungarees and into my right leg like a shogun’s blade. Blood flowed freely.
An emergency room visit, a tetanus shot and a few stitches patched me up just fine — though my right leg still bears an ugly little scar.
I can’t even guess how many inspections I stood through during my almost four years in the Navy, though I can tell you I often fell short of the mark. Sometimes massively short.
At times the shortcoming was barely noticeable. A hint of a smudge on my brass buckle. A ghost of a mark on my starched white hat. The slight downward-creep of a hair on my neatly trimmed sideburns.
No matter. It was less than perfection. The consequences? Guarding an abandoned barracks. Cleaning a urine-sprayed latrine. Picking up cigarette butts, etc.
For three-and-a-half years, I could not master the ritual, though by the end I almost came close.
Bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece, petty-gain by petty-gain, I crafted a strategy, like a desperately uncoordinated dolt who does not wish to become a pinball wizard, but only hopes one day to play all five balls without tilting the machine.
And, then, that most depressingly precious of moments occurred when I realized I had been playing the wrong game. Heading out for inspection one day, I saw a fellow sailor retrieving the shiniest boots, the whitest cap and the brightest buckle I’d ever seen.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“My inspection gear,” he replied.
“Your what?” I responded.
“My inspection gear. You don’t think that I go to inspections wearing the same gear that I wear to work, do you?”
Well, of course not. Except that I did. For years I had been trying to spruce up hats and shoes and buckles that had accompanied me as I crawled through airplanes, swept floors and painted the walls of WWII-era barracks.
Had I missed the memo that said, “Don’t use work stuff for inspections. Create a separate wardrobe for those special occasions?”
I lost no time doing so. I created my stash of inspection gear.
The shoes were brilliant. Smooth. Glassy. An unsuspecting bug landing on them would have slipped clumsily to the floor. The brass belt buckle? I could have brought down a plane with the relentless reflection from the morning sun, so perfect was its sheen.
But I was most proud of the hat.
Naval hats for enlisted men of that period were white and round with segments in the middle like the sections of an orange, creating a dome cradling the head framed by a stiff, circular upright ridge.
In an emergency the hat could be used as a lifesaver of sorts. I remember being told in boot camp during a simulated abandon-ship drill to extend the hat fully to create what looked like a mini-igloo. Then I was told (while sloshing around in the pool at Great Lakes) to blow air into the bottom of the submersed hat so I could use it as a temporary flotation device. Surprisingly, it worked. My inspection hat, however, would face no such fate. This hat was purchased to stand tall and be snow-white. It was over-starched so as to hold its shape in an altogether unnatural manner — as if Frank Lloyd Wright had exorcised the soul of the Guggenheim and coaxed it, lovingly, into a cap.
But what to do with the hair and sideburns? In the past, I had measured them carefully and trimmed to the very borderline of the legal limit. A vain move? Sure. The sideburns looked good, but was that the goal? Nay, I said. Nay.
At first I trimmed an eighth-inch above the DMZ. Barely noticeable and safe. But, as my compulsion to succeed grew, I snipped to a near-jarring quarter-inch above. It was not enough. Finally, a bold half-inch above the line of demarcation. That was it. A blind Admiral on a bad day could see that I had not only met the dreaded inspection guidelines, but had exceeded them — beyond all reasonable means.
I was giddy.
But there is a fine line between giddiness and goofiness, a line I decided to trample.
It happened this way:
There was to be a major inspection in the VQ-1 hangar at the Naval Air Station in Atsugi,. Sailors were spilt into two long lines on either side of the massive structure.
I knew that I would pass impressively; I had taken into account every possible variable. Each guideline, each rule, each expectation would be met or exceeded. Like every other top-of-the-line sailor, I would pass, a nameless swabbie replicate, indistinguishable from any other. Invisible.
Then I had a thought so diabolical that Professor James Moriarty himself could not have devised it in his best Sherlock days. I would go to the inspection in my self- imposed perfection, but with one exception: I would wear bright orange socks. My overly long bell-bottoms would cover my outrageously risky scheme. (In all my years of inspections experience, I had never seen anyone check a sailor’s socks.)
Inspection day came. Sailors stepped smartly into place, and the officers stood ready. I was located about a third down the first line. Step-by-step, one-by-one, the officers eyeballed each statue. Up-and-down, left-to-right, then on to the next one. And the next one. And so on, until they
came to me. They nodded approvingly, then passed on. I had looked just like the first sailor they had inspected, and the second one. The very same. Identical. No different. Except . . .
When the entourage was safely past my spot, I grabbed the sides of my bell-bottoms and pulled them up for a fraction of a second. Just long enough for the sailors on the other side of the cavernous hangar to see my orange socks. As gasps and giggles echoed throughout the hangar, I quickly let go of the side seams of my bell-bottoms — allowing them to drop dramatically, like an unscheduled closing curtain during a raid at an illegal strip joint.
The inspection crew stopped, trying to determine what had happened, but they couldn’t.
That moment was probably the high point of my entire naval career, a pathetically sad thought to be sure.
And yet, when I think of it, I smile . . .
Climbing Mount Fuji
It’s been said, “He who climbs Mount Fuji once is a wise man; he who climbs it twice is a fool.”
I am a wise man — who longs to be a fool.
As I recall, on a clear day you could see Fuji-san from my barracks. Among my many regrets as a member of VQ-1 was that in my self-involved, nose-in-a-book, face-in-a- scotch-glass worldview, I focused on molehills rather than mountains.
My friends, thankfully, saw the world differently.
I don’t remember how they conned me into the climb, or even how we got there. But I still carry a few clear, colorful moments of that day.
The Walking Stick
It had flat, smooth-cornered sides that were ideal for branding. At key points along the climb a caretaker would remove a glowing iron from hand-stoked flames and sear a crude, but crisp Japanese symbol into the stick’s surface. With faint smoke and searing heat, the ritual was repeated along the journey, gradually transforming the walking stick into a poor man’s obelisk, memorializing the day.
At the time I was overweight, didn’t exercise, and smoked two or three packs a day of non-filtered Pall Malls (a pack of cigarettes was only 15 cents in Da Nang, a little more in Japan). And yet, there I was, climbing Mount Fuji. Out of breath, panting, struggling with each step. “This is hard,” I thought. “This is work.”
Then I caught a glimpse of a smallish woman. She was old, at least to my 23-year-old eyes. Thin. Wiry. Wearing a traditional, print-laden kimono and a big backpack, marching mechanically past me. Step-step. Chop-chop. Determined. Swish-whish then gone. I was on a day- trip. She was on a mission. From that day to this, I can see her colorful ghost chastising me up the hill, toward the top of Fujiyama.
She embodied all that I came to respect and admire about the Japanese: A fine, honorable people with a good work ethic. Determined. I remember, at Atsugi, watching a Japanese repair crew move intensely about and around an airplane, like ants on honey, and then watching an American crew work on an identical airplane . . . in slow motion, between coffee and smoke breaks. I wondered to myself, “How did we win the war?”
Walking on The Crown
Sometimes you get what you want and ask, “Is that all there is?” The fever breaks and equilibrium returns, followed by emptiness. Not so with Fuji-san. The climb was memorable, but experiencing the top was the stuff that dreams are made of. The crisp, mean air did not let you forget for a moment where you were – and that you were alive. I can't recall the view, but I can close my eyes, open my mind and re-live the being-ness of being there.
The icy, lung-needling deep breaths. Eyes darting about, exhilarated, exhausted. There are much bigger mountains that I will never climb. But I have walked on Fuji’s crown.
Getting me to the top of Mount Fuji took a small army of sailors, but getting to the bottom just took gravity. We cascaded down the volcanic slopes, jump-running, big- stepping, hop-scotching, each giddy bounce moving us forward and out. All the while knowing that one slip could send any one of us face-first into rock and ash. But none of us fell. Instead we laughed and screamed, creating a fool’s symphony that only a mesmerizing mix of danger and delight can orchestrate. Then, suddenly, it was over.
It’s been well over 40 years since I climbed Mount Fuji. Someday I want to go back and re-capture that fragile, sweet memory. I have neither notes nor photos from that first climb. Not even my branded walking stick remains. Nowadays, I find myself too often describing life rather than living it. That day in Japan, on that beautiful sky- kissed mountain, I lived — a full measure, “pressed down, shaken together and running over.”
The Artful Dodger
We were supposed to always be prepared for surprise barracks inspections. Of course, I rarely was. One day in Atsugi, I heard voices and footsteps outside my room. A quick peek into the hallway revealed a team of enlisted sailors, headed by an officer. The good news: Virtually everything in the room was spot-on gorgeous. My bed, my clothes, and the floor were all in order. Even the tops of the shelves were dust-free. The bad news: I hadn’t emptied the trashcan.
There wasn’t much garbage and, thankfully, no food, but there was simply nowhere to hide the trash. I stared at the can, then scanned the room for options. My eyes zeroed in on a poster hanging on the wall. That’s when inspiration hit. Years later, an artist friend of mine, Joan Altbe, would describe such moments as “historic inevitability.” Like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, Walt Disney creating Mickey Mouse, or the Beatles making “A Hard Day’s Night.”
I grabbed a pair of scissors and a spool of Scotch tape and frantically began snipping, twisting, and shaping the trash into a stunning, if slightly incoherent, collage. I finished and quickly stashed the tools from my little charade just before the inspection team entered the room.
With me standing at attention beside my bunk, it did not take long for the team leader to see the trash-laden poster.
“What’s that?” the officer yelled, aggressively pointing to the collage.
“It’s art, Sir!” I said in a throaty, confident manner
What came next was an uncomfortably long pause. I refused to give even a hint of my bluff. I didn’t blink. I didn’t sweat. I don’t think I even took a breath.
The officer moved closer, face-to-face, squinting into the depth of my soul. Then he walked away without saying a word or finishing the inspection.
I’d dodged a bullet, artfully.
Stealing Psalm 40
Sometime in 1970, I stole a Bible. The theft wasn't intentional. It happened at the Naval Air Station in Atsugi. One evening, during a watch at my barracks, I sat in the duty room where someone had left behind a King James Version with a blood-red cover. I picked it up and began to read. Though brought up in church, I'd questioned the existence of God, so His Word had become irrelevant to me. Fortunately, I had not become irrelevant to Him.
When my duty watch was over, I took the Bible back to my room, thinking, “I’ll return it when I'm done.” While flipping through pages, I found Psalm 40, and the words: “I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.”
The words touched me.
The year before, I'd been under investigation because of drugs. A dishonorable discharge loomed. But because I'd just become a father, I was given leniency. Perhaps fatherhood would straighten me out. Afterwards, I was sent overseas.
As the Navy kept moving me around — Japan, Guam, Vietnam and the Philippines — I skidded deeper into my own “horrible pit.” To deaden the despair, I turned to drinking. (I stayed away from drugs because I feared the
Navy would throw the book at me — and it wouldn't be a Bible.)
In June 1971, my wife wrote me a “Dear John” letter.
I hadn’t realized how far Bunny and I had drifted apart. You don’t always notice things like that. It’s like the way the crust of the Earth moves slowly. Imperceptibly. Then one day there’s an earthquake. And it turns out there had been a fault line underneath the surface all along.
After I said “No” to Bunny and “Yes” to the Navy about going to Vietnam, I’d felt the Earth move. The letter should not have been a surprise. But it was, a testament to the faux reality I’d created within the nooks and crevices of my pain-avoidance-prone mind. I had kept telling myself: “Once I get out of the Navy, everything will be fine.”
The Sunday after I received Bunny’s letter, I attended an evening chapel service. That night, instead of a sermon, they showed a film. It told the story of three men trapped after a coal mine collapse. One man was a churchgoer whose faith was not real. The second was an avowed atheist. The third was a believer. It was obvious that only the believer was prepared to deal with this crisis. I wanted to be like the third man.
A collapsed coal mine as a metaphor for a failed life really resonated with me. Why? Because Windber, where I went to high school, was a coal town. In fact, the city’s moniker
itself came from a reworking of Berwind, the name of the family that had founded the community.
After the film, the chaplain gave an invitation. I was the second person out of the pew. Later, a counselor had me read Roman 10:13, “For whosever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." When I read the word "saved,” I knew the promise of Psalm 40 was fulfilled. I was out of the pit, and set onto the rock.
Thank God for that.
The next day, I began sharing my faith with my fellow sailors, many of whom had been my drinking buddies. That’s when I learned I didn’t have many real friends.
Some people called me “Holy Joe.” Others shunned me. Fortunately, I’d occasionally gone to a Bible Study, sponsored by a group called the Navigators, mostly because they had free homemade baked goods and coffee. The Navigators welcomed and encouraged me. I could not have made it without them.
One day I was walking to my barracks with a fellow Christian. He asked me if I’d ever been baptized. I told him I had as a baby. He said that I needed to make that decision as an adult.
Moments later we walked by the base swimming pool.
“Why don’t we take care of your baptism right now?” he asked.
I said, “Sure.”
Soon we were waist-deep in cold water. He dunked me in, then pulled me out. I was officially baptized.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” is the story of Jim Hawkins, a lively young lad whose encounter with “buccaneers and buried gold” provided many a youngster’s first taste of adventure. My “Treasure Island” was a U.S. Naval Station in San Francisco Bay. No buccaneers. No buried gold. It represented my last lingering taste of Navy life — standing in my final “hurry up and wait” line.
During the home stretch of my tour of duty, the government had announced an “Early Out” program. As I recall, some guys got released from active duty several months early. I was hopeful. Alas, my “Early Out” was meager — merely four days. But I was still a short-timer — and a happy one at that.
Short-timers were guys covered in a sort of other-worldly pixie dust that made them immune to the everyday cares of life. They were getting out — and soon. They knew it. Their superiors knew it. And so did everybody else. A short-timer’s manta was, “I’m so short that . . .” followed by an appropriate analogy.
- “I’m so short that I slept in a shoebox last night.”
- “I’m so short that I walked under a door this morning.”
- “I’m so short that I had to use a ladder to climb over a dime.”
And so on . . .
My favorite short-timer ritual involved a creative use of paper clips.
Some short-timers would gather up a pile of paper clips — then count out one for each day they had left in the Navy. After the countdown, they cheerfully fastened the clips together and wore the result proudly as a necklace. Tacky, perhaps — but impactful. I did not participate in this particular practice myself, but oh how I loved to watch the antics of the fellows who did. And the smiles those clippers wore: miles and miles of smiles. As the declining number of clips eventually made it impractical to wear the effervescent emblems around the neck, the shrinking symbols of shortness were re-assigned to the pocket, with the top clip neatly slipped into the shirt’s buttonhole and the bottom clip dangling pleasantly below.
My last official day in the world’s largest and cleanest nuclear Navy was — as I mentioned — standing in line, a line that didn’t seem to move. And so I waited. And listened. Behind me unfolded an esoteric conversation between two sailors about the meaning of life. I don’t remember many details, except that one of the fellas said, “For all I know I’m a dog, dreaming I’m a butterfly, dreaming I’m a sailor.”
At that point, I zoned out. I’d just spent four days shy of four years in the military and was not about to even consider that it was just a dream. It had been all too real — and I had the scars to provide it.
Everyone feels like they deserve closure, complete with a neat, tidy bow on top. “And they lived happily ever
after . . .” Except that, in life, the only real closure is death. And I’m not dead yet.
So let’s look at it this way:
You get your leg slashed in an accident. You go to the Emergency Room. They rip open your bell-bottom blue jeans. They scrub the wound, and it hurts worse. Worse still when they sew it up. And for the first few days, every touch of cloth, splash of water, whiff of wind brings pain. But after a week or so, the wound gets a little better. It looks ugly, a mix of string and scabs and flesh. Eventually even those signs fade. Everything goes, except for a dull itchy feeling. Then that goes too. And, finally, years later you don’t even notice it. Except when someone asks, “What’s that?” You look down, puzzled for a moment, and say, “Oh, that . . . just an old scar.”
And that’s that. Closure, sort of. So let’s end things this way:
My brother Mark calls me each Memorial Day and says, “Thank you for serving your country.” I’ve always appreciated that. Not many people said “Thanks” when I got discharged. About 30 years after the Fall of Saigon, Mark drove me to D.C. to see the Vietnam Wall, that huge, V-shaped gash of shiny stone engraved with the names of
more than 58,000 men and women who died in a war few people wanted, and even fewer want to remember. I rubbed my fingertips lightly across the surface, and my mind was awash with flickering images and dim, distant emotions.
It felt like an old scar...