What follows is an account of my brief stint [as they are often called] in the Army, a life-changing experience if there ever was one.
With the Draft breathing down my neck in the winter of 1970, I decided that direct action was necessary, and began to formulate a Plan. That failing almost immediately, I figured that I'd do what a lot of people my age (22) were doing — head to Canada. While there was a certain amount of excitement associated with heading to almost anywhere, it really took the threat of being drafted to build up any sort of interest in living in Canada. Crap, why couldn't I live next to France or Italy? Why was Canada my only option? Sure, technically there was Mexico, but that held even less interest than Canada. So I drove down to Southern California to spend what might be my last Christmas with my family, and geared up for the big adventure that awaited me.
Not wanting to let on that I was fleeing the country as a Draft Dodger, I gave the impression that I was merely "going camping" in Northern California for a few days. Fortunately, my then mode of transportation was a '56 Volkswagon Bug, so there was little room to over-pack and give the impression of a much greater epic to come. Filling the gas tank to the brim, I got a start before it was even light outside in the hope of "beating the traffic" through LA. Well, that didn't work, but a few hours later I left the smoggy sprawl and was "on the road".
By the time I got up near Shasta Lake I was too tired to drive any more so I turned off onto a narrow road leading to a campground, now officially closed for the winter but un-officially open to my narrow Bug, as I skillfully drove around the barrier and found a tent site all to my own.
Feeling refreshed the next morning after a quiet sleep 'neath the pines, I decided to detour back to Redding and pick up supplies for the trip. This seemingly innocent thought made a big, big difference in my travel plans.
One of my stops was at the main Post Office, to pick up some stamped blank postcards that I would use to send back to my parents, postmarked presumably from exotic locales. What I didn't know was that there was an office of the Selective Service inside, and as I was waiting in line to buy the postcards, a man in a suit came out the door and as he passed me he stopped, and like in a movie, retraced his steps and turned to me and stared me in the face, asking what my name was. If Time was somehow frozen at that moment, I might have been able to place him as the man who exited the Selective Service office, but that fact was hidden in a thought just a little ways back from the current thought in my mind, which was that he was actually someone that I knew, even though this was only the second time that I'd ever been to Redding in my life. I was here a few years earlier to visit a friend who had moved here, and I thought that this guy was somehow related to that visit, or whatever. Meekly, I told him my name, and as he put his hand on my shoulder and guided me toward the door he had just exited from, I knew that my chances of mailing postcards home from exotic locales might come true, just not the locales I had in mind.
As luck would have it, only minutes before leaving his office he had been looking at photos of people who had not reported for induction, and mine was one of them. Imagine his surprise at finding me standing only a few feet away. Imagine my surprise...
Since it had been months since I'd received my induction notice, I decided to forego the obligatory "I forgot" routine, and was offered the choices of either reporting to the Army or going to jail. Faced with an arguably difficult descision to say the least, the pot was sweetened when the Selective Service man actually winked at me and, in a stage whisper, pointed out the it would be far easier to get out of the Army than it would be to get out of jail. I immediately "saw the light", and he gave me a promise that if I returned to Southern California I would receive instructions on where to report and when, including a parting comment that it could be several weeks for the paperwork to be completed. This was taken as a signal to use the next "several weeks" to have as much fun as I possibly could, which was done with dispatch and careful planning — even traveling around with a Circus for awhile. When I finally got the dreaded letter in the mail, I was almost looking forward to my new career...
Taking a bus into LA, I found the Induction Center easily by the many depressed-looking youths standing around outside smoking cigarettes. Inside I went, and melded into a large group awaiting instructions. We stood as one and pledged some sort of allegiance, then went into the bathroom, wearing socks and skivvies and carrying a small cup for a urine sample. I marvelled at the lack of security, because there must have been a dozen or more guys standing around the toilets, silently urging themselves to produce at least an ounce or two of the precious fluid. It would have been easy for everyone to simply exchange cups with someone else and really skew whatever information the Army hoped to glean by our offerings. Finally feeling the tiniest urge, I sidled up to the urinal and, while trying to remain as relaxed as possible, saw that someone had, at one time, managed to sneak a pen into the bathroom and wrote along a grout line in the tile in front of me those immortal words, "urine the army now". I immediately cracked up so hard that I peed all over my hand and almost dropped the cup altogether. It was worth it, though, as whatever grim foreboding that I felt as I gave my body and soul up for the military was now gone, and I entered servitude with my head held high, and my hands out to my side.
We boarded a bus and began a long journey up to Fort Ord, near Monterey Bay, two places that I'd never been before, and me without a postcard...
My life as a private in the Army began on May 6, 1971 — a day that will live in infamy at least in my mind. Soon after came "the haircut" and the issuance of uniform and bedding, then assignment to a barracks. One of my first reflections on Army life was just how alike everyone now looked with a buz cut and uniform. I couldn't fathom how you could ever tell anyone apart in the Chinese Army, for example.
Possibly due to a few times I spent in jail here and there, my "official papers" now contained an entry stating that I was "not eligable for security clearance nor assignment to sensitive duty", a fact that shoved me closer to being seen as pure cannon fodder. However, day to day life was taking on a new meaning as I learned just how much time could be wasted merely by having to visit "sick bay" for the slightest hint of influenza. With everyone couped up in a crowded barracks, an entire company could be brought to its knees if a common cold were to be spread, so it didn't take much to convince the higher-ups that you needed to see the doctor.
A favorite ploy was to hang upside down over the edge of your bunk until you were red in the face, then take a small swallow of after-shave. This gave you a very convincing appearance with a raspy throat to boot. Off you went to the doctor and the result was usually some industrial-strength cough syrup that had more alcohol than syrup. The "clear stuff" as it was known, to differentiate it from the "red stuff" (ordinary cough syrup), was used as a bartering object and seemed to rank right up there with cigarettes and porn in value.
With the base a large complex of zillions of buildings that all seemed to look alike, it was easy to stretch out a few block walk to the doctor into a half-day chore, though we'd always make a point of being at the hospital just at lunch time, as the menu that was prepared for doctors and nurses was several notches above the crap we were served in mess hall. But wandering around the base alone could bring down the wrath of those who rank above a private, which was just about everyone. Since I had no stripes, I was often challenged wherever I went as to just what the heck I was doing away from my company. After a few awkward meetings that I sweated through thinking I'd be hung from the yardarms for some trumped-up crime, I devised a plan that worked famously for me and the small group of misfits that enjoyed ditching our basic training duties.
Waiting until the supply sergeant was away from his desk for a minute, I grabbed the "top secret" rubber stamp (or whatever it was meant to read) and stamped an empty manilla folder, the big kind with the string tie on the flap. Stuffing this under my jacket, I made off to the bathroom where I very carefully wrote something to the effect that it was to be delivered to the Base Commander as quickly as possible. Stuffing a newspaper inside completed the ruse, and although I continued to be stopped now and then, I was let go to continue my route as a courier, with no one wanting to be named as the person who delayed such an important communique.
As basic training mercifully reached its end, I managed to keep from carrying a weapon after steadfastly maintaining that I was a "conscientious objector", but on 17 May 1971 I was assigned the feared "09B00", or Infantry. Strangely enough they bought my objector plea without much effort on my part, aside from carrying around a Bible wherever I went. On the down side, since I didn't have to lug a rifle around all the time, during our daily marches out to the firing range I was chosen to carry the first-aid kit, which was a large metal box normally used to hold .50cal machine gun ammo. It seemed to take almost an hour to march/jog out to the range, and carrying the full metal box was awkward, as everything inside tended to bounce around. Knowing that there was a fully stocked first-aid kit in the barracks, and another one at the firing range, I figured that I didn't really need to schlepp yet another one along, so I emptied everything out in the barracks and happily marched along hoping that nobody fell during the march and needed attention from my empty first-aid kit. Unfortunately, they did one day, and I found myself in a shitstorm.
The captain of my company wasn't more than a few years older than I was, and probably 20 pounds lighter and a few inches shorter, and I actually had a difficult time keeping a somber face during my chewing-out. This guy must have entered ROTC in grade school, and he had a high-pitched voice on top of it. It took every ounce of acting ability that I could summon not to break out laughing, but I pulled it off and left with my best contrite expression.
If there ever was an epiphany, whatever that means, it was then, because I soon began acting in a completely different manner, with little, if any, regard for authority. To bolster my confidence, I acquired a Summary Courts Martial with the following synopsis:
"Having received a lawful command from his CO o/a [on or about] 4 Jun 71, DID willfully disobey the same."
This got me 15 days in the Stockade and a $75 forfeiture of pay, and I wasn't sure which was the greater punishment. When I got out I remained in the barracks but the rest of my company moved on to the next phase of training, presumably one step closer to Viet Nam.
Now feeling almost bored without the rest of my company around, I decided to go AWOL to see what effect this would have on my stay in the Army. A 3-day weekend pass turned into a week of hitchhiking and eventually my first train hopping adventure, and upon returning to the Base I received an Article 15, and placed on "restriction" facing another Courts Martial. On top of this, I was charged with breaking my restriction a few days later when who but my Commanding Officer found me in the Main PX instead of the barracks. I even planted a few pounds of grass in my locker just before an inspection, but it was merely confiscated and I didn't hear anything more about it.
On the 10th of September, 1971, I applied for an Undesirable Discharge and received the following "recommendation" from my Captain:
"I strongly recommend that [he] be discharged for the good of the Service and that he be issued an undesirable discharge. My recommendation is based on the fact that [he] has every intention of never becoming an effective soldier as demonstrated by his numerous offences. He has continually demonstrated this intent since the first day he became a member of this command. I firmly believe that [he] is sincere in his statement when he mentions the fact that he will never become a good soldier.
There are no grounds for the belief that [he] is or was at the time of his misconduct, mentally defective, deranged, or abnormal."
A Lieutenant Colonel in my Battalion added this:
Recommend approval and issuance of DD Form 258A, Undesirable Discharge.
"Since assignment to this Battalion [he] has constantly shirked all responsibility. He submitted an application for classification as a Conscientious Objector, in an obvious attempt to circumvent military service in a possible hostile environment. He employed every devious means available to delay processing his application to include missing his appearance before an 0-3 hearing officer, seeking legal council, then delaying hiring one at his own expense for four weeks, to finally going AWOL on the day his final appearance was scheduled.
By his own admission, [he] has no intention of applying himself to the task of soldiering. To date his performance has been highly unsatisfactory. Based on the foregoing I recommend that [he] be discharged for the good of the service..."
And finally the Base Commander, a full Colonel, added:
"I recommend that [he] be separated from the Army under the provisions of AR 635-200, Chapter 10, with an Undesirable Discharge Certificate. His retention can in no way benefit the US Army. This enlisted man is pending a Summary Courts Martial."