January 29, 1971 was a cold day in New Jersey, around 18 degrees in the morning. I packed light for my trip to Texas. I was beginning a new job; in a few hours I would be a federal employee, performing a similar job my father once had, and his father before him. I would be flying, but I had no need for a ticket; the taxpayers of the United States were picking up the tab. But first I had to get to the Federal Building in Newark. That's where I was to sworn in; in a few short hours life as I knew it would be gone forever, as would the adolescence I managed to hang onto as even after I had turned 20.
Because shortly after lunchtime I would cease to be Joe Civilian and would be known from that point, and for several years until I gained the rank of sergeant, as Airman. I was to take the oath and sworn in as a member of the United States Air Force, and before the day was out I would be in my new home, a barracks somewhere at Lackland Air Force Base, just outside of San Antonio, Texas.
I was too young and too foolish to be scared- I only felt a sense of relief that at long last all of the questions about would I or would I not be drafted would be over . No, I was not drafted.....but the specter of the draft made me choose the Air Force. I was joining by choice, but with more than a little nudging. My draft lottery number was 40, which meant I would probably receive a draft notice within the next two months. I had taken a pre-induction physical by orders of Selective Service two weeks before. Even though I was, and still am, incredibly nearsighted I could tell by watching what was happening around me of what was to come- I would be classified "1A", meaning I was able to serve.
It would just be a matter of time before I received a letter that said GREETINGS!
The problem was I really didn't want to go in the Army. There was this conflict you might have heard of in Vietnam, still raging in 1971 with no real end in sight. Truth be told, I was one of those long haired hippie types who knew what kind of guitars Neil Young and Stephen Stills played, but couldn't tell an M-16 from an MG. And besides, I had some authority issues as well- I flunked out of one college (maybe I should have gone to class), and dropped out of another.
So....I was draft bait. Uncle Sam wanted me....and to be honest, I was going reluctantly. And I'll bottomline this as best I can without getting into all of the late Sixties rhetoric. I hated the war in Vietnam; I bought the whole song and dance about saving Vietnam from Communism while I was in high school.....but in April of my senior year Martin Luther King was murdered. And in June, Robert F. Kennedy's life ended from Sirhan Sirhan's bullets. And my illusions of the life in America began to change in that turbulent year of 1968. I loved my country, then and now. But the land that I saw as a child as perfect had- in my eyes- some very serious flaws.
My mantra became "Save Vietnam, so they can be like us? And have leaders murdered almost routinely?". It was a time of civil unrest, well documented. Nineteen sixty-eight was a heck of year to be sent off into adulthood.
Anyway, while at my pre-induction physical, and knowing I was mere weeks away from being drafted, our whole group of "pre-inductees" were in a holding area where we saw new recruits being processed into the US military. We watched a group of guys coming in thinking they were being drafted into the Army; they were told to count off in three's. When they were done, the Army sergeant processing them told all of the three's to step forward and move across the room. After they followed his order the sergeant told them, "Congratulations....all of you men are going to be Marines".
We watched this cautionary tale before our eyes, and some of us looked at the far end of holding area; there were recruiters for the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force in little cubicles. We were still in our underwear, holding the final paperwork from our pre-induction physicals. One guy sitting next me said, "That's it, I'm seeing if I can get in the Navy". I thought he made a good choice. And with little hesitation I took a walk to the Air Force recruiter and asked him if they were still taking volunteers. My entire thought process of thinking about joining the Air Force and actually doing it was about 30 seconds. I don't think I've ever made a life changing decision so split second before or since.
After I turned my medical papers over to the sergeant at the desk, he asked, "Do you want to go next week?"
"Ahhh.....how about in two weeks?", I countered.
"Sure....we need you to fill out some more paperwork". And I obliged.
And.....that was that. I had to come back the following Saturday and take some aptitude tests, but that was it. I was going into the Air Force.
Now....some may ask, if I hated the war so much why didn't I resist the draft or go to Canada?
Very simply.....I hated the war. I didn't hate my country. My country frustrated me, sometimes it made me angry....but people and things we love usually have a way of doing that. Going to jail to make a point may be the right thing for some people, but it was not my way. and as for going to Canada to avoid the draft....I never considered it. If I had gone into a self imposed Canadian exile in my own heart and soul I would have forfeited my voice forever; in good conscience, I could not do it. Go ahead and serve, just like Dad and Grandpa did during the World Wars, and I would have paid my dues. I had a right to be heard. I am an American, and in the future no one could silence me if I didn't wish to be silenced.
And so two weeks later, Mom and Dad tearfully drove me to Newark, where I said my goodbyes as stiff-lippedly as I could- I hated to watch my Mom cry. And after lunch at the Federal Building we freshly minted US airmen got on a bus to Newark Airport, where we got on an old Braniff Airlines 727- each one was painted a different color; no wonder they went broke. During the flight to San Antonio we hit an airpocket; the beautiful blond flight attendant fell into my lap momentarily. She apologized, and I smiled but couldn't think of a clever thing to say. Little did I know she would be the last woman I would come in contact with that closely for many a month.
At San Antonio it was close to 70 degrees in the evening...remember, this was January. We bussed from the airport to Lackland AFB under the direction of Sgt. Sawed Off, a little guy with glasses and a squeaky voice. There was about a dozen of us from New Jersey; soon we were joined by about twenty guys from Brooklyn, and some from Ohio, and to keep it interesting, about ten more from Mississippi. These were the 50 men I would be with during basic training....we stood on a drill pad where we met our "TI's" (Training Instructors)....let's call them Tech Sgt Face Like Clenched Fist and Staff Sgt Gold Tooth. Gold Tooth did all the talking. After introducing themselves Gold Tooth gave us our first order.
"From now on the first and last words out of your mouth when addressing me or any Training Instructor will be 'Sir!' Now, you hogs have ten minutes to get get all beards, moustaches and sideburns shaved off.....now, get your filthy asses in that dorm....RIGHT NOW!"
Now....there were 50 of us in the latrine scrambling for space to shave in the five sinks. One guy, Bill from Brooklyn, shaved so fast and sloppily that he had what looked like a Hitler moustache over his lip, but it was really a scab. It was a Friday night and we wouldn't officially begin training until Monday. We'd spend one last weekend in our civvies, sleeping in an open bay barracks. Gold Tooth got us out of bed at 5:00 AM the next day; first the light went on, and if you didn't move Gold Tooth flipped the bed over with you in it.
He only had to do it once; there were no repeat offenders.
Monday we got our heads shaved and were issued uniforms, and training began. I can remember some details of those days like it happened last week, and I can recall the smells, and tastes, and emotions, and even how the weather was for duration- it was Texas in the winter, temperatures ranged from highs in the 70's to near freezing.
I remember how the chow hall smelled outside on those chilly mornings; you could smell the bacon and hotcakes from 100 yards away.
And on the Monday we got our heads shaved we left the barbershop and were to march over to the uniform distribution center. We were supposed to get in the same formation behind the same guy we marched in with. The problem is, everybody looked different without any hair. The only way I found the guy who I was supposed to behind in formation was to look for the strange red birthmark he had on the back of his neck. I found him, but it took awhile.
I remember a kid from New York named Leroy who was dry shaved by Gold Tooth because he had too much stubble.
And there was mail call....and those letters from home that always made your day.
There was the first base liberty we had after two weeks of training- we were given $30 and freedom to go around the base (with certain limits) for a Saturday. I remember going to a hamburger stand, and ordering a chocolate shake after two weeks of nothing but Air Force chow and only Air Force chow....I never missed something so much in my life as I did those chocolate shakes. My God it tasted good. It was perfect.
There was Sgt Screech, who subbed for Gold Tooth one day, and got into my face, informing me that I marched like I have a corn cob shoved up my ass.
One cold morning that winter Tech Sgt. Face Like A Clenched Fist told us that Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali the previous night in Madison Square Garden. The whole world was watching that fight....everybody except basic trainees that is.
Then... I got the flu, and was laid up for 48 hours. I ended up missing M-16 training, which I had to make up before leaving Lackland. I had to spend an extra week there to make up "wet fire" on the range. And surprise...I qualified as a marksman.
I started going to chapel on Sundays because there were WAF's there. I had to reassure myself that women were still part of the human race; those six other days I hadn't seen a woman, and of course we had no TV or radio.
In March we were allowed to go into San Antonio on a 12 hour pass. It was St. Patrick's Day, and the river was dyed green...but were expressly forbidden from even thinking about buying a drink. It was our final week of training, and there were military police all over town watching and waiting for recruits to step out of line.
While in San Antonio on the Riverwalk, I saw an Army Sergeant a few yards away. He had a lot of fruit salad on his uniform, and appeared to be a combat vet. He turned and looked in my direction.....half his face had been melted away by napalm. That horribly scarred face has been locked in my memory banks all of these forty years. I wonder what ever became of the guy.
Lackland was the beginning of my military adventure. I never was sent to Vietnam. After Lackland I was stationed at Sheppard AFB near Wichita Falls, TX for a few months, then it was on to Hill AFB near Ogden, UT (onetime home of Donnie and Marie) for two years and then RAF Lakenheath, a British base in East Anglia leased by the US Air Force.....I was there for my final two years.
I saw a lot of the United States, and the world. And like most aspects of life there was good and bad, but for the most part there was more good than bad. But what I remember most of those days were the people, the guys who I befriended, some of whom exposed me to books and ideas I was previously unaware of, and of their own uniqueness. There were some great people, incredible parties, and a live for today attitude.....the phone could ring, and we could be told at any moment to get ready, we're being reassigned to Southeast Asia.
There are stories of those days...so many.
But that mind have to wait for another cold snow day when I feel like sharing some "war stories"....well, sort of.