HEAR NO EVIL
The Military Years
By the late Sixties, the Vietnam ‘non-war’ War was in high gear. I had completed my boarding school period and gone collegiate. It was not a happy time; - not for me and not for the country.
The bloom had gone off the boarding bit. It didn’t make a difference how many foreigners were in residence. I felt a bit like George Washington. There weren’t too many places in New England where I hadn’t slept. Enough was enough. Six years had been an elegant sufficiency.
I had wanted to study in Europe instead of America. Not a big surprize for someone who was terminally indoctrinated in international. It was a lot easier and infinitely more effective to learn proper French from Frenchmen in France than fourteen miles from the Quebecois border in northern New England. I wanted the total immersion method not a correspondence course.
Madame-Mere did not agree. She and I were not playing well together in the sandbox and hadn’t for quite some time. Our relations were not improving with age.
A couple of weeks after Father’s death I had thanked God for taking him instead of Madame-Mere, figuring that I hadn’t lost that much. If one had to be taken, better him. I didn’t see that much of him and really didn’t know him all that well. As time passed, I began to rethink that thought. It had taken years to begin to grasp what I could have lost and maybe had.
The collegiate life was ok. The wine, women and frat parties were a helluva improvement over segregation of the sexes and saltpeter. It was the 8:00AM classes, homework and exams which were ruining the experience. Three to five more years of dorms and classrooms were not in the cards. I had hit my limit. I rebelled and retired from academia.
In the late Sixties there were only two options for guys over eighteen; 2-S or 1-A. Since I had given up my 2-S collegiate deferment upon my scholastic retirement, I became prime cut, 1-A eligible. It was a bit of a surprise since the military services had minimum height and weight requirements. For some medically unfathomable reason after a nine year sabbatical, my growth hormones decided to kick back in. I had stopped growing at 9 and restarted at 18. It gave new meaning to the phrase: ‘late bloomer.’
After a brief flirtation with the State Department, tastefully terminated by Madame-Mere, it became abundantly clear that I was going to be spending some quality time with my Uncle Sam. There were no other alternatives. Besides, Father had wanted his offspring to have a military experience; probably because he had been denied his. Madame-Mere was not going to override a paternal pronouncement.
In those days, Uncle Sam was not looking for a ‘few good men.’ He was looking for anyone and everyone he could lay his hands on, good or otherwise. If you could walk and talk you were 1-A. After all, Nam was beginning to go through troops at a pretty good clip. To make the ‘looking’ process easier, Uncle Sam had announced that he was going to reinstate the draft. As a result, unless you had other socially acceptable plans, such as college or marriage; you belonged to your Uncle.
Basically, that left only four choices: Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines; five choices if you counted the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard was really tough to get into since the Viet Cong did not tend to attack American coastal cities.
Only the Army used the draft to get people. Everyone else, whether in the Air Force, Marine Corps or the Navy, had legally enlisted. Everyone knew that time in the Army meant jogging in the jungles, playing hide-and-go-seek with Charlie, while hauling heavy artillery.
By comparison, the Air Force and Navy looked real good and real safe. They also required longer terms of servitude. The Air Force and Navy could afford to extend their enlistments; the odds of living through their terms until discharge were significantly higher than the Army’s.
Technically, Sweden, and later on, Canada, offered alternatives to the American military. Sweden was not an Uncle Sam-approved alternative and it was hard to reach. At that time Canada had not yet opened its borders for easy-access asylum. The terms of ‘enlistment’ for Sweden and Canada were infinite.
Regardless of the branch of service the first part in Uncle Sam’s enlistment process was taking aptitude tests and filling out a flock of forms. Uncle Sam wanted to know, in detail, what everyone of his troops had been doing, when, where, and with whom since conception.
He was especially interested in finding out if any of his would-be warriors had ever cavorted with aliens and/or foreigners. Uncle Sam’s preferred candidate of choice was the all-American kid, born and bred in a land-locked Midwestern state and raised within a fifty mile radius, unsullied by contact with non-Americans and other undesirables.
To this end, all those seeking service with Uncle Sam had to list, with as much detail as possible, every foreigner with whom they had ever come into contact. For this purpose Uncle Sam had generously allocated five lines on his federal form.
I was in trouble. I either had to write really small or do some serious editing on my Christmas card list. There was no way that twenty years of houseguests, six years of boarding with foreigners and four months in South America was going to fit into five lines on a form. I was supposed to list everyone.
I got creative; I added five pages of names with addresses: double-sided and single-spaced. It raised a couple of eyebrows when I handed in my completed form to the Air Force recruiter. However, he didn’t say a word; his job was quota-driven. If he didn’t meet quota he could find himself refueling fighters in Saigon.
Uncle Sam insisted on thoroughness. Besides, first impressions are always so important on a new job.
I knew that some of the folk on my roster would not make the “All American” list. That was a given. But then again, why should they? They weren’t American. Some would probably even raise a few eyebrows. That couldn’t be helped.
I knew that my consorting with the Head of the Communist Party of Colombia was not going to be well received by the American military types. However, he had been one of my roommate’s uncles. Besides, several of his other uncles headed the socially acceptable political parties, which did like the U.S.
Besides, I had also consorted, for a longer duration, with the son of the Head of the West German Secret Intelligence. One good contact should offset one bad one. Unfortunately, I discovered later on that the American military did not practice that particular form of logic, especially in wartime.
Despite my unseemly international exposure, Uncle Sam overlooked my many imperfections and sent me an invitation. I began to prepare for boot camp.
The last night before induction was a long one. Sleep was optional, overrated and a long time in coming. My mind raced. One thought bombarded another. It would be the last time that I would ever really live at home. I would surely visit but I would never live there again. It was definite; my childhood was formally over.
Then there was that persistent reoccurring question which kept overriding all the others: would I live through the war or become a casualty of it?
Fortunately, Induction Day started really early. By 5:00AM I had run the gauntlet and crossed an extremely rude picket line. I was rather surprized to see picket lines that early in the morning. Some folk were dedicated to the cause. By 9:00AM I had pledged my oath of allegiance and been formally inducted.
I had finally decided that I would rather do something I liked for 4 years in the Air Force than something I definitely didn’t like for 2 years in the Army. Either way, I belonged to Uncle Sam. After spending most of the day assisting at the induction center, my flight mates and I flew off to boot camp that evening. Since I was the only one of our group who knew airports, I was duly assigned to shepherd my little flock to San Antonio. Without major mishap I successfully completed my mission and handed them (myself included) over to the reception committee.
After working our way through the welcoming festivities and activities, we were given the option of taking yet another test. This one evaluated our linguistic capabilities. I jumped at the chance.
Most of the best jobs in the military required a foreign language. After 10 years of French, 5 years of Latin, a couple of years of Russian and some off-the-street Spanish, I figured that I had a pretty good chance of qualifying.
The test was given in ‘bingo lorgan,’ a make-believe language, incorporating elements of Latin, Greek, German, French, and anything else they could find. Despite my notorious record of poor testing I did amazingly well. I actually achieved one of the highest scores in the history of the exam. It seemed that I was going to be a shoe-in for their linguistics programme.
Then the other shoe fell. To participate in the program all candidates had to first pass a security and background check and receive the appropriate clearances. They had to be militarily ‘vetted.’ Since the military did not have the requisite resources or personnel to check out their candidates, the FBI handled it for them.
It was the kiss of death for me. I was dumped from the program. No explanation was given. It was only later that I learned that the Bureau had not even bothered to go through the motions of running my background check. There had been too many foreigners. It was too labour intensive for the G-men. It wasn’t going to happen and didn’t.
Since I had been designated a de-facto security risk, I was placed at the bottom of the list for job opportunities. As a consequence, warehouses, cardboard cases of canned corn and 40 foot containers of foodstuffs featured foremost in my future. I ended up in a commissary warehouse. So much for doing something I liked for 4 years.
Months into my military wanderings in the warehousing wasteland an opening appeared for a General’s Aide. Since generally Generals were supposed to be the intelligent ones and dealt with the high flyers, I figured that I could be of assistance. I had certain linguistic abilities and was one of an extremely small group of enlisted grunts who actually knew the difference between a fish fork and a dessert fork. Accordingly I applied.
The ad had made no mention of a security check. If it had, I wouldn’t have wasted my time. Nonetheless, there was one. The outcome was predictable and persistent. I was rejected - again for security reasons or the lack thereof.
The G-men had dusted off my list of foreigners and refused to run my background check. It had been easier to classify me as a potential security risk than expend the effort to ‘vet’ me.
I got the message. There would be no ‘classified’ nothing on my military horizon. I gave up all efforts to be classified and instead, concentrated on my countdown to ‘civilianhood.’
A few months after I had hit my military halfway point, Uncle Sam decided that he urgently needed my non-classified, high security risk capabilities 6,000 miles west of my current duty station. I got my orders, processed and shipped out.
Touchdown was a total shocker. You couldn’t even see out the plane windows; they were so steamed up. Everything was aggressively green. Soldiers with guns dotted the perimeter. Damn, there really was a war going on in Southeast Asia. Counting cash as a checker in a California Commissary had cocooned me from reality or unreality of war.
The war effort escalated. Overnight, bombing North Vietnam became our primary duty. To fulfill our new function the base quadrupled in size in three weeks. It was chaos and mayhem; Tons of troops and no place to put them. Tent cities blossomed everywhere. Field kitchens were shipped in from overseas. Galaxy C-5As began arriving almost hourly with much needed supplies as the growing pride of B-52s settled into their pens.
Very quickly I ended up doing nothing within my job description and most everything which wasn’t. It was definitely more interesting than wandering warehouses, but the ‘bombing babies’ bit and processing body bags were highly overrated.
Because of our locale, we participated in processing the casualties for CONUS. Since cold weather did not frequent the tropics, our cold storage facilities did double duty as morgues. With few exceptions this was usually not a problem.
Schoolchildren of the tropics have little or no concept of cold or snow. To help overcome these climatic deprivations, the local schoolmarms arranged field trips for their youngsters. Cold storage offered freezing temperatures and frost and frost was about as close as anyone in the tropics was going to come to snow and sleet.
One day, I received a call about one of these visits. The children were en route to experience their first frost. I confirmed and hung up. Then I checked the clipboard:
The kids are heading for Cold Storage #4.
That’s loaded with body bags!
Unless rapidly rectified, this would definitely be a field trip for the kids to remember. I had to head them off at the pass.
Since the storage facility had no phones I jumped into my car and raced off. I reached the warehouse area, requisitioned a few recruits and headed for the storage unit.
The cold air hit me like an artic blast. After a daily diet of hot, humid and 95 degrees it actually felt rather good. My sweat solidified on the spot, sending additional chills up my spine. The lone light, cocooned in its cast iron grille, barely pierced the darkness. The body bags, dusted in frost, were neatly stacked around the concrete cavern on all available dexion shelving and pallets. By common consent, we worked silently and solemnly. We were not processing produce this time. These were real people, or had been.
God was on our side. We had just finished removing the last of the bags when the school bus pulled up. I watched as the children wallowed in their sub-zero adventure, innocently and ignorantly playing with the man-made snow where moments earlier the body bags had resided. It was weird to think about.
The body bags were bad enough, but the suicides were worse. I suppose that suicide is a customary byproduct of war. I never knew; this was my first war. Suicides were part of the Viet Nam War, at least in my part of the war.
For some unknown reason the first fellow chose strangulation. The news, though suppressed by the authorities, spread throughout the base like wildfire.
It was our job to oversee the preparation of the body and processing of the paperwork. Mortuary fell within my overall bailiwick. Therefore, I was assigned the task of telling the parents, in writing, how their son had died for his country. It was hard to write even though completely unhindered by reality. Orders were orders and the military had a very specific way for handling suicides.
With one exception, the other poor fellows followed the lead of the first one. Therefore, from time to time, I wrote these awful letters after carefully coordinating with the mortician. I had to make certain that my write up matched his fix up.
Strangulation leaves certain significant signs. The longer they hang, the more pronounced the indicators. Sometimes closed coffins were the order of the day. Each time the letters were written, signed by the Base Commander and sent off. Gratefully no one knew that I had written the letters so I never had to hear back from the families. Most fortunately, I had never been required to deliver the news in person as some others did.
Seven-day work weeks had a way of whittling down my military tenure. My own D-Day (Discharge Day) was rapidly approaching. Uncle Sam had already gone through the motions of attempting to induce me into re-enlisting. It was not happening. He was going his way and I was going mine. I was therefore surprized when he reappeared.
My Uncle Sam informed me that since my current job was ‘critical to the war effort,’ my tour of duty was being extended. I was going to remain in his employ for a few months longer.
I begged to differ. I was officially classified as a warehouse worker/commissary clerk, a very small insignificant cog in a very large wheel. That position was most assuredly not ‘critical’ to anything but my discharge.
It was then pointed out to me that I had been given security clearances in compliance with my current off-the-record duties. According to their determination of the definition, that made me ‘critical’. This totally blew my mind. Since my General’s Aide debacle, I had quit applying for anything that required clearances. I knew that I was getting an early out since I could not be reassigned if I had less than 6 months left to serve.
As it turned out, I had not needed to bother to file for a security clearance. My Uncle Sam had considerately done it for me. Apparently, I had been too busy being ‘critical to the war effort’ for my Uncle to worry me with the details or request my consent.
My Uncle and I went major rounds. Twice I had applied for jobs requiring clearances and twice I had been denied. Twice it had been duly determined that I was a security risk. Everyone had agreed; I knew too many of the wrong sort of people.
Then, unbeknownst to me, my military masters had decided to employ me in a different manner which necessitated certain clearances. The clearances had been speedily and quietly arranged. Nobody asked; nobody told – least of all me.
I never did learn if the Bureau had been involved. It appeared to be one of those ‘in the field’ things. I guess it was another military case of don’t ask, don’t tell.
Finally, I won out. I got Uncle Sam on his own technicality. While he had stuck me in a very different venue, he had never officially changed my specialty number. Officially, on paper, I was still coded as a warehouse worker/commissary clerk.
D-Day dawned. Six thousand miles and 36 hours later, I was sworn out by the military and sworn at by the Peaceniks. The spitting came later. I had lived and I had learned; in wartime that accounted for something. I hated the mismanagement of the military machine but I had enjoyed most of the military folk with whom I had worked.
It no longer mattered whether I was ‘vetted’ or not. They didn’t ‘vet’ folk in the civilian world and I was once again a civilian. Uncle Sam and his Feds could go their way; I was going in the opposite direction.
After all, I was a ‘vet’. The very best kind; ‘veteran’ as in the past tense of the word: ‘military.’
I had seen a lot in my four years with the military; people in pain, soldiers suffering and boatloads of body bags. I had helped handle suicides and ghost-written letters to the bereaved. I had been to services at the Base chapel, both before and after a visiting General had commandeered the holy paneling from the consecrated Quonset hut for his temporary office. I had seen a lot, but God wasn’t part of it. He wasn’t there either; at least as far as I could tell.