Back in 1961, I heard on the radio that Kennedy had sent 500 US Special Forces and military advisors to a place called Vietnam. I was just starting high school at the time. It was the first time I remember hearing about that country. We also had a war going on in the Korean peninsula. Things were pretty tense with the Cold War between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries. Kennedy and Khrushchev had just played “Chicken” with the Cuban missile crisis. The end of the world seemed so close and there was nowhere to hide.
In 1965, when I graduated high school, the Marines had landed in Vietnam and more troops were on the way. Major battles were being fought against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. The US Draft worked like a lottery. I registered for the draft, as required by law. The draft board fed everyone’s birthdays into the lottery machine, which spit out “winning” tickets with birthdays to be called up in the order they were selected. Since I was going to college, my call-up date would be deferred until I finished college.
I graduated from Ohio State University in June 1969, with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in psychology. I went to work for Sears, Roebuck and Co. in Chicago as a computer programmer, waiting for my call-up notice to arrive.
To tell the truth, I didn’t want to be drafted into the US Army. Everyone was being sent overseas to Vietnam. I was a pacifist. I was more afraid of having to kill someone than dying, although I didn’t like the idea of dying very much either, especially for a war I didn’t believe in. None of my friends in college felt that we were fighting in Vietnam to bring Democracy to the Vietnamese. Neither did we believe in the Domino Theory that argued that if we didn’t stop the Communists in Vietnam, the rest of the countries in Southeast Asia would fall one-by-one like dominoes, and America would end up surrounded by Communism. We believed that the US Military-Industrial Complex and Coca Cola interests were what were putting us into the killing fields of Vietnam and keeping us there. Then there was the My Lai massacre.
I tried volunteering for the National Guard, but they rejected me for being underweight. I weighed only 120 lbs. on a good day. Then I tried to volunteer for the Air Force. Same story: underweight. I think I tried the Navy too, but I don’t remember for sure. Life was a bit of a blur then.
I received my notice to report to the Chicago induction center on January 22, 1970.
I packed some books in case I had time to read. One of the books I remember was Fredrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”. I don’t remember the other books I brought.
I thought maybe the Army would reject me too for being underweight. I arrived at the induction center and asked the first person I encountered whether the Army might not want me because of my weight issue. He laughed and said not to worry – they’d fatten me up.
We were sent to a room to sit and wait. A Marine sergeant entered and started counting heads. He tapped every third person on the head and told everyone he tapped to come with him. A third of the people stood up and followed him. I was among those left sitting. It had not occurred to me that you could be drafted into the Marines.
We were poked, prodded, and issued uniforms, fatigues, shoes, boots, socks, underwear, and a duffle bag to put all of it in. We were fed and bussed out to the airport, from which we were flown and then bussed to Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Thirty of us were assigned to one of the barracks. There were ninety inductees from all over the country. We all got mixed together. I looked around and saw that I was the oldest. I was almost twenty-three years old. Everybody else was eighteen or so.
A drill sergeant entered our barracks and called us all to attention. He must have been around nineteen. He told us to gather around him and asked whether any of us had been to college. I raised my hand. He said, “Great, drop down and give me fifty push-ups.”
Each of us was assigned a bunk and drawer in a metal cabinet. There were seven cubic inches of space we could use for personal stuff. The rest of the drawer space was only for military-issued stuff. I was assigned the top bunk bed under a naked light bulb hanging from a rafter.
The drill sergeant inspected our drawers. When he opened my drawer, he pulled out my books and held “Beyond Good and Evil” in front of my face. “What’s this, trainee?” he asked. I told him it was a book by Fred Netzky, an early American patriot. He took the books with him and told me I wouldn’t be needing these books and he promised to make sure I didn’t have time to read.
The drill sergeant took us on a tour of the barracks: the room where he slept and the latrine. He told us there were six toilets and five of them were for display only. We were to keep them polished and shiny with Brasso at all times, so that if there was to be an inspection, we’d only have to clean and polish the one toilet.
It had been dark an hour already. We were starving. The drill sergeant called us again to gather around him. He told us whenever we were outside and going somewhere, we had to run, not walk. He said he would count to three. Then we would run through the doorway and form up outside in three rows. After that, we’d march to the Mess Hall. The last trainee through the door had to stay back in the barracks. He would not get supper. The drill sergeant counted to three and all hell broke loose. The last trainee lost consciousness and one of his front teeth.
I don’t remember what we had for supper that night but when we returned to the barracks, the last trainee wasn’t there. Someone said he had been taken to the clinic.
At 21:00, the lights went out. One of us was assigned fire-guard duty. He would have to patrol the inside of the barracks (except for the drill sergeant’s room) and wake up the cook at 04:00 and the rest of us at 05:00.
I was drawing a map of Fort Campbell in my mind. I tried to remember the route the bus had taken from the gate to the barracks area. Which towns had we passed through from the airport to the base? Which way was north? How could I get to Canada? These were the thoughts running through my mind that first night and many nights thereafter. I must have fallen asleep in the middle of my machinations.
At 05:00, the lights were turned on. We had five minutes to put on our fatigues and full battle gear, get our bunks in order, and form up outside. While we were waiting for the drill sergeant to come outside and inspect us, the guy next to me told me that in the Soviet Army, the drill sergeant enters the room where the soldiers are sleeping and lights a match. Everyone has to get up, dress, make the bunk, and form up outside before the match burns down to the drill sergeant’s fingertips. The guy next to me said everyone slept in their uniform.
The drill sergeant came outside, called us to order, and marched us out of the base to a road. Then he told us to run in formation. He was running back and forth, backward and forward, circling around us, calling us all kinds of names that I won’t repeat here. He was dressed lightly for the latter part of January in Kentucky – fatigues, sneakers. We were dressed in fatigues, Army jackets, combat boots and heavy rubber boots (we called them Mickey Mouse boots) that weighed “a ton”, holding our M-16’s across our chests, helmets, two full canteens, gas masks, belts and full ammo pouches. I remember thinking that if I could only take off those Mickey Mouse boots, my feet would fly like Mercury.
By the time we had run two miles, we had circled back to the front gate. We were marched over to the Mess Hall. There was a set of monkey bars and we each had to swing, rung by rung, from one side to the other with all our battle gear and Mickey Mouse boots. Then we were allowed to enter the Mess Hall one by one and were directed to our tables. I was starving. We were told we had five minutes to eat and get out. I poured ketchup over my eggs and shoveled them into my mouth, swallowing without chewing, and washed it all down with some water. I stood up and walked out.
This was pretty much the routine for the next three months.
An Army optometrist checked my eyes and decided I needed glasses, so I got Army glasses. I had never worn eyeglasses before.
We had basic combat training. We went to the firing range. The Army was just switching over from M-14 rifles to M-16’s. We were the first group of trainees to get M-16’s at Fort Campbell. We learned how to disassemble and reassemble our rifles, and how to oil them and clean them with a flannel cloth.
We were taught how to fix a bayonet to the barrel of the M-16. We learned how to lunge at the enemy menacingly with fixed bayonets and shout, “What is the spirit of the bayonet fighter? To kill, to kill, with cold, cold steel”. We learned the purpose of the runnel on the bayonet blade. When you stab someone with a bayonet, the blood, having nowhere to go, resists the thrust of the blade. The runnel provides a channel for the blood to escape so the blade can be pushed in further, more easily.
I understood that the Army wanted to break me down and rebuild me into an evil robot, following orders with nanosecond response times, effectively without thinking, but “to kill, to kill, with cold, cold steel” seemed to me an evil aesthetic. Essentially, they were saying, “Try it, you’ll like it! It feels good to slip a knife into a living person’s body.” I felt as if the knife was being thrust into my own body. How was it possible to feel this way? I could understand fighting for my life, defending my family, defending my brothers-in-arms, defending my country, or defending my planet, but I could not understand the spirit of the bayonet fighter.
I decided I would learn what the Army had to teach me, but I would not let them break my spirit. I would not give up my humanity.
I was the only Jew in our Company of ninety trainees.
Everywhere we ran, we had to sing an Army song. There was only one melody, but the words varied according to our drill sergeant’s lead: “I don’t know but I been told …” “Sound off, one two. Sound off, three four. Take it on down. One two three four, one two, THREE FOUR!” While everyone was singing at the top of his lungs, I was playing the Aria from Beethoven’s Ninth full volume inside my skull, in an other-worldly fugue.
One time, in January, we camped out in the snow-covered hills among the pine trees. We pitched tents, two trainees to a tent. At night, we unrolled our sleeping bags, slipped inside them, zipped up, and undressed, arranging our clothes beside us in the sleeping bag. Just before dawn, we did the reverse and made our way back to the base.
There was one morning, we were running our two miles before breakfast. One of the trainees, McNew was his name, was obese and could not keep up the pace. Eventually, he fell to the ground. Someone told the drill sergeant that McNew had fallen back. He ordered us to continue running another quarter mile. Then he ordered us to turn around, run back to McNew, yank him up, and make him run with us. When we got back to McNew, one guy picked up his rifle, another took his backpack, and two guys, one on either side, lifted McNew to his feet, and we started running again, dragging McNew between us. A lot of the trainees were angry with McNew for adding another half-mile to our morning run and making us pick up his slack.
Our drill sergeant never punished us individually for some infraction or failure. He punished all of us for anything anyone did wrong in his mind.
That evening, I drew fire-guard duty. I remember, during my rounds after lights-out, passing by our drill sergeant’s room, glancing through his slightly open door, and seeing him lying on his cot, engrossed in a comic book. Upstairs, four of the guys gathered blankets and shovels, crept up on McNew’s bunk, and surrounded it. It’s what was called a “blanket party” and McNew was to be the guest of honor. They were going to throw a blanket over McNew and beat him senseless with their shovels because he couldn’t keep up with the run, because he was fat and out-of-shape, just because.
I approached them. I don’t know where my courage came from. Maybe it was my shouldered rifle. “What do you think you’re going to do to him?” I asked, looking into each pair of eyes. “Why throw the blanket over him, so he can’t see who’s beating him up? What are you all afraid of? Each one of you is stronger than him. Why do you need the four of you? Do you call this courage?” By now, McNew was fully awake and aware of what was going on. “You know the drill sergeant is just turning us against each other,” I said softly.
The four disbanded and walked past me. The last one looked at me and said, “Damn you, Stone. You think you’re something special? You had better watch out!”
One time, I felt under the weather, a bit achy and warm. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I had heard from other guys that the only way I could get to a clinic to see a medic was to be carried there on a stretcher. The next day, it was a little worse. The day after that, I was beginning to hallucinate. It wasn’t so bad, except I couldn’t tell the difference between night and day. On the fourth morning when the lights turned on, I jumped off my bunk, took three steps toward the latrine, and the next thing I knew was that I was lying in a hospital bed. Somebody told me that I had fainted and fell flat on my face, unconscious. An ambulance took me to the hospital. A nurse said I had an upper respiratory infection and a temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit. I had to take baths in a tub full of ice cubes. After a week in the hospital, my temperature returned to normal and I returned to our barracks.
We were not allowed to leave the area of our three barracks without permission. My only problem was that I was constantly starving. One time, I sneaked out of our barracks area to the PX to buy a box of cookies. I sneaked back and stuffed my pockets with cookies so that I would have something to eat between meals.
The Drill Sergeant used to pick up our mail and bring it back to the barracks. He would shout “mail call” and we would gather around, hoping for some word from the outside. He held up a carton, examining the name written on one of the sides. He turned it over and over just to make sure. He shouted, “Where’s Stone?” I had no choice but to answer, “Here, Drill Sergeant!” “What do you have here, Stone?” he asked. “I don’t know, Drill Sergeant,” I answered. “Well, let’s see what’s inside,” he said. He opened the bottom flaps of the carton and a birthday cake fell on the floor. “Well, pigs, who wants a piece of Stone’s cake?” he asked us. Everyone except me dove for the cake and stuffed gobs into the mouths. “Make sure you clean up the mess, Stone,” he said to me. I did. The next time I had a chance to phone my parents, I thanked Mom for the birthday cake and asked her not to send me anything by mail.
Some time afterward, I found my books on my bunk. I put one of the books in my fatigue jacket and the rest in my drawer. The only thing we did more than running was waiting around. Now, whenever I had to wait in line, I’d whip out my book and read. After a while, it didn’t seem to bother everyone else so much.
I remember the day we had gas mask training. We were marched to a building to learn how to put on our gas masks. We practiced whipping them out, untangling the straps, putting the masks over our faces, and pulling the straps tightly. Then we were herded into a chamber. I had a fairly good idea what was going to happen, but when the first sharp tang of tear gas tickled my nose, I was surprised we weren’t ordered to put on our masks before releasing the gas. I held my breath and closed my eyes while struggling to put my mask on and pull the straps tight, but the tear gas invaded my eyes and nostrils, and every other orifice I had. I was coughing my guts out and couldn’t breathe. Somebody led me out of the chamber into the open air. Eventually, my coughing subsided, and I could open an eye at least a slit.
When I was finally able to stand up straight, our drill sergeant walked over to me and quipped, “It’s a damned shame Hitler didn’t finish you all off.”
I don’t remember how I managed to get my clarinet safely delivered to me, but toward the end of Basic Training, I tried out for the Army Band at Fort Campbell. I was accepted. They cut orders for me to report for band duty the day after I finished Basic Training. I was elated for the first time since arriving at Fort Campbell. I called my parents and told them the good news. I didn’t have any friends back at the barracks, except for McNew and the guy who lost a tooth and was knocked unconscious that first night, so I told them the good news too.
As it turned out, the guy at the Chicago Induction Center had been right. The Army did fatten me up. I gained thirty pounds during Basic Training. None of it was fat. I think it was due to the fact that we were given only five minutes to eat our meals. I swallowed everything whole without chewing anything. I never got a chance to feel satiated.
On the last night of Basic Training, I received new orders, over-riding my previous orders to report for Band duty.
The next day, I was to be flown to Fort Bliss, Texas, for Advanced Individual Training in Army Air Defense Intelligence.
Fort Bliss was in El Paso, across the border from Juarez, Mexico.
These were the first things I found out there:
1. We were no longer “trainees”; we were now “soldiers”. That felt awfully good.
2. They let us take as long as we wanted to eat our meals. My weight dropped back down to 120 lbs. over the next couple of months.
3. Army Air Defense Intelligence was a numerically small Military Occupational Status covering a relatively wide range of occupational categories, from writing backward on a glass situation board in a war room to calling in artillery and bombs as a forward observer.
They passed out forms, asking us where we preferred to serve if we were sent overseas. There were three choices: Vietnam, South Korea, or Europe. Not trusting the military any farther than I could throw them, I wrote my preferences in reverse order: #1 Vietnam, #2 South Korea, and #3 Europe. Rather capricious, I know, especially given my pacifist predilections.
We were treated like humans, like professionals. The training was interesting. I can’t talk about most of it. I learned how to stand behind a glass situation board and update troop status and threats backward, from right to left. It made sense. If I were to update the status in English from left to right, the commanders would have to read it backward or I would have to stand in front of the board with my back covering the status. I got pretty good at it. Maybe it was a good preparation for me to learn to write in Hebrew from right to left.
There is only one story I can tell about this period, but it lasted the whole time I was at Fort Bliss. I had mentioned that I spoke Spanish almost fluently, having studied it for four years in high school and 2 years in college. There was a corporal and another soldier in our group who invited me to join them on a ride into Juarez. The corporal had a car and I would be the translator since no one else in the group spoke Spanish.
We crossed over the border, parked the car, and walked around. We walked into a bar, sat down, and ordered beers. We met three nice looking girls who were laughing and talking in Spanish. The corporal suggested I go over to them and invite them to join us for some beers. I stood up and walked over to their table. I introduced myself and my friends at the other table in Spanish and asked them whether they would like to join us for some beers.
To my surprise, they agreed to join us at our table. I introduced the girls by name to my friends in English and my friends by name to the girls in Spanish. I remember one of the girls was named Romelia. The second one looked like Gina Lollobrigida, but I don’t remember her name. I don’t remember the third girl’s name or how she looked.
The corporal told me he wanted “Gina” for himself and I could choose from the other two. He outranked me, so there wasn’t much I could do. I gravitated toward Romelia and the third guy gravitated toward the third girl. Since the corporal did not speak Spanish and the girls spoke no English, I had to translate the conversations between the other guys and girls, so I barely had a chance to say more than a few words to Romelia.
The corporal asked me to tell Gina and the other girls that he had a car and offered to drive them home. They agreed and we drove them to their homes. We set a date, time, and place to meet the next week. That was that. We drove back to the base.
The three of us met with the three of them at least once a week. The relationships warmed up. They were good girls, and we were good guys.
Toward the end of Advanced Individual Training, I received my orders to fly to Germany where I was to be stationed for the rest of my active duty. The corporal picked me up without the third guy and told me he wanted to propose marriage to Gina and he needed me to translate. We drove down to Gina’s house and picked her up. I told her he wished to propose marriage to her. I felt shocked when she accepted. She said she was Catholic and insisted on being married in a local cathedral. She also explained the dowry to me which I explained to the corporal. I thought about the irony of the situation: the corporal was Protestant, Gina was Catholic, and I was Jewish, negotiating the delicate intricacies of their wedding arrangements.
Back at the base, someone leaked the story about the corporal’s proposal to Gina. They joked about how they would need me in bed with them to translate during their wedding night.
I flew from Fort Bliss to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and from there to Frankfurt, Germany. From there, I was driven down to Ernst Ludwig Kaserne in Darmstadt. My roommate was a Cuban guy who spoke a brand of Spanish I had great difficulty understanding.
Romelia and I continued writing each other from time to time. One day, a letter arrived from Romelia telling me that six weeks before the wedding, Gina ran away with some other guy who played in a band. I never heard from the corporal.
The correspondence between Romelia and me eventually dwindled and finally ceased altogether.