Six years later in the dead of winter, my younger brother Jeff Sharlet made the same journey. Each in our own time had gone through Basic Training at Fort Dix in northern New Jersey. Dix was a small city of 30,000 troops complete with mid-rise buildings (barracks), parade grounds, and firing ranges. The only diversion – with permission – was Wrightstown just outside the gates, a regular grimsville. There, as members of ASA, the military arm of NSA, we were taught elementary martial skills such as marching, the M-1 rifle, and how to thrust the bayonet along with a few days of throwing grenades and firing the .30 cal machine gun. I can’t say either one of us emerged from Dix as well trained soldiers – that wouldn’t have been possible in our short time there, just eight weeks. Besides, that wasn’t ASA’s purpose in the case of those of us destined for California.
I was transferred to Fort Devens in New England, an ASA processing center where it was decided how I might be of use. Jeff was processed at the end of his Dix course. Both he and I had committed three years of our young lives to the military in return for extensive language training, but there was a caveat. One had to qualify by passing a language aptitude test. We both did and were ordered to report to the Army Language School (ALS) at the Presidio of Monterey on the California coast – an idyllic place in a universe of grim military bases.
Arriving at the Presidio late that March day, my travel mates and I quickly shed our heavy Army overcoats and beheld rows of well-kept WWII wooden barracks and well-tended lawns amidst shady trees. Quite improbably one approached the headquarters building along a path lined with bright flowers. All was set high on a vast bluff overlooking beautiful Monterey Bay. It was as if we had transferred overnight from a large, impersonal state university to the campus of a small, elite liberal arts college. In a letter, Jeff’s first reaction, “This doesn’t seem like the Army.”
As students finished their respective 50-week courses, ALS mounted a graduation ceremony and everyone was given 30-days leave. Then the top ASA language students received orders for advanced intelligence training at Fort Meade MD while the rest of us were dispatched abroad to various theaters of operation. In spring ’57 I flew off to Europe, exactly where I wanted to be, while in early ‘63 Jeff headed for Southeast Asia, a reluctant warrior, eventually finding himself drawn into the maelstrom of the emerging Vietnam War.
*”Sittin’ on the the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper, 1967