Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Good Life at the Presidio

Late March ’56. The Army shipped me from the East to the West Coast. In a matter of hours I escaped the cold and slush of the Northeast for sunny, balmy California. Although I was outfitted in khaki gabardine with the signature ‘Ike jacket’ of the old brown-shoe Army, it was the Army Security Agency (ASA) that put me on the plane. ASA was a semi-secret intelligence outfit housed within the US Army solely for logistical purposes since it reported to the National Security Agency (NSA) in Washington DC.

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.”

ALS Barracks

And ALS was something of a college, but skewed toward a single discipline, the Modern Languages, the full array from Arabic to Russian. Back at Devens, I was promised Czech and ASA delivered. Years later, Jeff too was promised a Slavic language, but got Vietnamese. Though we lived and studied in different parts of the Presidio – Jeff in the Oriental languages section at the peak of the hill while I was midway down in the European languages area – we both followed the same curriculum of six hours a day language training, five days a week, 11 ½ months. As military duty went, it was a great posting – academic study with a break for lunch and few military obligations other than standing Retreat at the end of the week as the flag came down and the loudspeakers gave forth the sad strains of Taps.

Well, I should qualify that because Jeff told me life wasn’t that easy in the ‘60s. My barracks sergeant, a fellow student and long-time professional soldier, was always just glad to get back to his private room after evening chow. A master of the parade ground, sarge was not at home with language drills, grammar study, and homework every night. We rarely saw him outside of class and the mess hall and he in turn rarely took an interest in our college boy-like barracks where we bunked two to a cubicle. Being under the Army’s roof, we were obliged to have our bunks with their regulation woolen blankets drawn tight and brown wooden footlocker squared away, but not much else. It was the mid-‘50s, a quiet time in the Cold War.

While Jeff lived in a more modern barracks with semi-private rooms, tiled bathrooms, and piped-in music, his NCO-in-charge, a non-commissioned officer, was a young by-the-book Marine who ran a tight ship, including periodic footlocker inspections, after class chores, and occasional formations. While I and a few buddies studying Russian and other languages maintained our cubicles in good order, we actually lived off-post, illegally. Down the hill below the Presidio lay the small seaside town of Monterey, but we chose to rent a house across the peninsula in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a lovely place of fine shops, quaint pubs, and charming bungalows. As long as we made it to class on time in the morning, no one knew the difference.

Sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away…
…wasting time*

In mid-’62 Jeff’s social life began to look up when his fellow Albany Academy grad, Keith Willis, turned up at ALS. Keith too was shunted into Vietnamese along with Jeff, Ken Yonowitz, Vachel Worthington, John Buquoi, Steve Shlafer, David Elliott, Harvey Kline, and others training in the expanding program. Though Vietnamese was never as big as Russian and Chinese, the languages of America’s two major Cold War adversaries, the Kennedy Administration had begun stocking up on interpreter/translators; in time they would serve in our increasing involvement in the North-South civil war underway in former French Indochina. Like my instructors in Czech, the Vietnamese teaching staff were also refugees, mostly from Communist North Vietnam. In both departments, the majority of staff were not professional teachers. As individuals from a spectrum of occupations, civilian and military, fate had landed them on the shores of the Monterey Peninsula.

Jeff and Keith Willis (fresh out of Penn’s Wharton School), bought a used British motorcycle. It carried them up and down the California coast, south to Big Sur, north to San Francisco where they’d roar up to the front of the Mark Hopkins, premier hotel of the day; Jeff would dismount and hand off the cycle to the doorman to park. During our respective tours at ALS, Jeff and I also took in the pleasures of the peninsula, including funky eateries on then run-down Cannery Row of Steinbeck fame; the way off-Broadway theater on the Monterey Wharf; 17-mile Drive along Pebble Beach; fine restaurants like Gallatin’s; and great pubs like Sade’s on Ocean Avenue, Carmel’s main drag running down to a wide Pacific beach. Once classes ended for the week and uniforms gave way to civvies, life at the Presidio and its environs was very pleasant.

Off-duty at ALS, Keith Willis going high for a Frisbee

Occasionally those of us enjoying the tranquil life of the military college on the hill were reminded of the Cold War underway across the globe.  In my day, it was the Hungarian Revolution of October ’56. The Hungarian language department was next to mine, and I knew some of the guys. In Budapest, Soviet armor, temporarily pulled out, swept back into the city igniting heavy street fighting with the Hungarian Freedom Fighters. Students from the several Hungarian classes disappeared suddenly from one day to the next. Their classmates were puzzled. Later we learned the missing GIs were Special Forces troops, then a little known outfit, who were abruptly and secretly sent to units in Europe on stand-by should the United States intervene. Six years later to the month, October ’62 during Jeff’s ALS tour, it was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Similarly to '56, other than the officers and NCO's for whom the possibility of military action meant career advancement, the dramatic events in the Caribbean made barely a ripple in the placid routines of the Army Language School. 

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

1 comment:

  1. I went from Dix to the Presidio in late ’61 too. We didn’t practice on the .30 cal like they did in the ‘50’s, but we did fire rifle grenades that they apparently did not.


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