Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Off to the Cold War By Way of Paradise

It was a chilly day January 3rd ‘56, my last as a civilian for some time. The Army owned me for the next three years. Actually I had joined an outfit that was independent of regular military channels – the Army Security Agency, or ASA. Still, before the Army released me to the semi-secret ASA, they wanted me for Basic Training – every man in uniform a rifleman regardless of special skills.

I was destined for Fort Dix, a sprawling training base in New Jersey’s northern barrens. First though, I was to report to my local induction center early that winter morning. I was sworn in with a group of scruffy-looking guys, mostly younger – I was then 20. As the oldest recruit, and perhaps because I was the only one with any college education, I was put in charge, a dubious distinction.

It meant nothing more than carrying the travel orders and tickets and getting everyone on the right train. Half an hour later, standing with my crew at Albany’s New York Central RR station waiting for the public announcement, we must have looked like an itinerant band of workmen transiting to a new job site. We were a bunch of guys in warm-up jackets and zip-ups, our only luggage small canvas bags with shaving stuff, toothbrush, and the like – one didn’t dress for Dix.

Just as our train was called, Pete, a friend from prep school, sailed by with several traveling companions, casting a quizzical glance in my direction as if to say, Bob, what the hell are doing with those guys and dressed for the gym. He was decked out in a camel hair coat, pretty much the standard outerwear for the well-heeled of the day. We were on the same train, but I was off to the army while Pete was heading back to college for spring semester.

For a moment there I thought, what have I done? – hoping to become a writer, I had impulsively dropped out of school with ‘my unfinished novel’ which went nowhere, and here I was heading off my generation’s track. Like ships passing in the night, I was enroute to Fort Dix, Pete farther down the line to the gothic towers of Princeton.

Except for long days in wintry weather with little sleep, Basic wasn’t bad. An 8-week course in the rudiments of ground combat, the DI’s – drill instructors – didn’t have much time to teach anything in depth except for the week we spent firing the M-1 at the rifle range. Some of the routine stuff was familiar to me – at the prep school, the same one brother Jeff Sharlet was then attending, we’d been organized as a battalion with uniforms, rifles, the manual of arms, and daily drill.
At Dix, our platoon always moved to training destinations as a column of threes. Top Sergeant (Sgt) marched smartly alongside, calling out ‘Hup-areep, Hup-areep, on your left’ over and over in a rhythmic chant, a catchy cadence to keep us in step.

Maybe because of my school background, the training cadre made me a squad leader in the platoon with the rank of acting corporal. Midway in our course, the platoon guide, a former National Guardsman, fell ill, and I was appointed to take over as acting platoon sergeant.

The duties weren’t onerous, but occasionally vexing – keeping the gung ho guys from bullying the weaker ones, trying to talk to the Puerto Rican recruits who responded to only two words in English – ‘chow’ and ‘payday’ –  and dealing with a bed wetter and the bunkmate below who threatened to kill him with his bayonet.

On the last day of Basic, Top Sgt told us we were to fill out and sign a questionnaire on our training experience, assuring us that the forms were confidential, and would be sent directly to an office across post for evaluation. So he said. I had had an easy time of it at Dix, but I wrote critically of the cadre for turning a blind eye to the tougher troopers picking on the little guys.

Within 15 minutes of handing in the form, I heard myself summoned over the PA, public address system, to the company office. There Top Sgt and his staff were waiting and wondering why I had criticized them. No discussion of alleged confidentiality. Since I’d been one of them, albeit a junior version, with certain privileges, they felt betrayed by my ‘ingratitude’.

Graduation ceremony was scheduled for that afternoon, but Top Sgt ordered me to report instead to the Mess Sgt at the kitchen. There I found another naive recruit who had fallen for the promise of confidentiality. We were both put to work in the grease pits behind the Mess Hall. My partner was from Williams College, a sister school of my own, so we had much to talk about as we hauled buckets of cooking grease. Thus went my final day in the Regular Army before shipping out to ASA.

After a short stay at Fort Devens in snowy New England, I was off to the West Coast, to the Army Language School (ALS) at the old Presidio of Monterey.* Arriving there on a sunny California afternoon after the cold Northeast was a moment of pure joy. Footpaths lined with flowers, streets bordered with trees, trim lawns in front of well-preserved old yellow double-decker wooden barracks – the whole scene was perched on a hill overlooking the blue Pacific. One could well imagine being back on a college campus.**

Army Language School, Presidio of Monterey, 1956***

Basically my ‘job’ was to attend class six hours a day, three in the morning, three after lunch. While we ASA personnel were busy studying a variety of languages taught at the Language School, the FBI was conducting intensive background investigations on each of us pursuant to approving Top Secret and Cryptographic security clearances essential for our future classified duties. Keep in mind it was the Cold War of the mid-‘50s with the country still in the thrall of ‘McCarthyism’, so-called after the reckless senator crusading to root out hidden communists in American society.

Our barrack was subdivided into two-man cubicles. My bunkmate had been a junior professor at a university. Summoned by the draft, Albert had opted for a three-year ASA enlistment to get the language training. A little odd, he was a bright fellow. One day he furtively showed me a bootleg copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn (1939) – banned in the US under the obscenity laws, but smuggled in from Europe. Albert kept it hidden in his footlocker.

Miller, long an expatriate in France, had resettled in the States just down the coast from the Presidio. Albert wrote him an appreciative fan letter and, to his pleasant surprise, received an invitation to come down for a visit. On the following Saturday with much excitement, he boarded a bus to Big Sur on the coast road and then walked up to the famous author’s house on the ridge. I wish I could now recall what Albert told me of their meeting, but time has washed away the memory.

My Czech class was small, maybe 8 to 10 of us around a big table, with different instructors rotating in hourly. All were refugees from Communist Czechoslovakia – former lawyers, judges, army officers, and one professor who ironically was the least effective teacher.

Homework was assigned, but most of us didn’t give it much time. Classmates included a ringer, a career sgt who spoke Polish at home and understood Slavic grammar; and an older major, a long time staff officer who wistfully longed for a ‘little war’ so he could make lieutenant colonel before retirement.

After classes and on weekends, our time was our own. Monterey was an easy walk down the hill, but not much of a town, Cannery Row of Steinbeck fame being the main curiosity. It was essentially a long row of mostly dilapidated and abandoned fish canneries with a few off-beat eateries tucked in the ruins.

Cannery Row, Monterey CA, 1956

The principal cultural attraction was the Long Wharf Theater, a small playhouse on the then little-used pier jutting into the bay. Otherwise there were the usual shops along with many honky tonk bars frequented by GIs on weekend passes from Fort Ord, the giant infantry base farther along the coast.

For me, the highlight of the summer of ’56 was the visit of my parents and Jeff. I got them rooms at a beautiful inn right on the water in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a picturesque little village on the other side of the Monterey Peninsula. We rented a car and took in all the area’s places of natural beauty, including the famous 17-Mile Drive around upscale Pebble Beach.

I of course took them on a tour of ‘my school’ at the Presidio. Jeff was duly impressed with the ambiance of my unusually comfortable life in the military – what teenager wouldn’t be. Before the family left to fly back East, my father bought me a used car, which was to transform my sojourn on the West Coast.

Having wheels meant I could range far and wide. First thing I did that fall was to rent a small house in Carmel with three other ALS students. All of us were Easterners from the New England schools – Peter from Trinity College was learning Romanian; Bob from Williams, Russian; and Mal, like me from Wesleyan, was in the Hungarian program.

Officially but nominally, we all still ‘lived’ in the Presidio barracks except that after classes we drove back to our place in Carmel and of course remained in the village on weekends. Civvies were standard dress off-duty, but so long as we appeared in uniform for morning roll calls and on Fridays stayed around for retreat – a military formation on the company street as the flag was lowered to the sounds of Taps – nobody, meaning the ‘brass’, knew the difference.

Life in Carmel was lovely. Ocean Avenue, lined with charming shops and pleasant pubs, ran from the peninsula highway down to the Pacific beach. All the side streets were honeycombed with small but sturdy seaside bungalows and labyrinthine courtyards.

Carmel beach, California coast

My favorite haunt was Sade’s, a pub on the main drag. As a group of us would sit around drinking beer at the big round table, the conversation often turned to books, sometimes to F Scott Fitzgerald and the expatriate writers in Paris of the ‘20s. We were all dreamers, fantasizing that we too might publish a first novel by age 23.

With the opening of the local school year, our social life picked up. As I wrote home, “every time I set aside an afternoon to write letters, a fantastic party looms out of nowhere.” A bevy of attractive college girls from Southern California descended on the Carmel school system for student practice teaching. They rented big summer houses which became settings for weekend partying.

Well, it's Saturday night and I just got paid,
Fool about my money, don't try to save …
But I don't care if I spend my dough,
'Cause tonight I'm gonna be one happy soul …

The California beauties were very different in style from the young women we knew from the Seven Sisters’ schools back East. The difference was evident when one of the guys brought to a party his sister visiting from Smith College in New England. The local girls were on the tall side, leggy, and lighthearted with long hair. At the parties they invariably wore flower-patterned silk dresses with attractive costume jewelry.

By contrast, the ‘Smithie’ was a serious young woman wearing her hair short pageboy fashion, grey tweed skirt, white blouse under an earth-color cardigan, and a small silver circle pin by way of accessory – a look familiar to all of us guys.

We were all being taught one or another Cold War language, by which I mean the languages of our adversaries in the global conflict. The Cold War itself was fairly distant from our daily routine as we struggled with unfamiliar vocabularies, unusual pronunciations, and often exotic grammars dictating peculiar word endings. Distant, that is until late fall ’56, when the low intensity East-West stand-off suddenly flared into a short hot war.

Two events occurred that fall that became historic markers in the Cold War, one for its ferocity, the other for its subsequent unforeseen dramatic consequences. The Hungarian Revolution in October focused everyone’s attention at the language school. There had been rebellious occurrences within the USSR’s East European satellites earlier –  workers rising in East Berlin in the early ‘50s for one – but nothing on the scale of the bloody street fighting in Budapest that was finally crushed by Soviet troops, tanks, and artillery.

Soviet tanks in Budapest, 1956

For those of us up on the Presidio hill, it turned out that the Hungarian tragedy was not that far removed. After the onset of the revolution, my housemate Mal had casually mentioned that a number of students from the Hungarian department hadn’t shown up for classes, no one knew why.

Only later did we all learn that the GIs who had abruptly left school, were Special Forces, a small elite Army unit. They had been shipped to a staging area in Europe in case the US decided to help the rebels.

Less than a month later, even as the Hungarian Secret Police were mopping up and carrying out summary executions, what seemed at the time an obscure incident occurred in the Caribbean 90 miles south of Key West at the tip of Florida. It got coverage in the American press, although I happened to catch only a brief reference to the event in a weekly paper I received air mail from the UK.

The Manchester Guardian reported with some amusement that a band of men had attempted unsuccessfully to invade Cuba from an overladen sailing yacht. The landing party had been largely wiped out by the dictator’s forces, but a small group managed to escape into the mountains, among them the Castro brothers as we later learned. The world had barely noticed a crucial juncture in the Cuban Revolution that, just six years later, would lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous moment of the Cold War.

During winter of early ’57, other diversions from the language grind included skiing – my favorite slopes, Squaw Valley – and weekend trips to San Francisco, city of steep hills and cable cars. I knew a girl in the city who would put me up after a night on the town – drinking at the Top of the Mark overlooking the bay, catching some music at a jazz club, and wrapping up with Irish coffees on the waterfront. Other times I’d sack out at the ‘Deke house’, the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Berkeley across the bay, a courtesy extended to a brother ‘Deke’ from the East.

The author, Squaw Valley ski resort, California, 1957

When not up in the Bay Area, friends and I would sometimes drive down to Big Sur south of Carmel. We’d hang out at Nepenthe, a great restaurant – as Henry Miller wrote, “One of the show places along the coast” – extending over a cliff high above the ocean hundreds of feet below. It was a beautiful place constructed from sun-dried adobe bricks and hand-hewn redwood timbers from nearby canyons. Late weekend afternoons, I’d often sit there – drink in hand as the sun settled over the Pacific – and muse, am I really in the armed forces, or is this paradise.

All good things end. Final exams and graduation beckoned in the spring of ’57, and it was time to go off to the Cold War. In following my path half a dozen years later, Jeff wasn’t so lucky. The slow-burning Cold War had morphed into a hot war in distant Southeast Asia. He had been promised the same deal I got, but on arrival at ALS, Jeff found himself bumped into Vietnamese.

His living conditions weren’t so great either. Whereas my barrack sgt, or non-com, had been an older alcoholic GI over his head in the language classes and not the least bit concerned with the rest of us, Jeff got stuck with a young Marine non-com. With bed checks, inspections, and barrack-cleaning details, he ran the Vietnamese barrack like a Marine billet.

Only late in Jeff’s course, when his prep school friend Keith Willis reached ALS, could the two of them together afford a used motorcycle they’d ride up to San Fran. Jeff also got to take in the Top of the Mark, but with his 11 ½  month course soon coming to an end, it was all downhill from there, eventually to a tiny outpost just below the North Vietnamese border, but that’s another story.

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*A US Army base dating back to 18th century Spanish California.

***The school is now called the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC).  

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