Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Off to the Cold War By Way of Paradise
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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
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.**
Language School, Presidio of Monterey, 1956***
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Row, Monterey CA, 1956
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 …†
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.
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.
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.
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.
tanks in Budapest, 1956
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
author, Squaw Valley ski resort, California, 1957
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.
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.
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.
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.