Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Scenes from a Short but Interesting Life

The formative years …

The Albany Academy, Albany NY

My younger brother, Jeff Sharlet, spent his formative years well up the Hudson River at a venerable old school in New York’s capital. The campus of the Albany Academy with its extensive grounds and playing fields could be found just off Academy Road. Established in the early 1800s, the school boasted a number of graduates later distinguished in American life of the 19th and 20th centuries.

After the Civil War, the Academy adopted a quasi-military structure, and students, now called cadets, wore uniforms. Classes were small; the faculty, products of elite colleges, were dedicated; and the facilities excellent.

Private school also came with a lively and upscale social life. The Academy boys mixed with girls from the several country day schools of the Capital region. There were proms, balls, and dinner dances as well as gala house parties at the grand homes of the wealthier families.

In a word, the Albany Academy was not a bad place to get one’s education in a pleasant setting while enjoying schoolboy life in the process.

Jeff spent his middle and high school years at the school, flourishing there nearly up to the end. He excelled academically, played two sports creditably well, and performed as an effective member of the Academy’s battalion. By senior year he was appointed an officer in one of the line companies.

Then things began to go awry. Our father, who had provided Jeff a comfortable existence, lived beyond his means and ran his business into the ground. Jeff had his eye set on Dartmouth College, and through junior year his grades and activities strongly indicated he would get in.

However, at the end of football season that fall our father sat him down and broke the news that they’d be unable to afford Dartmouth or, for that matter, the tuition at any private college. Because our parents always made a point of never discussing business in our presence, Jeff was caught completely by surprise.

As a young man with a sports car who wanted for little, Jeff’s bright near-future suddenly darkened. He plunged into an academic tailspin. From Cum Laude  among the top ten of a class of 50, by spring term Jeff had spiraled down to 36th in class rank, hardly competitive for selective Dartmouth or for any comparable college, even if the funds had been available.

Discouraged by the changed family circumstances, Jeff took no steps to apply to college. He seemed not to care, but the parents prevailed upon him to follow me to grad school. I was headed to a Big Ten research university, and Jeff was coming along as a freshman.

A friend, remembering Jeff from their last days together before the Academy’s commencement ceremony, recalled the two of them sitting in a convertible on a warm June evening ‘under a Rembrandt blue sky’ happy to be putting their formative years behind them.

For me graduate school was a heady experience, but Jeff was lost at that large university of some 30,000 students. Far from home and his friends, all of whom had gone on to the Ivy League back East, Jeff knew no one. He was not a happy trooper.

Jeff dropped out at the end of fall semester, drifting for several months through part-time jobs in the small university town. However, no longer covered by a college deferment, the draft and two years of Army life beckoned. Facing the inevitable, Jeff enlisted for three years with the promise of a year of language study.

Thus began a journey which set him on a trajectory quite different from his peers. The experience and reverberations would shape the rest of Jeff’s short but interesting life. Though serious things lay ahead and Jeff’s personal story would end sadly, there’d also be good times and lighter moments along the way.

                                           Out to the coast …

Nepenthe’s at Big Sur, California coast

Jeff got through Basic Training at Fort Dix uneventfully. All the marching, drilling, and manual of arms of the Albany Academy years gave him an edge – top sergeant made him a squad leader. That meant a more comfortable billet in the barracks and a few privileges.

He had joined an autonomous intelligence outfit within the Army, and as promised, they sent him to language school for a year of study.  The school was perched on a hill along a particularly beautiful stretch of California coast. Though uniforms were the order of the day during classes, academic life took priority over military life on the base high above Monterey Bay.

There was a lot of free time and just a minimum of duties typically expected of GIs in garrison. After classes and on weekends, the military ‘students’ were off duty and could don their civvies and go where they pleased.

Jeff had a gung ho roommate and got stuck with a starchy Marine NCO as barracks chief. Still, it was great duty only slightly removed from the collegiate ambiance from which Jeff and his classmates had arrived at the school.

There was much to do after hours. Jeff had an old motorcycle, and he and a buddy would ride across the peninsula to the charming village of Carmel-by-the-Sea or roar up the coast highway to San Francisco. Sometimes they’d head off to a race track for a day with the ponies.

By far though, Jeff’s favorite weekend hangout was Nepenthe, a dazzling restaurant built from redwood harvested from the surrounding forest. It was located on a breathtaking strip of coast called Big Sur south of the language school. There Nepenthe extended over a cliff high above the Pacific.

The patios, candle-lit as dusk fell, afforded magnificent views up and down the wild and rocky coast. Food was delicious, but above all Nepenthe was a marvelous place to drink, linger, and talk into the night. It was an easy place to forget one was serving in the armed forces.

Late ’62 Jeff graduated as a Vietnamese linguist, or lingy in the outfit's slang. Originally he’d hoped to go to Europe on the Army’s nickel, but on arrival at the school he’d had been bumped from a Slavic language program, so it was westward ho to Southeast Asia. 

Life in the tropics …

Enjoying good times in the Philippines

Flying with stops in Honolulu and on Guam, Jeff found himself at a vast military airfield in the Philippine Islands (PI), a major US base in the global Cold War. In a far flung corner of the base – far from flight lines where fighters and bombers constantly took off and landed – Jeff worked the graveyard shift in a flood-lit, windowless, heavily guarded building. In effect, he was in the rear area of the low key war underway across the South China Sea in Vietnam.

Again, military life in Jeff’s outfit was at a minimum, and when he wasn’t at his classified tasks, life was very good in the PI. The billets were as comfortable as good college dorms. There was an enlisted men’s club where drinks were beyond cheap, and for the endless sunny days of the subtropics, a large outdoor swimming pool.

Evenings Jeff and buddies would often gather in the pubs and cafes of Angeles City, a honky tonk GI town not far from the gates of Clark Airbase. Jeff joined the glee club, which meant invitations to sing at other American bases in the islands, usually followed by excellent dinners. At one point he considered going out for the Clark football team, which would have meant away games all over the US network of bases in Asia.

There were also trains to Manila, the capital, and bus trips up into the cool mountains as well as excursions to white sand and palm-fringed beaches of the South China Sea.

Travel to other cities of Asia was available. On one occasion when Jeff had leave, he flew military transport gratis to exotic Tokyo, while another time he caught the 4x-a year leave-ship to British Hong Kong. Judging by his letters home, he found those two great cities fascinating.

As the saying goes, all good things come to an end, and Jeff was ordered one evening, late summer ’63 to pack his gear and report to the flight line in the morning. He was shipping out to Vietnam.

To the Paris of the Orient

A Saigon street scene, 1963

It was a deadly serious matter that rushed Jeff and fellow lingys to Tan Son Nhut, the capital’s airport. A coup was in the air. South Vietnam’s president was mismanaging the country and botching the war against the Communist insurgency. The general staff was thoroughly fed up, and President Kennedy (JFK) had lost patience with America’s Southeast Asian client.

With JFK’s secret blessings, behind the scenes the generals had begun plotting a coup. The US ambassador had a liaison with the plotters, but Washington wanted to be sure what it was getting involved in and dispatched Jeff and his team to clandestinely monitor the electronic communications among the conspirators.

The mission was Top Secret lest the South Vietnamese government find out what we were up to. The lingys were billeted in the capital and transported to their operational site in a remote corner of a US base outside Saigon. They worked around the clock. Each day’s ‘product’ – the intercepts – was sent down to their parent outfit in the capital to be closely analyzed.

So sensitive was the operation that the daily product was packed with incendiary explosives to be detonated should there occur any chance of interception by troops loyal to the South Vietnamese president.

Despite this grim routine, Jeff and buddies had unforgettable times in Saigon, then still regarded as the ‘Paris of the Orient’. The American presence was not yet overwhelming, and it was still a lovely city with broad avenues and a French flavor.

The young Vietnamese women wearing the white silk ao dai – long tunics slit down both sides and worn over long pants – seemed universally attractive. Fine European-style hotels served indigenous dishes and continental cuisine. A popular dining place was a floating restaurant moored to a bank of the Saigon River.

Off-duty, Jeff and his pals were fond of pub crawling through the town’s many attractive bars and outdoor cafes. But – as depicted in the film Good Morning, Vietnam – all was not quiet. An insurgency had been underway in the mountains and jungles for several years, and its impact was beginning to be felt in the country’s capital where the American military advisors were concentrated.

The insurgents – called the Viet Cong (VC) – not only conducted hit and run attacks on the South Vietnamese Army in rural areas, but carried out terrorist activities against places where Americans gathered in Saigon.

A VC attack hit a movie theater frequented by US advisers and their dependents, but more often a VC action was no more than two young men on a motor scooter racing down a busy street and rolling a live grenade into an open air bistro.

That happened one evening as Jeff and friends were walking along a major avenue toward one of their favorite Vietnamese-French places. Maybe a hundred feet ahead of them, a couple of VC cowboys sped by and the café exploded. The place was wrecked, but miraculously no one was killed in that incident.

VC terror was such a part of the urban scene in a city at war that GIs had grown accustomed to it. Jeff and the guys glanced at the damage to the cafe, stepped around it, and continued the night’s outing.

A few days later when the café had been repaired, Jeff and the GIs went back to enjoy the good food and pleasant ambiance. Their favorite waiters were decked out in red sneakers instead of the customary sandals. When Jeff asked why, they replied, “To run faster next time.”

After nearly seven weeks on the secret op, Jeff and the initial team were pulled out and flown back to the Philippines. Replacements continued the operation up to the eve of the successful coup on November 1st..

High above the heat and dust of the plains

The road to the hill station at Baguio

Returning to his duties at the 9th ASA Field Station in the PI, Jeff resumed the languorous life of the islands. Nearby Angeles City, however, was a come-down after Saigon with its lovely girls in the flowing ao dai, flower vendors along the sidewalks, and, despite VC interruptions – the night life of a romantic Oriental city edged with a frisson of danger.

But the Philippines still had its charms for a young college boy GI with money in his pocket and plenty of downtime. It was back to the sunny beaches, catching the train again to the bright lights of Manila, as well as occasional free-swinging dinner parties with fellow lingys and crypts, or cryptographers. It felt once again like extended spring break.

As relief from the tropical heat of the lowlands, Jeff and friends would make the harrowing bus trip up to the refreshing air of Baguio along narrow, tortuous mountain roads with sheer drops of 1000s of feet. In British India Baguio was the kind of place they called a hill station, high above the dust and heat of the plains far below.

The only break in the daily routine from the night shift in the windowless building and days of beer and bar girls was a tragic one, the assassination of JFK in Dallas. Profound shock was felt by Jeff and his buddies so far from home at a terrible moment in the life of the nation.

By early ’64, Jeff had had it with military life. He’d been in the forces for two and a half years with just six months to go, and was thinking ‘short’ – shorthand for combat GIs counting the days until they were out of harm’s way.

Jeff’s most urgent concerns became getting his driver’s license renewed back in the States, arranging to return to college, and generally transitioning back to civilian ways.

But then political conditions in Saigon became unstable, the post-coup junta proved inept, and rumors of another upheaval were rife. Once more on short notice, Jeff found himself transferred to Vietnam, but this time in different circumstances, absent the creature comforts and good times of his first tour.

As we shall see in the next posting, he was about to come face to face with the realities of the smoldering, low intensity war in the bush.