In November of 1968, after six weeks of Air Force Basic Training, I was sent to the Defense Language Institute, West Coast branch, at the Presidio of Monterey. There I would study Serbo-Croatian. DLIWC, a.k.a. “dilly-wick,” was a mystery to me, but I was so grateful to be leaving Basic, I gave no thought to where I was going.
:: Arrival ::
The jet from San Antonio landed in San Francisco late at night. Walking into that airport at the very height of Flower Power was a seismic change. We boarded a bus to Monterey, somewhere I’d never been or even heard of. I had no idea where we were. It was 2 a.m., pouring rain, and dark as dark can be. The bus let us out next to a paved walk and we went into the Orderly Room for instructions. The CQ (Charge of Quarters) gave us sheets and blankets and towels, and sent us to a temporary barracks. We kept calling the CQ “Sir” and he’d say, “Stop calling me ‘sir'” and we’d say, “Yes, sir.” He told us to sleep in, and then put on our civilian clothes and go downtown for breakfast.
We awoke, sun streaming through the windows, with barking in our ears. We thought, “Oh no, it’s another K-9 barracks.” We got dressed, went outside, followed our feet downhill to a parking lot and stood, stunned, looking at Monterey Bay and listening to the seals bark as they frolicked in the water. We had gone from Hell to Paradise in one day.
“Certainly all of Cannery Row and probably all of Monterey felt that a change had come… The sea lions felt it and their barking took on a tone and a cadence that would have gladdened the heart of St. Francis.” — John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (1945)
:: Breakfast ::
As the CQ predicted, we had slept through the dining hall’s breakfast hours, and so we went down to Monterey for breakfast. We stopped at each street, looked both ways before crossing, and then crossed together, until finally someone said, “Why are we doing this?” I noticed that I was pinching the seams of my pants with my thumb and index finger, holding myself very straight. It would take weeks to get the ingrained discipline of Basic out of our systems. (The petty parts, at least; I have a feeling that much still lurks below the surface.) I remember that we each thought one of the others might be a spy, and that if we broke any rules, we would be sent back. (There were spies in some of the barracks, but not to see if we crossed the street correctly, and more about them later.)
We found a restaurant on Alvarado Street, kind of a Spanish place with high ceilings and big windows. The waitress, in a nice uniform, smiled at us. It was still a shock to be treated with kindness. I ordered a Western omelet, and I’m sure I had sausage or bacon on the side, or maybe both, and buttered toast. It was Sunday morning, but I asked if I could have a beer. She said yes, of course. California, what a wonderful state. I ordered a Coors. It was delicious. About halfway through the omelet, I asked for an Olympia. And then a Hamm’s. New beers to me, playing “Ode to Joy” on my brain cells. After this magnificent meal, we went out to walk, and as we stood at the edge of the bay, squinting in the sunlight, looking at the boats and the seals, I could feel the alcohol in every liberated capillary. It was glorious.
:: Snow ::
It was November when we arrived in Monterey, so I asked when it would snow. “It doesn’t,” someone said. “Ever?” I asked. “No,” they said. “It won’t snow? It doesn’t ever snow?” “No, really.” I had grown up in Buffalo, gone to school in Syracuse. And now, a whole new world opened up before me.
:: The Presidio of Monterey ::
Monterey and the Presidio have been the property of three different nations. The original Presidio was built by the Spanish in 1770 to protect a nearby mission. The city of Monterey grew up near the Presidio and became the capital of the Spanish (later Mexican) province of Alta California. During the United States’ War with Mexico in 1846, Commodore Sloat captured the town without a fight. The Presidio languished until 1902, when the U.S. Army rebuilt the post, and after World War I, it became the home of the 11th Cavalry. We were told the first-floor coffee room under our classrooms was originally a stable.
In 1946, the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS), moved to the Presidio, and eventually became known as the Army Language School. By the time we arrived, the Army Language School had become the Defense Language Institute, and the Presidio housed its West Coast branch. In 1968, it was less like a military post and more like a campus. It was so beautiful, even the Service couldn’t screw it up.
:: Serbo-Croatian ::
How I came to be studying Serbo-Croatian, the official language of what was then Yugoslavia, had to do with military necessity, the laws of chance and the garden variety cruelty of my Training Instructors. It began in Basic when I checked a box on a form. The caption read, “Would you accept language training?” I thought the wording was a bit odd, but, like, why not? A week or two later, a group of us were marched off to a building for a language test. It was an artificial language, and you had to learn a few basic things about it and then translate some sentences. I’d had five years of Spanish and one of French, so I pretended the language was Portuguese, and breezed through. Based on that, someone, somewhere, decided I should go to language school.
The next part was being assigned a language. On one of the last days of Basic, the flight was marched from office to office, all over the base, to get orders. At each new building, Sgt. Boyd or Sgt. Barber would call out names. Those named would fall out and march into the building to get their orders. Our T.I.s wanted to maximize the day’s pain, so those getting bad duty found out immediately, so they could be devastated all day, and those getting good duty had to wait, so they could be in suspense all day.
By the end of the day, there were only three of us left. We marched up to the last building. “Baker, Brennan, Winship,” Sgt. Boyd called out. We fell out, marched in and stood at attention, heel to toe, at a desk where an NCO sat with a short stack of computer cards. He peeled three off the top and told us we were going to language school. “Serbo-Croatian,” he said.
Later, I spoke with other linguists, and put the story together. The first languages to go, the day before I got my orders, were Vietnamese and Chinese. (The Vietnamese linguists all survived, although one shift’s empty barracks was destroyed by a rocket attack while they were on duty.) On the day I went, they still had Chinese and Russian slots to fill, languages that could have earned me remote duty. But I was out marching with Flight 1274. By the time we got there, they had assigned all the essential slots and were just filling in the blanks. Hence Serbo-Croatian. Because I got out of Basic on a certain day, and got my orders at the end of that day, I was soon in a classroom in Monterey following the lead of an elderly Croat, saying, “Dobar dan.” Good day.
:: Dialogues ::
Our task was to learn to speak and understand Serbo-Croatian. Each evening, we were supposed to memorize our dialogues for the following day – read from the textbook, listen to the tapes, speak aloud, rehearse with a classmate. The following day, we would stand in front of large versions of the page on an easel, looking at the pictures only, point to each picture with a long stick and repeat the words we had memorized, having a “conversation” in Serbo-Croatian.
I confess, we did not always study as we should have. In class, we stumbled. We sought for cues. We searched our memories and came up with words in Spanish or whatever other languages we’d studied before. We tapped the pictures with the stick in hopes the words would be conducted through the wood up our arms like some Slavic electricity and spark our powers of recollection. We groped about, using the pointer like a blind man uses his cane.
We frustrated all our teachers. I remember Mr. Ristic, a soft-spoken man, once a fighter pilot who was said to have flown King Peter to freedom as Yugoslavia fell during World War II. One day, I referred to the Danube River as the “Tobacco River,” duvan instead of Dunav. “Duvan je tobacco,” Mr. Ristic said, and I obediently repeated, “Duvan je tobacco.” His eyes shut in pain and said, “No, no, no.”
:: Nada and the Name Tag ::
Beer was not the only thing we didn’t get in Basic Training. The only women we saw were in uniform, and usually marching in the opposite direction, with the same frozen expressions we wore. And so, on one of our first days in Language School, when Nada came in to teach our class, we were almost speechless with yearning. Nada was a woman of a certain age, but a handsome woman. She wore a gray sweater, perhaps cashmere. On that part of her sweater that was closest to us, her name tag was prominently, if precariously, displayed. She introduced herself and asked us to repeat her name, all the while pointing to her name tag. “Nada,” she said. “Nada.” We could barely speak. We smiled like idiots. “What is wrong with you boys?” she asked. Dean, who was a paragon of honesty, said, “Please don’t be offended, but we haven’t seen a woman in a long time.” Nada laughed and waved a dismissive hand at us. She was one of the best parts of the whole experience, and I remember her with great fondness.
:: Dr. Wessel and the Archduke ::
Early on, one of our professors offered us a unique incentive. Dr. Wessel had been an eyewitness to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, the event that started World War I. He would tell us about it at the end of our training, but only in Serbo-Croatian.
This stunned me. I had been reading about World War I for half my life. It seemed long ago and far away. But suddenly, right in front of me, stood a little, gentle man with white hair and a dark suit, who, as a boy, saw the war begin. And he would tell me about it. All I had to do was learn enough of his native tongue to understand him.
On one of our last days, Dr. Wessel was true to his word. Standing in the front of the classroom, he began, in Serbo-Croatian, “My mother, who lives in San Francisco…” and we said, “Lives?” And he said, “Yes, lives. She is 96.” Not only was the ancient Dr. Wessel with us, his mother was alive too! And on the morning of June 28, 1914, she did not want her son to go out and play, knowing that something was afoot. Everybody knew. But the 14-year-old boy made himself impossible, and soon she shooed him out the door.
With some friends, he went to a grassy spot along the Miljacka River, a bit of lawn between the street and the water. They were playing there as an open car approached, carrying the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, in the back seat. The driver had just driven past a side street where he was supposed to turn, and was stopping to back up. At that moment, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, one of seven young Serbian nationalists who had vowed to kill the archduke that day, stepped forward and fired two shots. One struck the archduke in the throat, and another struck his wife in the stomach.
At first, neither realized they had been hit. But then blood began to squirt from the archduke’s throat. His wife cried, in German, “In Heaven’s name, what has happened to you?” and then slid from the seat and collapsed at her husband’s feet. At this point in the telling of the story, Dr. Wessel clasped his throat in both his hands, and said, in German, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die. Live for the children.” Exactly as he had seen and heard it. The voice did not seem to be his at all, but that of the Archduke himself. The hair stood up on my arms.
Dr. Wessel finished his story and patiently answered all of our questions. He was very clear on every detail.
I have two other memories of Dr. Wessel. I was moving rather slowly on an assigned paper. With a concerned expression, he asked how it was coming. “Ne brini,” I told him. Don’t worry. “Ja brinim!” he said. I worry. Fortunately, the paper, on the animated film industry in Zagreb, pulled itself together shortly thereafter. Dr. Wessel was relieved.
And one Saturday afternoon in Carmel, I saw him ride by in his Volkswagen. It was on a curve, on a flower-lined street with a view of the ocean. His wife, an attractive woman with silver hair, was driving. Dr. Wessel was wearing a beret and staring straight ahead. He looked, if not happy, at least at peace with all he had seen.
:: Gospodin Jeffreys ::
Gospodin (Mr.) Jeffreys was the youngest of our instructors. He had ridden out World War II in Yugoslavia as a boy, surviving by eating garlic constantly. All the children wore it in braids around their necks in their classrooms, and ate heads of garlic as we would eat apples. All day they ate garlic, to get enough nutrients. The smell was so overpowering that in his adult life he could not sit in a restaurant where garlic was being used. Mr. Jeffreys was the also the most droll of all our instructors. In the first months, he would greet each of our spoken efforts with the soft phrase, “Bogi moj.” It was months before we learned it meant, “My God.”
On one occasion, one of our number mispronounced the letter “ch” as “yuk.” Mr. Jeffreys said, “The letter is ‘ch.’ Your performance today is ‘yuk.'” One day, Mr. Jeffreys taught us the genitive case, painstakingly, and it was the only one we learned with any degree of certainty. In fact, he taught me things about English grammar that I had never learned as an English major in college.
As we became more proficient, he began telling us stories, of how Serbo-Croatian was spoken with an Italian accent along the Adriatic, of a day he was walking along a street in Trieste when a woman, arguing with her neighbor across the street, from balcony to balcony, pulled down her baby’s diaper and mooned her adversary with her infant’s ass. Mr. Jeffreys rented his house to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor when they were filming The Sandpiper. He played chess with those of us who were good enough; a young man named Steve Latus, from a later class, was the only person to give him a real game. We thought Mr. Jeffreys was pretty cool.
I remember with special fondness the day he let me go home because I mistook him for a banister. Fuzzy with painkillers following a wisdom tooth extraction, I groped for whatever was available to steady myself on the stairs to the classroom. I got a fairly big piece of Mr. Jeffreys on my way up or down, I don’t remember. He spoke to Major Seaman, and home I went.
:: Dimi ::
I not sure what Mr. Dimitrievich’s job was. He seemed to be everywhere and in charge of nothing. He was surely the sweetest man in the department, kindly, with a twinkle in his eye and a constant smile. He wore a tweedy hat with a small brim that had a kind of an alpine flair to it; I rarely saw him without it, indoors or out. He babysat us in the language lab. He was always there to chat with each of us in the break room. He greeted me every morning with “Ah, it is Gospodin Vjetar i Brod… Mister Wind and Ship.” Dimi loved America. When he was a boy, American doctors gave him a vaccination during a smallpox epidemic, and saved his life. As a young Serbian officer he fought for eight days in World War Two and spent the next several years as a Prisoner of War, until the liberation of Italy. It was easy to be annoyed with many of the other instructors, but impossible to be angry with Dimi.
At the picnic, he urged everyone to play soccer, his sport of choice. We found it quaint, but he was both behind and ahead of his time. I am sure he was one of the teachers who led us in singing “Ti Ci Mi Sunce” (“You Are My Sunshine” in Serbo-Croatian). He was there to applaud our every success, and to encourage us when the language was ahead on points. When his students were sullen and slow to learn, distracted and difficult to be around, he was gentle, funny, kind. I am ashamed of myself for waiting so long to appreciate him.
:: Dr. Stude ::
And then there was Dr. Stude. The chairman of the department. The lone Croat. A tall man with white hair, heavy eyes, heavy lips, dark suits and a dark disposition. He was given to pronouncements. “Is better to be good than pretty” was one of our favorites. He told us of going to officers’ school as a youth. “I made no friends. I was there to learn to be a soldier.”
When Hitler dispatched Yugoslavia, Dr. Stude was taken by the Gestapo. They pulled all his teeth. He never again saw his wife and daughters. Lost in the war like so many others, although the cruel rumor was that his family had used the war as an opportunity to flee from him as well as the Nazis.
He once pounded on a classroom table and I flinched. “Ha,” he said, “and he is going to be a soldier.” It was one of the few times I saw him laugh. He did have feelings though. He invited our class to his home for dinner, and we said, “No, thank you.” I could tell he was hurt. “I do this for every class, but if you don’t wish to come…” and we said nothing. And he returned to the day’s lesson. He had taught bright-eyed volunteers for so long; he could not understand these young men who were so tactless and unhappy, so ungrateful for their good fortune. From the distance of 30 years, I can see how difficult it was for him. But then, I was no help.
One glorious California morning, however, I felt my heart thawing a bit. As I made my way to the classroom, I saw Dr. Stude coming in the other direction. “Good morning, Dr. Stude,” I said, smiling. And he replied, “Dobar dan, you know that,” and shook his head in disapproval.
:: Dragi ::
Dragoslav Georgevich was a handsome gentleman, a dapper dresser, a kind man, and after Dr. Stude’s death, he became the chairman of the department. He chatted with each of us about our progress, and of course, informed me that I was not performing up to my ability. I have heard this since kindergarten, and smiled. He asked why I smiled and I told him. As we discussed my learning and my attitude, the conversation turned to my unhappiness with being away from my fiance. I will never forget his advice; it was so European.
His words to me, in richly accented English, were, “This is not a problem. There are plenty of girls in California to fuck. Find one and you will be happy and your grades will improve.” And that was the end of our conference. It was advice I could not take, but it hinted at a simpler world.
My favorite conversation with Dragi was the day his car would not start, and I poked my head under the hood with his, and we discussed, in Serbo-Croatian, what the problem might be. It was the closest moment I had to fluency; a week or two later we were off to Texas to forget everything.
:: That Which the Waiters Bring ::
The daily dialogues in our workbooks came with an agenda. Among my favorite fragments:
“Life in a family is sweet, but it’s bitter for those who must eat that which the waiters bring.” – “You ought to get married, friend.” – “I can’t, for two reasons. The first is, I should find the kind of girl I want, and the second is, I should buy a house as big as I want.” – “It’s easy to find a house, but I must first find the right girl.” – “You are right, Mark. One ought to think much about it, because marriage isn’t just for a day, but for the entire life.” – “That’s right. Our people do not believe in divorce.” – “Thank you, Madam. I particularly thought about that.”
“Now when are we all here, who what wishes that drinks before of dinner?” – “I know that are men for brandy, and we women can little of wine.”
“And after that comes gibanitsa.” – “You shouldn’t have said that. I wanted to surprise out guests.” – “I’m very sorry, Mama, but I didn’t know I shouldn’t have said that.” – “It’s too late now. What has happened, has happened.”
“What has new, Misters Professors?” – “Cold war yet lasts, taxes grow, and we pay tax and, as good citizens, we keep silent.”
:: Enlightened ::
Prompted by a book, Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools by Jonathan Kozol, I spent the summer of 1968 teaching at a school in what was then known as “the inner city.” The path was to grad school, to actually learn how to teach, but the program was not draft-deferrable and I received my 1A classification at the end of the summer. In a way, this was a relief because the service, even at the height of the war, could have been no more terrifying to me than the future I had charted for myself in the inner city classroom.
But even though I left teaching, I still carried my feelings about injustice and racism. And amongst all these Europeans, I thought I might find a more tolerant, a more enlightened attitude. After all, Europe had had hundreds of years longer to figure it all out, and hey, weren’t black jazz musicians treated with more fairness in Paris?
In the rich cultural milieu of the Defense Language Institute, disillusionment came quickly. The Serbs held the Croats in contempt, and the feeling was mutual. To the Serbs, Belgrade was the capital of all culture and Zagreb was a municipality of dimwits. And to the Croats, vice versa. Both hated the Bosnians, but the Serbs really hated the Turks. A defeat in 1389 was as fresh in their memory as breakfast. Tears filled their eyes when they sang about a retreat in World War I. The Turks hated the Russians, and laughingly said that if the Russians ever blockaded the Dardanelles Straits it would be with their own bodies. Everybody hated the Bulgarians.
It soon became clear that if these people treated Duke Ellington with respect, it had more to do with “Mood Indigo” than with the brotherhood of man.
:: Bubbling Up ::
In Basic Training, I could not hold on to my own personality. I could not be myself and pretend to be the person they wanted me to be, because pretending took too much time. And it showed. When the T.I.’s shouted, they wanted action, not theater. They wanted us to run, not to think about running. And so my personality, the person I had been, just disappeared. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I fled in the night, and left a new creation in charge of my mind and body. I understand he wrote some strange letters.
I did not see my old self again until I’d been at the Presidio for a couple of weeks. Perhaps I’d reached a point where I realized that this was not a “test,” but we were actually stationed in California and were not going to be sent back to Basic Training.
I was sitting on my bed on a Saturday afternoon and I heard a Beatles song playing on someone’s radio nearby. And with the song came the memory of the last time I’d heard it, and then an overwhelming sense of who I had been when I’d last heard it. And how that person felt and thought and who he was. And at that moment, that person rose up inside myself and reclaimed possession, opened my eyes, took a huge breath and began to sob.
:: The Chronicle ::
No weekday at the Presidio was complete without The San Francisco Chronicle, the most wonderful newspaper I have ever read. There was a yellow vending machine not far from the classroom, and for a quarter I could read about hippies and Bay Area socialites, rock stars and bizarre deaths, news handled in a way I’d never encountered before. The Chron was not stuffy; I’d grown up lugging the Courier-Express around my paper route, reading the Tonawanda News and Buffalo Evening News, and certainly my discovery of The New York Times – courtesy of the well-read triad of my grandmother, my Aunt Rhea and my mother – was a milestone for me. But the Chron was my first personal discovery in print journalism, and I soon was a daily devotee.
The society column was rich:
“As soon as school is out, the John Ehrlichs and their children will pack their bags and head for Europe. They’ll do a lot of packing, because they plan to be gone a year, and Delia alone has a 32-piece wardrobe designed especially for her by Herschelle. No pantsuits, because John doesn’t like them, but slacks ‘for walking on the moors’ in Scotland. The Ehrlichs plan to place their children in Swiss schools and tour the continent and Britain, staying in favorite cities for a month or two at a time.”
And this precious dinner party prose from Joyce Haber, “The Tiffany place-settings were irreplaceable, the menu was impeccable, the conversation was devastating and cutting. Because razor-sharp minds were at work.”
The daily column of Herb Caen, the king of three-dot journalism, was a joy. And the little articles they used as column fillers, ah, there was magic: “Wife’s Weapon Was a Fatal Chamber Pot” – “Sailor Crushed by Elevator” – “Year in Jail for Wearing Vest Made of Flag” – “Groom Shot by Funloving Friend.” And coverage of the war in Vietnam that included details you just wouldn’t find in stuffier periodicals: news of a Vietcong shot dead while wearing flannel overalls and a New York Yankees baseball cap, or a U.S. Marine on patrol near the Laotian border, carried into the jungle and eaten by a tiger.
:: Thanksgiving ::
I spent Thanksgiving of 1968 at the Presidio, far from the Thanksgivings I had known in the past. But I was looking forward to eating with familiar faces from the barracks, people I’d known now for a few weeks. The center of Thanksgiving, of course, is the meal: the turkey, the dressing, the gathering to share and give thanks. Our setting was the chow hall. It had been hinted that this was a special meal, and having been starved on Army food since my arrival (I’d dropped from 140 to 120 pounds in two weeks), I was ready for something special. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the food.
We arrived to find that we would be escorted to our table, in the order of our arrival, and given a printed menu to commemorate the occasion. Our gaiety would be regimented. I ate with one person from my barracks, and two total strangers. The turkey and dressing were okay. We finished as soon as we could.
:: Catch-22 ::
I first read Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s novel about a WWII airman, when I was in high school. I thought it was very funny, absurd. Such things could not be true. I read it a second time after three months in the Air Force. As the landing gear came down upon my return to the Presidio after Christmas leave, I came to the final pages, with Major Danby speaking…
“I mean it, Yossarian. You’ll have to keep on your toes very minute of every day. They’ll bend heaven and earth to catch you.”
“I’ll keep on my toes every minute.”
“You’ll have to jump.”
“Jump!” Major Danby cried.
Yossarian jumped. Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door. The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.”
The tires touched the runway. The plane shuddered; I shuddered. The novel now was all too real, too true, not funny at all. Years later, I would read it a third time and find it to be both true and funny, one of those books that is as much a mirror as it is a painting.
:: Uphill ::
Returning from my first leave, Christmas 1968, during which I got married, I rode the bus from San Francisco to Monterey, and then, having arrived late at night, found myself in a strange part of Monterey, alone, with a suitcase and no taxi in sight. So I commenced to hoof it up to the Presidio. I was wearing my dress uniform for travel, and thus my dress shoes, which were not made for walking, but for standing still at the position of Attention. Blisters formed almost immediately. The handle of my suitcase, containing my first load of civilian clothes, books and sundries, cut into my hands, in spite of being passed back and forth frequently.
Wincing, whimpering, I hurried towards the hill, knowing that if I signed in after midnight, I would be charged with an extra day of leave. It was after 11:30, so every stop to catch my breath was costing me. The hill up to the Presidio was a considerable one, and by now I was drenched in sweat, broken blisters rubbing against the inside of my shoes, and not at all optimistic. I made it to the sign-in desk at 11:51 p.m., where the two guys in charge said, “Oh, we would have cut you some slack.” They also marveled that I had not been mugged outside the bus station. It must have been my night.
:: Poetry ::
I wrote poetry in early 1969, all of it untitled, but a good indication of my state of mind. Not exactly Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads, but they are what they are:
you’re in a cat’s belly
it’s very dark and you’re moving smoothly
wet and slippery yes
and you can’t keep your eyes open<
splashing in the fish heads
and black surf
sliding up the smooth walls
and arms wide sliding back down
as the cat walks;
yours is a warm sea
her(e) your universe cold alley queen
prowls for a tidal wave of food in the snow
and you never pray for something foul
to make her throw you up
I am the gasman
I come to check the line
Light the stove and cook an egg
Any way you work it, it works just fine.
I am the gasman
Be sure you pay on time
Fill the room and kill yourself
Any way you work it, it works just fine.
This one was prompted by the acoustic tile in the sound-proofed cubby holes of the language lab:
So soft is my cell
inside my sterile scene
I huddle low studying
the side walls
small caves where for centuries
have soaked sound and
stored it (back by the animal paintings)
I have watched them
try to line my soul this way
so my spirit seeped
out of my sight
and once quiet
it filled with
their songs and
Is this all?
asked the ant
in the shadow of the shoe
I’m not sure said the walker
I can only speak for you.
And then there was this one, which offered some hope…
If your mother
lets you down
and your father
is nowhere around
come to me
I’m a model
I make five thousand dollars a week
:: In the Margins ::
I also kept a journal of sorts, mostly filled with clippings, but with writing, too.
On a classmate: “His face was an impressive mask of tense concentration, mouth tight, jaw muscles bulging, the brow a thunderhead over the lightning of his eyes. While underneath the table, he was playing silly little games with his feet, like they’re made of rubber and he’s never been to the zoo before and ladies are smiling at him on the bus.”
A memory of a nightmare: “Waking up quietly in the night and seeing the MP at parade rest in the darkness. His back to you at the foot of the bed. There is barbed-wire up on the wall locker.”
I was showing Stan Korwin a piece of writing from the book one evening in the barracks, and another Army guy, Irv, looked over and said, “Aw, you’re a writer.” We Air Force types being sissies anyway.
:: Rain ::
We had no snow, but we did have rain. One month it did little else. It was ark-building weather. We heard that the artichoke crop was destroyed. We heard that the roads to Salinas were out, and the Monterey Peninsula was an island. We had cabin fever. We got wet going to breakfast, wet going to class, wet returning to the barracks, wet going to lunch, you get the picture. Streams gurgled down the streets and walks, rain lulled us to sleep at night and its drumming on the roof awoke us each morning.
:: Shots ::
I have always hated getting shots. I remember standing in line in the Lindbergh School auditorium for the first polio shots. I, unfortunately, was part of the control group, so, on three long terror-filled days, I got an injection of distilled water, and then, months later, had to have three real polio shots when they were deemed safe and effective. In Basic Training, they used “the gun,” a blast of compressed air blowing the inoculation through your skin, but that could be painful as well. And so when we were told we had to get shots in Monterey, to “update” our shot record, I was not thrilled.
We all went together, to a small building up the hill, where the tallest, thinnest medic I ever saw, a pale white guy dressed all in white, with short, curly blonde hair, was giving shots. I didn’t watch him work, for fear of fainting. Blouse off and folded over my left arm, sleeve rolled up, I stepped forward when it was my turn, looking away, and waiting for the insidious, chilling, sharp pain of the needle. He swabbed my arm with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol, and then stopped. I waited. “I’m ready,” I said. “You’re done,” he replied. “You gave me the shot?” I said. “Yup, next!”
I was overwhelmed. I wanted this man to follow me throughout my military career, perhaps even for the rest of my life. The next time we went for shots, I watched him, trying to fathom the mystery. He was a magician. As he rubbed up with the cotton swab, he followed it smoothly with the needle, rubbing above the needle while the shot was going in, and pulling the needle out on the swab’s downstroke. None of us felt a thing; all of us were grateful to this gentleman, this magician, this unheralded genius who found a way to do something necessary without the usual pain.
:: Beatings ::
I could not then, and do not today, understand Joe. He was a great guy, delightful company, funny, kind, an excellent fellow in every way. Inexplicably, though, he would befriend a Marine or two on a Saturday night, drink with them until they were all well seasoned, and then pick a fight which he knew he would lose, for sure, and sunrise would find him badly beaten and horrifically hung-over in his cot. The Marines had brought him home, apologizing to us and to him, unable to explain why such a slight and amiable lad would provoke such an inevitable thrashing. It was frightening, and he did it more than once. It was as if he had an appointment with a chiropractor. I have a photo of Joe taken one Sabbath dawn, and it only lacks candles to complete the picture of a corpse laid out for a wake.
:: Water Sports ::
I saw my first and only swirly at the Presidio, in the latrine, one of our number carried in by two of his compatriots, turned upside down and lowered at a perfect vertical, headfirst into a toilet which was then flushed. When he was set back on his feet, grinning drunkenly, his hair bore a perfect swirl pattern, with dripping points, which told me where the name came from. On another occasion, and I missed this one, one of our number (Steve) was made to “swim the channel,” i.e., he was dumped into the long, trough-like urinal and flushed upon.
:: Paranoia ::
It was California in the sixties, after all, so the Army was concerned about drugs. One tactic they employed was to ban bell-bottom pants, except for those Navy men in uniform. Another was to bring in undercover agents. A fresh-faced young recruit would arrive, friendly as all get out, settle into a barracks, and then disappear in the middle of the night, shortly before the MPs arrived, hit the lights and brought everybody to attention at the foot of their beds. Men with cleats on their shoes would march down the aisle, go directly to a foot locker here, a desk drawer there, and pull out packets of marijuana, followed by the owners who would quite literally never be seen again. This never happened in our barracks; our drug of choice was beer, and no fresh-faced recruit ever arrived alone.
:: Cannery Row ::
“Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light… The street is silent of progress and business. And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries. It is a time of great peace, a deserted time… It is the hour of the pearl.” — John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (1945)
Saturday morning truly was a magical time; I would walk around the older parts of Monterey and explore. The oceanfront street with all the abandoned buildings was my favorite place. The canneries were closed and gone, because the ocean had been fished out. But the entrepreneurs and the tourists had not yet come in to fill the gap. Rather, there were a few small businesses, a sculptor, a head shop, a used-book shop, a small movie theater, a pottery studio. In my civilian clothes with a few dollars in my pocket, I could imagine myself a free man.
I still have one of my most sacred purchases from the book shop, found on a shelf wedged under a flight of stairs, a copy of Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen. The faded blue cover bears the ghost of a coffee ring, water stains, and on the title page, red, rubber-stamped letters that declare, “American Red Cross, Rock Hill Chapter, P.O. Box 953, Rock Hill, SC.” I wondered how it had made the journey. It was and is a hefty volume, with a wonderful library smell to it. When I had my wisdom teeth taken out, it was better than pain pills. An historical pot-boiler, it entertains, sprawls and hosts one of the most deliciously despicable villains in literature.
At the head shop, I discovered a new newspaper called Rolling Stone, filled with news and pictures about the music and musicians I loved, the music I was hearing on KSJO. And I found the L.A. Free Press and the Berkeley Barb, publications even more thrilling than the San Francisco Chronicle. Men with long hair. Topless women at love-ins! The extraordinary editorial cartoons of R. Cobb.
:: Radio Stanica KSJO ::
I lived in a barracks with four languages floating in the air: Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Swahili and Turkish. The more conscientious students listened to their language tapes frequently, and repeated the phrases over and over. One evening, I was sitting on my bed reading and had my radio on softly, set to KSJO-FM in San Jose. A voice spoke about a lesson in Turkish, and began repeating words, “border,” “passport,” and then said, “May I see your passport please?” And the listener answered, “Yes, I have it right here.” It was several seconds before I realized it was the radio. I was plunged into a cross-border radio adventure. An entire album side later, I learned I’d been traveling with Firesign Theatre. Such was the beauty of KSJO, home to the rock & roll of the late 1960s, which introduced me to Firesign, Melvin Van Peebles’ “Lily and the Zampoughi,” long album cuts, a free-spirited radio station that was a constant consolation and a link with an alternative universe where I wanted to live.
:: Strack Troop ::
We stood inspection each week. Sgt. Little moved us into formation, called us to attention, and an officer would walk up and down the lines, looking for long hair, dirty uniforms, dull shoes. The best looking troop each week was honored with the title of Strack Troop and did not have to stand inspection the following week. One of the most bizarre twists in my military career began in Basic Training when I was standing Dorm Guard during Clothing Fit, and they guessed at my sizes. I was issued pants with huge cuffs, 14″… on one side; the pant legs did not touch my knees on the way down. In fact, I could fit both on my legs into one leg. The picture was completed in Monterey by my shoes. I had heard that Johnson’s Glo-Coat floor wax was great on shoes, as long as you didn’t move the shoe and crackle the polish. A departing Army guy gave me his bottle of Glo-Coat, and the night before inspection, I applied it with a cotton ball. My shoes shone. The next warning, I walked to the parade ground like Frankenstein’s monster, not flexing my feet, avoiding everyone else’s feet, moving with exquisite care to preserve the perfect shine. I needed a shave, but nobody’s perfect.
The inspecting officer approached me, stopped and began to look me over. Looking straight ahead, I noticed that he needed a shave. His glance came to my pants, and his eyes lit up. The crease fell perfectly from my waist to my shoe tops, without breaking at the knees. And the shoe tops! He smiled and moved on. When he finished, he approached Sgt. Little and said, “Winship’s your best man today, Sergeant.”
The words shot through the formation like electricity. “Who?” said Sgt. Little. “Winship,” the officer said. And Sgt. Little said, “Of course. Ah yes, Winthrop.” And exchanged salutes with the officer, who strolled briskly away.
“Winship, you’re our Strack Troop,” Sgt. Little said and then we were dismissed. The chorus of “You’ve got to be kidding” began immediately. Laughter, congratulations, and the indignity of the Army men who spent hours spit-shining their shoes all mixed together. I was dizzy with triumph. The following week, while I relaxed far away from inspection, we were honored with Strack Barracks, which meant that no one had to stand inspection the following week. Again, this honor was a triumph of wax. Paste wax is illegal because it’s flammable. It’s also one of the most widely smuggled items on any Army base. We had waxed our floors until they were a light source unto themselves. We took off our shoes at the door, and placed blankets on the floors as rugs to protect the shine.
Outdoors, we did more than trim the grass away from the walks – we cut perfect one-foot gutters all the way around the building between the walk and the lawn. The barracks was a gem. Marine platoon leaders brought in all their men, in stocking feet, to show them how it was done. For the rest of my stay at Monterey, I never stood inspection again.
If you had to stand at Attention, there were worse places than Monterey. In the photo above, on the left, the barracks of Company B. On the right, our classrooms. In the middle, mixed formations of Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine students. In the distance, Monterey Bay. (Photo above by John Nicolai, 1969, from the ladder/porch of Barracks B-8.)
George Egan of my Serbo-Croatian class offers this inspection memory: “There also was the inspection when the army captain asked Buck Beasom to show his belt buckle. Buck lifted up his blouse and out popped thirteen buttons since the navy uniform didn’t require a belt buckle. The same officer then tried to write up all the AF troops for unshined collar brass and belt buckles. A short time later a notice was posted on the bulletin board outside the orderly room informing army officers that AF brass is to be subdued and not polished.”
:: Privacy ::
There wasn’t much privacy. In the latrine, the toilets were open “pots.” I remember reading while on the pot one day, and Irv, an Army guy, said, “You’re an anal retentive.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because you’re reading while you take a dump. You don’t want to lose anything, so you’re reading at the same time to take something in.” And then he went back to brushing his teeth. As I recall, there was no charge for that consultation.
:: Wisdom ::
Some of the younger lads were having a water fight one day, a really bad idea anyway in a barracks you’re trying to keep in inspection order, and one of them burst into Doug’s cube. Doug was trying to take a nap, and he opened his eyes just long enough to dispense some of the most profound wisdom I have ever heard. Without moving, he said, “You fuck around, you get fucked with.” The water bearer took this to heart, and the water fight ended immediately. (Buck says the speaker was Larry; he’s probably right.)
:: GMRX ::
The Post Theater, on old wooden building at the end of a row of barracks, was a godsend. Admission was 25 cents, and new movies showed on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. It was not unusual for someone to see them all. “I love the dark of the show houses,” Gary Sutton once said, and he spoke for us all.
“The Star Spangled Banner” played before every movie. But the real pleasure began with the GMRX (pronounced Gim-Rex) trailer, which described the ratings system for us. While the G rating was being explained, the audience was quiet. The M rating, for Mature audiences, received polite applause. The R rating was greeted with enthusiastic applause and whistling, and X, well, X brought the house down.
We were never treated to an X, but we did see lots of Rs, and we awaited each promised flash of nudity with great anticipation. I remember one British film in particular that we had filled the theater for, based on its R rating. About two thirds of the way through, an actress said, “You bastard!” and the muttering began. Wait, was that it? Indeed, it was. The film had earned an R rating for one vulgarism, and we felt cheated.
:: “Laugh In” ::
Ed, the senior army man in the barracks, had his own room and a television, and on Monday evenings we were allowed to visit for one hour and watch “Rowen & Martin’s Laugh In.” It was great fun, something to look forward to. After our host was shipped out, the new man in charge moved two steel lockers away from the wall and triggered an aluminum avalanche of Ed’s empty beer cans that had been held in place, and out of sight, by the wall studs. This presented a problem since officially there was no drinking in the barracks and how did one discreetly dispose of hundreds of beer cans? I don’t know the answer, but they were gone the next day.
:: Marines ::
Most of the Marines were at the Presidio for the “short course” in Vietnamese, which was more about expediency than scholarship. They were impeccably neat; you could have cut yourself on the creases in their uniforms. They were young and nervous, and knew exactly where they were going. I remember one of them, sitting at a table with many other Marines, reading a letter from a fellow Marine who was already in-country. “Oh shit,” he said, “he’s only been there two weeks and he’s already been in a fire fight.” They were all good men, but when they drank, we gave them all the room in the world.
:: The NCO Club ::
Most NCO Clubs are for NCOs, but at the Presidio, given the huge number of new arrivals with only one stripe, the NCO Club was open to anyone who was properly dressed. Which is why I was thrown out the first time, for wearing sneakers.
The second time, I was eighty-sixed for stepping on a chair. I was trying to get from my seat to the aisle and rather than crawl over three seats that were jammed together, I stepped on the middle one and when I came down, there was a TI from Fort Ord who was moonlighting as the bouncer. Behind me, two very drunk Marines were breaking beer bottles on the floor and giggling. The bouncer had been looking the other way, but I seemed a safe person to discipline. “Business is slow here,” he said at the door, “but no so slow that we got to put up with people standing on the furniture.” I nodded and left, and walked up the hill and out the gate to Dee’s where you could get a beer and a burger without the discipline.
Most other nights, I behaved myself. Beer was 25 cents, except on Oly Nights when Olympia was two for 25 cents. The juke box was very loud, and on Friday and Saturday there were bands. Wednesday night was Audition Night, when you could sit and listen to the bands play for the manager. I still remember an excellent “Ina Gadda da Vida” on Audition Night. The Filipino bands were great, doing note-perfect imitations of popular hits. I remember a delightful “Dock of the Bay” done with a Filipino accent by a smiling man in a tuxedo, whose pronunciation of “Georgia” was especially wonderful. There was a band with a girl lead-singer; they did Zombies tunes, “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There.”
Behind the stage was a lounge and a curving bar with a huge picture window that looked over the bay. It was a wonderful place to drink. The Marines, most headed for Vietnam, added a dash of Wild West color. One evening I was on my way to the Men’s Room, down one side of the double stairway, when a Marine came running down the other side being pursued by several of his colleagues. Suddenly he stopped, turned and ripped the railing out of the wall and began to brandish it like Davy Crockett swinging his musket at the Alamo. His pursuers stopped and leaned backwards as one, trying to get clear. I decided I could go to the bathroom at another time, and tip-toed lightly back up the stairs to safer ground.
One of the first times I was in the NCO Club was with Gary. The place was empty, so it must have been early on a Saturday afternoon. He had brought me over and said, “You have to hear something.” I sat down at a table and he dropped a dime in the juke box. The room filled with the opening notes of Joe Cocker doing “A Little Help from My Friends.” It was the first time I’d heard it, and Gary was right, I did need to hear it.
:: Off Limits ::
When we arrived in Monterey, we were told that only one place was Off Limits. I knew what “off limits” meant from watching war movies. The one place we could not visit was The Gilded Cage. We asked “Why?” They said, “It’s Off Limits.” Later someone else took us aside and informed us that The Gilded Cage was a bar frequented by homosexuals, and hence a very bad place for anyone who wanted to retain their security clearance. We wondered why they just didn’t say that. I have only one memory of The Gilded Cage proper, walking by one Saturday just as three cheery middle-aged men came trotting out, laughing, hopping into a convertible parked at the curb and motoring off into a California afternoon. They didn’t seem at all concerned with their security clearances.
:: Playing Cards ::
Weekends in the barracks, with no official Lights Out, provided the opportunity to play cards, mostly hearts and pinochle, but occasionally poker, with stakes in the nickel and dime range. By the simple method of remaining sober and folding bad hands, I found I could win quite a bit of money. Although I could never win any of Buck’s money. As he explained it later, “When Kihm has good cards, his hands shake.” It’s true. I will never win the World Series of Poker. But one evening, helped by three kings, I made about $15, which was good money then. But at 2 a.m., with my comrades glum at their losses (Buck had taken them for a great deal more), I offered to take everyone to El Patio for breakfast. In a moment, I went from thief to hero. I don’t remember who drove, but the night was beautiful, breakfast was delicious, and it only cost me about $15.
Hearts was the game we truly loved. At dusk on Friday and Saturday, we would return from the PX with six-packs, ice them in plastic buckets, and transform the dorm. For some reason, the Army gave us each lots of blankets. We put blankets on the floor as carpets. We draped a blanket over a footlocker to create a card table. We draped blankets over the partitions that separated our cubes, soft tapestries that further dimmed the lighting. We turned on KSJO to provide an album-rock background. Then sitting on the beds, we drank beer and played Hearts. It was heaven. Hearts had everything – intrigue, revenge, deception, power. We were a pack of wolves hunting the Queen of Spades. But I loved having the Queen in my hand because then I knew where she was. I loved being able to drop her with precision on the opponent with the lowest score. I loved living on the edge as the others ate into my spade cover. I got giddy Shooting the Moon. And if someone was going to stop my own Moon shot, I loved forcing them eat the Queen to do it. I loved putting together a three-card pass that made its recipient go pale. I loved having a void in diamonds so I could dump the Ace or King of Spades as soon as diamonds were played. We played Hearts for joy, not money.
:: Night Fire ::
One of our late evening pastimes was to have a few beers and then go out to the hillside overlooking the bay, make ourselves comfortable and look out across the water to Fort Ord, where basic trainees were crawling on their bellies while machine guns traversed the air just over their heads with live ammunition and tracers. On a moonless night, the multicolored trails of the tracer bullets were as good as any fireworks show we’d ever seen. Yes, lowly bastards like ourselves were over there in Army Basic, crawling under a fire storm, sweating, shaking, crying, nostrils burning with cordite, while we reclined on a gently sloping hillside in civilian clothes, talking quietly, laughing, saying “ooo” and “aahhh” and “oh wow.” A month before we had crawled over a similar field in Texas, and now it was our turn to watch, thinking only of the colors and the pleasure the spectacle brought us.
:: Dane’s Oldsmobile ::
Because we were arriving directly from Basic Training, and because our salary was a princely $100 a month, not many of us had cars at first, and those who had cars were not driving luxury vehicles. But Dane Copeland, who was in the Army and studying Swahili, did have a car, and it was a luxury vehicle, of a venerable vintage to be sure, a large green and white Oldsmobile with an automatic transmission, whose only fault was somewhere in the electrical system. It might have been something as simple as a dead battery, but the bottom line was at that time of the evening when young men had showered, dressed and prepared for a night of adventure, the car would not start. However, if we pushed the car downhill from the top of the hill, jumping in like a bobsled team as it accelerated, and Dane put it into gear almost at the bottom, it just might start. And if it started, off we went. The battery would charge up on the way and hold the charge for a few hours, so we were confident of being able to return.
If the engine did not start, Dane parked, we all walked back up the hill, and Dane called a garage in the morning to pick it up.
I have two distinct memories of Dane’s Oldsmobile. One was an evening when it did start and we drove to the Tantamount Theater, an exotic art theater in Carmel Valley to watch a film. Dane recalls, “one projector with brief breaks between reels, coffee served in demitasse cups in the green room and the same guy directing parking outside in the lot and announcing upcoming films inside.”
I don’t remember the movie, but I do remember riding on a narrow, curving road, the headlights playing across the trees, and Creedence Clearwater’s “Born on the Bayou” playing on the glowing radio. The song has held magic for me ever since.
The second memory, and it may well be from the same night, was of a push down the hill that brought me to the brink. I was running alongside the car, everyone but myself had jumped in, the car was gaining speed with every second, and suddenly I was running too fast to do anything but run straight ahead. Holding on to the top of the door, I was fighting a losing battle to stay upright. If I let go, I was going to fall. If I didn’t let go I was going to fall. Fortunately for me, Ralph, sitting in the center of the back seat, read my situation, reached across and grabbed the front of my shirt, and pulled me into the car through the windows, across everyone’s lap. At the very least, he saved me from a nasty fall. Then and now, it feels as though he saved my life. And that night, the car started.
:: Bob and “The Star Spangled Banner” ::
Most of us enjoyed tormenting Bob. It might have been his too frequent references to his college degree. “I’m a Kenyon man,” he would say. Or “A Bachelor’s degree from Kenyon is the equivalent of a Master’s degree from anywhere else.” A number of us had college degrees, but we were enlisted men in the Air Force in 1968, and it really didn’t matter. So on the morning when Dean hatched a diabolical plot, he found ready accomplices.
“I was just humming ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ over by Bob, and he picked it up and started humming too,” Dean said. “What do you say we keep him going all day?”
And so we did. All we had to do was hum or whistle the first few notes within Bob’s hearing, and out he came with the next couple of bars. We were restrained; we were subtle; we took turns. It worked like magic. That night, just before Lights Out, Bob came to me and said, “You know, I feel like I’m going crazy. I’ve been humming ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ all day and I just can’t get it out of my head.”
Straight-faced, I expressed sympathy.
:: Leroy’s Cube ::
Whenever we left the Presidio, we had to sign out at the CQ’s office, and sign back in when we returned. On weekends though, we could sign out on Friday, and not sign back in until 9 o’clock Sunday night. This saved the hassle, but the danger was that by Sunday night you’d forget that you had signed out on Friday. So it was one Sunday night, about two minutes past Lights Out, when Leroy sat up in his bed and said, “Oh, shit. I forgot to sign back in.” So he pulled on his clothes and tip-toed down the dark center corridor, down the stairs and out the door.
“Let’s move his cube,” I said. Within seconds, we were all moving furniture down to an empty cube closer to the stairs. The bed, the table, the chair, the lamp, the clock. Everything. And then doing a cartoon-style high-speed tip-toe back into our beds. The outer door slammed; we held our collective breath and heard Leroy walk softly back up the stairs, and down the aisle. And then he stopped. The cube was empty. He must be in the wrong barracks.
Back he went, down the aisle, back down the stairs, and the door slammed shut behind him. In the theater of the mind, we could all see him reading the sign, B-13, and then opening the door. He came up the stairs again, and counted softly out loud as he made his way down to his cube. He stopped. He stood, staring in the dark.
We could contain ourselves no longer, and the laughter started and rolled. “You guys,” Leroy said. We all helped bring his stuff back. We all got back into bed. And then the laughter started again.
:: Buck and the Get-Well Card ::
It was a long walk down to Monterey from the Presidio, and an especially long walk coming back uphill, and so when Buck returned with a get-well card one Saturday afternoon, he was glad to be back. His mother had written to tell him a close friend had lost his larynx to cancer, and that a card would be a nice gesture. Buck sat down at his desk, opened the card and wrote, “Hope to hear from you soon.”
Then he said, “Oh, no.” No voice box, no talking. That “hear from you” was totally inappropriate. He told me what had happened, and set off for the card store again. He was back in about 45 minutes with a second card. He sat at his desk and began writing. I heard a scream and then laughter. I walked down to his room. “What did you say this time?” I asked. And he responded, with tears in his eyes, “Keep your chin up.”
And then he was off to Monterey again. In an hour he was back, empty-handed. I said, “Where’s the card?” And he said, “I wrote ‘Best Wishes’ and mailed it before anything else could happen.”
:: Buck and the Wham-O ::
On our salary of $100 a month, there was not a lot of walking-around money to be had, so barter was an important part of our economy. On one occasion, I traded my old Wham-O Slingshot to Buck for a Lou Rawls album. He immediately put a ball-bearing through the window of the barracks next door. From the smile on his face, I could tell he got the better part of the deal.
:: The Romper ::
Buck was stepping out for a night on the town with an Army guy named Romp, and at the top of the stairs, Buck said, “I hope we have a good time.” And Romp said, “You always have fun with the Romper” just as his feet flew out from under him on the waxed floor and he slid downstairs, bouncing on his butt all the way to the bottom. Buck had to admit it was the most fun he’d had in a long time.
:: Jim and the One Dollar Beer ::
Jim Hartman’s mother was a bank officer in El Paso, and thus he had some familiarity with the good life. One night, he drove us into Carmel for a beer. Carmel is a fairyland of wealth, and Jim found us a small bar with Spanish tiles, soft music and a young waitress in a long dress with blonde hair that flowed and shimmered all the way to her waist. We each ordered a beer, and the barefoot waitress floated across the floor and brought them to us. It was not the NCO Club. She said, “Four dollars,” and I gasped. Jim frowned at me, because it was uncool to act as though a dollar was a lot to ask for a beer. I felt young, unhip and stupid, but it did not stop me from being enchanted by the waitress.
:: The PG School ::
The Naval Postgraduate School was on the other side of Monterey, and the province of U.S. Navy officers who were there to study, take a well deserved break, or both. It was a small, beautiful base, and we soon discovered that as military personnel with Department of Defense I.D. cards, we were welcome. The PG School’s barber shop was an early discovery. Instead of the sullen, incompetent Army barbers who dished out buzz cuts and contempt at the Presidio, the Navy barbers were friendly and able to cut hair. They understood the word “trim,” and asked you how you liked your haircut. They even had vacuum cleaners to clean the hairs off our shirt collars.
But it was the mess hall that won our hearts. The rumor was that the Navy had a minimum budget for a military base, but the PG School was only half the size of the theoretically “smallest” base. So the base had a huge budget compared to the number of men it actually had to feed. With our DOD I.D., breakfast was 25 cents. On Sunday mornings, we would travel over, pay the quarter, and then treat ourselves to our choice of eggs any style, including Benedict, plus steak, sausage (links or patties), bacon, ham, home fries, pancakes, waffles, hot or cold cereal, fresh fruit, and whatever special items they were offering. It was the bargain of all time.
:: FIGMO, GAF & FUBAR ::
We learned early that the military economized on the language by having abbreviations for everything, some official and some unofficial. FIGMO stood for, “Fuck It, I’ve Got My Orders,” an attitude common among Army personnel who were soon moving on to another duty station, men who felt invulnerable because they were already answering to another, distant power. GAF was “Give a Fuck,” as in “I don’t give a fuck” and was similar to FIGMO except it didn’t entail having orders – you could be GAF for any reason at all. FUBAR, one of my personal favorites, was a descendant of World War II’s SNAFU, i.e. “Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.” FUBAR stood for “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition” and could be applied to any military occurrence involving multiple elements or individuals.
As you might gather, we made extensive use of the F-word. We used it frequently in sentences and even between syllables, as in “That’s infuckingcredible!” or “Outfuckingstanding!” An apocryphal tale is told of a Navy man whose pickup truck shuddered to a halt and died. As smoke drifted up from the dashboard, he pounded on the steering wheel and said, “Fuckin’ fucker’s fucked.” And I personally knew two people who went home for Christmas and said, “Grandma, pass the fuckin’ salt.” Really.
:: Out of Focus ::
Military dentistry is free, but as an enlisted man I only merited Novocaine when my wisdom teeth needed to come out. The dentist was a Second Lieutenant, which should have set off alarm bells as dentists start in the Army as First Lieutenants. He did one side at a time, and upper and a lower, each during a leave period so I would have time to heal. The upper came out in 45 seconds. The lower, which was impacted, came out in 45 minutes. At one point, he was in the chair with me, his leg across my chest, pulling on the pliers with both hands. I thought my head was going to pop off. He gave that tactic up, and shattered the tooth, making it easier to take out the pieces. After stitches, I received a tiny white box with round pills and was told to rinse with salt water. The pain was, well, painful. I took many of the pills, read Anthony Adverse as the pills wore off, and moved through a fog when they kicked back in.
During one leave, one of my comrades, Jim Starr, got married and asked me to take the wedding photos. “I can’t focus,” I said. Perhaps he thought I was talking about the camera. “You’ll do a better job than anybody else could,” he said. I barely remember the day, and none of their wedding photos were (or are) in focus. He was very upset with me, but I had warned him.
Shortly after the second extraction, the Second Lieutenant got his discharge and a very friendly Major did the follow-up. “Well,” he said, “you’re dry socketed.” He fixed that, and things improved immediately. I was happy to be in the care of someone who knew what he was doing.
:: The Library ::
Growing up, I was like a lot of other little boys. I loved to play with soldiers. I loved war movies. And when I learned to read, I loved reading about war. You would have thought that my unhappiness with actually being in uniform might have taken the edge off my enthusiasm for military history, but no. And so when I wandered into the Presidio library one evening, it was a little like stumbling into Aladdin’s Cave. You will not be shocked to hear that I found many books about war. I really had my pick of wars. I read about the bravery of the British during the Blitz. Their courage inspired me.
The library was in a wonderful old wooden building with balconies and high ceilings and small rooms tucked in corners, and it was always practically empty, and perfectly quiet. While browsing, I found a bookplate that said, “Do Not Remove From Reading Room – These periodicals are for use in this public room and its piazza only. To take one away is a grave breach of Club etiquet. Copies for private rooms can be had from club salesroom.” It was one of the places at the Presidio that made you feel as if you were time-traveling. I wish I could go back.
:: The Unhappy Camper ::
I look back at my 22 year-old-self and think that I should have realized how fortunate I was, savored the good parts and quietly complied with the modest demands of military service. After all, I was in Monterey while thousands of my contemporaries were in Vietnam. What an idiot I was to complain at all. But complain I did.
I was not a happy camper. I was fearful of authority, paranoid, frustrated, uncertain of the future, feeling trapped, and it translated into gloom and cynicism and I don’t remember what other unpleasant behaviors. It’s a cause of wonder to me that I still have friends from that era. I must have been awful to be around.
I marvel too at my lack of curiosity. I try now, in memory, to stroll down the veranda of the building that housed my classrooms and I am stunned to see that I never went into most of the other classrooms, never saw my teacher’s offices. Like a sheep, I went to my own pen each day and never thought to look at the others, just to see what was on the walls, what the furniture looked like, if they had a different map of Yugoslavia, if the teachers kept pictures of their families on their desks. And that was just one building; there were scores of them; I had barracks-mates learning Turkish, Swahili, Bulgarian. You’d think I would have seen their classrooms at least once, but no. I can scarce contain my anger with my younger self for showing so little interest then in the things that fascinate me now.
The walks I could have taken! The things I could have seen and learned. If only I’d known that it would turn out all right, that I would indeed live to enjoy my freedom, some day make my own choices, go my own way. I could have relaxed a bit then, been a bit more philosophical about my time of service, seen more of the good in it, and taken advantage of the opportunities it offered. Hindsight being 20/20.
But all I knew then was that I’d felt trapped in my childhood, had thrilled to the freedom I enjoyed as a student, and now found myself trapped again, this time by an even greater authority, in which “the belt” was no longer the greatest threat. Now orders, a theater of war, the brig, captivities and penalties ever more confining and terrifying reigned and could be triggered by something as simple as failing to salute an officer you hadn’t seen, allowing a bit of hair to grow stealthily until it touched your ear, scuffing a shoe on the way to inspection, failing to spot a loose thread on a pocket flap. It was so easy to screw up and once in their sights, so easy to come under a cascade of unwanted attention and escalating punishments.
:: What I Read ::
One of the things that kept me sane, as it has most of my life, was reading. As a child, I went to my room and sat on the bed and opened a book, and everything else went away. To this day, that avenue of escape is still open. And it was a blessed source of escape in Monterey. Sitting on my bed, I read Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, John Lennon and Hans Hellmut Kirst. I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up. Lots of men with dark or quirky points of view. They all spoke my language.
:: On the Journey of Faith ::
“… a young man impatient of the present, uncertain as to the future, and thereby open to the gods.” — Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
At this point in my life, I had rejected my Baptist upbringing and was in the middle of a 14-year vacation from organized religion. Yes, I had gone to church in Basic Training, mostly to escape the shouting and Sunday morning work details, and to see perhaps if my prayers for deliverance might be heard more clearly from a pew. (I am sure they were heard, but they were not acted upon, at least not in the instant time frame I had in mind.) The Presidio had a chapel, but I was only in it once, for a wedding. I was searching for something more exotic, something that might make me happier than my parents’ faith had made them.
In a bookstore, I picked up a copy of Vedanta for Western Man by Christopher Isherwood, roundly praised on the cover and definitely exotic. Back in the barracks, I read along eagerly, intently, until I got to the part about renouncing sex. I have no idea what the next sentence said, because I never read it. I’d already been a Baptist.
Mostly, and not even consciously, I worshiped the ocean. The seals and otters served as my ushers and acolytes, the beauty and enormity of the water uplifted me. I spent many Sabbath mornings at the municipal pier, sitting with my feet over the side, inhaling the sea air and sipping from a quart of chocolate milk to soothe my hangover.
Over at the more commercial pier, Fisherman’s Wharf, I once saw a rack of small books in a bookstore, the kind of bookstore with incense, bells, and a clerk with long blonde hair, soft voice and Indian print dress. Right next to “The Sayings of Buddha” was “The Sayings of Jesus.” Jesus himself, rendered by an Indian artist, glowed just like Buddha. This was confusing to me. I had always thought Jesus to be the property of the church. But in this setting, he appeared almost hip. It would take several more years and revelations before I would cut some slack for Jesus, but I do remember this early inkling, seeing Christ among the other avatars, looking cool.
:: Another Kind of Reverence ::
Enlisted men were not allowed to fraternize with officers, especially female officers, which made the arrival of the one particular female officer all the more painful. We first saw her in the dining hall. She was perfect. The old ploy of finding something wrong with someone and focusing on it in order to steel oneself against their allure was useless. There was nothing wrong with her. For those of you who require some cues for visualization, she was petite with short blonde hair, cute almost beyond imagining, gifted with a face that belonged on a magazine cover and a smile that made you want to cry tears of joy. She was young and innocent, very quiet, and very proper in a military way. Her beige uniform fit very, very well.
The male officers who dined with her hung on her every word, smiled constantly, and their eyes never left hers or else they would have seen us staring, totally enthralled. No one joked about her. Awe and reverence were the emotions she evoked, together with a yearning that almost robbed us of the ability to breathe. During lunch one day, I and two other Air Force enlisted men were sharing a table with a young marine from somewhere in the south. We had never met before, but all sat united in our admiration, worshiping Her from across the room. The young man sighed deeply, and then he said something that I will never forget. Softly, his voice close to trembling, he said, “I bet her pussy’s as sweet as a nut.”
We pondered the observation in silence, parsing, musing over traditional sayings from the rural south, trying to conjure up the taste of a pecan just off the tree. And then we rose quietly and filed out of the dining hall as if we were leaving church.
:: The Unexpected Bride ::
The classroom across from ours housed another language class and I can’t tell you what it was. We kept to ourselves. But there was no hiding the arrival of one student’s wife, and the ripple of consternation she sent through the career military men. Her husband, a new recruit like myself, was immaculate in his Army uniform, neat in every way, hair short, shoes shined. The wife, on the other hand, who used to appear around lunchtime to visit with her hubby, was an unabashed hippie. She wore loose, short, sheer, print dresses, no shoes, no stockings, and, sitting on the lawn with an admiring audience of her husband’s classmates, she wove garlands of wildflowers for her hair.
None of this was illegal, but neither was it customary. For one thing, didn’t this mean her husband was a secret hippie, therefore a drug-using, radical free-thinking subversive? And for another, how many unabashed hippies stuck by their man when he entered the service? Visually, it was an odd pairing. I thought she was enchanting. But one of our number said, “Hey, take a closer look. She doesn’t shave her legs.” Well, it was consistent with the look, and I thought the bare feet, long hair and flowers pretty much counter-balanced it.
:: KP ::
KP was a given at any military base we were ever assigned to. If people ate there, we pulled KP. Weekday KP at the Presidio was not too bad a deal, but weekend KP was painful. If you wanted, you could buy your way out; for $10 there was always someone willing to do it for you, and the kitchen guys didn’t care as long as a willing body showed up. But when you only make $50 every two weeks, $10 is a lot of money. So I pulled my share of KP, always remembering to arrive early, in the dark, so I could volunteer for anything but “pots and pans,” a hellhole in the farthest, darkest corner of the kitchen where the last man to arrive scrubbed burnt offerings off the bottoms of enormous pots.
Given a choice, I always took the Clipper, in the heart of the action. The Clipper was where the metal trays came in, were scraped, rinsed, sent through the tunnel to emerge hot, steaming and clean. Because the last tray didn’t come in until the last person finished eating, the workers in the Clipper were usually the last to emerge, while everyone else waited to return to barracks.
But one Saturday, at dinnertime, knowing I had a six-pack waiting for me, I exhorted my workmates to speed up the pace, to hasten our return to a world without slop and steam, perhaps even to have some fun. We began doing everything double-time. We began shouting to one another; cheering each other on. When diners stepped out of the back door of the chow hall and walked by the window to drop off their empty trays and cups, we didn’t wait for them to pass them through the window and place them on the steel countertop – we reached out the window and ripped the trays out of their hands, shouting “Yee-hah” as we did so. Milk and coffee from half-finished cups flew in every direction. Pleasantly full diners who had been chatting with one another were frightened out of a year’s growth as their trays vanished from their grip at the same instant they were assailed by an Indian war whoop. Trays, cups and silver flew through the Clipper. To be sure, a number of forks, spoons and knives disappeared into the garbage can collecting pig slop, but we did not slacken the pace to retrieve them. Our supervisor appeared and marveled at our efficiency, shaking his head at our idiocy but pleased with the net result.
That night, we finished even before the guys who were cleaning the tables and mopping the floors. We were told that we had set a new speed record in the Clipper, one that may still stand. We were laughing when we left. I am laughing now.
:: The Spud Spinner ::
On one occasion, I arrived at KP just in time to sign up as one of a few “Cook’s Helpers,” which involved peeling some potatoes. Fortunately for us, modern technology had arrived. After we cut out the “eyes,” a skill my mother had taught me, we tossed the potatoes into an automatic peeler – a spinning, water-filled tumbler with abrasive sides. It took 50 pounds of potatoes, and moments after we had turned it on, someone told us it was break time. We all left at once. Upon our return, we saw that the machine had continued buffing the spuds in our absence. Fifty pounds of potatoes, now reduced to one heaping handful of soft, white marble-sized spheres. Fortunately, no one was watching.
:: Muscatel ::
One Saturday afternoon, Buck and I felt the need for a drunken picnic, and allowed gravity to take us downhill into Monterey, probably to Troia’s Market, where we purchased some cheese and a bottle of Christian Brothers Muscatel, which we bought because neither of us had ever had muscatel before and the words on the back label painted a rosy future for us. “In this luscious golden nectar you taste all the enticing, spicy flavor of the renowned Muscat of Alexandria grape.” Yum.
It was, among the many intoxicating episodes of my life, one of the best. On the way back to the Presidio, we spent some time at a elementary school playground. The California sunshine suffused the day; homes and flowers glowed, clouds floated by in pleasing shapes. We spent some time in the barracks. Wherever we went, we laughed. We struck each other as exceedingly witty that day. I don’t ever remember laughing so much for so long. It was a great buzz, one that brought us gently back down with no ill effects whatsoever. I revere the memory.
:: The Picnic ::
At least once during every class cycle, the faculty took the students out for a picnic at Bolado park in Hollister, with Serb-style cuisine, soccer (a peculiar European sport) and lots of beer. I sabotaged my first picnic experience, having won a bet the day before that I could go 30 days without drinking, and then investing the winnings that evening in Old Crow. The following morning the sun shone brightly and I had to make my bed sitting on the floor because I was too weak to stand. It took ten minutes to tuck in both sides. I rode to the picnic in the back seat of Major Seaman’s car, in between his two sons who were bouncing with excitement. I did not play soccer, nor did I eat a hearty meal. But I remember the smiles of everyone else, the lamb turning on a spit, Dimi doing amazing things with the soccer ball, and I did get to enjoy another picnic later in my stay. Above, Dr. Wessel and his wife at a class picnic, March 1969. Photographer unknown.
:: Close to Home ::
When I was transplanted to Monterey, I did not see it as a springboard to western travel. Part of it was money; I only made $100 a month. But mostly, it was my fear of going anywhere I’d never been before. Some of our number went to San Francisco on the weekends, but I never left the Monterey Peninsula. Most days, I didn’t even leave the Presidio. Weekends, I would walk around Monterey, the waterfront, Cannery Row. But I didn’t walk half enough.
By the time my parents came to visit me, I had acquired a beige 1965 VW bug with a sunroof for $1200, thanks to a grant from my mother. Jack Brennan drove it back from the dealership in Salinas for me, because I hadn’t learned to drive a standard shift yet. The tires, freshly recapped tires with rotten sidewalls, had to be replaced immediately, a good lesson. My father drove the car while they visited. They took me to 17 Mile Drive. I said it cost money, but Dad had money. It was a beautiful afternoon, and 17 Mile Drive was breathtaking. I’d never seen anything like it. It was probably one of the nicest things my father ever did for me.
I went to Carmel a few times. After my wife Jo came out, she drove the car and I rode. I remember her blistering her bare feet on the pavement in Carmel. I remember kids sitting on the grass outside the high school, and the school looking like some kind of magical campus. I thought, “You can grow up here?” I remember wading in the ocean. You would think the ocean would be warm in California, but it’s the Russian current coming down from the Bering Sea and it’s beyond cold. It’s frigid. I waded up to me knees and my feet, ankles and calves went numb, like wood. It was the only time I waded in the surf.
We did go to Big Sur once, walking in the woods, climbing on big rocks, picnicking with Jim Hartman and his girlfriend Patty who eventually married (and divorced) Stan, but that’s another story. Big Sur was beautiful. We stopped at a restaurant called Nepenthe. A young Oriental woman was sitting, looking at the ocean, her long, dark, straight hair all the way down her back. I remember that so well. We did not stay long, as we could not afford to buy anything.
:: Postcards ::
In the present day, I collect postcards, and sometimes find postcards of the Presidio on eBay. A recent treasure is a set of two, mailed to St. Louis in 1915, by a young cavalry recruit named Charles Hoffman. One is to his father, another to his mother, Mr. & Mrs. William Hoffman on Coleman Street. His father’s (with Charles’ spelling intact) reads, “Saturday, Monterey, Cal., Troop H. Hello Pop. How are you, and your busisness getting along. This is soooome place out here. I am getting along fine. Will send better views later on. Good-bye, Chas.” And he writes to his mother, “Saturday. Dear Mother, Every card or picture I send to you or anybody else is just like it is here so I want you to tell me how you like this place I am sending you folks. Had a good swim in the Pacific, will send some Pictures of the Deep Blue Sea soon, you ought to see what they issued to me to put on a horse, but they are all good horses! Good-bye. Chas.”
:: Morning Miracle ::
One day before class, someone said that we should walk over to the hillside and see what was in the bay. It was a foggy morning, and as we walked out on the lawn, the mist parted to reveal something out of a story book – a sailing ship, its sails furled, riding at anchor. “It’s Italian,” said someone, obviously a reader of the local paper, “It’s their training ship for naval officers.” At that moment, the sails unfurled, took hold of the breeze, and the ship began slowly, gracefully to turn toward open water.
It was breathtaking. We smiled, watched for a few more seconds, and then it was time to walk back up to class.
From what I can gather today, I had the good fortune to see the pride of the Italian Navy, the Amerigo Vespucci, named after the explorer who first realized that America was a continent all to itself. Designed by Francesco Rotundi, she was built in Naples. Patterned after an 18th century frigate, the ship is 331 feet long and her three masts carry 30,397 square feet of sail. She has sailed on more than 68 training and goodwill voyages since 1931.
She had a sister ship, the Cristoforo Colombo, with whom she sailed until 1943. A Norwegian submarine once encountered the two at sea and its commander later wrote, “On breaking surface, I took a quick look around and got a shock. I had gone down in the 20th century and come up again in the 18th century, for there stood in front of me two majestic men-of-war, under a press of canvas and sailing proudly.” Another ship once radioed, “You are the most beautiful ship in the world.” Amen. I was grateful for my chance encounter.
:: Taps ::
Every night at the Presidio, at 9 p.m., “Taps” would play over the loudspeakers. It was a signal for Lights Out, and we generally listened to the song in the dark, with our heads on our pillows. Because the Presidio was a small base, there was no official bugler. Instead, we listened to a recorded performance, on vinyl. It was an old record, and not much of a record player, so there was plenty of static and popping, too.
One night, “Taps” began as usual. And perhaps the disk jockey stepped into the bathroom, or stepped outside for a smoke, or was somehow otherwise occupied, because the record began to skip, “ta da da, click, ta da da, click, ta da da” and it kept skipping. We all listened to it skip. It was, of course, immediately funny because it destroyed the illusion of the lone bugler at the army encampment. It became more humorous with every skip because someone of higher rank was getting into trouble, certainly an NCO, perhaps even an officer, and that was really funny.
Somewhere up the hill, a major or a colonel was getting on the phone and saying, “What in the hell is going on down there?!” Somewhere, someone was saying, “Oh, shit” and rushing back to the turntable, horrified to see the needle trapped in the middle of “Taps.”
The skipping coda lasted no more than 30 or 45 seconds, and ended with a sudden chirp and the last few bars of “Taps,” but it felt like a wonderful eternity.
:: Retreat ::
Every evening at five p.m., the flag was lowered and the trumpet sounded Retreat. Anyone outdoors was required to face in the direction of the flagpole and salute. Anyone caught walking, talking and/or not saluting would be punished. Since there was never a lack of authority figures in the service, and especially on a base that hosted Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, you could be sure someone would be taking names. The result was a mad dash at 4:59 to gain the shelter of the barracks or any other indoor haven. It was not unusual to look out the barracks window a few seconds before five and see men running down the streets and walks as if incoming shells were already on their downward arc.
One Saturday, a number of us were returning from Monterey and were on a walk between two rows of classrooms when someone said, “It’s a minute to five.” We didn’t have time to make to the barracks; the classrooms were closed. So one free spirit climbed into a tree, hung from a limb with his left hand, and when Retreat was sounded, saluted with his right, swinging slowly in the evening breeze. As the last note faded away and he dropped down to the walk, I said, “Lou, where is your military bearing?” And Lou replied, “I was never issued one.”
:: Dee’s ::
Uphill from our barracks and around the corner from the movie theater was a gate that let out onto a small side street, into a neighborhood of small homes that bordered the Presidio. The first house on the right was a small restaurant called Dee’s Place, where servicemen could step into a less military world. When I had the money, I would go to Dee’s for a cheeseburger, a bag of chips and a bottle of Coors Banquet, and listen to Marvin Gaye sing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” on the juke box. It was almost heaven. A woman named Jan ran the place, and she was very nice, always willing to talk. Once when I was looking for an apartment to share with my first wife, Johanna, who was joining me in a few weeks, Jan said, “Hey, let me talk to my friend Buster. I think he’s got an apartment next to his store.” And within a day I had secured a small apartment right next door to Buster Campagno’s Hilltop Market on Prescott. Thanks to Jan and Dee’s, an oasis of kindness in a world of orders and rules.
:: The Potter ::
My first wife was a potter in the ceramics program at Syracuse University. At the end of her Junior year, she was coming out to Monterey to join me, her new husband, and we wanted to find a studio where she could work and keep her hands in clay while she was away from school. I don’t remember how I found the place I visited, perhaps the phone book, but it was a studio down near Cannery Row, the post-fish, pre-gentrification Cannery Row where there were plenty of empty buildings going for a song, for artists’ studios and used-book stores and head shops, et al. One Saturday morning, I walked down to the studio to see what it was like, to see if Jo could work there during the summer, what it might cost, stuff like that.
The people were lovely. It was a haven, a reminder of school for me, a perfectly messy pottery place. I fell into conversation with a nice older man working at a wheel in the corner. He had white hair, a lined face, and one of the happiest, most peaceful smiles I have ever seen in my life. He was retired, he told me, and this is what he did all day. I asked him what he had done before retiring, and he said, “I was a Colonel in the Army.”
My heart ached. Here was someone on the other side, someone who had gone through the service, the making a living, and come out in a potters’ studio in Monterey, California. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in that room, stay with that man; I wanted to be that man. But instead, I thanked everyone for their time and walked back up the hill to the barracks.
:: Moonwalk ::
It was a day of firsts. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon and half a billion people around the world watched on TV. It was a Sunday and a large group of airmen had gathered at my apartment on Prescott. We were playing Pass-Out, a board game with drinking penalties. I was drinking Hamm’s, and losing, in this my first and only experience with the game. Neil stepped onto the moon as I struggled to keep my eyes open. He delivered his “One small step” speech. I pondered its significance, thought of our loss of innocence as science pocketed one more bit of the world’s magic, considered my duty to history complete, closed my eyes and passed swiftly from the waking state into a deep and hoppy slumber.
:: The Last Link ::
On May 10, 1869, celebrants at Promontory Point, Utah, cheered as Railroad magnate Leland Stanford tapped the Last Spike, the Gold Spike, into a railroad tie of polished California laurel to symbolize the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific’s No. 119 and the Central Pacific’s Jupiter touched cowcatchers and the continent shrank. But the dignitaries, officials and railroad workers who gathered in the desert that day could hardly imagine how, 100 years later, they would be overshadowed by the last link in the beer chain.
For the beer chain, we turn to another worthy, Ermal “Ernie” Fraze, founder of Dayton Reliable Tool Company of Kettering, Ohio. In 1959, Ernie was at a hot picnic with cold beer, but no can opener, and ended up using a car bumper to rip the tops off. A few evenings later, Ernie went to his basement workshop to tinker with the idea of attaching an opening lever to a can top. By morning, he had it figured out. “I personally did not invent the easy-open can end,” Ernie said later. “People have been working on that since 1800. What I did was develop a method of attaching a tab on the can top.” He obtained his patent in 1963, a trial by Pittsburgh’s Iron City Brewing Company was successful, and the pop-top took off.
In 1969, beer rings were a part of life, a ring attached to a curl of metal from the can top, worn as jewelry, dropped back into the beer, or folded over the next ring to begin a chain. Someone suggested we start one in the living room on Prescott Avenue, and so we did. We screwed in a cup hook, hung the first length and we were off. In an apartment frequented by thirsty airmen, the chain made heroic progress. It soon turned the corner and looped its way steadily around the room. The evening when the chain finally had enough links to meet, Johanna did the honors in the manner of Leland Stanford, with thanks to Ernie Fraze, accompanied by wild applause.
:: The Thrill of the Hunt ::
Because our apartment shared a roof with Buster Campagno’s Hilltop Market, it also shared some of the wildlife attracted to Buster’s abundant supplies of food. The cockroaches in our kitchen were polite enough to remain hidden by day, but after dark, when we returned from a movie at the post theater and turned on the lights, there was always a stampede for the cracks, crevices and baseboards. I found sport in this, leaving a weapon in a prearranged spot and turning on the light only after I had it in hand. I usually managed to kill one or two who’d lost a step or who lingered over some micro-morsel, but my record was four, and I was mighty proud of it.
:: Gran Prix ::
Living just off the Presidio, I drove to class in the VW, once I’d learned how to use the standard shift. Down-shifting, slowing the car with the clutch rather than the brake, was one of my most exciting discoveries, and on foggy mornings, the winding roads of the Presidio, all downhill, gave me ample opportunity to play with the car and listen to the engine whine and the exhaust echo off the walls of fog. In the next two years, I wore out two clutches, but I enjoyed it a great deal.
:: Twilight ::
“One summer evening,” a Parisian perfumer tells us, “Jacques Guerlain was overcome by intense turmoil. It was the suspended hour, the hour when the sky has lost its sun but not yet found its stars. Everything in nature is clothed in a blue light.” And so, the house of Guerlain created L’Heure Bleue, described as “a heady blend of roses, iris, and jasmine, laced with an intriguing background of vanilla and musk.”
For Jacques, it was the scent of twilight in Paris, but for me, L’Heure Bleue will always be the bathroom of my apartment on Prescott Street, where Johanna dropped a full bottle onto the unforgiving floor. Whenever I smell L’Heure Bleue, I am instantly transported to that room, just steps from the front door and then walking out to the curb where I can see all the way down to Lighthouse Avenue and the bay beyond.
:: The Last Class ::
On our final day of class, Dragoslav Georgevich came in and said, “Today is your last day. Is there anything you haven’t learned that you would like to know?” Gino said, “How about some cuss words?” And Dragi said, “What?” It was all downhill from there, wonderfully so. After five minutes, Dragi was blushing. “You young men are so forward,” he said. But he rose, or sank, to the occasion. For the female center of wonder and miracles, he had four words, each for a different size, and as the item under discussion grew larger, his voice grew deeper, as if he were reading aloud from “The Three Bears.” I have careful notes from that session, but I cannot read them today because they are entirely in the Cyrillic alphabet; it is a strange thing to see your own handwriting, and have no clue what it says. I do remember one disparaging Serb remark in its English translation, “Return to the womb of the horse that bore you.” It was quite a class; I only wish that I could remember more of it.
:: Gary ::
I met Gary in Monterey. Like no one I have met before or since, he had a way of landing on his feet. What seemed like luck or charm at the time has since revealed itself as a profound wisdom. I stand in awe of his final piece of work.
It was 1972, and we were in Maryland, stationed at Ft. George G. Meade, due to be released from the service. The nine members of our class – minus one who had punched a motorcycle cop in Santa Cruz and lost his security clearance – were still together, about to go separate ways. But unlike the rest of us, Gary had the foresight to marry a woman from Monterey, on August 23, 1969. On the day he was discharged, he returned to his apartment; the car was already packed. He and Susan hopped in, headed west, and four days later, arrived in Monterey. Gary has not left since. And it gets better, if that’s possible. One evening Gary and Susan went to a party where a man said, “I need someone at the library at the Presidio. What are you doing, Gary?” Today, he works a stone’s throw from our old classrooms. I’ve spent 30 years dreaming of Monterey. Gary has spent the past 30 years living there. My blue cap is off to him.
My undying thanks to Gary Archer (seated on the steps), Buck Beasom, Dane Copeland, George Egan, Gregg Kemp and Lou Kern for being a part of these memories, and for helping me to remember them 30 years later as I finally wrote them down. Yes, that’s me on the right, the guy with the attitude.
* * *
A scholar from a class before mine wrote:
Found your writings on the net, and read of your experiences in Monterey… you should have taken Stude up on the dinner… three slivovitsa’s and the man opened up….The one memory that you didn’t touch on was how Dr. Vessel would start each class with ” a little joke”… they were so unfunny that everyone laughed at their unfunniness. My class was Ralph Roderick, Henry Duval, Ron “Krompir” Kohler, Dan Dick, Steve Sewell, Mike Hargrove, and me…Steve Meador.
In July 2006, John Greene from Indiana wrote:
i studied srpskohrvatski jezik also at dliwc, graduated summer of ’66.
you should, indeed, have gone to dr. stude’s home on his invitation. he was quite hospitable in that environment, and his wife was a gracious hostess. i was very impressed.
by the way, i was and am from indiana, and my arrival at the presidio was in the middle of the night. i heard the sea lions barking and walked down the hill to the bay, got my first view of the ocean, tasted the salty water for the first time, watched and listened to the waves and the sea lions, all for the first time in my life. i was 22.
i wasn’t all that thrilled going in, had declined language training, got orders for something else, then somehow got new orders for training in serbo-croatian, decided it wasn’t such a bad deal after i got to monterey. the entire four years were actually some of the best years of my life. my time in europe was fabulous.
too bad it is true that we grow old too soon, and wise too late.
In October of 2007, Gil Osgood wrote:
Tonight I stumbled across your essay describing your time at the Presidio of Monterey studying Serbo Croatian. Since I was a Serbo-Croatian student there in 1963 (I was in the army then), I particularly enjoyed your stories about some of the professors I also knew. These include Vesel (thats how Wessel was spelling his name when I was there), Jeffries, Dimitrievich and Georgevich. The others you mention came after my time. The description of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was quite a bit more detailed than the version I remember getting. I did have one memorable experience there that was unique to my class (47B). We were engaged in singing the Lord’s Prayer in Serbo-Croatian when Gospodin Jeffries came running in to tell us that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
Thanks for bringing back so many memories. I’ve sent the link to your essay to a couple of my classmates from Monterey days with whom I’m in touch.