In the days after our success with “Lovers and Other Strangers” at the Officers Club life went on;  concerts, contests, trips to NYC to buy equipment, last minute drives to DC for the same, and paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork.

During all of this activity my family life continued as well. For the first time since our marriage (and the last so it happened) Jen didn’t have to work. Her full time job was Mother, wife and whatever she wanted to do. Ft Dix had countless things to do for families and children as well as soldiers.

She was always very talented at making things with her hands. The Ft.Dix crafts center fueled that fire daily. She began taking pottery classes, weaving classes, knitting, macramé and on and on.

We had always made gifts for Christmas and other holidays because we had too. We had no money to buy them. In college we even made made our own holiday cards  and the paper we wrapped our gifts in. Now that we could afford to buy gifts we continued to make things for our home and our friends. By the time we were assigned on-base Officers housing, she had a created a houseful of amazing artwork.

We were assigned to a two bedroom house on a corner lot (very nearly across the street from the Generals home). Big open rooms, lots of windows, high ceilings large walk-in closets. We personally owned two chairs, 2 beds, one table, the ammo box bookshelves and lots and lots of books and art. It was a beautiful space that suited us very well. We were able to borrow furniture from the Army until we got our own (or not). And now she was even closer to the  crafts center.

The Post nursery was next to the craft center so Chris was being taken care of and being socialized at the same time we were getting all Arty.

One weekend we decided to drive into Philadelphia to shop for a sofa bed. In Gimbels Dept Store we found the absolutely artiest sofa bed ever! Nubby fabric, earth tone yellow, orange and green stripes and it was affordable. We bought it immediately and happily went home to wait for its delivery. A few days later the truck drove up in front of our new home, carried the new sofa inside, unwrapped it, cleaned up their mess and drove away.

When I came home that evening I was thrilled. There it was. We just kept looking at it and smiling. Chris was busy jumping on the cushions and rolling on it.

I suggested excitedly that we try out the bed. Great idea! We unfolded the bed lay in it , jumped and rolled on it and felt very proud of ourselves for having so successfully shopped!

Eventually we decided to put the bed back and sit down to watch tv.

It wouldn’t go back.

We tried everything– Pulling it out again and pushing harder . Pushing even harder and then both of us pushed even harder.

It Would Not Go Back in!!

We  gave up and decided to call Gimbels the very next day.

A repair man arrived the next day. He walked into the house, looked at the sofa, pushed it, pushed it harder. And then declared, “This thing is broken.”

“I’ll send someone back for it. Leave it the way it is and the store will send movers later.”

And then he was gone.

One month and a dozen phone calls later the sofa/avant garde sculpture  was still in our living room reaching towards the ceiling amidst all of our other pieces of art. There was still no place to sit.

On week later Mr. A said, “Call Mr. Gimbel”

“There is no such person as Mr. Gimbel.”

“Of course there is. Do you want me to call?”

“No. No. I’ll do it”

I once again took out the well worn delivery slip, found the phone number and called it.

“Gimbels Dept Store, how may I direct your call?”

“Mr. Gimbel’s office please.”

“Whom shall I say is calling?”

“Lt. Douglas Smith from Ft. Dix, New Jersey.”

“One moment”

Maybe 2 minutes later, “ Hello Lt.- Gimble here. What can I do for you?”

Oh my God! I could barely speak…I really got through to the president of the company.

I explained what had happened regarding my sofa bed; he apologized profusely and said he would have it taken care of immediately. I hung up the phone– flabbergasted but still skeptical.

Mr. A beamed! “Told you, by God! Go to the top. Always go to the top!”

The very next morning a Gimbels truck pulled up in front of our house; loaded the sofa bed into the truck and handed us a check for the full amount of the purchase. There were no more in stock. Apparently they had sent us the floor model. That explained a lot.

That weekend we went to a nearby Sears store, purchased a magnificent “leather” Chesterfield rolled arm, button tufted queen sized sofa bed; had it delivered the same day; and enjoyed many, many years of stylish comfort slipping deeply and comfortably into it’s soft delightful arms.

Always go to the top. Indeed.

A few weeks later Bill got out of the stockade and then out of the Army at last. With him went at least 2 guitars and amplifiers from our music room. I am sure he felt Uncle Sam owed him at least that. We never reported the loss.

Rehearsals went well and as we approached opening night we (the directors and staff) knew we had a very funny show.

Some of the actors were not so sure. Nerves, insecurities and just plain fear had begun to kick in. One of them was my very funny nurse from NY.

For some reason she suddenly decided everything she was doing was wrong. This, in turn, caused my other cast member to question his performance as well.  Perhaps, for such a short piece they had been over rehearsed? I was at a loss. They were very funny and very real (something not often achieved by amateurs).

Late one afternoon before rehearsal we met and walked through the act, stopping to discuss why this or that action felt wrong. I suggested they try it another way—something that felt more ‘right’. They did, and found a couple of moments that seemed more natural for them at that moment. I told them there was no reason they needed to feel locked in by what we had done before – they should feel free to respond naturally and honestly to what was happening between them on the stage. No need to feel pressured to make it funny even. They felt good about that and thanked me for understanding and taking the time with them. They went off laughing to the dressing room to get ready for the evening’s run through.

I went to my office to worry about what I had just said. If they really did improvise and not stick to what we had meticulously worked out in rehearsals, it could become ponderous and dreadful. What had I done? Why did I think I could direct anyway? Shit.

That evening the run through went incredibly well. I was baffled. They did absolutely nothing different. if anything, they were sharper and funnier than ever. Even the crew and the other directors were laughing hysterically in the house.

After notes that evening, They asked me, “Was it okay?”

I practically choked.

“You tell me. How did you feel? Any new impulses? It seemed very fresh to me.
…and you were getting your laughs, spot on.”

“Yeah”, they said “it felt good. The laughter was nice. We had to adjust a little to let it subside, though”

“Yes, I noticed. Very professionally done. Instinctive. You’ve got something going on up there. Just let it happen, enjoy it every time…dare I say it…have fun.”

And they did, …every time.

The show was a big hit. The Ft. Dix Theatre ‘Glitteratti’ filled the houses for the entire run. The General and his wife were completely delighted.

About a week after the show had closed, Mr. Levy called ‘A’ and I into his office. The Colonel had an idea. Well actually it was the General’s idea, but they all agreed. General and Mrs. Cooksey wanted us to repeat “Lovers” at the Officer’s Club as a dinner Theatre. They would invite all of the officers and their wives to attend one of 3 performances over a weekend. It would be just a damn shame if everyone didn’t see this wonderful play.

“Well, how about that?” mused Mr Armstrong on our way back to our office. “That’s never happened before, by God!” He chuckled loudly “Lt. Smith, I believe you are good luck. Let’s call the boys before they destroy the set.”

The next couple of weeks were spent examining the O Club space, redesigning the set, reassembling the cast and rehearsing for the new space. It was all very exciting and a little tricky to negotiate the times when the space in the club was available for us to work in; but we managed to get things set up the day before and had a run through on Thursday night.

Food service was overseen my Mrs. Cooksey and managed by the Club staff, so, thank God we didn’t have to think about that. The show seemed to have stayed tight and the cast was excited to have been asked to do it again.

Friday night, the excitement and nervous energy were high. The room filled up with officers and their wives. Cocktails flowed and the dinner service began. The general made his rounds of the tables .

As the dessert course and coffee were being served the show began.  I prayed that the noise and proximity of the audience wouldn’t throw them; but the magic was still happening. The audience was roaring with laughter as I paced back and forth in the hallway watching through the door. Finally the act ended. The applause was incredible, laughing whooping, whistling. I turned to go backstage when Col Gordon and Mr. Levy grabbed me by the shoulder.

“Smitty, God Dammit; You are one funny son of a bitch!”

“Cigar?” “Barry give the man a Cigar”;

“ I’m gonna tell ya boy, Cooksey is damn happy with you…damn happy.”

“Thank you, sir. No cigar, thanks. I’ll just stick to my cigarettes.”

“What are ya drinkin? Scotch? Whiskey?”

“Gin….and tonic”

“Bobby, give this man a healthy gin and tonic…Tanqueray”

“This is a good night for us, boy. Thank you.  Damn, but you are funny!!”

“We’ll sir, the playwright had something to do with that; and the actors.”

“Damn right, but you picked ‘em and you made ‘em think and act funny. Don’t forget I’ve seen these Theatre Workshop plays before, slept through most of ‘em.”

“General, we’re over here.”

And there he was, Major General Cooksey, laughing and downing scotch.

“Lt., tonight makes me very glad I took a chance on you! Good things to come, only good things. Have a drink on me…Bobby back him up!”

Just then the lights began to blink on and off. They hurried off to watch the next act and I went back stage to congratulate the really funny people who just insured my next two years would be OK.

The entire night was very festive. Everyone remained in good spirits and invited the cast to join in the party when the show was done. I encouraged them to be prudent as we had 2 more shows to do. My cast, at least listened and went home early.

The holidays came and went as they always do.

During the last week of 1971 we drove from Parkersburg, WV to Ft. Dix, New Jersey. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was its usual unpredictable, often treacherous, self as we drove through snow, rain, sleet, high winds, snow again and finally came to the Delware Valley and the relatively balmy New Jersey Turnpike.

We had switched off driving every couple of hours and Chris slept most of the way on one or the other of us. We were headed for a new home, a new life, and all the hopes that come with those things.

Finally we arrived in Pemberton , NJ and pulled up in front of our apt (across from where Sgt Neeley lived). It was late in the evening or early in the morning -whichever- and I was excited for Jen to see the apt.
Just before I left for WVa and Christmas, the Army had delivered our belongings from WV and I had unpacked everything and created a home of sorts from the contents.
A bookcase stretched across one wall, assembled from ammunition boxes scavenged from the US Army dump, stained and screwed together in the Theatre Workshop Scene Shop (it was quite handsome actually and followed us around for many years) I had arranged our books and art on them with a small tv in the center. Two chairs – a rocking chair and a bean bag – with a small table in between made up the living room. A red table and two chairs the dining room. A yellow crib and dresser, a red chair and toy box filled Chris’ room and a matress and box springs with a lamp and clock radio created a lovely bedroom for us. It was very ‘artfully’ decorated and was, in fact, quite comfortable and inexpensive. The Army would find us a real house soon but, for now, this would do fine.

We quickly unpacked the car, put Chris in his bed and, went to bed ourselves to spend the first night in our new home and our new world.

Wintertime rolled by with mornings at the office and afternoons at the theatre whenever possible. We were making plans for the early Spring production of Lovers and Other Strangers. Many details had to be attended to, and the whole process was being ‘not so delicately’ micro-managed by Mr A.

The play was actually 3 one-act plays about an upcoming wedding. It was decided that I would have my Ft. Dix directorial debut with the first act , A Chaplains Assistant, Ted Green would take the second act and Mr A the third (saving the best for last?)

There were press releases to be sent out announcing auditions, auditions to be scheduled, rights procured, auditions held, casting, Sets to be designed, costumes acquired, sound, scenery, poster artwork, programs, rehearsals and on and on.

Suddenly I was right in the thick of it and it was tremendous fun. As it turned out I had drawn the lucky straw. Act one was the funniest of the three and I was able to cast it so perfectly that I was beside my self with the luck of it. This act was about a middle aged couple from New Jersey who come home from a rehearsal dinner for a family wedding, get ready for bed chatting hysterically about the events of the evening while watching Johnny Carson on TV. The lights go out and the discussion begins. Whose turn is it to initiate sex tonight? The husband is certain he got things rolling the last time and is willing to discuss how he accomplished his goal. The wife is equally certain she was the amorous one. So now we have a contest and nothing will happen tonight until there is a winner.

Very funny 55 minutes!

A little risqué for the times and the audience we would perform for which made it all the better.

During auditions I had discovered a Sgt. from the nearby Air Force base who looked perfect, had some acting experience and ridiculously good timing when he trusted his instincts and stayed out of his own way.

For his wife, I cast a feisty, 40 something nurse who was a real New Yawker. She was a little insecure about her looks and her acting, which was just perfect. If I told her to do something; she just did it.

Rehearsals were so much fun we just laughed and laughed. I felt comfortable directing and relaxed into it. The two actors trusted me and I them.

Since I had previously (in college) only directed one-act plays, this was the perfect way for me to ‘break in’

The sets and costumes were simple; mostly street clothes and modern pieces of furniture. The other two acts also funny, but I wasn’t really involved in those rehearsals until we put the whole evening together.

There was plenty to do in the daytime – going to the local print shop to create invites, posters and programs from clip art, Letraset Letters and typed pages pasted up and shot to create a plate. (ah, the old days.)

Mr A and the printer would argue about costs and times and paper stock and anything else they could imagine while I sat and put things together so it could be torn apart by one or the other of them and redone, “correctly”. It was a really old-fashioned style of working- even for then. In retrospect it was kind of fun.

This was also when I began to learn about the financial operations in the Military. We had quarterly budgets. Although we almost always got what we asked for, if we didn’t spend every dime, then next quarter would be cut a little. So, the logical thing was to create purchase orders for an amount of money with each of our regular vendors every quarter and then just buy against them when we needed to. We started nearly every quarter with half the last quarter’s PO’s untouched, so we never ran out of money for hardware, lumber, paint, tools, printing or anything local. It worked brilliantly for us and kept the local vendors in our good graces, even when Mr A was around haggling with every one.

During this process I also began meeting the local ‘gang’ of volunteer support staff for the theatre. A diverse and outrageous extended family all committed to the theatre and forgetting they were in the Army and there was a war “out there” somewhere. There were officers, enlisted people, children of military, wives, husbands, and the ever-present prisoners.

The Major in charge of the Ft. Dix Stockade was a WAC.  Beverly was attractive, very intelligent, very committed to the theatre AND the Army. Her husband Mike was also a Major. He was a helicopter pilot and from time to time was called away to fly missions. He had already spent a year (or so ) in Nam, and was now home between assignments. He played the piano, sang, was equally intelligent and funny. Together, the Majors, were a real Arts power couple at Ft. Dix and they threw hellacious parties!

When men were nearing the end of their time in the stockade (usually on drug charges or insubordination) they were allowed to participate in a ‘work detail’ of Beverly’s choosing for the remainder of their active duty.

[being within a few months of getting out of prison, the army, or both was known as being “short”]

Beverly made sure the best and the brightest of them came to us where their brains and talent could be useful. This was still the time of the draft (the volunteer Army was about a year or so away) so almost everyone had been drafted from college or got caught trying to get to Canada. Some had already been to Viet Nam and were shipped back to be imprisoned for a variety of charges.

The chance to be out of their cells, the imminence of being out of the Army and the laxness of discipline at the theatre were like magic to them. They would do anything just to be able to come back tomorrow and tomorrow. We trusted them and they trusted us and behaved well and worked hard. Sometimes the ‘boys’ at the theatre became such friends with them that they forgot what the real situation was.

One morning Bruce picked me up in the truck at home. Sgt Neeley, John, Tony Garcia and another guy were in the back of the truck already. We were going to the Cherry Hill Mall to buy some things for the set, I was told. I took the passenger seat and we were off. Someone from the back said, “Doug this is Bill Roberts. He’s a very funny guy. He helps us at the theatre sometime.”

“Hey, Bill. Good to meet you.”

We drove along the back road to the mall (maybe half an hour). A steady yammering of jokes and silliness from the back; a steady stream of wisecracks and cigarette smoke from Bruce behind the wheel.

We arrived at the mall, locked the truck and went in to take care of our errands and window shop for a couple of hours before loading up again and climbing back in the truck.

Bill told me in civilian life he was a musician. He lived in NYC and played in a band. He was originally from the Bronx, so being at Ft. Dix was pretty cool, really. Too bad, he hadn’t been able to visit his friends yet. But he would get out soon.

“Out of the Army?” “Congratulations. How short are you?”

“Out of jail. Then the Army”

The truck became quiet.

Quickly from Bart, “Yeah, Doug, Bill is one of the Major’s detail. He really isn’t supposed to leave the post, but he’s a good guy so we thought he could use a day trip.”

“hope you don’t mind….”

“We probably shouldn’t mention this to anyone in the office, ya know”

Words failed me.

I had been in the Army for less than a year and suddenly I was guilty of transporting a federal prisoner off a military post and giving him free reign of a public mall and every chance to disappear into thin air….

“Yes.”

“I agree.”

” Any ideas what we will do if the MP’s stop us going back on the post and ask for ID.?”

“Oh, they won’t, sir, not with you in the car. That’s why we brought you along.”

“Oh.”

“just for the sake of argument, let’s say they do it anyway.”

“When we get close to post, Bill is going to get into this box and stay there until we get to the theatre.”

“You guys have certainly thought of everything, thanks for having my welfare in mind.

Can we go now?” “and don’t call me, sir, just because you know you were crazy wrong, ok?”

“ok.”

“It’ll be fine, Doug,, no one…”

“Just drive, Bruce. And do not light that fucking joint in here.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“So, Bill, tell me more about yourself…”

The rest of the trip was quiet and uneventful. No one stopped the truck. No one searched. After all an officer was in the passenger seat.

I now knew exactly, what I was up against and how nerve-rackingly fun it was going to be.

In the 70’s the McArthur USO was located in Times Square. Military personnel could go there to get free tickets to Broadway and Off Broadway shows as well as many other kinds of entertainment. Part of our job in the Entertainment Office was to  find out what shows were available every day and pass that information along to the service clubs so that Ft. Dix soldiers could decide if there was something they wanted to see in NYC (besides hookers).

Sometimes, when I was in the office I made the calls, often Wendy did, or even Bruce from the theatre. It was a great service. *

[*I think most people assume the USO is a relic of WWII and has gone away. It has not. In NYC it is now located on 8th Avenue and offers discounts and other services to members of the Armed Forces visiting NYC.]

One afternoon about a week or so before I was to go home for Christmas and bring my wife and son back to New Jersey;  Sgt Neely and I happened to be nearby and overheard Bruce reading off the list of shows to a service club director on the phone.

“The Rothschild’s” a Broadway Musical starring Hal Linden and Jill Clayburgh was being offered that night.  I had never seen any Broadway show. I had never been to NYC. I was from West Virginia. So far, in this narrative, you have heard about all the places I had been besides my home town.

“Hey, Doug, wanna go to NY tonight and see that?”

“Really?”

“Yeah, Why not. Nancy’s working late , we’ll take her car and pick her up when we get back (or she can ride home with someone else). I like Hal Linden. And Free is good!”

“Okay.”

“I haven’t been to a show in months. What’s the last thing you saw?”

“On Broadway?”

“ Well, Yes.”

“Never. I have never even been to New York City”

“No?–Well we have to go then. Let’s just change clothes here and drive up now. We can look around a while.”

“OK”

We always kept civilian clothes in the dressing room, in case we had to leave the post. (a habit I had already found useful) We changed and I drove us to Nancy’s Service club; trading my car for hers.”

“Dammit Bart, don’t get drunk and wreck my fucking car”

“Of course not.”

“Oh, of course not, he says…”

And we were off.

It was a grey December day, pretty cold really, but it was fun riding in the little red sports car, even on the NJ Turnpike. The City is about 2 hours north of Ft. Dix  (or less if you drive like a lunatic). Time seemed to fly by as we slid in and out of traffic; Bart expertly handling the low slung Datsun.

Finally, out of nowhere, I began to see the NY Skyline getting closer and closer. It seemed unreal to me. A little like Oz. A city of skyscrapers rising from the flat land around us like a strange mirage.

It was already turning dark  and as we emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel Bart headed for Broadway, made a left and started up town towards Times Square and the theatre district.

“Where are you going?”

“If you’ve never been here, your first view needs to be spectacular”

The top went down and even though it was cold as hell. It was thrilling to be speeding into the lights and crowds and excitement of Broadway, huge billboards, flashing neon, Coca Cola, Canadian Club, Cadillac, Howard Johnson’s, Castro Convertible, George M. Cohan, The Palace Theatre and I even caught my first glimpse of the then new TKTS Booth and hordes of people, my God it was exciting.

I couldn’t believe I was actually in New York City!

Bart made the turn at 47th street and started down the other side, passing the same incredible scene but from the opposite side of the street. Then we were off to park the car in a lot, got our tickets from the USO and walked around looking at and listening to everything. I was delightfully on edge the entire time. Not Like anything I had ever seen or felt before.

The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre was very beautiful to me (still is really). Audience members were hanging around outside the theatre, smoking and talking, standing in the street. Taxis and Limos pulled up to the curb from time to time.  Inside, the theatre was warm and bustling still – a steady buzz of conversation all around us. Bart read his Playbill and I just continued watching everything. I wanted to be very cool and blasé; but it wasn’t in me that night. Soon there was a hush, the lights went down and the immense red curtain went up.

The play was ok. It wasn’t great, as I recall, but it was entertaining enough and I couldn’t have had a bad time in any case. I just watched and enjoyed and wondered. I had been a performer (more or less) since I was 11 years old, but I had never once even considered being on Broadway. It hadn’t been part of my thinking at all, until now. I had thought in terms of movies or small regional theatres, but now my mind was on fire with the possibilities- the grandness of it all.

After the curtain came down we walked back through the crowded streets to our car. I thanked Bart many times for the opportunity to be there. I was filled with the excitement of sharing the experience with Jenny when we returned after Christmas.

As we soared back to Ft. Dix, we talked about NY, the theatre, the play, art, life and  everything we thought of until the thoughts ran out and we quietly arrived at the gates  and out the other side to Pemberton and home. My car was parked in front of Bart’s apartment so went inside and got the keys. Nancy was sleeping.

I walked across the street to my new (and very empty) apartment and did the same.

It seems like a year’s worth of things happened in those weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I spent my mornings in the office, my afternoons at the theatre and my evenings in the officer’s club or meeting the local theatre people in a round of Holiday parties. What an eclectic bunch they were, mostly military or families of military, but the a few community folks who liked to help out.

I rented an apt in the same complex as Sgt. Healy and arranged for the Army to deliver my furniture (what there was of it) from West Va, where it was in storage in my in-laws garage.  There was much to learn about the Army way of doing things and the mountains of paperwork required to accomplish anything. Fortunately, Wendy was an expert and neither I nor Mr. A needed to worry much about it. We did have to know about it though. Even secretaries got days off.

There were two very memorable events that happened within days of one another to cement my connection to this place and these people.

One night I was at the Officer’s club having dinner alone at the bar when a friend of mine from Indiantown Gap basic training walked in. Now sporting a bushy moustache and a dress green uniform, he was very much the Army Officer. Lt. Carl (as in Carlo) Esteban was a gregarious and funny guy. A lot of fun to be around. He immediately walked toward me in the bar and grabbed me by the neck shouting “What the fuck, What the fuck…do you believe this?! You’re here too. We are 2 lucky sons-a-bitches. Did you just get here?”

“No been here a month. “

He rolled his eyes. “Where are you assigned?”

I said “Special Services”

“Holy Shit, really?”

“Yep.” I told him my story.

“Mother fuck me, that is one great story…you need to stay under the radar, though if you wanna keep that cushy job”

By now we were drinking beer, my dinner taken away. “I think I can if you will stop shouting it to the entire room!”

“Oh pffft”…beer flying out of his nose,  “good thinking.”

He told me about a couple of the guys who had in fact gone to South East Asia…but he didn’t know about any of the rest. He was a training officer in an infantry battalion, so, in theory, he could be next, but he didn’t think so. Never knew why he felt ‘safe’…but I never saw him again either.

As we drank and laughed we were joined by a friend of his. They began talking about the Jersey Shore and asked me what I thought of it.

“Never been.”

“Really? You gotta go.”

“In fact I have never even seen the ocean. I grew up in WVa, never travelled much till now.”

“Oh wow,man, that is fucking terrible. Let’s go now.”

“What?”

“I’ll drive; it’s not far, Let’s go.”

“It’s snowing.”

“So?” “Come on, we gotta go.  It’s Friday night we got nowhere to be tomorrow. C’mon,” as he paid the check for all of us.

“Hey, don’t do that my dinner was on that check.”

“Fuck it man, we’re loaded. Never had so much money in my life!”

So the three of us left the club, got in Carlo’s car and set out for Seaside Heights, New Jersey at 9PM on a snowy December Night. We stopped for beer(of course). And drove and talked the 2 hours to the shore. I don’t recall seeing any other cars on the shore road.

We parked the car near the boardwalk, most places were dark. Carlo said he knew a bar that would be open. But first—the beach.

The wind whipped up and snow whirled around us as we stepped between buildings, onto the boardwalk and down a few steps to the beach. A light coating of snow lay over the sand, the stars shone brightly in the deep black sky, and for the first time in my life I heard the the roar of the ocean. Saw the white caps in the dark night slither along the sand. In front of me was a vast expanse of blackness rising and falling as far as I could see. It was terrifyingly wonderful. The air was cold but the ocean smell was fantastic.

I stood there a few minutes looking out, falling in love with the majesty of the ocean, even on a dark winter night. Tears filled my eyes and I was embarrassed to turn around and face these guys I barely knew, so I just stood there absorbing every bit of it until someone said, “okay fucker, you’ve seen it now, I am freezing.” And smaked me on the back. It was cold.

We walked along the beach and the boardwalk a little way until we saw some light off to the left on a side street. Moments later we opened the door to a small barroom with a pool table, a pinball machine, a juke box and a a pot bellied stove in the middle of the room. A few locals were sitting around the stove, the bar man among them. He greeted us and asked what kind of Budweiser we wanted, taking three from a cooler.

“What you fellows doing out here this time of night?”

Carlos told him they had brought me to see the ocean. We were still in uniform, so he needlessly told them we were at Fort Dix.

That information got us each a shot of something awful.

We sat and talked with them for an hour or so, then hurried back to car and drove silently back the way we had come.

Carlos dropped me off in front of BOQ at about 2 in the morning. Ii thanked him for the beers and the experience.

“See you again, pal. It was a good time”, he said, his friend grunting something from the back seat.

“See ya, I said”

I never did.

My first day as the “Officer in Charge of the Theatre Workshop/Asst Entertainment Director” began on a rainy Tuesday morning. I woke early dressed in my dress uniform, ate breakfast at the officer’s Club (the only place with food that I was aware of, so far) and drove to the Special Services Office. It was just before 8AM. I was not the first person to arrive. The office was bustling with coffee making, laughter and chatter. It appeared that all of the secretaries and Service Club girls arrived very early to chat and smoke and laugh before the day began in earnest. I was however the only male person to have arrived- not entirely an unpleasant situation.

The ladies all introduced themselves, fussed over me a bit and told me not to worry about Elwood, he was all bark…and so on. They offered me coffee and cake. I politely declined and went to my new office.

Wendy was already typing some forms. There was a table now under the window perpendicular to Mr. Armstrong’s desk, with a wooden captain’s chair in front. This, she said, was to be my desk. She giggled and said all of the girls were excited to have a ‘real’ young man in the office. Misters Levy and Gordon didn’t count because they were both old and bosses. I couldn’t help but notice that most of the ladies were also quite old; but anyway, it was a warm and friendly place to work (at least early in the morning) and Wendy began telling me about some of the things we did and handed me a file of papers to look through. Mr “A” would tell me more when he arrived, which would likely be much closer to 11 than 10.

It was 11:30.  He spent a few minutes in the office, then suggested we go to meet the boy.

As we drove across ft. Dix in his car, he gave me a travelogue of all the sites we passed and explained where the theatre was and why. How he had created it, designed it and made it happen step by step.

Finally we arrived in front of an Army issue white clapboard building trimmed in green, with a gravel parking area, an expanse of green and another building I soon learned was our scene shop.

As we exited the car, an upstairs door opened and two soldiers stepped out onto the roof (deck) above the front door to wait for us.

Mr. A of course went in through the main entrance downstairs so he could show me the ‘marvelous’ lobby replete with a tableau of Victorian furniture, and the theatre, before meeting the “boys”.

As soon as we opened the double doors to the lobby Led Zeppelin poured out to meet us. I was elated; Mr. A was furious.

“God Dammit, Boys!!! Why can’t you play a little ‘harp’ music or something instead of this awful r r racket? The Lieutenant and I aren’t ready for all of this cacophony so early in the morning!”

Immediately Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” began to play. Not ‘harp’ music but more acceptable to Mr. A…as if it had been planned all along.

Sgt. Neely, come down here.! All of you come down here, I want you to meet our new Lt.”

Boots clomped on the stairs from the light booth, from backstage and down a long extension ladder that was leaning against a light pole. There they were four men about my age in various modes of semi-military dress smiling and stretching out their hands to shake. There were no salutes.

Sgt. Bart Neely was the man on the ladder. He had been drafted after college. (Bachelor of Fine Arts from Boston College) He was a scene designer, lighting designer, and (I would learn later) a wonderful painter. He wore Army fatigue pants with paint all over them, Army Boots also with paint and a Motley Crue T Shirt.

PFC Bruce Freyburg, college dropout, had been drafted while ‘finding himself’ The son of an Army Lt. Colonel from Seattle, Washington, he fancied himself a writer and free spirit and got lucky when his father got him placed in Special Services. He was unshaven, un-groomed, wearing fatigues , no shoes, shirt un-tucked, a cigarette and a cup of coffee in his hand.

Cpl. John Mzynsky, (Bachelor of Fine Arts, Music Composition, Webster College) was also a draftee.  John was neatly pressed, well groomed and soft spoken. The others called him Dondi because of his resemblance to the cartoon character.

Sgt. Tony Garcia had been drafted from his job. He was an engineer for Bell Helicopter before the Army got him and would be again after he left. He didn’t actually work for the Theatre but volunteered.  Since he was short (meaning he had less that 6 months left to serve) nobody paid much attention to where he was most days. Tony also was neatly dressed and well-groomed, but in civilian clothes.

There were others around often, but not today.

Only Freyburg was a little stand-offish. The rest were funny and welcoming. They showed me around while Mr. A watched and interjected from time to time.

The Ft. Dix Theatre Workshop was a converted movie theatre. It had about 150 seats, comfortable enough, and a proscenium stage which had little fly space overhead and not much depth or wing space – but it was a theatre and had been lovingly restored and well appointed. Backstage were 2 narrow dressing rooms, one up a flight of stairs. In the downstairs dressing room Mzynsky had set up a darkroom temporarily. Off stage left was a sliding door which led to the yard and the scene shop. There was also a stage managers podium right behind the proscenium.

In the lobby were two bathrooms and the previously mentioned Victorian tableaux.

At the top of the stairs was a kitchen area for making coffee and cleaning up. To the right was what would become my office (two desks, low ceiling and painted bright orange). Hanging from a beam barely above head level was a sign that read ‘It aint pretty but  it’s not Viet Nam’.

Back through the kitchen area, a  doorway led to a glass fronted lighting and sound booth and to the right of that, a design office and a theatre reference library.

Behind that was a storage room for musical instruments which were loaned to soldiers on a weekly basis. And above was ‘just the attic’, which I would soon learn was where the boys really lived most of the time. They all found the barracks unacceptable. Sgt. Neely was married to a Service Club girl, so he lived off base in an apartment.

This floor had a door which led to a deck/porch roof with stairs leading down to the lawn and the parking lot.  Parked in front was a green Army Van and Mr. A’s blue Dodge.

Next door was the scene shop, a garage-like building with sliding doors in front and back. It was filled to the ceiling with lumber, cloth, tools, pieces of scenery, buckets of paint, table saws, painting racks, lighting equipment, wires and about anything one would ever need to build scenery.

It was an amazing and unexpected sight. I was overwhelmed by my stroke of luck once more. This was going to be a wonderful place to work– surely I was having a dream.

Behind the shop was the post Veterinary office/pound. Next door to that was CID (US Army Criminal Investigation Command). Interesting.

Back inside, we talked for a while about the operation and what was coming next. Mr. Armstrong left for the office telling me to meet him there in the morning, I stayed behind and get acquainted.

I felt very over-dressed in my greens.

I told them about my background in theatre again and how I had come to get this job. I said, “My name is Doug; not Sir or Lieutenant…just Doug. Outside and in public, I suppose we will have to play Army some of the time, but not in here. In here we are just guys making theatre same as always.”

They told me about their backgrounds and how they had come to be here and talked wildly about the recently and now legendary lunatics that had recently been discharged and some that I had yet to meet.

My car had been left at the office so Freyburg offered to drive me there in our van. Sgt. Neely came along and asked if I could drop him off at his apartment in nearby Pemberton. I agreed.

He suggested we stop for a beer at the group’s local hangout. I readily agreed.

Several hours (and many beers) later, we pulled up outside his apt. He had told me there were empty apts in this complex and he thought I should rent one until my government housing came through, which could be months from now. He would show me his apartment so I could see the layout. Seemed like a great idea.

We parked a few spots down from his place and staggered around a bit looking at  the empty buildings of apartments nearby and finally made our way to his front door. After a few minutes of searching through pockets and a knapsack, Bart declared, “Well Fuck, I left my keys at the theatre!”

I offered to drive back and get them.

“No. Let’s just sit here and wait for Nancy, she should be home any minute.”

Seemed wise.

Fortunately, we had thought to buy a six pack on the way so we had beer and we sat down on the step to drink and wait. I was still in my dress uniform and both of us were quite drunk. We continued to talk about theatre, the Army, the guys, Armstrong, and whatever came up for about half an hour drinking beers and laughing loudly when a red Datsun 240Z convertible pulled up in front of us lights glaring.

We stood up with some difficulty, I in my uniform, Bart in his paint covered version of fatigues, beers in hand.

The woman behind the wheel got out quickly, obviously nervous.

“Jesus Christ, Bart, what the fuck have you done? Sorry sir, this is  my husband is there something wrong?”

“Don’t worry Nancy, it’s only Doug”

“Sorry?” “what the hell are you talking about? What the hell is he talking about , sir?”

“Hi. I’m Doug, Bart and I were having a few beers and he forgot his keys; so we waited for you.”

“’s’okay Nance he’s Elwood’s new assistant. Taking over for Bob. He’s going to be working with us at the theatre.”

“But you’re a fucking officer”

“Yes, sorry about that, but the pay is better.” Smiling. “I feel very lucky to have this job. I could be wrong, but, I’m guessing you are Bart’s wife”

“Oh, yes, sorry. Nancy Pennsacola, nice to meet you.” She extended her hand “Jesus, let’s go inside. Give me one of those beers Bart.”

And with that a great friendship had begun.

I heard him before I actually saw him.

From down the hallway came the very loud scream of Bette Davis shouting into a phone; “God —Dammit, that’s not what I asked you to do is it? why won’t you listen to me, Bruce….”

And then we were there.  Barry Levy and I were standing at the entrance to a small metal and glass cubicle. Seated behind the desk in front us was a pudgy little man with a shiny pink head surround by a rim of gray hair. He was stuffed into a blue shirt and tie, and wore black-rimmed glasses (military issue, it seemed); a wool blazer was over the back of his chair. He said goodbye to the person on the phone and quickly stood up; which made him seem even smaller. Swiping his hand quickly across the top of his head he smiled warmly, and spoke in a very soft voice with bit of a stammer.

“Why, hello Mr. Levy, and you must be the Lt.” his hand stretched out to shake mine (or rather, hold it gently)  “Wendy, this is the Lt we’re going to interview”

A lovely young woman stood up from a desk that was squeezed in to a corner and nodded in my  direction.

“I’m Elwood Armstrong, Entertainment Director . This is Wendy my secretary and you are…?”

“Mr. Armstrong this is Lt Smith, be nice to him. Lieutenant, good luck.”

And Levy was gone.

“ww…Well, sit down Lt. I imagine you must have a first name (the voice now very soft and gentle, his face beaming) “

“Yes, Sir. Doug – my name is Doug”

“Douglas, I expect. So Lieutenant, you studied theatre in college it says here…. Tell me about that.” He perched on the edge of his desk, feet, barely touching the floor.

For the next two hours I was grilled about theatre, what roles I played, what shows I had directed, designed and so on. I learned the history of Elwood Armstrong and Ft. Dix’s lovely Theatre Workshop. How his previous assistant/musical director had gone to Germany for a better position; what a ‘marvelous’ production of “She Loves Me” they had just done.Very successful!  Wendy had a role in it, she was ‘absolutely delightful! So cute and can sing like an angel’ (Wendy blushed a little, shook her head, and went back to her typing.)

His stories were punctuated from time to time by high-pitched laughter and ‘Ha’s’

And finally a quick and breathy “well.”  “I think you’ll do just fine, Lt”.

“You come back here tomorrow and we’ll get started learning how things work. We’ll go see the theatre and meet the boys. You must be very careful with my boys Lt. I am afraid they are not very military. They’re used to managing themselves, you see. Very talented but lazy and a dreadful bunch of rascals, aren’t they Wendy?”

Ha!”

Then softly, “See you in the morning, then.”

“We start at 8:30am…at least Wendy does and the …. others…. I will be in around 10 or so. As a man of the theatre I have never been an early riser.”

He took my hand gently again as if to shake it but never did.  “Wendy will show you out, Douglas. Welcome”

And she did–with a smile. ”He’s a little crazy, but not so bad, really. You’ll get used to him. I’ll be here at 8. See you then.”

I sat in my car for a while digesting it all… then drove directly to the Officer’s Club Bar.