What I did in the War

Posted: 09/26/2012 in 1970, not Viet Nam, The US ARMY (c) 1970
Tags: , , , ,

The time went quickly. We became friends with one or two of the couples but most of my time was spent studying (memorizing) and playing handball (apparently trying to be athletic).  The tests were regurgitation. I was good at that.

Three of us came within 1 point of each other by the end of the course. I graduated third in the class.  It was good enough for me.

When we were asked to put in our requests for our next assignment (a joke at best)  I asked to be assigned to special services near New York City. 50% isn’t bad.

I was told as an officer I would never be allowed to work for special services (only non-coms and civilians) but I did get orders to report to Ft. Dix, NJ the week after Thanksgiving. I was to be assigned to a training battalion; the kind that go to war.

Uh oh.

Well never mind. We packed up our new Datsun station wagon (I traded in the VW for more money than my father in law had paid for it 3 years earlier) and drove back to West Virginia for the holidays.

Finally the time came and I drove off to New Jersey alone leaving my wife and son with her parents until I could arrange for housing at Ft Dix.

I arrived late at night and checked in to the BOQ…Bachelor Officers Quarters…an extremely minimalist motel, but enough. The next day would be my first as a real officer in the US Army. I would do a mountain of paperwork and then report to the Adjutant General’s office for a job assignment. As an AG Officer I could only be assigned a job by the AG himself , because I would have outranked all of the personnel personnel.

Out I went at 8AM looking very fresh, crisp and military. Around 11AM I walked in to the Adjutants Office and learned that he was on vacation but I would be meeting with the Commanding General himself.  Great, I thought, here comes the real Army.

General Cooksey was a thin greying, comfortable man with a big smile on his face and a very kind manner about him.

I was terrified.

He asked me to have a seat and began looking over my records, humming along to something in his head. Several minutes went by when a smile broke across his face and he said with a slight drawl, “Lieutenant, I see you have an undergraduate degree in Theatre.”

(This can’t be good) “Yes, Sir”

“Good grades, too”

“Yes, Sir”

“Top of the class at Ft. Ben, too.”

“Yes, Sir”

“Very Impressive.”

“Thank You, Sir”

“How would you feel about working for the Theatre at Ft Dix?”

“That would be wonderful, Sir, but I realize that isn’t very likely.”

“Nonsense, We have a wonderful little theatre here. My wife and I love attending. We need a man like to you to take the helm, over there. I’m gonna to make a call to the Special Services officer – nice fella, Col. Gordon, and get you an interview this afternoon. The Army needs to utilize experts in their fields doing what they are good at. Go have some lunch. Report to the Special Services office at this address at 200 hours. “

“Yes, Sir, Thank you, sir.”

“Thank You, son. I look forward to seeing what you can do.”

I saluted and left the office, not sure what sort of trick was being played on me.

But certain that something was fishy.

I drove to the Officers Club for lunch then down the street  a few blocks to a rectangular cinder block building painted white, with a gravel drive and very little in the way of signage; arriving just before 2.

A white and blue sign said ‘ Building 2214. Special Services’

I went in and was greeted by an elderly woman sitting behind a very neatly arranged but non-descript gray metal desk.

“You must be the new Lt.; Mr. Levy will be with you in a minute.”

(Mr.? I thought he said Colonel)

“Lt. I’m Barry Levy” A large man in a Wool blazer and gray pants was holding out his sizeable hand, an equally large cigar clomped between his teeth. “ Col Gordon is on a call, but we need to talk first anyway, c’mon in”

Barry Levy was a gregarious man. Larger than life__large-ish in ambition. A former Top SGT in the Air Force, he was very comfortable being Colonel Gordon’s  number 2. A lot of cigars, a lot of scotch at the O Club and  continuous rounds of ‘glad-handing’ were all in a day’s work, and he did it well. I liked him immediately, really.

He explained to me that my position had never been held by an officer before , both he and the Col. felt that I would be good for the theater boys, but I would need to mindful of their morale, as they were used to managing themselves.

My immediate boss, the Entertainment Director, he said, was a ‘curious little man, who made the Colonel nervous’, I would have to learn to manage him as well and perhaps step in when necessary. But these were things I would discover on my own shortly.

It appeared the General had filled them in and made it perfectly clear where he stood on the question of my doing this job. It wasn’t really an interview – more of a meet and greet and a briefing.

In the next second a distinguished gentleman with a gray crew cut and a very precisely  trimmed gray moustache appeared in the door way to his office. The Texas drawl rolled out of him in the softest possible way. He was Levy’s opposite completely, but clearly a man who got things done, his way.

“You Boys come on in here,” he drawled, “Lt. I’m gonna call you Smitty, d’y’all mind?”

“No Sir.”

I was told quietly that Mr. Elwood, my new boss, was an odd duck and more than a little eccentric. An obvious shiver went up the Colonel’s back as he spoke of his employee. (I was beginning to suspect that was a euphemism for gay). That he tended to speak very loudly and to have fitful eruptions when things didn’t go his way. It appeared the boys at the theater went out their way to torture him and I should be prepared for much of the same. I would share his secretary, Wendy, a very calm, efficient, hard working young woman; but I would probably be over at the theatre most of the time.

I was told General Cooksey expected me to raise the bar and the morale over there, keep those “boys” in line and maybe even manage Elwood. Bring a little Army to this Army Theater. (hmmm)

“Now, Smitty, y’all know that the final decision (wink) here belongs to Mr. Elwood, so you’ll need to have an interview with him now.  Good Luck. Barry will take you to his office and introduce you….Mr. Levy…”

and we were dismissed.

I would soon learn that  Colonel RJ Gordon (USAF, Retired) took every precaution never to be in the same room with Mr. Elwood Armstrong, Mr. Levy was more than up to the job.

The time had come to meet Elwood Armstrong, Entertainment Director of Fort Dix, New Jersey.

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