Meeting the Men

Posted: 10/12/2012 in 1970, not Viet Nam, The US ARMY (c) 1970
Tags: , ,

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.

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