Not ‘Nam (a war story)

It was the summer of 1971.

The de-escalation of troops in Viet Nam had finally reached numbers under 200,00. The Pentagon Papers were being published in the New York Times and talked about on the news every night. Only a few months earlier Walter Cronkite had declared the war un-win-able.

The heat during the day at Indian Town Gap Military Reservation in  Pennsylvania had been oppressive during the weeks that B company had been undergoing basic training. In only a few more days we would, each and every one of us, regardless of competence, be commissioned as Officers in the United States Army.  There was only one thought in our heads–.

Just over eight weeks ago we came here to be marched and dragged and abused and humiliated into shape. A shape worthy of being called officers in the US Army Infantry. Fodder for the Viet Cong and our fellow soldiers as we led the charge through jungles we couldn’t even imagine.  Tonight was the final test. The last night of a 3 day field exercise that had forced us to use our training in a mock-battle situation.  At dawn there would be an attack. An attack that would undoubtedly prove that we were no match for the battle-hardened infamous 82nd Airborne; our enemy for the weekend.

Tonight as the men of Alpha Squad lay spread across the underbrush, a cool breeze picked up. A welcome sign near the end of a difficult few days. No one had really died, though most of us would have several times, if the bullets had been real. Gun fire exploded in the distance and the sounds of shouting. Us? Them? Just Bullshit?

Gary Thomas, a cadet from a Connecticut Military college rolled towards me. From the depths of his boot he pulled a joint and lit it. He took a hit and passed it to me…
“Are you crazy? We’ll go to jail if they catch us”…I toked and passed it to the left.

“They don’t give a fuck about us. They’re having too much fun scaring the shit out of  some other company right now. You heard our orders, we are to attack at dawn from the North side of that hill just ahead where they will blow the shit out of us and  prove once and for all that we don’t deserve to be officers- besides we outrank the assholes, they know that.”

Gary was our squad leader. He was very convincing most of the time. He kept us running when we could have stopped; encouraged us to do ten more push-ups than we had to; made fun out of cleaning toilets; anything to piss the trainers off and show them we were not only up to it, but better than them. And mostly, that we thought they were assholes. We had shouted louder, run faster, carried more and out soldiered their every request. Now as we lay in the dark smoking pot on the hillside we knew that if we followed their latest orders, they would get the last laugh.

As the joint made its way back down the line an idea dawned on Gary. Why follow their  orders? It was obvious that they were leading us into an ambush. Why not rethink this thing ourselves like real officers.

Why not, indeed.

After all, they were grunts, we were college graduates only 2 days away from becoming officers. For some unimaginable reason, we all agreed.  Almost immediately we began shifting our position slowly to the opposite side of the hill. After a couple of hours we were in position just below the bunker from which we were all to be massacred (if we had been coming from the other direction).  We decide to sleep a bit.

At some point in the early morning we heard a raiding party attack the positions we had previously held on the opposite side of the mountain.


Just as the sun began to come up Gary nudged me awake and I nudged the next guy and so on, till we all sat quietly watching as he ordered us to surround the bunker and attack at his signal.

The 82nd were asleep and facing the other direction as we crested the hill and came forward shouting and firing like a bunch of bad children playing army in the park.

We were very proud of ourselves. We had surprised them and victory was ours in a game we were meant to lose.  Except, as the commanding officer was quick to point out, we had cheated. If we had been in “Nam” we would have died and cost others their lives as well. He had to admit it was a good attack, but the most important thing in any military situation was to follow orders and as officers we should value that above all else… We all wondered if Rusty Calley would agree.

We weren’t punished. We got to be officers anyway.  (then again maybe we were being punished).  At the closing comments when the exercise was officially over, the commander took one more opportunity to chastise us for not following orders even if those orders seemed to be illogical. In private he shared the joke with us and said it was a smooth move.

Two days later on a steaming July morning in a dusty and pompous ceremony, with families present, we all became Officers and Gentlemen. As my 2-year-old son pinned  the gold bar to my hat, I wondered how much longer I would be alive to know him.

The drive home from Pennsylvania and the next few days were underscored with thoughts of what seemed inevitable to me.  I was 22 years old, married with a son, a brand new Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree, and a dreaded commission as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army Infantry. The life expectancy of a 2nd Louie in Viet Nam was about 72 hours in-country and those were the good ones.

I had gambled this day would never happen. After the lottery had given me a very low number and my son was born, I happily signed the papers to stay in ROTC so I could finish college. Surely the war would be over by the time I graduated. Surely, I would pay my obligation as a weekend warrior somewhere until they tired of me or the time painlessly ran away…surely this war couldn’t last forever.

Over the next week or so; waiting for the orders to arrive sending me inevitably to the Infantry Officers Advanced Course at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and then to South East Asia I thought of anything but Viet Nam.  My Wife and son and I visited family and friends rather enjoying the limbo we had been granted. No responsibilities, yet. No point making any plans. Maybe the war would end tomorrow. Maybe not.

Then it came.

The Official letter from the Department of the Army;

Dear Lieutenant Smith:
We regret to inform you that we are unable to accommodate you in your present branch of the US Army. We find ourselves with a surplus of Infantry Officers and must request that you accept a transfer to another branch.

In the rest of the letter I was asked to choose a branch of the Army in which I would like to serve and even given the opportunity to suggest where I would like to be stationed.  Ever the cynic;  I decided I could say anything and they would do whatever they damned well pleased.  I suggested that I would like to work for Special Services and be stationed in New York, City and returned the letter that very day.

It seemed like only minutes until the Official Orders arrived. I was to report to Ft. Benjamin Harrison, Indiana to begin my training as an Adjutant General Corps officer in 2 weeks.  I would receive an apartment in the married officers quarters and go to school for 8 weeks before being reassigned to my first “permanent” position.   The Army was looking up!

I never allowed myself to consider, even for a minute, the fact that AG Officers held personnel and administrative positions with every Batallion, wherever they happened to be: Saigon, Phnom Phen, wherever.   I was about to learn a lot about the Army.

What I did in the War

On a steamy Monday in August of 1971 my wife, Jenny;  son, Christopher and I began our adventure in a battleship grey 1961 Volkswagon Beattle with a loaded Uhaul trailer attached to its already fragile rear bumper. We left West Virginia, heading across Ohio and Westward to Indianapolis, Indiana and Ft. Benjamin Harrison.

The little VW that had traveled the mountains of West Virginia for four years of college did its best but was not quite up to the task with all the extra weight. Somewhere just over the Indiana border we stopped to spend the night while we waited for our generator to be replaced. We were a 22-year-old couple with a delightful child and our whole lives ahead of us. This was not the future we had planned (as if we had actually taken the time to plan anything in the 60’s and early 70’s) but it was not in the direction of the War – it bought us at the very least a little more time,  and for the first time in four years we actually would have money. An officer’s salary was considerably better than we were used to. We felt very grown up and respectable, though we would never have confessed that to any of our friends.

As the VW made its way across Ohio and into Indiana, I made an important decision. So far the Army had been okay (admittedly it hadn’t been that long) to me. Maybe if I gave this officer thing my best shot, I could get something useful out of it. Something besides a purple heart and a permanent disability. I decided if I was any kind of an actor I was going to act like the best-damned officer the Army and Ft. Ben Harrison had ever seen; or as close as I could get to it anyway. Who knows maybe I would like it. I’d had a lot of shitty jobs already how bad could it be?

I reported for duty at Ft. Harrison on a Friday in September. The “entry” process was more like to entering college than going to war and after several hours of paperwork, I was assigned quarters and told to report to class Monday morning at 9:00AM.

That was it.

I found Jenny and Chris at a playground not far away and we headed off to see our new home. Due to a housing shortage on post all new students were being billeted in a nearby trailer court where the Army had converted a number of double sized trailers into duplex apartments. Each apartment had two bedrooms, a living/dining/kitchen area and a bath. The furniture was generic motel furniture but it was there, it was new and it was free. We were fairly happy with it.  Jenny and Chris would spend the most time there anyway since I would be in school all day and studying most nights. Jen was very adaptable, a good explorer and would feel right at home in no time. Our “trailer” mates Richie and his wife Linda had a young son Chris’ age so that was a plus – He was a tow-head and Chris had orange hair so they made quite a colourful pair. Jenny seemed to like Linda alright
So things were looking good.

We had the weekend to get settled so we unpacked, returned our U-Haul and drove around Indianapolis in our “now sputtering” bug and wondered how long before it would need yet another generator or worse.

Classes were interesting and relatively easy for me. All that was required was to memorize facts and form numbers and many, many acronym-ed procedures, and spit them back out again when called upon to do so. The Army’s method of teaching: Tell them what you’re going to tell them;  tell them,  and tell them what you told them. That made learning a breeze for me. I had spent most of my life memorizing speeches from play after play. I usually had it down by the time they reached the “tell them what you told them” part. So I felt it was going to be easy to get high marks here as long as I kept my military self highly polished and creased.

Many social events were built into the training especially for married couples. There were ten of us. All different with totally different agendas.

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. 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 goes 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.

Meeting the Man

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 Adjutant General, because I would have outranked all of the personnel in personnel. Out I went at 8AM looking very fresh, crisp and military. Around 11AM I walked into 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 Croksey 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 a 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 grey 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 grey 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 theatre boys, but I would need to be 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 briefing.

In the next second, a distinguished gentleman with a grey crew cut and a very precisely trimmed grey moustache appeared in the doorway 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 theatre 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 Croksey 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…”
a nod 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.

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 don’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 a 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 into 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?”
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.

Meeting the Men

My first day as the “Officer in Charge of the Theatre Workshop/Asst Entertainment Director” began on a cold, rainy 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 boys.
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 semi-uniformed men 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, a 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 Muszynski, (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 than 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, Muszynsky 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 ‘Not pretty but Not Nam’ Watch your head’.
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 the 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 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 Nancy 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 Pensacola, 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.

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 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 WVa, 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.

I See the sea

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) Estevan 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 having been 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.”
“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 roar of the ocean and 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 smacked 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 jukebox and a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room. A few locals were sitting around the stove, the barman 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 the car and drove silently back the way we had come.
Carlos dropped me off in front of BOQ at about 2 in the morning. I 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.

On Broadway!

In the 70’s the McArthur USO was located in Times Square, NYC. 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.
“Hey, Doug, wanna go to NY tonight and see that?”
“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!”
“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.”
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 uptown 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.

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 Delaware 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 mattress 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 the 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 certainly trusted 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.

And so it goes…

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 everyone.
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 6 months 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 to the post and ask for ID.?”
“Oh, they won’t, sir, not with you in the car. That’s why we brought you along.”
“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?”
“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.

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.

Oh, What a Night!

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 Croksey 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 Croksey 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, Croksey 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!!”
“Well 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 Croksey, 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 backstage 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.

Always go to the top!

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 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 General’s 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 repairman 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.
One 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 sceptical.
Mr A beamed! “Told you, by God! Go to the top. Always go to the top!”
The very next morning a Gimbel’s 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 its soft delightful arms.

Always go to the top. Indeed.

First Army Competiton

Every year at the beginning of Spring Ft. Dix held it’s Annual Entertainment contest. Competitions began in the Service Clubs at Company level. Winners were chosen in each of several categories and became eligible to compete in the post-wide contest near the end of spring. The winners of the Ft. Dix contest would then go on to compete in the First Army Contest and finally All Army Entertainment Contests.

It was a great way to keep excitement and interest up and the anxiety down for the soldiers stationed at Ft. Dix awaiting further orders.  For those who had real talent it could possibly mean a tour of pretty light duty for as long as they kept winning…possibly.

At the theatre and in the office we had little to do with these preliminary rounds.Our big job was to stage the Ft. Dix Finals at the big auditorium on post. That meant securing the stage, arranging for the Ft. Dix Band to play as the ‘pit band’ for the singing contestants, creating a semblance of scenery to liven up the festivities, schedule rehearsals and get the word out for all to come and root for their favorite fellow soldiers.

Occasionally the rehearsals could be a little painful and embarrassing.  One fellow won in the solo singing category at his service club for singing the Lord’s Prayer. At the first rehearsal the bang leader, Major Benneventi,  suggested that perhaps it would be best to choose a different song since the Lord’s Prayer was likely to bring on chuckles or possibly peals of laughter from the unsophisticated and potentially rowdy crowd. Mr A agreed.

So we asked the young man if there were any other songs he might like to sing.

He thought a while and grimaced and finally said, “I know ‘the wind comes whistling’, how about that?”

Major B look at us and his band members, “Anyone know that song?”

Nobody did.

“Pvt. Where does that song come from?”

“My Momma, sir.”

“she wrote it?”

“I don’t know, maybe, sir. She sings it all the time”

“Can you sing a bit of it for me now?”

“Yes, sir.” And he began.

“OOOOOklahoma, where the wind goes whistling through the trees and the…”

The place broke up! We couldn’t stop ourselves from tittering at first and then laughing out right. It was so real. So many people know some of the words to a song they have heard and liked but have no idea what the name of the song is or the circumstances of story are. This fellow in his naivete had revealed a universal truth but had no idea what he had done or why we were laughing at him.

Being the closest to him physically it came to me to explain that we weren’t laughing at him but at ourselves for not knowing which song he was referring to. The song was from a Broadway Musical of the same name and was called ‘Oklahoma!’

A smile came across his face and then he laughed too and said “I’ll tell my momma, she’ll laugh too”.

In the end,  he sang ‘Old Man River’ and quite beautifully too.

In Nancy Neely’s service club a young ventriloquist had won, hands down. He was very talented, very funny and very professional. Before being drafted he had performed all over the Philadelphia area. No question he would win this contest.

And, of course, he did.

I had performed as a ventriloquist in my hometown from the ages of 10 -17 or so, so we talked about ventriloquism acts and so on backstage before and after his rehearsal time.  He was a really nice guy and we were lucky to have him in our show.

So we had some winners that were pretty talented. Next step – First Army Entertainment contest at Ft. Eustace, Va. We would accompany the winners there and provide what support was needed during the contest. And then it was revealed to me Mr A had a ‘slight rivalry’ with the Entertainment Director at Ft. Eustace. She was his nemesis and he intended to win this year with our ventriloquist!  ‘Ah Ms. Muldoon, we’ve got you now!’

About 10 days before our trip South we received news that our ‘ringers’ unit were shipping out to Viet Nam. No strings could be pulled to keep him in the US. They wouldn’t/couldn’t loan him to us or transfer him to Special Services. We would have to replace him.

Suddenly all the heads in the room turned to me.

“What? I don’t know any other ventriloquists in the Army.”

“But you.”

“I’m an Officer. I cant compete.”

“Who told you that?”

“I just assumed.”

“Wrong. You can, Sir. And will.”

“Sir? Oh shit, I am in trouble! But I don’t have a puppet Mine was stolen years ago.”

“We’ll go to NYC tomorrow and buy one” Mr A  boisterously announced. “Bruce arrange for the truck to go off post, we’ll go into the city early…maybe 10. Tannen’s Magic Shop will be opened by then”

“But I have no act.”

“You’ll write one. Make it very god damned funny. I will win this time!”

And so I became an entry in the first Army Entertainment Contest of 1972. The Army (Mr. A) had bought me a new puppet – it was only a head with a shirt on and feet attached to the bottom of the shirt. One hand operated the head and mouth; the other hand went into the shirt sleeve and became the puppet’s hand.

I tried to think of funny bits…pulled out some of my old stuff.

“Say Hello to the Audience.

Hello to the Audience

Not like that… just say Hello

But you said…

I know what I said and you know what I meant

How can I know what you meant if you don’t know what I’m saying? We’re in trouble, sir.

Don’t call me sir”

And so on.  It was a way to start but certainly not a winning routine. What had I seen other Vents do?

There’s the old bit about drinking water while the puppet sings…but it just that -an old bit. Besides my hands are both in use so I couldn’t lift a glass of water.  But that was the unexpected…I would reverse it. I would sing while the puppet drank water. In the meantime, it would pour down his face and onto the floor with him gargling and screaming.

You laugh, but that’s funny!

I was going to need an assistant. So we ‘hired’ an impossibly well-endowed WAC  with a very provocative way of walking to bring me a glass of water and wait to take it back.  The ultimate distraction for soldiers.

This was going to work.


A few days later we all got into the van and drove to Newport News, Va., home of Fort Eustace.

We arrived at Ft. Eustace and signed in, registered. There were four of us and Mr A who had driven down by himself. He would be staying with his old ‘friend” Ms.  Muldoon.

Cpl. Muszynski, PFC Freyburg, Sgt. Garcia and I were to be assigned quarters. The boys were assigned a barracks set aside for this event, but they didn’t know what to do with me. They had never encountered an officer in this position before. They would check with the BOQ and see if a room was available there. I said I was perfectly happy to stay in the barracks for a couple nights…no big deal.

Oh, no sir; You cant do that…not possible.

But I don’t mind.

No, Sir it’s not protocol. We will find a spot for you.

So we left it at that. I went with the ‘men’ to get them settled in. We then went to eat lunch. There we found that I couldn’t eat in the mess with the others, either. I had to go to the Officer’s Club and have lunch alone.