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.

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-winnable. 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 or 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 loose.  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 get 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 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 and 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.

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 cool September Friday. The “entry” process was more like to going to 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 colorful pair. Jenny seemed to like Linda allright

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; 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.

1960: the decade began with so much hope

Posted: 09/02/2012 in 1960
Tags: , ,

During the last part of his presidential campaign in 1960 John F. Kennedy made a sweep through West Virginia speaking everywhere he could. He came to my home town and on the Sunday morning of his visit attended mass at the church where my mother, sisters and I went every week.

It was our custom to sit in a pew midway down the center of the church- my three sisters and mother would fill one pew and I would sit in the pew directly in front of them. On this particular Sunday, right after we were settled,  there was a lot of commotion at the back of the church.  Shortly a very pregnant woman, a little girl, and several tall gentlemen appeared at my pew and proceed to enter. I scooted across to my right to let them in. During mass I was seated next to the pregnant woman, her daughter clung to the man on her left and the others sat sternly at the end of the pew. I had no idea at the time that I was sitting with the young Kennedy family (not being a very worldly or political type). After mass as we exited the church and I saw the family was surrounded by people shaking hands and  taking pictures.  I asked my mother what all the fuss was about.  She told me that was Senator Kennedy and his family. He was running for president-the first Catholic to do so- We hoped he would win. I couldn’t help myself; I felt very proud. I had shared my seat with the next president of the United States!

That day began my great love affair with the Kennedy’s. They were one of us. (small town Catholics were a minority at that time in WVa and we often felt as though we were somehow very odd or very special.) When JFK did become president and John Jr. was born, I somehow felt I knew them. We went to church together. He was MY President. She was MY First Lady.

Over the next few years, it pained and confused me a lot to hear JFK so severely criticized by other students in History and Civics classes and school debates. It didnt matter to me what he did or did not do, I knew him. Why were they so mean? He was our president!  (this, I believe was the beginning of my lack of tolerance for Republicans:-))

The Journey Begins

Posted: 09/01/2012 in 1960, 1970, blather, College

The 60’s (and 70’s) were an extraordinary period of  time in our history. For me, too shy to fully participate, just riding the edges took a lot of nerve at first. In retrospect, what surrounded us all from day to day was turmoil and uncertainty. What grounded us was the idea of “Peace, Love and Rock and Roll” and the belief that “all we needed was love”– really (and a little help from our ‘friends’).

I recently reached the age of 60 and having lived through those incredible decades (and then some), l find myself remembering what it was all about,how it felt. I have started to appreciate the magnitude of the losses and the gains that came from those years.

I have decided to assemble my memories into this blog and see what I find out. These are my memories…feel free to share yours.

I was born in a small-ish town in WVa. In 1960 I was 11 years old. My “impressionable years” were spent in the 60′s and 70′s.  I have lived in many places, visited 46 states, travelled around the world 3 times, raised two sons, failed at 2 marriages, worked many, many jobs and even had a couple of careers along the way.

What a ride it’s been!