Posts Tagged ‘Army’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I practically choked.

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

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

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

And they did, …every time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are ya drinkin? Scotch? Whiskey?”

“Gin….and tonic”

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

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

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

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

“General, we’re over here.”

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

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

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

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

The holidays came and went as they always do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very funny 55 minutes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Bill. Good to meet you.”

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

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

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

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

“Out of jail. Then the Army”

The truck became quiet.

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

“hope you don’t mind….”

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

Words failed me.

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

“Yes.”

“I agree.”

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

“ok.”

“It’ll be fine, Doug,, no one…”

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

“Oh, sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

“Okay.”

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

“On Broadway?”

“ Well, Yes.”

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

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

“OK”

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

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

“Of course not.”

“Oh, of course not, he says…”

And we were off.

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

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

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

“Where are you going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.