Posts Tagged ‘Christmas time’

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.

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 the 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 West Va, 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.

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) Esteban 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 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.”

“What?”

“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 the roar of the ocean. 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 smaked 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 juke box and a a pot bellied stove in the middle of the room. A few locals were sitting around the stove, the bar man 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 car and drove silently back the way we had come.

Carlos dropped me off in front of BOQ at about 2 in the morning. Ii 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.