Posts Tagged ‘home’

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.