During My Army Years

In early-December of 2017, my grandson J. asked for my help in a class project. His assignment was to record an adult’s recollection of an experience, and then to narrate it to the class. I began to sift through my life, looking for something suitable. To help, I wrote a column of numbers on the back of an envelop -- each number represented a year in my life. When I got up to 20, I knew that there were a lot of things here that would be interesting to a 12-year-old.

My Time in the Army: 1966-1970

I am not convinced that joining the Army is a good idea. However, when I was twenty, the Government told me I was about to be drafted, so I volunteered in hopes of a better deal.

So I served four years of “active duty”. You could say that I “gave up” some of the best years of my life, from age twenty to twenty-four. But it is impossible to know what would have happened to me if I had remained a civilian during that time, so there’s no way to compare.

Compared to what many other soldiers have to go through though, my situation in the Army was fortunate. First, I had six weeks of “Basic Training”, i.e., beginning combat training. But then I was sent to the Language School at Monterey California, to study Polish for an entire year. Finally, after some months of additional training, I was stationed in Bavaria, Germany, for the rest of the time.

My year in Monterey, California was interesting. I was young, foolish, and headstrong, but still able to keep up with the language studies. My Polish was about a B+, my pronunciation was exceptional, and studying the language was quite interesting to me, and we had the advantage of being taught by native speakers, foreign nationals, who started out as refugees, either form WW II or from the Communist regime, known as the “Iron Curtain”. Soldiers of Polish descent, who might have known Polish, were not used for their language skills, because there was fear that their families back in the home country could be exploited by the Communists.

The Monterey Language School was officially called the D.L.I.W.C. (Defense Language Institute of the West Coast). We studied about six solid hours per day, and then after any other chores, we had leisure time, usually at night or on weekends. I had my violin, and I used to play at the post chapel for services. Also, we had a Polish language choir, and we performed a couple of times at Christmas events.

Also, during off-hours, I would wander around the city of Monterey, often with a violin or mandolin in tow. Sometimes, I would go into a church building, where they let me practice on the piano, and I got pretty good at playing a couple of Bach preludes and fugues.

It was an interesting town, with a lot of history. The landscape and year-round balmy climate were quite different from what I was used to as a Detroiter. There was Cannery Row, an old canning district, which was depicted in John Steinbeck’s famous literary novella of the same name. I spent a lot of time walking around. Cannery Row at this time (the “sixties”) was no longer a canning district, and most of the warehouses and factories had been taken over as either artist lofts or boutique restaurants. I remember spending some time at a restaurant called “Kallissa’s”, which inside had a large mural of the owner, Kalissa in a flowing gown. She would let me go into a corner closet-like room and practice there. Once a beatnik accompanied me on a washtub Bass. There were many Asian immigrants in Monterey, there on the West Coast. I struck up a friendship with a Chinese girl, though her parents discouraged us from dating, probably wisely. Eventually, she gave me a kind of embarrassing present in the form of a cheap plastic toy violin. Soon afterward we parted ways, though not because of the silly present.

Ever since the start of the sixties, a major cultural change had been going on in popular music, with Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and all the other groups finding their voice. You could here it ringing from all the coffee houses and young people’s private stereos booming in the open windows. During time off I used to hike around the Monterey Peninsula with my mandolin, wishfully masquerading as a civilian itinerant musician, although my close-cropped military haircut was a dead giveaway. Some GI’s, I had heard, wore wigs on the weekends to be part of the hippie scene.

Eventually it was time to pack up and move on to my next phase of training. That was going to be in Fort Devens, near Boston. This next phase had to do with learning techniques of locating enemy radio stations. I didn’t take much interest in it, and probably did not excel.

Fort Devens was a little more drab and more strict than what I had gone through in Monterey. It was a large post and there were combat units among us. Some things I enjoyed. For example, one battalion there would march through the grounds every night with its own expert in-unit drummers. I am not a hawk, but the sight and sound of this spectacle was a thrill that I haven’t experienced before or since.

At Fort Devens, many of us were kept waiting for months while the Army decided when and where to ship us out. People from the Language School like me were called “Monterey Marys”, because our duty was not as “real” as infantry. During this time, I and others awaiting orders were assigned to permanent kitchen duty, getting up around 4 AM every day. Eventually, I was getting tired of this military life, and I thought, somewhat naively, that I could desert the Army and become a hippy, -- live in San Francisco, were all the “beautiful people” were going. .Meanwhile, at Fort Devens, there was talk of transferring some of us to infantry units.

In the battalion I was in, there was one platoon called the Menehunis. The soldiers in this platoon were all Hawaiian. It was designed this way, because they were on a special project to play the role of Viet Cong (enemy Vietnamese soldiers) in war exercises at Fort Devens. It was organized along racial lines. The usual routine was to send some soldiers (non-Menehuni) into the forest. There, the Menehuni would try to capture these soldiers, scare the hell out of them and give them electric shocks. It was supposed to prepare people for being shipped off to Vietnam. So if you were selected, you knew what the next step was. I heard in later years that these same Menehuni actually worked on a fictional film about Vietnam with the well-known macho actor, John Wayne.

It was now 1968. I was not selected for shipment to Vietnam, but still I kept thinking about leaving the Army scene. Eventually, I got to talking with a friend, who really hated the Army and was determined to quit. We decided to leave together and start hitchhiking west. My vague hope was to get to San Francisco, and just lose myself in the crowded Haight-Ashbury district. My friend wanted to go to Corpus Christi, Texas, his hometown. I brought my violin. He brought a prized album of the Doors. (That was impractical because in those days most people, including him, didn’t have portable machines that would play vinyl LPs.) We hitchhiked together as far as Atlanta, Georgia. Dressed in civilian clothes, as is usually the case with off-duty soldiers.

Outside of both being anti-authoritarian, the two of us didn’t have that much in common. He was a big, blustering hulk, - stereotypical of a belligerent Texan. I was an amateur violin-player who had delusions of creating a new kind of pop music. In Georgia, we booked a motel room. I got out my violin to practice. He warned me never to take that instrument out of its case again. Eventually, we decided to part ways. He, apparently, went on down to Corpus Christi.

I started to feel paranoid, thinking that people were looking for me. I realized I didn’t have a plan. Under ASA rules, if I were gone more than four days, I would be kicked out of my unit, lose my clearance, and be given a more dismal assignment.

I decided to return to the base. It was a warm sunny day. I bought a nice comfortable short-sleeved shirt in a downtown department store. I cashed my Army paycheck I had brought from Massachusetts. My heart thumped because I thought they would somehow trace me through the check, even though their data-systems were pretty rudimentary by today’s standards.

I bought a plane ticket back. It was evening when I turned myself in. The person on duty locked me up together with another offender already under arrest. This poor young man had tried to overdose on a bottle of aspirin, and they were punishing him by making him sweep the room, etc. I talked to this depressed person for awhile, I felt a solidarity with him, and it seemed that just by my companionship I was giving him some hope. The guard, however, warned me to stop talking to him.

For this experience, I was reduced one pay grade, and had to forfeit an additional amount of my pay. I stood at attention when he announced my punishment, and he also told me to stand still and stop rocking back and forth, which I did. I am not saying whether I regret this episode, but if I had it to do over again I might do it differently.

Life went on as before, and soon enough I was given a two-week leave in Detroit and then shipped off to Germany. I worked in a warehouse-like building, flipping the dial on a huge radio (this was before the era of miniaturization). After a few months of locating and taping live Polish Army radio communications, I got the gravy job upstairs of listening to the magnetic tape and typing out what I heard on six-ply paper. Others said they would get my job when I finally went crazy. It never happened.