Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Army

December 1965-January, 1966 + Bellflower, CA

California was a lot Ike New York: loud and drunken scenes in noisy and crowded bars, vicious, pounding hangovers, and that persistent, vacuous, empty feeling. There were long, lonely days, mind-numbing, low-paying jobs, and the incessant, non-stop message that had become the unspoken mantra of my life: 'lost, going nowhere, alone, failure.'

Sid, too. We never talked about it, but it was our anthem. He was spinning way out of control, fighting nightly in bars with anyone, everyone. Any chance remark from any chance stranger, no matter how innocent, brought swift, unmerciful rage and flying fists. Even cops couldn't control him. We got a whole lot of bad press: bouncers bounced, bars barred, ops clubbed, jobs jettisoned, friends flew. Something had to change, a new chord had to be struck, one or both of us was headed for some long hard time or the morgue.

What should fall out of the sky and into this miserable rat's nest but my draft notice. I'm sure you saw that coming. I've got to say, here and now, I'm no believer in general in the military solution to life gone wrong. Training young people to be killers is worrisome, at best. That Notwithstanding, this draft notice did for me what the helicopter ladder does for the guy in the raging river. It cleanly plucked me right out of Bedlam and landed me in this man's Army, Fort Dix, New Jersey, Private Raymond L. Gill, Serial Number US515190471, "Sir, Yes, Sir; Sir, No, Sir".

April, 1966- April 1968 + NJ, CA, TX

May, 1966, NJ--Drill Sergent, 5am, screaming in my face, extreme close-up, spit and nasty cigar breath, informing me of the state of affairs concerning successful completion of Basic Training: "Gill, a word to the wise is pro-fishnet; youse is not going to grajerate, cause youse is ignorant."

June, 1966, NY--Well, Sarge, grajerate I did. Being in the Army in those days was all about your MOS-Military Occupation Specialty. If you got a bad one, say infantry gunner, you were fucked. If that happened after basic, you got sixty days of Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) crawling through mud, broken glass and barb-wire, under fire at Fort Polk, Louisiana (Little Viet Nam)), thirty days leave, then your sorry ass was off to Nam. Hell on Earth. You were told your MOS and where you were headed after Boot camp by the 5th or 6th week of the then-eight week Basic Training. If no orders came by the 7th week, you were headed to AIT and the Nam. That was the Army's fallback.

5th week nothing, 6th week nothing. I'm really sweating now. 7th week, I got called in formation: "Gill". "Sir, here, Sir." "Step forward. Gill, provisional orders are in . You are to report to Fort Polk, Louisiana for Advanced Infantry Training. Step back in formation. I was fucked; I figured by death sentence had just been read. I called home; my Mom was speechless. Her worry was palpable over the miles between us. I didn't talk to my Dad; he was a staunch 'my country right or wrong' WWII vet, so there would be little sympathy in that corner anyway. At any rate, my Dad figured the Army would make a man out of me, cure me of my penchant for piss-drinking in public, if that's what it took...

Viet Nam. Infantry. Ground pounder. Gunner. Foot soldier. The Nam. Over and over, waking, sleeping, eating. No matter where i went or what i did, one thought had me in its grip like iron: "I'm going to die a horrible death in Viet Nam, and soon." More fortunate comrades were sympathetic, in that self-centered, well-meaning young person way: "That really sucks man. I'm glad I'm headed to Virginia."

8th week. I was preparing to graduate basic Training and leave Fort Dix, more or less reconciled to the inevitable. Late morning formation on a warm, sunny day, eager GIs lined up to hear the latest. Our Company Commander marched crisply up to the front of the formation, every hair in place, spit shined to perfection, a military model of dress and decorum. "Attenhut."

We do so, standing spine-straight, hands cupped, eyes forward. We are all soldiers now, at least for the time being. I was proud of what i had done: lost 25 unnecessary pounds, made friends, taken the shit, and absorbed the abuse. I had risen to Platoon Guide. I was responsible for platoon discipline, barracks inspection, and timely fallouts. I had successfully completed Boot Camp. I had a goal and direction.

"Gill." "Sir, here, Sir." "Step forward. Gill, your orders have been changed. After thirty days leave, you are to report to Letterman General Hospital in California to begin Medical Laboratory Technician training. Step back." I was stunned, floored, my mind raced: the whirligig of time had brought, not his revenges, but his deliverance. My eleventh-hour, Death-Row pardon had arrived. But how?

Here's what i think happened: some totally unknown, anonymous angelic soldier in some Army office somewhere married up Private Raymond Gill, US Army with the Frog. He had been a Biology Major student (such as he was) and had successfully, albeit barely, made it to his senior year. Do you fully appreciate the irony?

Frog, universal misfit and barely-redeemable lost soul that he was, had been my salvation. For, you see, Medical Lab techs below grade E-5 (which I would never be), were not ordered to Viet Nam. Thanks to Frog and his capacity to pass Biology, Chemistry, and other Cortland science courses, I was saved from an immanent, gruesome death in the jungles of Southeast Asia. How sweet is that!!??

It gets even better. The Army picked six--SIX!-guys by region from across the United States for a first-time experimental lab tech course at the Presidio, San Fransisco, Army Luxury Resort/hospital. There was one guy each from Illinois, Georgia, North Dakota, Texas Southern California, and of course, yours truly. What a break. Out of the thousands or tens of thousands of qualified guys country-wide, I was one of six to get this dream assignment. I would not go to Nam, was assigned a dream MOS, and was headed to sunny California, summer of '66, the Summer of Love. All because Frog was looking out for me. Overcome with love for the dear boy, I wrote him a limerick:
"Private Gill's situation was dire,
They were lighting his funeral pyre,
Before very long,
He must fight Viet Cong,
But then Frog pulled his ass from the fire..."

Summer, 1966- April, 1968 + Presidio, CA & Fort Hood, TX

Shangri L, US Army style. No discipline, no reveille, no inspections, no lights out, no KP, no exercises, no yelling, and not even an olive drab uniform. Pampered favorite sons that we were, we awoke on our own without screaming Sergeants reminding us how and stupid and maggot-like we were. We leisurely made it to breakfast in crisply-tailored, immaculate whites. We sauntered to the hospital past beautiful manicured lawns, lush, fragrant, tropical flowers, and majestic palm trees. We then reported to class among lab tech trainers, doctors, hospital administrators, and nurses. We were professionals, or so it seemed.

It was a combination college/MASH unit/General Hospital. We had weekends off. There were free trips to Kezar Stadium to watch John Brody and the NFL 49ers. We could eat and drink at the sumptuous, high-rent Officer's Club. Woman were everywhere. I was in San Fransisco in the summer of '66--the Summer of Love! (I just had to say that again) Golden Gate Park, Flower Children, and Philosophy.

Philosophy, you say? Does that seem a little out of joint? Perhaps a digression is in order.

Digression: There were several threads that ran through and informed this life I am presenting. One was an insatiable desire to know; this had two parts. Part the first: From earliest childhood I was a reader, thanks to my Mom and Dad. I was blessed with tremendous curiosity, a great thirst to have knowledge, and an endless hunger to know the world around me. From early childhood I read and pondered with a sense of awe and wonder that infected much of what I did.

As I grew up, I felt a void. It was as if there was something I didn't know or have that I very much needed to know or have. I was missing something. My recurring dream sounds the note: I would be at a great height, very precarious, and terrified because I could not get to safety without a way down. What i needed most was what i did not have. So, growing up; and so with the insatiable desire to fill that void, get to safety, be at peace. Find an Answer. The Answer. My Answer. Perhaps that is what Frog, too, sought as he flailed and floundered about. Maybe this was what unconsciously impelled him from one sociopathic episode to another. I had been and was following in the darkest night the sounds that impelled me. There had been many dark nights. There were many more to come...

Ergo, philosophy. The Existentialists, especially Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre. I even read and pondered a book on the definition of is. (Mr. Clinton, are you there?) Plus Freud, Jung, and Adler, Plato, Kant, Aquinas, and Hume. Lots of religious stuff, even the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation.

I encountered a seemingly endless torrent of words as I so seriously searched the Worthies for a route of escape from the bind i has created. What i found, in part, were contradictions, heresies, paradox, and confusion. Not much help.

Oh, yeah, and hippies. I was drawn to the hair, the dress, free love, music, the charm, friendliness, and spirit. Creating a better world. I was fascinated, and a GI in Uncle Sam's Army. The incongruity was apparent.

Shangri La and all came to an end. Uncle Sam saw to that, in a brutal fashion. Following Lab tech graduation, I was rudely and unceremoniously shipped off to the Texas Sahara: Fort Hood and 1 1/2 years of heat, dust, pointlessness, and misery. A lackluster solider at best, my promotion demotion record went: E-1, E-2, E-3, E-2, E-3, E-4, E-3, E-2. I had too much time on my hands; there were too many hard-dick GIs like me. Too much booze and too many regulations, inspections, and expectations. Just too many opportunities to rebel and fuck up.

On April eighteenth, 1968 I mustered out, as they say. I was a free man. I couldn't be redrafted. I was twenty-three. I was bulletproof.


June, 1967+ Juarez, Mexico

True to form, several Army buddies and i made the obligatory trip from Fort Hood south and slightly west to this GI's Cuidad del Corupcion (City of Corruption) for 1. tequila, 2. women, and 3. mayhem.

Real Mexican tequila was one standard of pure evil. Agua del Diablo. We were eager to test ourselves against this Satan in a bottle. Like demon rum that can set your hair on fire. This was South of the Border Style. Mexico had a mystic of lawless romance about it, like Babylon has for Christians. We talked about progressing from margaritas to shots with lime and salt to straight from the bottle to blindness and beyond. The challenge and the beyond were our siren songs beckoning us to try the limits of our manhood and sanity.

This, of course, after the women, lest we get overcome with alcoholic impotency lassitude syndrome (AILS). So, as non-Spanish Army soldiers will, we headed into the seediest joint we could find. We strangled the beautiful Spanish language and mumbled our requests for, and price of each his preference for that especially naughty Mexicana Jezebel. because i was young and bulletproof, I failed to consider the risk of hungry violent machos with knives and/or guns and scores to settle for our taking of Texas. We were sitting ducks in a land where, "the cops don't need you and man they expect the same."

The haggling done, i made my way upstairs with my hoped-for amorous (a guy can always dream) maria. Our two minute liaison accomplished (Maria and I were in a hurry, for different reasons, obviously) and our relaxed, triumphant troop was satisfied. We warily muttered out thanks (!) and goodbyes and made our way to a slightly more upscale tequila Tavern. We sauntered up to the bar like so many Clint Eastwoods and stood there, fending off more Mujered de Trabahando (working girls). After informing our pretties we had already donated to their union and were finished with that particular experience; they settled for sexual harassment and drinks.

Things were getting sloppier by the moment, until we were warned in language everyone understood that we were bordering on appropriating natural resources without adequate compensation. None of us were familiar with the peso-dollar exchange rate, so we took this large, dark, threatening hombre's word for it. I whispered 'adios' to my lovely, if a little overweight and hairy maria Consuala and settled in for some seriously antisocial alcoholic behavior.

About all I can recall were some surreptitious grinding, groping, and grabbing that drew real nasty looks from bad-ass Mexicans who may have been husbands or fathers or brothers or who-knows-what. The soberest of us told me later I was defiant, mouthy, and on the verge of the beating of a lifetime so they had whisked me the hell out of there. I had reached blindness by then anyway.

If i ever made it to the Great beyond it must have been in my sleep, such as it was. What with puking, dry heaving, and intense thirst, complete with a restless miserable dream of lying at the bottom of a fresh, cool lake with my mouth open and water running non-stop through me, it was hardly sleep. My night was more like slowly dying of thirst with my insides turned outside while shoveling white hot coals into a blast furnace. So much for the Beyond.

I woke up on the floor of a motel/shelter where the delirium tremens cases are sent to die. The threadbare carpet was rife with the smell of all the bodily secretions of those condemned to pass away in solitude in a penal colony on Forbidden Island. All that was nothing compared with the hangover. It was so bad, as the saying goes, I was afraid i wouldn't die. Short of an exhaustive amount of symptoms, that would bore even a medical student, suffice it to say my eyeballs ached, as if some fiend were driving glowing hot needles into them, slowly. The roots of my hair were on fire. Demon Rum has got nothing on cheap tequila straight from the bottle.

We gathered ourselves as best we could, comparing hang-overs and vowing never to mention peyote-based drinks. Food was out of the question. We pissed, pooped, gagged, upchucked, and stumbled around like pinballs trying not to touch anything, especially each other. When we did, it might as well have been confirmed codeine addicts irritated to the point of daggers drawn, consequences or not. [Note: Stay away from codeine freaks on a bad day. It can be fatal.]

We finally made it back to Soilderville, much the worse for wear. I was hungover and useless for two more days. Standing at attention while good old Alabama boy Sergeant Rittenberry inspected my footlocker and repeated over and over, "W'as the matter wit you Gill, you tarred?" I wrote my Sweet maria a limerick:

"I had to say 'bye' to Maria,
Soon, Love I'm hopin' to see ya',
But it soon came to pass:
Bacillin in my ass,
Dear gal gave me her gonorrhea"


February, 1968 + Fort Hood, TX

There are times when the letter of the law should be set aside to do what idealistic court watchers term 'essential justice'. That is after all, what police and courts are about, right? Maybe not:

It was February, 1968. At hat time i was 'short' or a 'short timer', a soldier getting out of the Army soon. I was due to get out in April of that year; I had sixty days to go. I could get away with anything other than Grand Theft Auto. I was as if I were invisible; the Army had little to no use for me. Short timers never did much. All I had to do was stay out of sight. One of the great things about being short was that i could escape Viet Nam, once and for all.

Many of the guys i served with were gone, mostly home, some to Nam, some to other duties elsewhere. There was a cadre of friends who were very young (18 or 19) and had a long way to go before discharge. These were reluctant soldiers, to say the least. They envied me and my shortness something awful. I was twenty-three and had almost two years in, so they came to me to talk or just hang-out. I grew very fond of these young men. My cynicism and sarcasticness fell by the roadside when we were together.

Each of them and i were well aware duty in Viet Nam loomed as a very real prospect. Since these guys were in a medical unit, they knew that if they went, they would be medics, a job with a high rate of casualties. Most of them feared duty there; horror stories of returnees abounded. Most of those who made it through just didn't want to talk about it. Sight they saw and things that they and others had done were still too painful.

You take a fun-loving eighteen year old kid off a Kansas farm, put an M-16 in his hands, tell him he's a killer, and send him a few thousand miles to a place he's never heard of called Viet Nam. You force him to kill people there, no questions asked, and see what you get. My young compatriots knew all that through and through. They had lived for three or six or nine months with Nam hanging over them, day after day. They contemplated dismemberment and death in that far off place. Orders could come any day, at any time.

Our friendships grew over the weeks and months. I liked my role as adviser, confidant, and friend. I too worried about what combat would do to them. Would Ken, who was ever the gentle one, break and fall apart, as death and the dying crowded in around him? What about Joe the Jester; would he stark reality of killing take the humor out of him? How about Bob the Ball Buster? Could his optimistic take on life survive?

Finally, after months of suspense orders came down. Four were call ed to Viet Nam. They were ken, Joe, Stuart ( dreamy California man), and Art, the tough guy. I hated the thought that each would be tested in his own way, in his own time.

Each of the guys needed to talk, to each other, to family, to friends, to me. I had a car big enough for six. We'd decided we would get together for a couple of beers and some straight talk a few days before they left. We drove to a remote spot at an abandoned airfield, a lonely place where grass and weeds poked up through the cracked runways and where rusty airplane parts lay strewn about. We were a long way from anywhere.

A big Texas half-moon cast an eerie haze over us. We wanted simply to park and talk. The drinking age at that time in Texas was twenty-one. I never thought about that. I figured if you were old enough for the Army and Viet Nam, you're old enough for a few peaceable cold ones at a remote location. I parked; we talked.

Our being together was very important to each of us. The talk was straight forward and honest. These young men were headed to combat. We did all we could to help lift the heavy burden each other carried. There were laughs as we chuckled over days gone by and tears as we contemplated the future. There was worry over life and limb, family, and girlfriends.

Just then, something hit hard against the back of the car and made a sharp metal on metal sound. This abruptly ended our conversation and rudely brought us right here, right now. I let down my window. A local cop asked me what we were doing:

--"Who are you? Show some ID. What are you doing here?"
-"We're soldiers from Fort Hood. These men are under orders to go to Viet Nam
and we're having a couple of beers and talking. We aren't bothering
anybody, are we?"
--"We'll see about that."
(Now that doesn't sound very good--thought I)
--"It says here you're twenty-three."
-"Yes, I'm twenty-three."
--"How old are you?" (he asks my buddies)
---"I'm eighteen, I'm nineteen."
-"Is there a problem? Sir."
--"Maybe, who bought that beer?"
-"I did."
--"We call that making liquor available to a minor."
-"But Sir, these men are soldiers on their way to Viet Nam."
--"Don't matter. Get out of the car."

With that, we all had to stand on that abandoned airfield until we were dragged before a local judge of some kind in some dark out-of-the-way corner. I imagined this Cop and this Judge made a decent living, ten dollars at time. Our talk of "Soldiers and Viet Nam" didn't mean much to him, either.

---(Judge)-"Mr. Gill, I find you guilty of 'Making Liquor Available to Minors'.
Fine, is ten dollars." (this was 1968) "You got the money on you?"
--"Yes, Your Honor."
---"Bring it here to me."

I wonder whether the judge ever made a record of my High Crimes and Misdemeanors. Is there a folder still in existence in some dusty, rusted old file cabinet naming me a traitor to the cause of liberty in this out beloved land?

I was ever the insubordinate wise-ass. Captain Morency: "Gill, if I get a chance, I'm shipping your ass to Viet Nam." Me: "Captain Mortency, I don't care what you do. April 18 is coming, and here's nothing you can do about that." Sure enough, it came and I rolled out of Texas an honorably discharged 23-year old free man. I was still bulletproof and now footloose.

In the meantime i had discovered the dreaded lysergic and the politics of dissent. I had revived my hippie dreams and refocused my quest for authenticity, for genuine, natural being in the world. Inner peace. I had grown up some. There were depths i had not yet encountered...


May, 1968 + Cortland, NY

I was out. Army days were not easily sloughed off, however. Bad dreams in which i had been re-drafted through a mix-up in paperwork haunted me, and did so for years. Immediately upon release I motored to Iowa; a friend in arms held up his wedding ceremony so I could be there. That done, I moved to Kentuky for a short stay...

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