Scamming the man…

I didn’t put on fatigues for over four months while I was stationed at Ft. Bragg. I got paid to play basketball. It seemed surreal at the time.

We had a new first sergeant. He was an airborne ranger. He wanted to turn our company of misfits in First Psyops at the JFK Center for Military Intelligence into a lean, mean fighting machine.
He had us doing calisthenics in the parking lot and running several miles in formation five mornings a week.

I developed a very painful case of shin splints. Climbing steps to the 3rd floor of the barracks hurt like hell. Running was out of the question.

I went to the infirmary and got what the Army calls “a Profile.” It qualifies a soldier in six areas: physical condition, upper extremities, lower extremities, hearing, sight, psychiatric.
My lower extremities were not good. There was swelling and pain.
The six month Profile exempted me from the calisthenics and the running,

When “Profiles fall-out” was called at morning formation the group included me, my friend who told me to get the Profile, and several over-weight lifers. For the next hour, while everyone else worked up a sweat, we went on “police call” i.e., we picked up litter.

After a few weeks with no running on concrete, my shin splints were healed, but I decided that I would milk the Profile.
However there was a downside: I had to stop playing basketball on the court next to the barracks. If I was seen shooting hoops, my early morning strolls would be replaced with jumping jacks, squat thrusts, push-ups, and 4 mile runs.

I stayed off the basketball court as long as I could.
I finally decided it was safe to do some shooting by myself early on weekend mornings.
One Sunday a guy came out of the mess hall and came over to talk.
First words out of his mouth: “Nice shooting….are you trying out tomorrow for the team?”

I had no idea what he was talking about. What team??
I asked him some questions. He answered them all. Turns out that Jack was from Kansas City…and he was the assistant coach.
He was optimistic that I would make the cut.
I told him about my Profile.

“If you make the team, head to the Infirmary and ditch the Profile.”
“But then I’ll be back to push ups and road runs!”
“Nope. We skip morning formation and head to the gym.”

I made the team.
The doc did his thing and toasted the Profile. It was a miracle!! Shin splints gone just as basketball season was about to start!
I told my friend the company clerk that I was on the battalion team.
We came up with a plan, and the scam began.

Jack was married and lived off base. After practice he and I would go to his place to shower and eat lunch. Then he would go to work.
The plan and the scam: I had Jack drop me off at the USO after lunch for the next month. I would read newspapers and magazines, shoot pool and play ping pong all afternoon or head to the PX to see if there were was any new vinyl.

That scam only lasted about a month, but it worked like a charm.
And then my not having to “break starch” became legit.
The battalion season ended.
I tried out for…and made…the brigade team.
I didn’t have to hide at the USO anymore. My full-time Army job was now playing basketball.
I was the only guy on the brigade team who hadn’t been on a college team. Our best player, Vann Williford, had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He played at NC State and had been named MVP of the ACC Tournament the year before.

The brigade season ended and the next step up was the Ft. Bragg team. Vann talked me into trying out. I didn’t make the travel team, but being a practice dummy was my job for another month or so.

By the time the season ended the first sergeant had given up on whipping First Psyops into shape.
I went back to work as a process photographer in the print shop, locking the door to my darkroom and replying “I’m developing film” anytime there was a knock.
That scam worked well too.

He still calls me Willie

I had a walk-and-talk with an Army buddy one day last week. Tim is not the only person who ever called me Willie. He was one of several guys at Ft. Bragg that laid that one on me because of a basketball player named Willie Wise.

Shelly and I spent a night in Wooster, OH with Tim and Mary on our roadtrip in 2013. That was the first time I had seen them in over 41 years.

We hung out together a lot in the 14 months or so that Tim and I were stationed together at the JFK Center for Military Intelligence. We made a number of road trips from NC to OH in a little over a year. At least 7 trips. It was 8 or 9 hours each way. Tim&Mary had just started dating, and going with him to Wooster, OH was great fun for all of us. We didn’t get a lot of sleep.

Tim and I made a number of trips to Myrtle Beach too. Didn’t sleep much then either…

There are lots of stories from those days. These are my two favorites. For very different reasons. Only the first one has cost me any time sleeping….

On one of our first trips to Ohio, we went to a club in the town where Tim went to college. The James Gang had played there often 4 or 5 years earlier.
Earlier that day Tim and I walked around the campus of his alma mater. He had graduated less than a year before our visit. (Joe Walsh only lasted one semester on campus; a few years earlier.)
Tim took me to the campus radio station where he spent four years on staff. He has one helluva radio voice!!
We walked around the Commons, past Taylor Hall and then to Prentice Hall. I knelt on the spot where Mary Ann Vecchio was photographed over the body of Jeffrey Miller 12 months earlier.
No amount of booze that evening in 1971, or all the elapsed days since, can erase the memory of Tim standing 265 feet away from where I knelt on the Kent State University campus. That’s how far the bullet traveled that killed Jeffrey Miller.

It hurts to think about what happened on 5/4/70, but I’ll never forgot that walk and that spot. Years later, walking around Dealy Plaza in Dallas where JFK was shot, I had the very same reaction: “it’s such a small place!”

Until we visited Tim&Mary’s in 2013 I had blotted out the key element of my other favorite story with Tim. This happened at Ft. Bragg.

I remember it being in the wee hours.
I remember Tim sitting on the floor in the hall in the barracks as we talked.
I remember telling him that if he said something one more time that I would pour my beer over his head.
I remember Tim needing a towel after I doused him.
I remember him drying off and laughing it off.
But I didn’t remember what it was that I had told him to stop saying.

That early September evening in 2013, with Shelly and Tim sitting at the table and with me pacing around the dining room and kitchen, he said “will you stop that pacing? At least you don’t have a beer to pour over my head tonight.”
Eureka!! He had asked me to stop pacing repeatedly, and had been rewarded with a cold beer shampoo…

I am a notorious pacer. I can’t sit still for very long, especially if I’ve got a buzz on. And that night at the PSYOPs barracks, I’m sure I was wired, wound up and pacing.

I’m glad Tim has a good sense of humor.
I’m glad that he’s my friend all these years later.
And I’m especially glad that Shelly tolerates my pacing…especially when we’re at a venue listening to music and I “vanish.”

Leon Russell: Rest in Peace

Last night at The Rock House, a friend greeted me with some kind words and that smile of hers. Then this special person, who didn’t know I had been been in the Army until she saw my Facebook status on Veteran’s Day, asked me this: “what did you do in the army?”

As I’m wont to do, I rambled. Some day I’ll write down some of what I said….but I didn’t say this:

I learned how to piss off “the man.” It is one of the things I became very good at while I was in the service….and a skill that I continue to enhance.

One way I made the lifers cranky was with the music I played, the books and magazines that I prominently displayed on my book shelf….and one album cover that they hated. I bought “Shelter People” at the PX as soon as it was released in May of ’71….and the album was on display on my book shelf often.

I’ll always remember one conversation I had with one particularly repulsive E-7. Summary: he interrupted my reading as I lay on my bunk to tell me that he hated “having to look at that hippy” and that he wanted me to get it off my book shelf.

He wasn’t happy when I just smiled and said “i’m a stranger in a strange land here sarge…and a hard rain is gonna fall” leaned over and cranked the volume of the music up a notch and went back to reading my copy of Rolling Stone.

The album stayed put. He walked away grumbling: “what the fuck? god damned draftees!”

I laughed. And laughed. And laughed.

R.I.P. Leon Russell. Thanks for helping make my life at Ft. Bragg tolerable. And thanks for making the planet a better place for millions and millions.

What I learned in the Army…

I was drafted into the Army 2 days after I turned 22. I was discharged 1 year, 6 months and 6 days later. Thanks to Tricky Dick’s Vietnamization military draw down, “early outs” were the norm…and the lifers definitely wanted people like me gone.

The copy of Robert Sherrill’s “Military justice is to justice as military music is to music” that I prominently displayed at the head of my bed in the barracks might have had something to do with it. Or maybe it was the fact that Senator Stuart Syminton and Senator Ted Kennedy each contacted my commanding officer in response to letters I sent to DC. Maybe it was because I had the song that’s at the end of this piece “on repeat”…playing it morning, noon and night.  (And playing it LOUD!)

The Army is not too happy about squeaky wheels…and man-o-man, looking back at it, was I ever a squeaky Spec 4!

Apparently the 1/6/6 time commitment was magical as far as being entitled to full VA benefits. (Which are still hopelessly inadequate, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan…) I took full advantage of the GI Bill during my extended time in college after the service…i was on a campus in either Missouri or Oregon for 6 of the next 10 years after my discharge. (I LOVED college….)

While I wouldn’t do it all over again if it was my choice, I don’t regret my military experience in the least. In fact, I’d support required public service for every citizen….there are lots of ways that people could serve their country without being in the military. (Note: for most elected officials these days I don’t consider what they do “public service.” More accurate for far too many would be to call it “disservice”!!)
My time in service was beneficial in several ways:
I grew up. (although 40+ years later, i’m still not all that “mature”…);
I got in good physical shape;
I got very lucky and never went to Vietnam;
I sobered up and dried out. (I was drinking entirely too much before I was drafted…);

And I learned some things.

What did I learn in the Army?

1. Clean as you go.

2. Do it once and do it right and you won’t have to do it twice.

Those are the two most important things that I learned while wearing an OG-107 uniform. That’s it. 2 platitudes. 2 simple phrases.

But don’t get me wrong. Those are both BIG deals. Really. I probably don’t go 48 hours without thinking of one or both of them…and maybe even saying one of the phrases out loud….but usually just to myself.

Oh, I did learn some other stuff.

3. Wear sunscreen…lather up. Especially at the beach. (“Breaking starch” when you’re blistered from a weekend at Myrtle Beach is VERY unpleasant!)

4. Marijuana is not a gateway drug. If there were more potheads and less alcoholics, the planet would be a much nicer place.

5. This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for shooting, this is for fun. (I also learned the definition of a buddy…)

5a. Have lots of fun.

5b. Listen to lots of music.

(Some people might look at the 5’s as “sex, drugs and rock&roll. Just sayin’)

6. I learned a lot about myself. (The learning continues…)

All the lessons from my Army days have people and/or stories attached to them.

Maybe someday I’ll tell some of ’em.