My father remembers the depression, World War II, and other cataclysmic world events. The major events of his youth were ones that affected everyone. Today we live through wars and disasters vicariously via television, but back then these events were so momentous you could not isolate yourself from them; they were not as distant and irrelevant as the events of today sometimes seem; they could not simply be ignored. The war, WWII, especially had a tremendous impact on my father; I believe it shaped and defined his character as much as anything ever could. To understand him, you must understand the impact it had upon him.
“I remember the war really well. I was a teenager during those years, so I understood the significance of it. I used to keep up with it, followed it in the newspapers. It was very scary. People didn’t know what was going to happen. . . It was touch and go for a long while. I was really worried about what would happen if we lost the war. And that seemed like a real possibility at times . . .
“The war really exacted an incredible toll. Growing up when you did, I think you cannot imagine what it was like . . . For years, all able-bodied men were gone. I mean there were none left. My dad and my older brother were over there. Three of your mother’s brothers were over there. When the war first started, they drafted everyone between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five, and then later it was everyone between eighteen and forty-five. They went from something like a hundred thousand under arms before Pearl Harbor to something like sixteen million by the end of the war. Nobody except kids like me and old men were left back home . . . I remember when I was sixteen. I worked on the highway construction crew–and they were glad to get us since everyone else was off fighting the war. We made sixty-five cents an hour, as much as the older men. I remember the exact amount. That was big money in those days . . . When I was seventeen, I got a job delivering mail. Did you know that? I was a mail carrier . . .
“There were so many sacrifices made . . . It’s a story that I think hasn’t ever really been told . . . how drastic it was . . . what a huge impact it had on the country . . . on the economy . . . We rationed all sorts of things: gas, sugar, coffee, meat, canned goods . . . shoes and tires had to last as long as possible, because they were made of rubber . . . cigarettes were rationed . . . women’s nylons were rationed because the material was needed for parachutes . . . Did you realize there were no cars made from 1942 until about 1948? The car companies were all making tanks. Everything was geared towards the war . . .
“I remember on our high school football team in 1944, we had two sets of captains because our first set of captains were going to turn eighteen before the end of the season. As soon as they turned eighteen, they were drafted.”
“Didn’t even have a chance to graduate?”
“No. You were drafted on your eighteenth birthday. They needed bodies; there were no exceptions like we had in Viet Nam . . . Even all the ball players were gone. They still had games, but all the stars were gone . . . Ted Williams even left during the Korean War. Did you know that?” But of course, he’d told me many times already.
I think the reason he has reminded me so many times is that it was very telling for him. Even the ball players went to war; it wasn’t just the professional soldiers and sailors, it was everyone. If you were at all capable, the military drafted you. For me, this one thing, puts the sacrifices of that time into perspective, especially when contrasted with today. Having lived through these historic times, my father has a great appreciation of the sacrifices made by so many. And having lived through a war of his own, his appreciation for their sacrifices rose even more.
These days, he believes our country has forgotten the lessons painfully learned during that time. He knows how quickly events can encroach on a seemingly peaceful existence. As a career army man, he spent his life preparing for such eventualities. He knows too what is really important and what is not, for this is what one learns in times of crisis and uncertainty. When crises pass, people forget the distinction, but not my father. He will never forget the lessons learned.
I think he was surprised too at how quickly the country forgot. In the twenty years between the end of the war (“the war” for my father will always be World War II) and the start of the Viet Nam war, everything changed. In 1945, when the war ended, all soldiers were on pedestals; there was nothing greater than a military career that a young teenager like my father could aspire to. Everyone knew what the military had done; everyone knew how much of a debt was owed.
The contrast between the America in 1945, the America that had just won the war, and the America of twenty years later is so stark. How was it that the country’s view of everything was so quickly turned on its head? The younger, Viet Nam generation had no concept of what their parents’ generation had endured. They had grown up not knowing first-hand of the sacrifices imposed during the world war. This new war didn’t require as many sacrifices, at least not from those not back home. But had the older generation forgotten as well? How was it that the military so quickly lost the esteemed position it held for them after the war? How was it that attitudes went so quickly from one extreme to another? Didn’t we remember the high cost of not being prepared?
As a student of history, my dad would want us all to remember and learn from the lessons of the past, would want us to understand our past cannot be escaped, and that it continues to influence our actions today. “Those who do not know their history, are doomed to repeat,” he has told me countless times. It’s a lesson, we’ve all heard but one he believes we all need to be continually reminded of. It is troubling to him that lessons of World War II, lessons that came with such a high cost, were lost so quickly.
My father never lost his sense of indebtedness to those who fought in World War II, and he never doubted that his own service was for the good of his country as well. Despite all that happened in subsequent years, despite all the protests, I believe he never lost that ideal. I have heard him say, “Nobody ever held a parade for me when I came home.” Still, his tone is sarcastic rather than bitter; he is more puzzled than angry.
He never became proselytizer out to reform those who saw things a different way or a preacher out to save the world and warn it of impending doom (he doesn’t want any such thankless task). Instead, these days, he enjoys nothing more than a stimulating debate or discussion with his circle of friends, who, for the most part, enjoy the same pursuit and don’t mind a little disagreement. For them, it is a noble pursuit, like in the days of Aristotle and Plato when the world was ruled by philosopher-kings.
Most days, he is basically content to add to his knowledge in peace: reading, gathering information, considering, pondering, applying lessons learned to events of today. His quest for knowledge and information begins each day with the morning newspaper, which by mid-morning the paper is in a state worse than Humpty-Dumpty’s. And all the while, the TV is tuned to CNN–so he can keep an eye on breaking news while he catches up on yesterday’s.
I look at my father today and wonder what all this says about him. I wonder how he viewed the world back when he and my mother were starting out on their own, when the world had just barely survived those cataclysmic events of their youth. I wonder too how those times shaped their lives and influenced their views of the world today.
My father spent his first eighteen years in Gardner Massachusetts, back then a small mill town, nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire mountains, a couple hours drive from Boston. In 1946, he left Gardner to begin his army career at West Point. From an early age he wanted to go to school there; he knew he wanted to dedicate his life to the army. Perhaps it was because of the world war, and the profound effect it had on him. Or perhaps he felt he must carry on a family legacy. Or perhaps he just wanted to get out of the small town and see the world. But no matter his reasons, no matter how strong his resolve, and no matter how well his father prepared him, West Point was still a tremendous shock. I believe he had an easier adjustment when going to war than he had going to West Point. In fact, going to West Point may be similar to going to war, thoughts of glory and honor are quickly supplanted by more mundane concerns for your own survival. And because it was his very first battle, I think West Point must have been the toughest adjustment of them all.
Life at West Point is, or at least it was back then, very structured. The army decided everything for you; they told you which courses to take, told you when and what to eat, told you when to study, told you when to shower, told you when to sleep and when to wake up.
“And they also made you march,” my Dad tells me. It seems you marched everywhere. After all his West Point stories, the image of marching cadets sticks out most in my mind. Every morning, you marched to chapel, and then to breakfast, and from there to class. You marched to all your meals and all your classes and every other exercise and event in between. You even had to march to the showers in the evening.
“And after you marched back from the shower to the barracks, you had to report to your cadet commander. ‘Sir, I’ve had my shower, had my feet inspected, and am reporting for bed–as ordered, sir!'”
He laughs heartily. He recognizes that a lot of the training was pure bull, but yet he still believes in it. There is a method to the madness; it is serious business preparing the future leaders of our nation’s armed forces.
The first year, the plebe year, was of course, the worst. For a whole year, it was all about survival. It started with Beast Barracks, the cadet basic training course, which he and his fellow plebes began in July, before the rest of the corps of cadets returned to school. “Beast Barracks . . .” he says and then stops, as if just the mention of the name speaks volumes.
“That first day you learn there are only three responses: Yes sir, no sir, and no excuse sir . . . and you learn how to march, of course . . .
“It wasn’t too bad,” he says now, during sublime moments. But at other times he will also admit, “there were a few guys I hated after that first year.” He doesn’t provide the details, but his tone makes me believe he hasn’t forgotten their names and their offenses, even after all these years.
I’m not quite sure what qualities are needed to make it through that first year, but clearly there a lot of kids who just don’t have enough of them to endure. Samuel William Prescott is Dad’s prime example.
“Samuel William Prescott was one of my roommates; he lasted about four days. I remember he was from West Virginia. I even remember his father was a dentist.” As he speaks, I wonder why he has remembered these details; it’s not at all like him.
“In the first few weeks, during Beast Barracks, the only time any of us had a chance to talk was at the end of the day. My roommates and I–there were four of us–would talk while we lay in bed; we were so exhausted we’d generally last maybe ten minutes before everyone fell asleep . . . Anyway, the very first night Samuel William Prescott told us he was going to command all the armies in the world. He was Patton, Eisenhower, Rommel, and Napoleon all rolled into one. The second night he amended that slightly . . . maybe this army thing was a little more than he realized at first, but he was still going to do really big things. The third night he told us God was talking to him . . . That was the beginning of the end. The night after that God told him the army wasn’t for him.” He smiles broadly as he delivers the last line.
“A lot of other guys washed out during the first year. There were only three of us left on the third floor at the end of the first year. Charlie, Emmett, and me–the three of us were roommates, interestingly enough. Everyone else was gone . . . kind of strange living there with just the three of us left and all those other empty beds . . .
“Sometimes, I’m not sure how I made it myself. I really wasn’t that great a cadet . . . I remember my brother Tammy coming to West Point to visit me. I was still a plebe, and he had just returned from Germany . . . he was in his dress uniform–a captain . . . and he had the silver star, which he had received during the war. All the other cadets were very impressed. After he left, my cadet commander came up to me and said: ‘Why can’t you be like your brother? He’s an American hero. And look at you.’ Somehow, I made it through though.”
“The things we had to do,” he shakes his head, but smiles as if to say it wasn’t that bad after all. “During meals you had something like five minutes to eat after you sat down at the table. You had to look straight ahead, and square off everything,” he recounts, making it sound as if eating were a drill and your fork a rifle.
“Then you would have to cut the cake for the upper classmen,” he adds, sounding as if this were the bane of his existence. “You always had eight at a table, but a lot times, one of the upper classmen would excuse himself, so you had to cut it into seven pieces.”
“And I imagine they had better all be equal,” I fill in the obvious blank.
“And you couldn’t say you didn’t want any cake, so it was only six pieces–six being easier to divide into equal pieces. They made you eat a piece anyway.”
Things got a little easier after that first year, but not a whole lot. You still had to walk a fine line. There were still so many things you couldn’t do, so many things you could get demerits for. And you could get demerits for just about anything–like PDA, public display of affection. An upper classman could meet a girl in certain designated areas (as a plebe, you might as well forget about females); he could even walk with her, but he couldn’t do anything so forward as holding her hand. God forbid there be a goodnight kiss!
Another thing which set the academy apart was its emphasis on sports participation. “Everyone had to participate. You see, they were trying to make you into the complete man . . . I remember the boxing coach–boxing and wrestling were required courses–we all thought the boxing coach was a little crazy . . . he’d been around forever . . . He’d get into the ring with guys . . . And he wanted to see blood; when you were sparring, he wanted you both to draw blood and keep on going. That was his only criteria; if you could keep going after being bloodied, he’d pass you . . .
“You had to participate in another sport also: intramural or varsity; you could play football, basketball, lacrosse, whatever, but you had to play at least one. I played hockey. I wanted to play football. I wasn’t that big, maybe 160 pounds, but I had played in high school; Columbia had even offered me a football scholarship . . . But back then Army was a powerhouse. They had won the national championship the year before I started, and the four years I was there I think we lost something like three games . . . Anyway, there were a bunch of us that showed up for a tryout on the first day of practice. They took one look at us and said: ‘Here’s a football. Go play over there.’ They weren’t even remotely interested; they had their team picked already . . .
“You know, Vince Lombardi was an assistant while I was there,” he reminds me once again. “He wanted to be head coach when Colonel Blake retired. But the academy decided they wanted an alumnus. I don’t know why they did something stupid like that. They passed on Vince Lombardi and got Dale Hall instead.” He shakes his head and grimaces, as if nobody has ever been so miscast. “Dale Hall!” he repeats; he still cannot believe it, as if Dale Hall is the reason for the demise of Army football. “Who the hell ever heard of Dale Hall?”
My brothers and I have always been proud to say our father graduated from West Point. Even during their anti-war days, my brothers still spoke proudly of it. West Point, along with the other service academies, were then, and still are today, the toughest schools to get into. West Point has a rigorous academic curriculum in addition to all the unique extracurricular activities. Many are expected to fail or to quit. And, as my father would say, that’s not a bad thing. Too often we attempt to shield ourselves or our children from failure. But if there is no chance of failure, there is also no true sense of accomplishment for those who make it through. Those who make last four years of West Point, however, know they have accomplished something significant, something far more significant than just a college degree.
I find it interesting that my father spoke more often about his classmates, those with whom he shared all those trials and tribulations, than he did about their adventures together. Despite being scattered all over the country (and the world) throughout their careers, they maintained an active network, never totally losing that connection with the rest of the group. They keep up with news of each other: where the other classmates wound up, what assignments they’ve had, how their families are doing. The bond between classmates was far stronger than any of the other friendships developed during the thirty years in the army.
In my father’s day, the army continually shuffled you around the country and overseas, assigning a new duty station every few years (these days, they do not move you about quite so much). You never knew what old friends you’d meet when you arrived at your new destination and you were never too surprised when a fellow classmate showed up as your next door neighbor, the army in its infinite wisdom bringing you together again. In fact, it seemed, there was always a classmate or two wherever you went; in fact, even today, there are several just around the corner in the neighborhood, all of them still friends more than fifty years later.
I suppose you could say those four years of West Point constituted a significantly emotional event, an almost combat-like experience that forever bounded those cast together on that distant New York plain. How it continued to bind them together after all these years is something I’ll never know. The author and historian Maureen Mylander articulated it in this way: “The real academy transcends time and place, because no graduate ever leaves West Point. He takes it with him. Thus the school extends not only through the sheer number, rank, and power of its graduates, but through the force of their belief.”
Germany was my father’s first assignment after graduation. “They let us pick our billets after graduation, starting with the guys at the top of the class . . . I had wanted to join the Army Air Corps–there wasn’t an Air Force back then; the Air Corps was part of the Army–but my eyesight wasn’t good enough. So, instead I decided to see the world, to go to Europe. By the time I got to pick there was one opening in Germany remaining–with the infantry–so I took it . . .
“Your mother and I honeymooned with the Big Red One,” he likes to say, the Big Red One being the First Division, stationed in Germany at the time. My parents were married just a few days after his graduation (the Army said you had to wait until graduation). And a few weeks later, after their real honeymoon (at Cape Cod), they were off to see the world.
Germany, at the time, was a rather difficult first assignment for a young lieutenant. My father provided me few details about the assignment itself; I know only that at some point he commanded a machine gun platoon. Instead, most of his stories of Germany focused on what a tumultuous place it was during that period.
“One of the things we used to do was go on patrol in town. I’d have a couple of MPs with me. We were supposed to keep guys from stirring up too much trouble; we’d round them up and get them back to the post, that kind of stuff. It wasn’t too difficult to find these guys; we knew all the bars. The problem was they didn’t want us carrying a weapon; we didn’t have anything but a stick, and a lot of the guys weren’t easy to convince–they weren’t about to be coerced or intimidated-–and some of them were pretty big too . . .
“It was just a few years after the war. A lot of these guys had been through the war. Pretty tough guys. They certainly didn’t want to listen to some second lieutenant just out of school. They thought they knew all there was to know about the army–and, you know, a lot of ’em did . . . good soldiers . . .
“There were a lot of fights, too. We’d be called in to break them up . . . Every once in a while someone would get seriously hurt. I’ll tell you what they used to do . . . These guys would take a beer bottle and smash it against the bar, and then they’d go for the face with the broken edge.” He demonstrates a quick lunge. “They wouldn’t think twice about it . . . It was a pretty rough crowd.” He certainly had me convinced.
And to add fuel to the fire, it was the beginning of integration of the armed forces. “Everyone thinks Truman integrated the Army in ’48, but it didn’t really happen until a few years later, right about the time I went to Germany . . . I even remember the first black guys to join our unit. Two of them came at the same time. After that, there’d be two guys, four guys at a time. It caused a lot trouble . . . There were lots of fights between blacks and whites. In town, they had black bars and white bars . . . the Germans went along with it . . . they had to. But if a white guy went into a black bar or a black guy went into a white bar, there was going to be trouble.”
“And of course some young lieutenant would be called in to restore law and order,” I comment, thinking it sounded little bit like the wild west.
An interesting look crosses his face, a combination serious look and half smile. He appears ready to respond, but then stops. Then I can see the wheels turning again. He shakes his head and then resumes, but along a different track this time. “Germany itself was in bad shape, too. It was five years after the war, but they still hadn’t really started to rebuild. It still looked like a war zone. It was really bad . . . I remember when we first arrived. Everything within a mile of the rail station was flattened . . . The base where we lived was fine, but most of the surrounding area was in bad shape. The Marshall plan was in place, but it took a while to rebuild. A couple of years later, about the time we left, it was just starting to come back . . . it took a long time to rebuild; there was a lot of work to do.”
It was a tense and difficult time on a global scale as well with the start of the cold war, as he reminds me from time to time. “After the war, we demobilized too quickly–like we always do. And then suddenly we woke up. When I went over there, we had something like one and a half divisions in Germany–spread out over the whole country–and the Russians had something like fifteen. We finally realized we better do something. So we started bringing in troops; when I left a couple years later, I think we had six divisions there.”
It was also a difficult time for a young couple just starting out its own as well as adjusting to living in a foreign country. “Recently, I went back and calculated that I was gone from home–out on maneuvers, that is–about 300 days, during those three years.” With a newborn baby at home, I am sure it made things difficult. But it was just the beginning of what was to come.
But despite all the difficulties and tension associated with this first assignment, he still manages to find a touch of humor. “You know,” he often tells me, “it never ceases to amaze me that of all the Germans I met–and I met a lot them–not one of them ever fought on the Western Front. Not one. They all spent the entire war on the Eastern front.”
“Against the Russians,” I add.
“Against the Russians,” he agrees and laughs heartily.
The next stop was Fort Benning, Georgia, for a series of training assignments. “I taught and I was taught,” he tells me. This is because Fort Benning is the place soldiers go to learn about being an infantryman. It is also the location of that awful, aforementioned jump tower, the place my father became a paratrooper.
The training at Fort Benning, although important to his career, was for the most part not noteworthy. I know the names of the classes, but he provided few details of them, save one: ranger school. Although ranger school was just a few weeks out of the three years at Fort Benning, Fort Benning will foremost and forever be associated with those weeks of ranger school.
“Ranger school was a three-part torture. We had training in the mountains of northern Georgia, in the Florida swamps, and then more torture at Fort Benning. No fun . . . “
At West Point they made you march, and at ranger school you had to hike. He talks about hiking as if it were a torture devised for Torquemada’s special pleasure. It seems they were always wandering through some “godforsaken territory”, as he likes to put it. “We’d go on a patrol for five or six days. You can’t carry enough food for that long a patrol; it’s just too heavy, so you had to live off the land. Basically, they would drop us in the woods with a few basic things: a compass, matches, a flashlight, a knife, a canteen, a map . . . the maps . . . I remember the trail looked as wide as an interstate on the map, but it usually wasn’t wider than two or three feet, and always overgrown . . . Most of the time, you were lucky to find it all . . .
“One interesting thing, however, is that while we were in training, everyone was equal; rank didn’t matter. All our instructors were NCOs, and they were in charge. Most of our class were captains or majors. I was a captain . . . Whenever we had to split up assignments, we’d take a vote. Since there were more captains than majors, we always made the majors carry the heavy equipment during our patrols. . .
“They wouldn’t even give us live ammo. So because we couldn’t shoot anything, we had to make our own traps . . . we’d catch rabbits . . . snakes. Snakes I remember were the easiest thing to catch . . . although, I remember we managed to get a hold of some chickens once. We hadn’t eaten anything but raspberries and snake for several days . . . We negotiated with one of the locals for ten chickens . . . We wrung their necks and plucked them ourselves. We made a spit and cooked them over a fire . . . I remember we used salt tablets for flavoring. It may not sound so great, but I tell you it was one of the best damned meals I ever had. I can still remember how good it tasted . . .”
I recall a few other anecdotes connected to hiking torture, bits and pieces that provide a flavor of the training was like. There is one about being so tired that after stopping for a moment’s rest after a long hike, he fell asleep while leaning on his rifle. “I didn’t manage to get much sleep,” he told me. “When I woke up I was rolling down a hill.” There was another about being so desperate and hungry that he was forced to use matches to heat beef bouillon in a cup of water, and another about negotiating for some white lightning with the local entrepreneurs
“I’ll never drink that stuff again.”
I also remember him telling me once about a barbed wire torture . I forget the context, but it involved charging a building for some reason. “Of course, we went running full-steam ahead–and ran smack into barbed wire . . . That smarts,” he adds, understating it by a long chalk I am sure.
“I suppose there was some sort of moral to this . . .” I begin.
“There must have been, but I can’t remember it now.”
I didn’t have any trouble accepting any of these stories, but I balked when he told me about drinking swamp water.
“No, really. We each had one canteen–a canteen barely holds enough water for one day . . . So you would always fill your canteen whenever you found water: a stream, rain, whatever. If you were stuck in the swamp, you didn’t have much choice; you needed the water to survive . . . They gave us chlorine tablets to sterilize the water . . . You wouldn’t use swamp water unless you absolutely had to. But I had to do it a few times. I remember the water tasted pretty bad, and you’d get a mouthful of silt . . .
“Some of the things we did in ranger school . . . nobody does that today, I’m sure.” He shakes his head, but smiles, as if he believes it wouldn’t be such a bad thing for today’s soldiers to drink swamp water every once in a while.
“I remember another time they showed us how to use gas masks. They used to include an ampule with every gas mask, so you could give yourself an antidote if you were exposed before you got your mask on . . . I remember one guy asked ‘what if you give yourself the antidote and then find out there is no nerve gas?’ The instructor says: ‘Well you better find some in about sixty seconds.’ I’m sure that’s something else they don’t do anymore . . .
“In ranger school, there was a lot of emphasis on the basics. I remember they gave us Rogers’ Rules for Rangers–as in Major Rogers who searched for the Northwest Passage . . . In fact, when we were in Viet Nam we used to give every soldier a copy of Rogers’ rules. I even remember the first rule: ‘Don’t forget nuttin.’ They wrote it down just like that.
“I can sum up ranger school this way. The only difference between ranger school and combat was that I knew I wasn’t going to die in ranger school–or at least I didn’t think I would . . .” He adds the last little bit as if the thought just came to him. “Looking back, I think ranger school was probably the toughest thing I ever did.”
“You know,” he adds later during a reflective mood, “I spent my first few years in the army doing things that were designed for you to fail. At West Point, at Jump school, at Ranger school, the goal was to make you fail, to make you quit.”
West Point had been a test of his endurance and willingness to sacrifice. Germany had been just plain scary, a rude introduction to the real world. But after ranger school, and to a lesser degree jump school as well, he knew he could survive anything; he knew he was a real soldier.
Fort Benning was also memorable because of its location. “It was the first time your mother and I were ever in the South . . . Well, actually I’d been to a few places while I was a cadet–I remember we went to El Paso once and to Fort Bragg once–but never for more than a few days, and they weren’t really representative of the South anyway . . . Irene, on the other hand, had never been further south than New York City . . .”
The first thing that impressed him was the heat. Despite spending much of his remaining career in the South and then later retiring in South Carolina, it seems there was no heat like that first year. The memory is so vivid you’d think it was just last year. “Man, it was hot! I mean really hot!”
Even before they arrived, they discovered how hot the South is. “I’ll never forget the drive down. We didn’t have air conditioning in the car. People told us to travel early in the morning to avoid the heat. So we’d leave about two o’clock in the morning . . . It was still hot! And you know there weren’t any interstates back then, so we took these roads that went through all these little towns. We’d go right through the middle of town, and have to stop at all the traffic lights. You’d sit and wait at the light, and even early in the morning, and you would just get hotter and hotter and hotter . . . And we didn’t have any air conditioning at our quarters in Benning either. Cheap quarters . . . And the cockroaches . . .”
It was also a culture shock for these two Yankees entering the segregated South. They were shocked not only to learn how blacks were treated, but also to see so many in one place–they hadn’t known any in little old Gardner, Massachusetts, and the army was only just beginning to integrate.
“The North and the South were totally different worlds back then, not at all like today . . . I remember seeing the sheriff walking along the sidewalk and all the blacks would step into the street to let him pass . . . I remember also driving through a small town in Georgia, and the Klansmen were dressed up and walking along the main street, having a rally . . . and it was no big deal, at least not in Georgia. It’s not something you’re likely to see these days, but that kind of thing wasn’t all that unusual back then.
“Everything was different back then . . . the North and the South were two different worlds,” he reiterates. “Your mother and I knew very little about the South. Going to Georgia was as big an adjustment for us as Germany; in fact, it was almost as if we were traveling to another foreign country instead of returning home.
“The country is so much more homogeneous today, especially with the advent of TV. Today, it’s often hard to tell the differences from one region of the country to another. You just don’t see the same stark contrasts you did back then . . . ” As a history buff, it’s a point he likes to emphasize and analyze. He believes younger generations cannot begin to fathom or appreciate the myriad of changes our country has undergone the last fifty years.
Any discussion of Fort Benning, would be incomplete without a mention of Phoenix City, yet another culture shock for my parents. “Phoenix City was sin city. There is always some place like it outside an army post . . . It is just across the Chattahoochee River–in Alabama . . .” Of course, they’d been to other sin cities like Boston and New York, but those were faraway places you visited on special occasions, and they often had other magical qualities when you talked about them later. It was much more difficult to hide the seamy side of Phoenix City, especially if you grocery shopped there. “They had everything in Phoenix City: gambling, prostitution . . . there was an Alabama state law prohibiting alcohol in a public establishment, but you could walk into almost any place in Phoenix City and get a drink . . .
“But then, that’s because the sheriff decided what was okay and what was not. In the South back then, the sheriff was pretty much the ultimate power in town. If he wanted something, that’s the way it was. There wasn’t much anybody else could do about it . . I remember just before we left, this new District Attorney said he was going to clean up Phoenix City . . . Well, then he was murdered and there was a big investigation. I think things finally started to change after that. But it was a difficult transition . . . Change is never easy, no matter what the change is.”
If my father had any racial prejudices prior to joining the army, his first two assignments ended them for him. Nothing he had seen in his first twenty-one years had prepared him for what he was about to encounter in Germany and Georgia. Until then, his view of the South and racial inequalities had probably been influenced more by the popular radio show, Amos and Andy, than by anything based in reality. When he finally saw the situation first hand, the injustice of the system became quite apparent to him. “It really was unbelievable, hard for us to fathom it all at the time.”
Years later he was proud of the army for being a forerunner in elimination of racial injustice. “The army really took the lead, the rest of the country lagged far behind.” His memory of key dates on this matter were consistent with the history books. President Truman issued an executive order calling for the end of segregated units in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1948, but it wasn’t until 1950, the year my father graduated and went to Germany, that the army finally put a plan into action. Basic training units were the first to be integrated and then during the next few years there were several additional plans to integrate other larger units. By 1953, the year my father first encountered the racial prejudices of the South full force in Georgia, many years before the civil rights movement even took shape, the army could claim success in its mission, with 95% of its African-American soldiers serving in integrated units. I’ve always wondered, along with my father, how was it that the rest of the country lagged so far behind?
After Fort Benning, my father was sent overseas again, this time as a Company Commander in Korea. Mom returned home to Massachusetts with the kids (my brother Mike had been born in Germany and my brother Steve in Georgia). This was the first of what were to be three long separations they endured during his career. This separation lasted eighteen months, and only frequent letters (the only form of communication available to them back then) kept them in touch throughout that period.
The Korean War had ended by this time, but the war nonetheless had a major impact upon my father and the West Point class of 1950. “The war started just after we graduated; it couldn’t have been more than a few weeks. But just before we graduated, the army changed the rule about training. Before then, new graduates spent time in training before going to their units. But it was peacetime in 1950, so they figured you could learn more if you went directly to your new units instead. No big deal, right? But then many of those units went to Korea at the outset of the war. Kids who hadn’t had any training in the real army were being shipped off to fight a war.”
The results were as bad as could be expected. Looking back through his class year book, it is sad to see how many died during the Korean war. Nearly a third of the Dad’s class would eventually fight in Korea, some saw action in the first days of the war, as units were rushed to the battle front, the North Koreans having made a major push into the South in the first few days of the war. Within a month after graduation, a number of classmates were already dead, killed in action. Altogether more than forty were killed, many leaving behind young widows who, after having honeymoons cut short, had to then deal with the loss of their newlywed husbands, the fathers of their infant or unborn children.
My father arrived in Korea in 1956, three years after the war’s end. “Korea was interesting, and company commander is a pretty good job,” he says, but then doesn’t explain why. “I remember we had to build our own barracks there. They were Quonset huts. We poured the cement and everything . . .” He shakes his head for a moment before continuing. “Most of the guys couldn’t figure out why we were still there, but I’d take my guys out in the field every once in a while. It made everyone feel like we were actually doing something . . .
Of course, every job has its down side, and I remember him telling me about one unpleasant aspect: “One bad thing about being Company Commander were the Congressional inquiries. If a kid writes his congressman about the problems he’s having in the army and the congressman wants a response, the request usually works its way down to the company commander’s level, and a company commander has about twenty-four hours to respond–with an explanation, a solution, and a complete plan of action . . . they don’t expect too much, congressmen.”
But other than Quonset huts, congressional inquiries, and the weather (it is “cold as Hell” in Korea according to my father), there wasn’t a whole lot to tell about Korea.
Of course, there was also Colonel Pickel, his commanding officer. Not that there was anything unusual about him, but, at the time, my brothers had so much fun with the name that he continues to live on in the family annals.
After Korea, he was sent to Fort Campbell, another job as company commander. “I was with the Five-oh-one paratrooper battalion. The Five-oh-one had a proud history back then. It was the first paratrooper battalion. Buddy Ebsen, the actor, had been in the Five-oh-one, and Robert Preston too–he was the music man . . . you probably don’t remember him . . . They even made a movie about the Five-oh-one, The Parachute Battalion.”
I don’t recall many anecdotes about Fort Campbell, although I remember he broke his leg there. “The day before a jump they had some vehicles out on the DZ. Which is okay. Except that it was winter time, so by the time we jumped–it was a night jump–all the tracks had frozen, leaving some pretty good size ruts . . . And I just happened to land in one of the ruts . . . You know, when you land, they teach you to fall over on your side . . . Except when I landed this time, my body fell over but my feet were still stuck in a rut.” There is a brief demonstration with his hands and sound effects which reminds me of a power drill suddenly unplugged.
I remember too that Fort Campbell is where Davy Crockett made his appearance, another for our family annals. I think I have heard at least a hundred times how the cry went up around the neighborhood at four o’clock. ‘Davy Crockett is on!'”.
“We didn’t have a TV yet,” he explains. “So all the kids would gather at one of the neighbor’s house to watch Davy Crockett. TV was just starting to have its impact around then . . . We said we weren’t going to buy a TV; we thought we didn’t need one; we had gotten by all those years without one after all. But we bought one before we left Fort Campbell.” I suppose one should not underestimate Davy Crockett’s influence.
The next stop was in Pennsylvania, where he taught ROTC at Penn State, was another way station, except, of course, he and my mother tell me I was born in Pennsylvania.
During summers in Pennsylvania he taught at a camp in Indian Town Gap, a place he occasionally likes to mention, I think because of the name more than anything else. It seems teaching ROTC at the university and at Indian Town Gap summer camp must have been pretty dull because he rarely provides details about either of them.
However, we lived near Philadelphia and Philly is a big sports town, so he has many anecdotes about the local teams. Our family kept up with sports as much as the average family, and my father and my brothers attended games every once in a while. The Eagles, at the time, had Frank Gifford on their team, who I remember only as broadcaster on Monday Night Football, but he was apparently a pretty good player in his day. They also had a guy named Chuck Bednarik, who I am sure was also a great player, as he was the last guy to play all sixty minutes of a game, but I don’t think I would know him from Adam’s house cat if my father hadn’t talked about him so often. But despite these big names and their other big name players we spoke of (whose names escape me now), the Eagles were not very good, perpetual losers, according to my father. The Phillies had a few big names too, Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn are the ones I remember him mentioning, but the Phillies also weren’t any good during that period.
On the other hand, the other sports team, the Warriors, were pretty good as they had a guy named Wilt Chamberlain. “Did I ever tell you about the time he scored a hundred points in a game?” he asks me occasionally. Actually, I think I have heard about it a hundred times, but it’s such an amazing feat, I don’t mind hearing it again.
“You know, Chamberlain averaged fifty points a game that season,” he adds for effect. “Did you know he also played two years with the Harlem Globetrotters before he went into the NBA?”
I knew this also, having learned it from him many years ago. “He came out of college two years early and you couldn’t go to the NBA until your class graduated,” he explains further.
After years of late-night discussions around the kitchen table, I know all sorts of such tid-bits about sports and other things, stuff I should be too young to know, because, like his war stories, my father passes on such trivia as though it were part of my inheritance. Not only do I know about the glory days of long ago sport stars who have mostly been forgotten, but I also know about old movies like High Noon and Casablanca (his favorites) and even the old radio shows like The Shadow (Lamont Cranston was the Shadow, and only the Shadow knows the evil that lurks in the minds of men) and Fibber McGee and his closet (every week he’d find some reason to open it and every week it would come crashing down upon him). I even know about the radio show sponsors. For instance, I know now that Jello sponsored the Jack Benny Show (did you also know “Jello everyone!” was his opening line?) and Blue Coal sponsored Amos and Andy. Occasionally, he quizzes me to see how well I have listened.
“Your brothers and I would see the Warriors play in Constitution Hall,” he tells me whenever we go to a ball game in Charlotte (now that I am taking him instead of him taking me). I find these looks back interesting as the game I am familiar with barely resembles the one he remembers. “In fact, there wasn’t even an NBA when I was a kid. And the NBA really wasn’t big-time when we were in Philadelphia. Constitution Hall probably held only six or seven thousand people. I am sure it was replaced long ago by a technological marvel like the one you have here. I can’t imagine anything so primitive today.” This change also, he believes, has been driven primarily by TV; it has altered the nature of the game by increasing exposure and bringing in all those ubiquitous sponsors along with the big bucks and the big contracts.
But then, maybe the old days weren’t so backwards after all. “All these scoreboards here and not one of them has the score,” he complained during a recent visit. There are a myriad statistics and other useless information displayed continually and the latest replays can be seen on the big overhead scoreboard (not to mention the various contests and TV commercials), but where’s the score? Technology is wonderful thing, but only when it works.
We generally ignore all the technological marvels anyway; they are only distractions for us. Instead we talk about the old days, the good old days of his youth while the game proceeds and the scoreboard drones on.
After Pennsylvania, my father was sent off to the wheat fields of Kansas and Fort Leavenworth. I think he was there primarily to attend some school, but he doesn’t talk much about it either. He does, however, occasionally talk about the more well-known aspects of Leavenworth, it, of course, being the federal penitentiary for military miscreants. “I used to go down to the penitentiary and talk to some of the guys every once in a while. I always found these conversations interesting . . . The one thing that especially sticks out in my mind from those conversations is that there wasn’t one of those guys that was guilty. They all had some kind of story about how they had been framed–every one of them.”
“They all had some hard luck story of how life wasn’t fair for them . . . A lot of the guys were pretty smart though. I was surprised. I remember someone decided to put together a program for them . . . teach them about history: the declaration of independence, the bill of rights, and all that. I was surprised how quickly these guys picked up on stuff . . . Only it didn’t go so well when we got to the part about all men being created equal. They just couldn’t buy that one . . . How come that major who was in here for murdering his wife was released and I’m still here?”
He occasionally sat on court-martials as well, and I don’t think he quite bought the hard luck stories during those venues either. “I remember one time I was sitting on a special court-martial. We’d already seen about three or four guys, and we were waiting for the next guy, and someone said: ‘All right let’s bring in the next guilty bastard, so we can give him a fair trial.’
“It’s a good thing nobody heard us,” he adds a moment later, sounding like a school kid recounting some mischief he’d gotten away with. But then, I suppose those were the good old days, the halcyon days, before the Viet Nam war, before my brothers and I were adolescents, before the years had passed by all too quickly.
Next Chapter: Chapter 3: Rambo