UNCLE SAM’S SUMMONS: Veterans Day reminds me of my less-than-heroic career in uniform. There I was, between semesters of postgraduate work at the University of Illinois, when a billet-doux arrived from Uncle Sam.
He wanted my body. I was drafted. It was 1955, after the Korean War and before Vietnam. For some reason, Uncle Sam’s fickle finger missed my twin brother, so I had to represent the family in the Army, defending truth, justice, and the American Way.
I said goodbye to my girlfriend and boarded a train from Chicago to sweltering, dusty Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, stretched over a godforsaken expanse of ugliness. When we marched, we sang, “I don’t know, but I’ve been told, Fort Leonard Wood’s a goddamn hole.” And it was.
In basic training, I pulled guard duty, standing for hours long into the night on the far boundaries of the base, not that anyone in his right mind would think about trying to get in. I think it was to keep anyone from getting out.
When we did manage to get a pass, it was to the nearby redneck town of Rolla, where we found local toughs fighting in the streets. We decided we’d rather be back in the barracks. Our sergeants made extra money by driving us home to Chicago on weekends, a trip made much longer by frequent stops to fill up on gas and beer.
In class, instructors would throw flashlight batteries at any of us spotted sleeping in class. One night, we had to crawl through an obstacle course, unsure whether the machine gun was firing dummy rounds or real ones over our heads.
One day, when I was out in the field training, I got a message: Report to building so-and-so and meet someone. I changed to a dress uniform and met a man in civvies. In everyone’s life, there comes at least one fork in the road that determines his or her future. This was mine.
We chatted about current world affairs as he tested whether I had any brains left after basic training. I gathered that he was on a recruiting mission for Army intelligence in Washington, D.C. Why me, I wondered? Earlier in basic, I’d run into a former college classmate who was now an officer and probably passed on my name.
So there was my opportunity. Make a good impression, and soon I’d be yanked out of that dust bowl and be off to spy school in D.C. Become an agent in the fight against godless communism, perhaps be sent off to do counterintelligence work in London, Paris, or Rome. Fight off the advances of seductive Soviet women seeking secret documents.
Heady stuff, indeed. My mother would be so proud. My brother would be so envious. My ex-girlfriend would beg to join me and help fight off the Red sluts.
I would eventually meet the beautiful daughter of a high State Department diplomat, marry her, have children, and buy a spread out in the country. Make triumphant visits to my friends back in Chicago to regale them with inside stories about the Machiavellian politics of Washington.
All this ran through my head as we talked in that ramshackle building in Missouri. But it was not to be. I began joking, talking of the books I would write about it all, and generally making a damn fool of myself. I left the room and never heard more about my brilliant career in Army intelligence.
Instead, I went to personnel school there at Ft. Leonard Wood. Fall and winter set in. Our unheated barrack was so cold we could slide down the icy center aisle. December and graduation day arrived — along with our orders. It turned out that every class, for years, had been sent to Korea, where the weather was even worse.
When my name was called, I braced for bad news. Instead, the clerk called out, “Panama.”
In a week or so, I was on a troop ship sailing out of New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, in a raging blizzard. The weather gradually warmed, and we spent half-days in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Guantanamo Bay in pre-Castro Cuba.
Then my new life began in Panama. There, I met my wife-to-be and future mother of my children. Had I not goofed my interview that day, these kids wouldn’t be alive, and I surely wouldn’t have spent a half-century here in Santa Barbara.
I have no regrets, but I can’t help wonder, what if?
PINK MARTINI: No, not an iced drink but a sizzling musical group making its annual visit to the Arlington tonight, November 10, and not to be missed. When founder Thomas Lauderdale needed a singer, he made the inspired move to enlist the sensational China Forbes, a former Harvard classmate. I’ll miss her rendition of my favorite, “Brazil,” since Forbes has been sidelined with throat problems, but guest singer Storm Large promises to be an equal knockout. Thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures for bringing them. On Sunday, November 13, it’s A Night in Treme, as the Rebirth Brass Band, brassy and a bit rough around the edges like New Orleans itself, sounds off at UCSB’s Campbell Hall at 7 p.m.
Editor’s Note: Our November 10, 2011, print edition of On the Beat misidentified Fort Leonard Wood as being in Montana, not Missouri. Our apologies to Barney Brantingham, who is perfectly aware of where he was based. The mistake was ours.