08 February 2010

A Civilian in Chapel Hill

UNC - Chapel Hill Mid '60's
Sunchon Street, Ft Bragg, NC March 1966

Central Highlands, South Vietnam Summer 1966

I remember my father coming home but rarely his leaving. Except once.

We took him to Pope Air Force Base. A short drive from our quarters on Bragg. I remember he kissed my two sisters goodbye. He kissed my mother goodbye. And he turned to me, poked my chest with his finger and said, "You screw up once while I'm gone and I'll come back and kick your ass. You got that?" I nodded and he turned and walked away to Vietnam. I watched him swagger to a C 130 with a duffel bag on his shoulder and his green beret cocked at an angle.

Had he not come home -- That would've been my last memory of him.

I'm not sure any eight year old would understand him. I did. A little. I expected to be treated like a man when he said goodbye to me. We had spent a lot of time with each other the year before he left. Racing slot cars at the Hay Hobby Shop. Racing his Berkley at local sports car events. Taking his dare and eating a sardine that he told me was raw fish. He was never a chatty Cathy but we had our moments. Now he was gone and I felt an ease settle over our house on Sunchon Street.

The move to Chapel Hill took the ease I felt and put it on an island in the Caribbean with palm trees, coconut drinks and ocean breezes. Everything about Ft Bragg disappeared and I saw that civilian life was not the pawn shops, strip joints, car lots and bars and I saw on the other side of the main gate. The University of North Carolina looked like a giant officer's club and Carolina blue became my favorite color. I went into the record shops downtown where my mother picked out the latest Herb Albert and Tijuana Brass album and I picked up Beatle's 45s with the yellow and red Capitol label.

I was enrolled in my first Catholic school in June but had three months of summer when we moved into a house in the country. Older grad students and faculty lived in the same small houses tucked away in the woods with long drive ways and a concrete storm pipe at the beginning of each. By the end of the summer I had crawled through every one.

There was an art class I attended with my sister. A student lived in an apartment in an old house on campus and gave classes in the back yard. We sat around a subject and plopped water colors on the spongy paper while the sun looked down on us. Color was everywhere. In the red brick of the campus buildings, the white of clap board houses and the green of pines everywhere.

And in 1966, there was khaki and madras as well. High water trousers, white socks and crew cuts were still in vogue although longer hair was growing in popularity with the Beatles. There was also talk of the Rolling Stones but they were associated with hoodlums and communists. Nasty types who certainly didn't bathe and most likely shop lifted.

Our next door neighbor was in dental school. He was married and had a little boy who liked to drop rocks on toads and poke a wasp nest with a stick. The future dentist also had a Mustang convertible and a color tv where we all watched Cinderella. I thought it was a terrible waste of color.

Farther up the street were a Canadian couple who had a white Volvo 1800 and a West Highland Terrier named Donald Bane. He was getting his doctorate and she had her masters. He had something to do with English lit and I remember they were always laughing... a trait I still associate with most Canadians today.

Behind us was a preacher going to Duke for his doctorate in something biblical. I never remember him laughing but his son and daughter were good friends and I told my first story on their door stoop. It was about the secret life of their cat. Gerald, the son believed every word. The next day he told me his father said I had made it all up. I admitted I had and his sister asked me to make up another story. I did but it wasn't anywhere near as funny.

The drama teacher who had a parcel of kids and knew the writer Paul Green personally was the coolest dad. With longish hair turning grey at the the temples, he was a writer, an actor and looked like a cross between Peter Lawford and Johnny Carson. My mother only allowed tv on weekends and I remember Friday nights where all the parents got together for a party (except the preacher) and all of us kids were put in a house with a baby sitter, the Monkees on tv and a dozen hot dogs from a nearby drive in.

I wonder if it wasn't too much too soon. I was a successful story teller. I had access to fancy cars, actors and color tv. I lived a Town and Country life. Campus book stores and record shops. Swinging on a massive vine in the woods. Pondering colors and shapes as I painted.

I also started an annoying habit of forgetting what was most important. It was the summer I never thought about my father but the nuns were about to change that.

13 January 2010

Separate Rations, Sex and Quarters

Sicily Drop Zone

South of the Border

The Indian chief could have been a problem. Worse case scenario - I disappear. Best case - I get my ass kicked by some high school kids. I avoided both. 11 years later on Ft Bragg I came close very close to making a mistake that could have lasted a life time. At the time it seemed nothing more than a quick and easy solution.

We were waiting to load a C130 for a night jump in August. I was sitting on the tarmac reading 'Fear of Flying' by Erica Jong. I had already read the book but liked the image it presented... A paratrooper reading a paper back about fear of flying. Maybe someone from the Army Times would take a picture. No one who walked by me knew what the book was about but plenty of comments were made. None very original. Except one.

She was about six feet tall with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. She was a private first class, a generator mechanic and I was told she spoke fluent French. She looked at my book and said, "How 'bout a zipless, Tintin?" I was stunned but managed to get out before she had walked too far, "I was thinking of something a little more physical, private!" She turned and smiled and duck walked away in a too tight parachute harness (MC1-1 Bravo) and a too big helmet cocked at a silly angle.

Have you read Fear of Flying where Erica Jong longs for the zipless fuck? A spiritual form of love making sans any removal of clothes or the more literal translation, the unzipping of zippers...his or hers. If you haven't read it you should.

We jumped Sicily drop zone that night and just like swimming in the Boy Scouts you couldn't walk off the D.Z. without a buddy. As I stuffed my parachute in an aviator kit bag I saw this tall figure coming towards me. "Who do I have?" said a woman's voice. It's Tintin, " I replied. "Oh, shit," she said. By the time we got back to the duece and half trucks and turned in our parachutes we had discussed, Erica Jong, Susan Sontag's, On Photography, the Bee Gees and dinner which we were to have together that night.

She cancelled dinner last minute but we went out the next night and saw the Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall. We dated for a couple of months and decided that it made sense to get married. Not because of love but for separate rations (money), quarter's allowance (money) and living off post (sex).

We were married in SC just across the border because there wasn't a waiting period. I remember the cement floor had yellow painted foot prints where we were supposed to stand. I lingered on the foot prints and had a uneasy feeling something wasn't right but a rail thin man married us in less time than it took for him to eat breakfast while his wife witnessed the event and handled all the paper work. In and out in ten minutes.

That night in a motel at South of the Border we didn't talk except to argue. The fighting lead to driving back to Ft Bragg around 2AM and by 7AM I was in another C130 and off on a 30 day field exercise to ponder my actions. I returned 30 days later to discover she had bought a house in both our names. It had a cyclone fence around the back yard and was in a very bad neighborhood. This was not the separate rations, sex and quarter's allowance I had in mind. I heard the Indian chief and this time I panicked.

I called a realtor who happened to be my mother and asked her what could I do. She explained it all...annulmets, waiting periods, etc. A day later I was sitting in front of a woman who was a JAG captain who asked, "Did you consummate the marriage?" She was in starched fatigues and I couldn't help but stare at her Judge Advocate branch device on her collar. Never saw many of those. "Uh, I'm sorry, what does consummate mean?" I asked as intelligently as I could. I wish she'd asked me about Susan Sontag because she looked like someone I could live off post with. She threw her pencil down and looked at me, "Did you sleep with her after you were married?"

I explained that we didn't sleep with each other after we married but we had slept with each other before we were married and did that count -- and she told me it didn't and before you knew it everything was taken care of. It all went away. I saw her a year later. She had married and was getting out of the army. She emailed me last year. Two grown children. Divorced. Deals cards in a casino. I often wonder why things happen the way they do.

11 January 2010

The Indian Chief - Part II

Hammond Hills, Ft Bragg   1966 -  The woods are in the background

Special Forces Camp A-223,  1966 - Vinh Than is in the foreground

The voice was a low rumble that crept out of green overgrowth and bushes.

I was playing in the woods behind quarters for senior enlisted men. Dad was a captain but Vietnam was keeping Ft Bragg hopping and officer's quarters were on a wait list. I wonder today if I would have heard that voice in the woods behind the officers billets. Maybe.

I was playing alone so it must have been a Sunday. We didn't go to church but everybody else did. I had a Man from U.N.C.L.E. attache case. The one with the secret camera and shoulder stock P-38.  I had asked for a trench coat that Christmas but would make do with a navy turtleneck and long blonde hair while working on a Illya Kuryakin accent.

"I am a great chief," the low rumble said. Not thirty feet away. Maybe less. I looked up from my brief case. "What?" I said, looking for the voice. "I am a great Indian chief and I'm looking for brave warriors to fight for my people." I turned to the voice and faced the bushes to my right and up a slight hill. I was calm. I was curious. I answered back. "What people?" "My tribe is out west - many moons away."

Out west? I was born in South Dakota and had lived most of my eight years out west: Ft Bliss and Ft Sam Houston, TX, Ft Sill, OK... I knew the west.

"Where out west?" I said putting my brief case down and folding my arms. "My people moved many times - many years." I nodded my head, "Me too. Where did you go?" "Many places," he replies. I remember as a kid hearing my father saying 'horse shit' a lot. I always wondered what the big deal was about horse shit but something was telling me this guy might have some.

I yelled to him, "I've lived  in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and I was born in South Dakota. Do you know those places?" There was silence. Then, "Yes. We were in those places many times."

My father had left Ft Bragg and was in Vietnam. I had dreams of him in his camp spurred on by John Wayne in The Green Berets. My grandmother had taken me to see it. I also had the record that inspired the movie, "Ballad of the Green Berets" written by Sgt Barry Sadler, a neighbor and someone my grandmother thought was a, "pretty big honcho." My father thought he was a Staff Sergeant and not a very good one.

My dream was always the same. My father's camp is being attacked by Viet Cong. My father is giving orders to his men and I walk up carrying an M-16. He looks at me and yells, "What are you doing here!?" I shrug my soldiers. He points me to a position and I join a circle of men surrounding him. We aim our weapons at the charging enemy.

I ask the Indian chief, "Where were you in all those places?" "Come to me, brave warrior and I will tell you."

I looked down at my PX French Shriners and kicked at some dirt that looked just like the dirt at Ft Benning and Ft Jackson. I don't remember being scared. If anything, I thought this 'chief' was probably a high school kid who was teasing me in front of his buddies. He wasn't very convincing and I was getting bored.

"Come to me, brave warrior. I will take you back in time where many buffalo..." "Nice try." I thought. I waved goodbye to the bushes and walked the ten feet or so out of the woods and up a hill to our cul de sac. I jumped in a dumpster next to the car port and played astronaut and then I walked some fifty feet home.

I have no idea who the Indian chief was although I do wonder how lucky I was. I never mentioned it to anybody. Bigger things were going on. The army was kicking us off post since my father was in Vietnam. Another move --  but this would be the first time on the other side of the gate