During the sixteen months I was in Korea, the army supplied me a diet of negativity. If there were any positive elements, it was because I manufactured them. One exception exists: Hope. When Bob Hope and his troupe visited Pusan, Korea, in November of 1972, for one day, everything dissolved and reformed upon one central stage. Included in the mix were Redd Foxx, Roman Gabriel, Lola Falana, and many of the beauty contestants for the Miss Universe Pageant. Saying that Bob Hope was a good thing is like saying being out of the army is a good thing. In order to experience the euphoria of discharge, you must experience the pain of serving. In order to truly revel in Hope's presence, you had to first grovel in the trenches of the military.
For roughly twenty-four hours, it was worth it. Little existed between the moment and the distant holidays, to brighten our spirits one early winter afternoon, when we escaped from the Barn yet one more time. Heading back to the hooch, after first checking the mail, we heard Blue hollering at us from the direction of the orderly room. “O'NEILL! ADDIS!” We heard him, and figured this must be big. Mahlon just didn't let anything get him this amped up. We hustled over, but before we even got to him, he was rattling off instructions, as if he knew what he was talking about.
“Double time, hut, hut! Let's move it. They got two deuce and a halves waiting out front for the first guys who fill 'em up. They're truckin' us down to see Bob Hope.”
I asked, automatically. “What about work? We're still sorting out Red Cloud.” Our personnel management division was in the process of culling out the records of approximately eight thousand troops, whose future orders would be handled by a team being relocated down south. We were halfway through the process, and this was a project that the Major had taken a particular interest in. Springing us for this occasion was most unmilitary in nature.
Blue's response was frenetic. “It's all squared away. ANYONE can go, even someone as vital to the A.O. as you.” If time was so important, why did Blue have enough for sarcasm? The Area of Operations was not generally high on his list of mentionable subjects.
I hated to ask the question. “How will they know...?”
He didn't let me finish. “You sign out in the orderly room. Get something to keep you warm, both on the inside, and on the outside. We are going to freeze our butts off on the way down in the back of that truck, not to mention when we get there. Move it! Act like every business girl in the ville is trying to...”
I was out of there. Something told me that speed was necessary, but judging from body language and snide comments floating my direction, not everyone shared Blue's enthusiasm. Honestly, I wasn't sure I shared Blue's excitement. However, I did trust him implicitly to know where the action was. The gist of the remarks was that there were better things to do than sit in the back of a stinky deuce and a half, shivering, for a couple of hours, just to see some old geezer tell lame jokes. He forgot to mention, that while the old geezer was blabbing, he would also be providing eye candy for around 20,000 troops, hungry for the sight of not only “round-eyes,” but beautiful ones with other attractive features.
I wasn't out to convince anyone, only to try and collect my already-willing-to-unravel thoughts and focus on the next five to ten minutes. I'd have plenty of warning when even one of those deuces fired up, let alone two, and I'd have plenty of waiting to plan what we did upon arrival. Now I needed to start with proper dress for both body and head. I got re-dressed in woollies, fatigues, field jacket liner, the jacket itself, and donned a fur-lined, pilot's, wrap-around hat. I stuck my gloves and an extra pair of wool socks into one of the many jacket pockets, and added my wallet with all of the military currency I had, about ten dollars and twelve cents.
Then into my kimchi bag, I stuffed a book, an extra change of army issued, olive drab underwear, a deck of cards, a packet of stationary with a couple of pencils, a tooth brush and paste, and every candy bar, snack and edible thing I had on hand to tide me over until we got to some semblance of food. I found a Three Musketeers Bar, present only because it paled in comparison to Snickers. I found two packages of Kool Aid, and rejected them as impractical. I included most of a jar of trail mix, several mini-cereal boxes, a bag of mostly crunched pretzels and a half of a fruitcake. I thought about reefer, and knew there was no way I could possibly take time to roll up any joints, so I stuffed a little of our “Keep on Truckin” stash into an empty “Milk Duds” box, added a pack of Zig-Zags that had recently been sent back to us by a hooch mate returning to the World, and surveyed my options.
Liquor. Too late to think about the PX, and not interested in carrying around beer, after I had ingested it, for lack of a timely manner for asking the nice truck driver to please pull over for a moment. I made a snap call to include my bottle of Bushmill's Irish Whiskey, acquired in a decidedly vague manner, for a larger chunk of my monthly three hundred than I cared to think about. I filled a half pint flask, which I put in my field jacket pocket, and nestled the bottle in the center of the kimchi bag, after first making sure the cap was on tightly. Last, I grabbed the top blanket off of my bunk, and whipped back over in the direction of orderly room, where I found a considerably more relaxed Blue, waiting with Tim Carroll, for me and Steve Addis. I didn't know who else might have already been on board, or still getting stuff together, but I gathered that time was no longer quite an issue. At that moment, first one, and then the second of the trucks fired up their engines, as Addis came up and the four of us clambered into the deuce where Blue and Carroll had already dumped their gear.
There were around a dozen guys in a truck that routinely held twenty, whether we liked it or not. Two more joined us as we got ready to leave, but we actually had a comfortable go of it on the way down. There was an odd assortment of us in the back of that truck, ranging from a recently busted E-1, named Tuiasopa, who looked vaguely familiar, to a sergeant first class, who'd probably been in for twenty years. He sure looked like it.
So we were bound together by the circumstances of the show, but there was little beyond that to encourage a lot of fraternization. I was glad that we had our little stash, but didn't mention it at the time as we took inventory, until I got the lay of the land. Amongst the four of us, we ended up with enough snacks to get us through that first night, and into the morning. We would have to scrounge from that point onward.
Arranging myself as comfortably as possible, I acknowledged Addis and Carroll by saying, probably louder than I intended, “Howdy hi, friends and neighbors, El Monte Slim here, sayin' come on down...got some damn good bargains for you.” Then I changed it to, “...come on down to Pusan, got some Bob Hope for you...” I stopped as I felt the E-7's eyes trying to bayonet me in mid-delivery of a Cheech and Chong routine. He didn't seem to recognize the reference, focusing on my name instead, clearly visible above my upper left jacket pocket.
“O'Neill. You been hitting the sauce already?” He eyed me speculatively.
His fatigues were not the starched arrangements of the office, but rather, soft and comfortable in appearance. He was dressed for the cold, and seemed oblivious to the wind. Hie florid complexion indicated a successful union with the army opiate, alcohol. But there was no antagonism in his voice, and just a hint of a lilt.
I figured he had certain expectations, so I assured him I had indeed had a little sip. “My daddy didn't raise no dummies,” I said and offered him my flask.
That simple gesture leveled the playing field faster than thirteen months of working side by side in an office, ever would have. He accepted the flask almost reverently, and took a sip, mindful that there were a whole bunch of lads, and very little sustenance. He smacked his lips appreciatively and returned the flask to me, where I tucked it away in my pocket. His gaze took in the four of us, as we had managed to seat ourselves opposite each other at the most inside part of the truck with our bags in a heap in the limited space between us.
He spoke out. “That was tasty. Leave it to an O'Neill to have a drop of the old country's nectar.” I heard my father's generation in his voice, so I responded in kind.
“Sure, and it's a fine way to start such an epic journey, off to see Himself.”
The ability to lapse into some remote form of the brogue, had always served me in good stead. Now he responded, as my friends let me try and pave our way down to Pusan with a little bit of blarney.
SFC Hennessey, for that's what his jacket pocket revealed to us, stretched his smile a little broader, and smacked his hand on his ample thigh. “Oh, you should have seen him in '65, in the Nam. And those broads!” He pantomimed his dream girl's proportions in the air, with both hands, letting the smoke from his glowing Camel, punctuate the gesture. “Raquel Welch was there. She was too much.”
He again used both hands to indicate specifically where she was “too much.” I clapped my hands and said, in my best lifer twang, “Broads. Now you're talking my language.” The others tried not to laugh at the image of Pooh Bear trying to score a “broad.” My reputation was alive and well in the back of a freezing deuce and a half. Did I mention the cold?
It was rapidly approaching full darkness. The temperature that day had not been extreme, having stayed on the plus side of freezing, even if the breeze had been persistent. Now we rumbled along as fast as the narrow two lane highway would allow, slowing occasionally to allow an ancient three-wheeled contraption to move aside. We bullied our way southward, as we tried to keep focused on anything except the growing cold. As noted, I had all my extremities covered, except my eyes, so I was in pretty good shape for normal conditions. We were all scrunched toward the front of the truck, and the rear canvas cover had been snapped into place, but the cold air swirled mercilessly.
I prodded him. “So, Sarge, tell us about Hope in '65. What was that all about?”
Hennessey needed no prompting. Lighting another Camel off of the current one, and crushing out the cherry from the original one on the heel of his boot, he deposited the butt in his field jacket pocket, a habit obviously in place for more years of service than the rest of us had in terms of months.
“When he came on stage, he had a golf club in his hand, and he started out telling golf jokes. He said he told Lyndon Johnson that he'd do good as President if he could slice the budget, as good as he sliced his golf ball.” He laughed at the memory, and we laughed appreciatively with him, figuring it was better to have him laughing than to have him watching. Lifers could put a real damper on a good time, if they decided to throw their considerable weight around.
“You guys don't know what a class act he is. We laughed ourselves sick, and then we cried.” I got to admit, that was not a sight that came readily to mind. The image of this old Beetle Bailey shedding tears, made me look at him in a new light.
“Why'd you cry?” Addis asked him the question we were all thinking.
His response came readily. “You'll cry too, unless you're passed out. Them's what make it to the show, get their money's worth. And them's what don't, don't.”
I was intrigued. I was obviously in the back of this truck because I at least wanted to see for myself. But this was the first indication, besides Blue's gut, that we were in for anything other than a day out of the office, and a night of little sleep. The former had last occurred on the Fourth of July, and the latter had occurred as recently as the previous night, but the combination of the two made the journey worth the gamble. Now we were getting affirmation from a most unlikely source. For some reason I trusted him.
“Come on, cagiwa, Sarge. Cough it up; give us the scuttlebutt.” You have to speak liferese.
He responded immediately. “It ain't hard to explain. You kids don't even know nothin' about Hope, only what you hope will come in the mail. Bob Hope's been entertaining this man's army since nineteen hundred and forty one, when he started telling his jokes and parading dames to the guys fightin' in the Big One.”
He shifted his bulk to allow for a little circulation, something I could identify with, even if I had about half of the volume to keep circulated. He went on. “You're seven thousand miles away from the nearest thing to Home, and all of the sudden, Home cones to you. Hey, he don't get paid to do his thing. And what's more, neither do those show girls or those comedians. Hey, I heard Redd Foxx is goin' to be there. He's funny.” The guy shook his head and laughed, and to save my life, I couldn't stop myself from following suit. It was like suddenly being seated next to Santa, and all pretense of rank and file dropped away. Hennessey seemed like one of us, instead of some lifer jerk.
“Have you seen him since '65?” Blue asked, as he offered the guy a hunk of fruitcake. He accepted it gratefully, and nibbled at it. He then reached into his own voluminous field jacket, and extracted a real flask. It was real in the sense that it easily held double what mine did. He offered it around, and each of the four of us took a spare sip. Not Bushmills, but then, what is?
“Nice.” I smacked my lips convincingly, and proceeded to do what had become second nature, roll a joint under challenging conditions. That's what the book in the kimchi bag was for, to serve as a mini tray for this purpose. Now all of the sudden Sgt. Hennessey felt the weight of my trust, as he had to decide within a split second whether he was going to protest, or whether he would look the other way. As it turned out, he did neither, continuing to draw on his weed, as I prepared ours. When I had it tamped in place he said the funniest thing.
“You roll a decent ciggie. I used to be pretty good at it myself. Here, put that book back where it belongs.” He paused to glance at the title, wherein he broke out into a smile. “I should have known. M*A*S*H* Are you the Pro from Dover?”
I answered him, “You're damn straight. We're the Pros from Dover all right, and we're here to make things right.”
Meanwhile he leaned over toward me and said, a little conspiratorially, “Let me see that a minute.” He indicated the Milk Duds box and the papers. I was shocked, and for an instant I wondered if I had misread things. I needn't have worried. Having disposed of the inevitable Camel, he shook the perfect amount of the herb onto one of the papers held in his left hand, in the classic pose, with the paper draped between the forefinger and thumb, supported by the middle finger. He then proceeded to roll a joint as good as the one I had rolled, only he did it with the one hand. I couldn't help glancing over at Carroll, who was laughing so hard, I thought he was going to choke, tears streaming down his face.
He twisted the two ends expertly, and handed it to me. “Not bad for one of the Establishment, don't you think?”
Now an new voice suddenly broke in. “Hey, are you gonna light that thing or talk about it all night?” It was the E-1 who had his eyes riveted on the joint.
“No,” I said. “We're not those kind of guys. Why do you ask?”
Instead of saying something, he extended his hand, holding a lighter. He may have been a man of few words, but the ones he spoke were in a universal language. So I figured, what the hell? I moistened the end of our doobie that we intended to fire up, to see if we could minimize the tendency to run, what with the air movement in the back of the truck, and leaned forward to accept a light. Drawing in a bodacious hit, I asked,
“What'd they dick you for?” nodding at his shoulder patch, a private's insignia which did not quite cover that part of his sleeve which was slightly darker in color, probably from the larger Specialist Four insignia.
“Oh, that? I punched out an M.P.” I warmed to him immediately. The guys in the back of this deuce were turning out to be some interesting cats.
“No shit. I'd of paid to see that.” Again, Carroll was cracking up, as we replayed certain dialogue, which we had had, in part, the night we met.
“Why'd you hit him?” Mahlon asked the question. We were all enjoying the fact that an hour had slipped by, and we were nearly half way. Some of the guys riding toward the back of the truck, were starting to make noises like they wanted the truck to pull over, for a pit stop. They were telegraphing this by pounding in unison on the floor of the truck with their boots. I had yet to set eyes on the driver of our vehicle, but I had a feeling that the rhythmic thumping would produce a result.
As the truck down shifted and began to drift to the shoulder of the highway, and I leaned forward to better hear, I passed him the joint.
“He hit me first,” he said primly and took the jay. I was impressed. It sounded so simple. On the other hand, I'd had opportunity to come face to face with M'P.'s, and I'd never had the impulse to hit one.
“He hit you first? And you hit him back? Sounds like you were at school again.” Addis observed.
Tuiasopa looked over at Steve. “I schooled him, all right.”
His explanation would have to wait as our chariot jerked to a stop, and we took this moment to stretch our legs. I looked back at the truck, silhouetted by the headlights of passing vehicles, and noted that the driver still remained anonymously concealed up in the cab. We continued to circulate the joint, while those who needed to, faded back into the shadows, and took care of business.
The night was clear and well below freezing. There was still a breeze, but it was nowhere near as strong as earlier, and we were hopeful that the weather would cooperate. No one wanted to linger out in the elements any longer than needed, so we piled back in and rearranged ourselves in our respective seats, and got ready to continue our journey.
I looked inquiringly at Private Tuiasopa, Troy, and he began. “I was in the ville, at the White Rose, and we were having a party for one of the guys' birthday. These two punk M.P.'s show up cause there was a fight at Suki's next door. I was mindin' my own business, but those M.P.'s come in and start hassling my friend. He wasn't doin' nothin' either, but they gotta mess with everyone. I go over to see why they don't just go back where they came from, and the one dude, he grabs my buddy. Up to that point, I didn't think too much was gonna happen, but when that dude grabbed my friend, I kind of tried to knock his arm aside, and the guy's partner punched me in the ear, Man. It hurt so bad, I just hauled off and decked him.”
At this point, I pumped my own fist in the air, as I thought of the times I'd seen those arrogant jerks strutting their stuff. Troy responded by hitting one open palm with his other close-fisted hand, with a resounding smack. He was a slight figure of a guy, but like many American Somoans, he was very excitable. He was also loyal, which accounts for his actions. I thought he would be a good guy to have on my side if I ran into trouble. He took this moment to pause and relight the roach that he'd ended up with.
I figured his throat was dry from all that talk, so I offered him my flask, but he declined, saying, “I better not. If I start drinking, I'll get to Pusan, and start looking for M.P.'s to pound.”
“No, as satisfying as that would be to see,” I said, “let's try and stay out of jail, until at least we've had time to see Bad Bob.”
Troy stopped, and nodded his head. “I've been hearing about this dude from from my grandfather, since I could keep my mouth shut long enough to listen. Grandpops was in Okinawa and The Phillipines, and he saw Hope when he toured at the end of the War. He said if war was hell, then seeing Bob Hope was heaven, and Grandpops was not a religious man. So, I want to see him too.”
“Then you can go Home and compare notes?” I asked, just because it was obvious that he was close to his grandpa.
“Grandpops passed, when I was still in high school. I guess that's why I'm here.”
All at once I recognized him, and I grinned. He saw it and said, “You know me now? By the way, I'm Troy.”
“I do. Hey, guys, this is the dude who helped get Kelley on board for changes in the Barn. Good job.” He again extended his hand and I gave him the expected three pronged hand shake. The first was a hand shake with each other's fingers wrapped around the back of the other's hand, thumbs interlocked. The second was the traditional handshake, and the third was with fingers interlocked as a unit, the way you would if you were wearing mittens, while the thumbs point upward. Before relaxing our hands on the final step, we would tense our fingers and give a firm tug, before releasing and simultaneously snapping our fingers. Our greeting was tame, compared to the superbly choreographed handshake rituals performed by the brothers. We'd watch these ceremonious greetings enviously. That stuff took practice.
Now there was general commotion as we rehashed that little soap opera, and got on some familiar ground. Sgt. Hennessey took it all in. Now he spoke.
“You guys work in Redeployment?”
I gave him my overused response. “That's funny, so do we.”
He paused, took his flask out and nipped again, before replying, “O'Neill, you don't come from California, do you?” That was it. Carroll sprayed a mouthful of pretzel all over, he was laughing so hard.
I looked innocently at the sarge, and shrugged my shoulders. “You got my number. I'm a Los Angeles boy. Well, San Gabriel Valley, about twenty miles east of downtown LA. But we get to breathe the same smog.” It's so ironic how proud I used to be to tell guys I came from LA. The last time I visited Los Angeles, in 1982, I was driving in the slow lane, of four lane Highway Ten, doing fifty five miles an hour, when a metallic green, Pontiac GTO, passed me on the right hand shoulder of the freeway. I like the slower pace up in Mendocino County a lot more.
He nodded. “It figures with the pot, and with the way you talk.”
I swiveled my head toward him. “What's the matter for the the way I talk? Can not you understand the Engrish?” I gave “English” Mr. Mak's pronunciation, because I was pretty sure old Hennessey had experienced his share of the Korean ville culture.
He kept on shaking his head. “Every guy I ever met from California smokes pot.”
Tim and I stood up and did our handshake, while basking in the glow. Tim's from San Bernardino, and that practically made us kin.
I looked over at Hennessey. “Why does every lifer-uh, sorry-every uh, help me out here, someone...” That's the only printable thing we ever called them. Trying to come up with an acceptable alternative, was beyond me. Addis came through.
“I think what O'Neill meant was we refer to this...” He pointed at the roach that Tuiasopa still held...”as reefer, or MaryJane, or Merry Jay Juana, but you guys all say 'pot.' And you spit it out, like it's a bad word.”
Hennssey mused for a moment, rubbing his grizzled chin with his left hand.
“Guilty as charged. But when I come back to the barracks late, and I gotta smell that...And the guys who smoke it are all stoned...I don't know.”
Blue spoke up. “What about the rednecks? They come back, just like you said, and they're all drunk. You're all drunk,” he amended. “They're raisin' a ruckus, and we're sitting there minding our own business.” He let the words hang in the air.
Hennessey was nodding. “Yeah. That's what happens. You're right.” Both flasks came out simultaneously, and I waved his aside. Around the circle went the Bushmill's, with only Troy abstaining.
Now was the time. Bringing out the joint I had originally rolled, before Hennessey did his one handed act, I again moistened the end to be lit. I fired it up, took a generous hit and offered it to the lifer. All he said was, “If the guys in the motor pool could see me now,” and took a good poke. His years of smoking Camels helped out, and as the joint came around again, he took another rip and passed it on. We were getting close Pusan now.
I asked Hennessey, “Hey, where do we sleep when we get there? Will they put us up?”
He was grinning. “Well there are some things they could do. In Nam, they opened up the gym, which was warm, for us to sleep in. And they used the big hangars on the air force base to let the troops crash in. They could also bring in dancing girls. Oh yeah. They are. It's hard to say for sure; we'll just have to wait and see how it looks. But the army works in mysterious ways.” The man positively giggled. He was looking around at his feet for something.
“Hey, Sarge. What'd you lose?” Addis asked.
“I don't know. Did I have a bag?” I clapped him on his back, and told him everything was all right.
“You didn't have a bag when we shook our lily pads before, so I think you're good.” He was still giggling, so I asked him, “How're doing, Sarge? How's that reefer treating you?”
“It's good. I'm having a hard time focusing.”
“Neither am I,” I said, and that made me giggle.
He shook his finger at me. “You're messing with my head.”
I laughed. “”You're even talking like a stoner.”
“I kind of like the way it makes me feel.” He sounded surprised.
All I could think to say was, “I hear you. That's how I'm making it through this whole Korea experience.”
The truck rolled to a standstill. And everyone stood up on creaky knees. We bailed out and stood outside the truck, getting our bearings. Finally, the driver's door opened up, and a young guy stepped out onto the running board, and waited ntil we were looking at him.
“I'm going to be back here at this spot, tomorrow at 1630 hours. If you're here, I'll take you back. If you're not, then you find your own way back, 'cause I ain't waiting one minute past.” With that, he was gone.
I saw Troy off to one side, and nodded at him. “Are you in good shape?”
He nodded. “I'm meeting Mikey here and we're going to check this place out.” Mikey was Mike Manuapa, a records clerk, who was a ville rat from the beginning.
“Cool. So, we'll see you around, and if not, back here tomorrow.”
Sgt. Hennessey was shaking hands with another lifer, and I waved to him as he glanced back and made eye contact. He waved and I turned back to the guys.
“Where the hell are we?” I looked around. How a place could be so busy, and look so deserted amazed me. There were GI's everywhere, and a series of light towers that illuminated the whole scene in a murky, dusty sort of way, but there didn't seem to be any substance to the place. On the periphery of our vision, was an eight feet high, chain link fence, running along the far side of the field. This must be part of the air force base. Behind us, the other deuce and a half was pulling up. Off to one side I could make out a Quonset style building and realized it was an orderly room for Pusan Air Force Base. So that's where we would need to return, prior to 4:30 tomorrow.
As much as it seemed like it was late, it wasn't. We had left Ascom around five. It couldn't have been later than seven-thirty or so, so we were looking for the next spot to land. I saw guys from the other deucey spilling out and went over just in time to hear their driver giving them the same directive about the next day. I was looking for someone who had a handle on where we were at, and I spotted him in the form of Tom Crawford, a motor pool monkey, and a guy who loved his job. He knew every army and air force motor pool crew in Korea. He told us he had worked as a courier whose route took him through Pusan, and around the loop to Oujambou, and back. He would know the scene around here. I sashayed over to him, and offered him my flask.
He took a good swig, and that gave me the opportunity to ask him, “What's the good word on accommodations? We ain't looking for the Hilton, but at least a place out of the wind.”
Crawford had the facts at his fingertips. “They're dumping everybody here, cause this is where the show is tomorrow, out there on the parade field. They've been setting up the stage for three days now. There are two clubs on base, but they were jammed hours ago, and the guys who are in there, are never going to give up their spot. They're letting anyone who wants sleep in any one of three places. You can go to either of the two hangars out on the air field, you can sleep in the auditorium or you can crash in the gym. There's no cots or anything; it's just a dry place out of the cold. They're letting guys in until they have to tear the paper off the wall. If you're worried about it, go early; otherwise, bop until you drop, and drop where you end up.”
“Righteous, Man. Thanks for the scoop. I owe you. Come see me when you get short, and we'll make sure you're going to where you need to be.” After all, turn about was fair play. I walked back over to the group and filled them in.
“It looks like we can make our party where we want, and crash there as well. There are a couple of clubs, but we'd probably have to wait outside half the night to get in, so forget that. Let's go get situated somewhere, before we end up out on the field for the night.”
Those humongous hangars seemed a little intimidating, so we went to the one place that sounded most comfortable, and that was the auditorium. Sure enough, it was spacious, warm, and had several venues within to take advantage of, We chose the front stage, because there were few guys up there, and we wanted to stake our territory, so that when we wanted to smoke a little something later, we wouldn't have any lifers glaring at us and calling the MP's.
The stage turned out to be perfect, because we were able to stake out a spot and do a little reconnaissance and discover about a dozen chairs backstage. The chairs themselves did not interest us, but rather, the cushions that were attached to them. These we untied, and arranged beneath us, so that we had something between us and the hard wooden floor, than our clothes. We now had the proper means to enjoy a low-key evening of animated discussion, cards and a reasonably early bedtime, so as to try and prepare for what would undoubtedly be a long and intense day.
We awoke around seven, each surfacing at various points to the general shuffling around of individuals in a sea of bodies. Latrine calls, and early appointments elsewhere, created the need for GI's to be up and circulating about on the auditorium floor, so there was a low hum already audible as we surfaced.
The military had already provided two surprises for us. The first was the show itself. Granted, the troupe worked for free, but there were a multitude of logistical challenges that had to be overcome, before the show could carry on. The military obviously saw the value of the production, and was willing to facilitate those logistics.
The second surprise had been the superb accommodations: warm, comfortable and accessible. Now we found our third pleasant surprise: a continental breakfast.
There were gargantuan urns of coffee, huge vats of orange juice and milk, unlimited amounts of toast, with butter or jelly and one dough-nut per GI. Together with the mini-boxes of cereal that I had tossed into my kimchi bag, we had a sumptuous feast. That was good, because it was more than eight hours later before we ate anything of substance again. The breakfast was laid out in the front lobby, so guys could enter, get something to eat and drink, and go back into the auditorium, to stand around munching. It was all very casual, there was no panic to get at the coffee, and everyone gravitated form the breakfast scene into the show scene very smoothly. There were no plates or utensils, only the multi-purpose paper cups, which were used for both hot and cold beverages, so clean up simply meant everyone policing his own spot.
We filtered out onto the parade field as GI's began assembling from all over
the base. We had tried to calculate just how many there would be altogether. With around 50,000 troops, we figured about twenty thousand of them would be up on the DMZ, and would have had their own show at Camp Casey. Of the remainder, a certain percentage had to work, as terrible as that sounds. So we figured around twenty-twenty five thousand, if you factored in that there was a segment of the GI population, that was not interested in an old fogey, who told lame jokes.
I actually thought of it at the time as fewer people than those who watched my high school football team compete for the 4A championship in Southern California. My school's team had played in Anaheim Stadium in front of thirty thousand fans.
Now we were gathering in front of a stage that was raised up about ten feet off of the ground, and spread out on either side to a total width of at least fifty feet. The troops fanned out from the stage in a pretty natural process of those arriving early and positioning themselves accordingly, to those who traipsed in on a more European schedule. Early arrivals arranged themselves in a sleeping/reclining mode, which meant that later, as they stood, there was generally a little elbow space, and minimal sense of being crushed by a sea of OD green.
Once again, there was no mass movement of humanity; rather, there was a general flow in the direction of the stage. Word had circulated that show time was eleven, and lasted around three hours, at which time guys would scatter in all directions. We did not feel any need to be up front, so we focused on the general atmosphere in selecting our spot. We figured lifers would want to be as far from us as we were from them, so we just went to a clump of guys who looked like us, and mingled. We weren't interested in any drama, and fatigues made it too difficult to determine exactly what rank a guy might be, so indulging in the green was not an option. Smoking in the back of a moving deuce and a half, was not the same thing as smoking in a field where the thought of escape would be laughable. We let adrenaline provide the high.
The weather cooperated nicely, the day being clear and sunny, if not especially warm. The fact that there GI's everywhere to block the breeze, and we had our blankets draped around us, made for nothing to whine about. The base was already set up for large numbers of troops, so facilities were adequate, and having us split up into several sites overnight, kept everything manageable. The military was proving frightfully efficient for once.
It wasn't significantly different from being in the LA Forum on the previous December 13th, watching The Who in a crowd of close to twenty thousand. Maybe my level of expectation may have been less, but this was still pretty extraordinary for a military venture. There were enough personnel on hand, who had seen Bob Hope at some earlier point in their lives, to create a hum of excitement. There was a lot of emotion present, what with the Holidays on the immediate horizon, and the nature of the Bob Hope experience itself. When his appearance onstage was delayed almost half an hour for an unknown reason, the hum turned into a buzz. Herein lies the challenge, to adequately convey the depth of feeling that he created in the hearts of those who saw him.
Yes, you had to have been there to have experienced that euphoria, and no amount of description is going to transport you to that spot. However, the same could be said for describing a debilitating knee injury. One doesn't have to experience the pain itself, to appreciate the severity of the injury. Earlier in this narrative, I described our despair at finding out we had to serve an additional sixty days over in Korea, than we had anticipated. Just as our despair was deep, now our spirits soared. We were predisposed to laugh, to cry and to try and escape our bleak existence for a minute, to return to the sanity of our World.
Hope gave us the vehicle to do so. He strolled out on stage, brandishing his signature golf club and using it alternately as a cane, then a club, elaborately sighting a nonexistent putt, and sinking it. He approached the microphone, his head slowly, comically, swiveling back and forth, as he included everyone in his gaze. He was wearing a field jacket with exaggerated NCO stripes, over his tplaid trousers, looking all the world like a Keystone Golfer.
He first words were appropriately geared to his crowd. “I'm sorry for being late.” He paused. “Some slicky boy stole the runway at Osan Air Force Base.” If you weren't already a convert, you were now. I'd like to say I have the entire show indelibly placed in my head, but I my memories are general in nature, and focus completely on the wave of appreciation, emotion, and recognition that we were seeing something special, and much bigger than the sum of its parts. I remembered Hennessey's words and lived them. The American Beauty Contestants were the girls next door. The GI's were so enthusiastic, without being crude. I never heard anyone yell something vulgar. The nature of the show was to put everything out on the table, as far as beauty, style, glamor and nostalgia for Home were concerned, and expect that the audience would be happy with that. It was a successful formula.
The privates and the lifers were united in their thirst for all that reminded them of the World, and Bob Hope and his company provided it. The athletes in the crowd appreciated Roman Gabriel and his Prince Valiant hair style. Being a Rams' fan from LA, I especially enjoyed his appearance. Redd Foxx was as irreverently funny as always, and Lola Falana brought Hollywood to Korea. For the promised three hours, we reveled in the entertainment, and felt as though we were back in the World. For me there was no let-down when it all was over, because it remained so vividly alive in my mind. The feeling of overwhelming gratitude to a person, who twenty-four hours earlier was nothing but a name, infused and enthused me. I thought about the time out of the office, and felt a debt of gratitude to my bosses for letting me go. It seems irrational to me now, going back to the analogy of having to suffer first before enjoying oneself, but the whole surreal experience was somewhat unexplainable. Yes, we suffered away from Home, but still, the army allowed that the other 364 days, no problem. That 365th day though, was a creditable effort to provide at least one indication that there was some sense of humanity about the Green Machine.
As we lassoed our emotions and allowed our stomachs an opinion, we were again surprised to find that food was being provided in the form of baloney sandwiches. It's amazing how tasty an army-issued baloney sandwich can be, if you are starving and not too particular. Besides, it was convenient, and we were standing in the designated spot when our nameless chauffeur pulled up right on time.
I have no idea if the same guys came back as went. I think not, because I didn't see Sergeant Hennessey or Troy Tuiasopa on the way back. We dozed intermittently, and pulled up in front of the 199th's orderly room in plenty of time to get a full night's rest before going back to work.
Christmas was around the corner; I was going home on leave in January. All was temporarily OK in the ROK.