No Blankets and No Pillow
As I open this segment on Fort Dix, New Jersey, I marvel at the fact that I was not there for more than eight weeks and yet, as I flew from Missouri to New Jersey, those weeks stretched out in front of me as an eternity. I had entered the service on January 10th, 1972, and it was now March 20th, a scant seventy days, which had weighed on my psyche like a 235 cubic inch cylinder head, a boat anchor by definition, if ever one existed.
I made my way from Missouri to New Jersey with one other guy from Ft. Leonard Wood, who was also being assigned to Delta Company, and who was going to be a chaplain’s assistant, like me. On the one hand I had already dealt with the unhappy fact that I was not heading out west to California; instead, I was going farther east to the absolute extreme of the continent to New Jersey. On the flip side of the coin, I had been assigned a military occupation specialty (MOS) that was one of a kind in its uniqueness and appeal: a chaplain’s assistant job.
The drill sergeants at Fort Leonard Wood had seemed genuinely pleased on my behalf, asserting that it was a highly desirable peach of a job, primarily because there was only one boss, and the hours were good. They said Sunday was the big day, and the rest of the time I was just like a secretary, taking care of correspondence, and driving the chaplain around to his appointments. I thought of not being housed in a barracks already filled with a couple of dozen guys, and that maybe it would afford some opportunity for individualism, and I felt slightly encouraged, which was head and shoulders above the way I felt at FLW.
Unfortunately, a desirable job and, hopefully, a quick completion to my two year sentence in the military, still existed only on the far side of advanced individual training (AIT), during which time, I would acquire the necessary skills to assure success. I figured that if the army had a set of guidelines, designed to be instilled in the average recruit, then I should have no trouble. Besides, I had every intention of getting out, on one or more weekends, to visit relatives of Nancie, and maybe even take a side trip to Washington DC. I even fantasized about a trip to Shea Stadium to see the Schmetsies play the Dodgers.
It still seems unfathomable to me, a thirty-seven year fan of the San Francisco Giants, that I used to bleed Dodger Blue, for the first nineteen years of my life. What are you going to do, if you are raised in Southern California, and you are a kid? You do what the rest of the tribe does, and that was watch Sandy Koufax and Maury Wills. It was not my fault that I was born in the San Gabriel Valley. Pa had it right; he was a fan of the Giants for one reason only, and that was Mister Willie Mays, a man Pa always referred to as the consummate gentleman. He used to try to get Noel and/or me to switch allegiance, and I did for a short while when Noel went off to Dominguez, so I can say today, that I was first a Giants fan back in about 1964, ten years before my official conversion.
Just to assure you that there are no lingering feelins for Southern California, I went back to SoCal for the last time in 1983, the year after Casey was born, to attend Auntie Anne’s 75th birthday. The memory that stands out clearest is that while driving along the San Bernardino Freeway in the slow lane, at an admittedly cautious 55 miles per hour, I was passed on the right shoulder of the freeway, by a metallic green GTO, whose driver gesticulated at me in body language that was punctuated with a rude and ungracious gesture, testimony to either his I.Q. or number of friends he had before his dog died.
Now, as I stepped out of the olive drab green station wagon, that had conveyed my buddy and I from Philadelphia to Fort Dix, I took stock of my new surroundings. We had come into Philly at 1:30 in the AM, and had had to wait for about forty-five minutes before our transport arrived. Now, as I look at the map, I see that Philadelphia is not more than thirty or forty miles from Ft. Dix, so what happened was that upon arriving in Philly, the call had gone out to send our chariot to the airport from Fort Dix. That way there would have been no need to provide us with car fare.
What I was looking at was this ancient, ugly, dilapidated, decrepit, olive drab green, paint-peeling edifice: in other words, a typical U. S. Army affair. Here we signed in and obtained our bedding, which consisted of a single bed sheet. There were no blankets, there were no pillows, there was no heat and there damn sure was no comfort or sympathy for our plight. Did I think the clerk, who had been awakened to provide us with bedding, cared one iota about our plight? I think he considered his own displacement from sleep to be of far greater import, and actually got perverse enjoyment out of welcoming us to this venue of the military experience, by not being any more accommodating than he had been. I also found it hard to believe there were no additional blankets or pillows anywhere to be found at Ft. Dix.
However, when it turned out there was also no food available (we had not eaten in twelve hours), the whole picture represented a mirror image of the experience at FLW. Hurry up and wait; if there is a better way to do it, you can be sure the army will never find it, or more likely, it will find it, but not recognize it for being what it is, while everyone around does. All we could do was sigh, and head up to the third floor open bay, where there were already a bunch of snoring bodies draped over military cots. We stuffed our gear into lockers with no locks, and staggered off to bed, exhausted, cold, hungry and demoralized. I do not remember a more depressing setting for one night in the first six months of my experience, though I was still in continental United States. Later, when I went overseas, I think the argument could be made, that my spirits sank a little lower, but who’s quibbling over degree of depression? It was all enough to make the pope cry.