This is a repost of the first of thirteen vignettes on my military experience.
Who the Hell Is Leonard Wood?
“I got news for y'all. Y'all ain't goin' to Fort Ord; y'all goin' my home state, Miz-zoo-ry, to Fort Len-nerd Wood.” The speaker was a heavyset sergeant, with a round, grinning face, and an air of malevolent satisfaction. His prominent stomach bulged against the buttons of his starched fatigues, and his stubby chin was dimpled; it positively rippled as he laughed. The fact that he seemed to enjoy our discomfort, made him even seem less attractive.
Excuse me? Who the hell is Leonard Wood? Out loud someone asked, “What's going on? My recruiter guaranteed me I would be going to Fort Ord.”
“No pro-blay-mo. Jest let me see that there gar-an-tee, and I'll get you squared a-way.” He drawled each syllable of those big words out in his best Missouri twang.
“Well, he didn't give me anything. I mean, not in writing or anything like that. He just told me that everyone from Los Angeles would automatically be doing basic training at Fort Ord. Does it make a difference that it's not in writing?” The skinny kid, with the shock of carrot-colored hair and a sort of dazed look about him, stared expectantly up into the ham-like face.
The fat man's smile broadened, if that were possible. “Does a bear take a crap where it wants to? Y'all got a lot to learn 'bout this man's army. But yer got yer first quiz right now. Cause here y'all do what yer told, and I jus' tole yer where yer goin'. Got it?” Amazing. The only word in the two sentences, longer than one syllable, was the word army.
The original speaker slouched amongst what had to be the sorriest looking group of young adult males that ever assembled in one location. Since I was sitting there too, I can only figure that I was in just as sad of shape. I know why I was dejected; it was a simple matter of winning the lottery, the draft lottery that is, the only lottery I ever won.
If you're of a certain age, you know that in the final throes of the Vietnam War, the draft board instigated a process whereby all eligible draft candidates were assigned a number from one through 366. Each date on the calendar year corresponded with one of the 366 Ping-Pong balls bouncing around in the clear jug. September Fourth, always my favorite day of the year, suddenly turned Benedict Arnold on me, as it was drawn at the same time as number thirty-three was pulled.
At the start of 1972, the draft board estimated that those with numbers under one hundred, had better be prepared to enter the military. I entered the Armed Forces Entrance Examination Station (AFEES) in Los Angeles, at six AM, on January tenth, 1972. I sat there in my ratty Levis and lightweight, olive-drab corduroy jacket, with my six weeks' growth of beard. Like those around me, I carried a relatively small canvas gym bag with a couple changes of clothes, a book, and my shaving kit. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, as I tried to concentrate on M*A*S*H*, but trying to look like a bad ass all the same. After all, at five feet ten inches tall, and a robust one hundred fifty pounds, I did not present an imposing figure. But I was the only dude there with a beard. It seemed relevant at the time.
My brothers, Brian and Noel, along with my then-girlfriend, had delivered me to Sepulvada Boulevard in plenty of time. Our good-byes had long since been spoken, so there was no dilly-dallying around at the entrance. I cruised in like the Pro from Dover, until the door whipped back with a thud, an indication of a faulty hydraulic mechanism on the door, at which time the enormity of what I was in for began to sink in. As I looked around me, I saw my own dejection mirrored in the faces around me.
Someone else blurted out, “But why aren't we going to Fort Ord? Why send us three thousand miles away when we could go right up the coast?” Geography was not a requirement for entry into the army, so no one bothered to correct his mileage estimate.
“Y'all don't want to be goin' to Fort Ord at this here time, 'cause they got some sort of dizeaze. It's one that strikes fast and...” He snapped his meaty fingers. "Zap, your girlfiend's collecting on your army life inshurince.” Later we had learned that he referred to meningitis, and that we probably were lucky to avoid Ord, but we still wanted to kill the messenger, or at least deflate him.
“It's sort a funny, ya know. When I got into the army, we was havin' that same thin' at Len-nerd Wood.” He looked down at the floor for a second, and then glanced slyly at us to see if anyone had gotten his inference. If an outbreak had occurred in the past at FLW, and was currently an issue at Ft. Ord, then it could also break out at FLW, at an instant's notice. I'm pretty sure everyone got it, based on the general sagging quality of the body language.
“So that means we're not going to Fort Ord?” someone asked. Definitely army material.
This gave the sergeant another opportunity to expand on the news. “The only way you go to Fort Ord is if Santa Claus swoops down in his sleigh and carries you up there. That or you got it in writin'.” There was a note of finality in his voice, and his smiling face had disappeared.
A timid hand went up, just as it might have on the first day of middle school. “I have it in writing.” This was from a little guy wearing glasses, who had been sitting by himself, and who seemed to want the floor to open up and swallow him.
Now it was the sergeant's turn to register disappointment. “Let me see that.”
He snatched the paper from the kid's hand, and examined it for what seemed like longer than what the task demanded. After all, it had to have been a form that he was staring at, and he must have seen a thousand of them before, since he worked here at the AFEES.
Suddenly the sergeant leered at the kid. “Well I guess it's your lucky day. You get to go on up to Fort Ord, but I wouldn't worry too much 'bout that there diz-eaze They say only one recruit has died so far, but it's still early.” Even in defeat, he clutched at victory with one final thrust.
Nine AM finally arrived, and with it the master sergeant who ran the AFEES-LA. (After all, as we were soon to find out, no one could reasonably expect anything to happen in the army until after you had sat around for three hours). We were herded into a nondescript room, big enough to seat the forty of us, but not by much.
Characteristically, there were the gratuitous “moos” and catcalls as we filed in and took a desk, identical to the ones in which we sat in high school homeroom, including the fact there were insufficient left-handed desks. We were here to take a series of standardized tests, measuring skill levels in basic math, language and reading abilities, one of the four times during the next week, that we were to take the identical set of exams.
They were similar to every standardized test I had ever taken, and since the tests were identical, by the third time I took them, I was getting pretty good at it. Because we were sitting in close quarters, I was able to get enough of a look at a few of my closest neighbors' papers, to be able to appreciate the clever patterns they had formed with their colored-in dots. Missing from the scene was any measurable level of concern. It was as though the army had furnished them with a coloring book to entertain them while they waited for something to happen. When the master sergeant distributed the questionnaire, which included the question, “If given a choice, would you prefer to serve in Vietnam or Korea?” I was flummoxed.
Was this a trick question? The last time I'd checked, no one was currently getting blown up by land mines in Korea, so I checked the “Korea” box. Then I colored in the box extra dark, just to make sure there was no confusion. As it turned out, those tests which had provided such entertainment for my fellow recruits, but had seemed so elementary to me, turned out to be the method by which the army sorted and classified all incoming soldiers. This is a well-established feature of the army, that everything has to have a classification. Says so in the manual, page twelve, paragraph four, subsection c.
As we sat there, I struck up a conversation with an older guy, who seemed a little more together than the rest of us. Lon DeWeese was twenty-four, with a brushy mustache, and horned rim glasses. His hazel eyes seemed to shift color from a green tint at times, to an almost amber shade at others, as he took in his surroundings. Lon was a graduate of UCLA, and had been notified within two weeks of his December 1st graduation, that he was to report for active military duty on January tenth. He and I talked about school, shared majors, established that we shared a common passion for pinochle, and made a vow to find two other players first thing upon arrival at Fort Leonard Wood, for some cards action. Before the first morning had passed, I had already established the art of making connections that were to last, in some instances, for a lifetime.
After the testing was done, they fed us, appropriately enough, baloney sandwiches and kept us waiting for another three hours, presumably while they cut orders for us to ship out to Missouri. Eventually, the sergeant major came back in, at which time we wrapped up our individual conversations in two words or less while we waited for the bad news. Unfortunately, nothing happened to change the orders in his hand as he said, “You already know that you're not going to Fort Ord. Believe me, it may be cold at Fort Leonard Wood, but you'll get out of there in ten weeks if you keep it together. I'm not sure we could say the same about Ord.” The fat sergeant stood off to one side with no expression on his face, as he let his boss handle this part of the program. His work had already been accomplished.
He asked if there were any questions, and of course there were at least a hundred. No one said a word. “Great. You'll fly out of L.A. International to Kansas City, where you will be given further orders. I've put Private Second Class DeWeess, in charge, and he has your orders. You are to follow any instructions that he gives you, and stick together so the military police don't have to go looking for anyone.” Lon was now a rank higher than the rest of us, and in charge, for the simple reason that he was the only college grad in the group, and he was six years older than most of us. His reserved demeanor and his age, combined to make him the best, if not the only, candidate for the job. They then loaded us onto an army bus for the relatively short trip to the airport, where we were put on a commercial airliner heading for Kansas City. The only thing I remember about that bus trip was Leon, and the way Lon handled the situation.
Leon was neither older nor reserved. He was this tall, lanky black kid with a big smile and an even bigger voice. He drew our attention because he had pushed his head and shoulders out of the bus window, and was hollering at the babes on the street as the bus passed them by. His Raiders ball cap was cocked sideways, angled down in the style of the inner-city kids. He wasn't vulgar, just noisy and obnoxious, and he didn't give up. The rest of us didn't much care; it wasn't as though we were going to be going the same way the next day. The bantering continued, without abatement, the entire half-hour trip. On the bus on the way to the airport, the way Lon handled Leon was to ignore him.
By the time we boarded the plane, Leon had toned it down to the extent that he couldn't very well stick his head out the plane window, but he was still noisy and bouncing all over the plane, for the first few minutes once the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign had been extinguished. Lon waited only until after that had transpired, before he got up from his seat, walked over to Leon, said something only Leon could hear, and headed toward the back of the plane. Leon got up as if his shoe were on fire, and followed Lon on back. Lon came back almost immediately, and retook his seat.
Leon was gone about ten minutes, and when he came back, he was a different man. Gone was the hollering, and the seeming need for attention. In its place was a subdued Leon, who appeared to be a totally changed guy. His smile had been replaced with a look of concentration-or confusion-it was hard to tell. He seemed to be settling down into his seat in a very relaxed manner, and he no longer seemed to care about what was going on around him.
What was up with that? When I had spoken with Lon earlier at the AFEES, he had seemed pretty laid back, so I leaned around the seat in front of me when no one seemed to be paying attention and asked him quietly, “What's up with Leon? He sure mellowed out fast.”
Lon shrugged his shoulders imperceptibly, as if to say, “It's nothing to do with me,” except that it actually had everything to do with Lon. It seems that, when Lon escorted Leon to the back of the plane, the reason was to slip Leon a little goodness rolled up in the form of a joint, a little thai stick, if I remember correctly. Leon was apparently more familiar with the stuff coming locally from Mexico, and the stuff Lon had turned him on to, was way out of his normal league, so Leon was simply fried. If you glanced at him now, Leon's face had a sort of glassy look to it, and it seemed unlikely that he would be up and hollering any time in the immediate future. At least the rest of us got a break from the mouth.