If not the last of my concerns, the specter of the Vietnam War was hardly top of mind on the morning I was inducted into the US Army in August, 1969. Rather, it was the sheer novelty of my hapless adventure that had my full attention.
I left Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, that summer morning on an eerily silent bus ride with a couple of dozen strangers, bound for Newark Airport. There, I boarded a jet airliner for my first ever plane ride. My destination was Columbia, SC, where I marveled at the cleanest, most gleaming and over-air conditioned place I had ever been. All was indisputable evidence that my life had just taken a hard turn in a direction I couldn’t fathom in the least.
But it seemed unlikely that my life and the war some 9,000 miles away would ever intersect. For one thing, then President Nixon had begun the troop withdrawals from Vietnam; The My Lai massacre and Tet Offensive of 1968 had soured US public opinion against the war in an overwhelming way. So, how long could this fool’s errand in Southeast Asia continue?
And no less an authority than my college history professor personally assured me that “the war was practically over.” He said that in the winter of 1969, when he refused to give me a chance to up my grade one letter. Thus ended my student deferment from the military draft. It turned out that 1969 was the bloodiest year of them all for US soldiers in Vietnam. But, hey, we all make mistakes. Even history professors.
For three days of hot, boring outfitting and orientation (I quickly learned one of the first and most fundamental Army skills: “hurry up and wait”) at Fort Jackson, SC, I was less scared than lonely. My unease became palpable. I smoked like a fiend; ground my teeth; drooled in my sleep, and had dry mouth during the day. I phoned Natalie every chance I could, wrote to her non-stop, and desperately sought out faces and voices of fellow “boots” who looked, sounded or acted as if they could be from New York. I found a few, but it hardly quelled my anxiety.
Once our heads were shaved and all other signs of civilian life was suitably smothered, a bunch of us were crammed onto rickety olive-drab school buses and transported south about 100 miles to Ft. Gordon near Augusta, GA. My jaw was agape at the impoverished farmers and hovels that I saw on the way. What did Dorothy say? “I don’t think we’re in Brooklyn anymore.”
For the next eight weeks, all through the end of summer and early fall, red clay dust filled every cavity and pore of my body. As part of 1st Platoon, Company D, 1st Battalion, 1st BCT Brigade, I ran hither and yon from sun up to sundown in pursuit of “basic combat training” under the stern bark of one drill instructor or another. Because of my 10-letter Italian name, they called me “Alphabet,” and thought themselves clever for it.
I was never in such great physical shape as I was that autumn. I was never so dispirited either about the course my life had taken. My friends were in college, my NY Mets were on their way to the World Series, and I was playing soldier in Georgia with no clue what was to become of me. As the torture of our training cycle ticked by, war worries eventually emerged. Eighty-five percent of us were heading to advanced infantry training and then most likely Vietnam, said our commanders, with sadistic glee. They left the thought right there for us to imagine the worst. And we did. How could I have let my life come to this?
But there were alternatives, I learned. The army loved me. Well, they loved my mind and wanted more of me for it. I scored high on test after test. And I was solicited almost daily for a higher calling. “You can be an officer….You can be a West Point cadet…You can be a Ranger…. You can be a Warrant Officer helicopter pilot,” they promised. All I had to do was sign on the dotted line and commit to a few more years of service. The prospect of delaying the possibility of going to the war through extra training time crossed my mind. But the commitment of two to five years or more additional service was a Faustian deal I refused to make. I passed on the military career opportunities. I took my chances on two-years and out.
And then I got dealt an ace in the hole. A week before the end of basic training, the Army rewarded me for what they called “Civilian Acquired Skills.” My time between high school and college as a copy boy and wire room operator at the Wall Street Journal paid an unexpected dividend. And though my studies as a Journalism major were spectacularly underwhelming in the academic world, those two resume bullets helped earn me an Army job—Military Occupation Specialty—as a 71Q20 Information Specialist. I’d be working as a newspaper reporter, editor or publicity flack for Uncle Sam in Ft. Bragg, NC. No need for further training required. Take a two week leave, go home to your family and loved ones, report back in November. If I was a religious man, I’d have thanked Divine Intervention. Instead, I chalked it up to the jelly — this time — falling face up.
But just as I was marveling at how lucky a guy can get, came a hiccup. More like a raspy cough and a snotty sneeze. The last week of training, I got sick. I came down with a bug that weakened me to the point I could hardly stand or walk. In a few days, I was expected to march in the graduation parade that signified the official end of our training. Had I reported to sick call, I’d be “recycled” for at least another two weeks of repeat training. I’d miss my leave, and perhaps even forfeit my plum new assignment. I vowed, that wouldn’t occur.
A cold wind blew across the parade grounds that late October morning of graduation. The dress shirt below my Class A Olive Green dress uniform was sweat soaked. I burned with a fever and could barely see straight. But some of my buddies managed to keep me propped upright through the ceremonies. As soon as we were dismissed, I collapsed into a taxi with my duffle bag and was spirited off to Augusta Airport. The 12:20 PM Eastern Airlines flight to Laguardia was only my second ever airplane ride, and I have no idea how I managed to survive it. Natalie met me at the gate, then drove me to my parents house where I stayed in bed, barely conscious, for the next four days. When I finally roused, clear headed, I secretly smiled and congratulated myself that the worst part of my military service was over. Little did I know my drama was just beginning.