Tag Archives: basic training

Another Bozo on the Bus, by R.F. Part 2 of 4

4 Jan

R.F. lives in L.A. with a deaf, but talkative, elderly female cat. He is retired, meditates daily, practices tai chi and yoga, and loves his friends (including Kitty Kroger).

Part 2 of 4

LSD

One day a friend invited me to his house near the beach. He wasn’t home and his door was unlocked (common at the time) so I let myself in. While looking for something to eat, I found a small capsule in the freezer. I didn’t know what it was but, being game for anything, swallowed it. After about 30 minutes I began to feel a high I had never experienced before. I felt one with the Universe. The drug I’d taken was LSD.

Soon I walked to the ocean and waded in. Bobbing weightless there in the water, it felt like the ocean was making love to every cell of my body, enveloping me in a state of oneness and bliss. I had no idea you could experience things like that; it was a complete surprise–very positive, very cosmic–and I’m grateful for having experienced LSD that way the first time. Not everyone does.

A happy coincidence was that I first heard Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? that same day. It changed my life. I had never heard of Hendrix but knew then that I’d never forget him. Here was the most amazing guitar playing I’d ever heard. People still talk about him as being the greatest electric guitarist in history. What a privilege it was to first hear him in that altered state of consciousness. Yes, Jimi, now I am experienced! Like they say, “The Universe provides.”

In the next couple of years I would take a lot of acid. It gently reminded me that all of the hard, judgmental things I’d been told since childhood weren’t necessarily true and that life can be much more expansive, inclusive, vibrant, joyful. Getting high was a kind of homecoming, in much the same way that meditation is for me now. With LSD I could see that there was a whole universe out there, and within me, to embrace–the unity of all existence. The Beatles’ Within You Without You, written by George Harrison, is about this. I had the revelation that there was so much more to think about and to explore beyond what I’d been told, more than the narrow, detached establishment way with everything seemingly so black and white, separate, cold and calculating–my father’s world, the one I was never quite comfortable in.

Getting Ready To Hang Up The Phone

In 1968 a movie came out starring Cliff Robertson called Charly. It cinematically told the story of a developmentally challenged man, who is administered an experimental drug which renders him a genius. The climax of this fine movie comes when we learn that the effects of the drug are temporary, and that Charly reverts back to the way he was before. This movie impressed me as a morality tale for users of drugs like LSD. I’ve written above how acid changed my brain and my outlook. That was well and good; however, the effects were always temporary. When the drug wore off, I would find myself back in the flat, restrictive, black and white world, where my fellow humans showed no interest in the insights I’d gained while high. Worse, the mellowness of my acid-infused brain didn’t transfer over either. I was always back to being my self-conscious, disillusioned, cynical, angry self again. I could see that the self-medicating wasn’t working in the long run.

When drug-taking becomes a chronic behavior, everything can become distorted; a person can get lost to herself and become dysfunctional. The harder the drugs, the deeper the trap. The Beatles’ Everybody’s Got Something To Hide, ‘Cept For Me And My Monkey, written by John Lennon (who used heroin), is about this.  A couple of years later, while high on acid, I realized that I needed to remember what I’d learned from the drugs and stop taking them. LSD taught me something that stayed with me. After using, on and off, for about five years, I stopped taking drugs. Timothy Leary said taking drugs is like being on the phone, and when you finally get the message, you have to hang up. I got the message and–click. That was around 1972, but way before that I experienced the following:

Bobby

Robert Kennedy made a campaign speech at Cal State Northridge in March 1968 that I attended. It was estimated that over 12,000 people were there. Following his speech he was enthusiastically mobbed by maybe ten thousand of them. The quad was full of people, shoulder to shoulder. His handlers completely lost control of the situation, and he was carried along by this sea of human beings over shrubs, curbs and anything else in the swarm’s path. I knew immediately that there was a security problem with that man. I waded through the crowd to shake his hand and then waded out again. I’ll never forget it. I was a big fan of him and his agenda. Three months later, during another breakdown in security, he was shot dead.

U.S. Army, 1969

I was 20 when I entered the U.S Army early in 1969. By this time I had knocked around in several different colleges, dabbled in drugs and wasn’t focused. I had no sense that college graduation would mean anything to my life. I would just re-enroll because I thought I was supposed to. Due to poor academic performance, I wound up losing my student deferment. The day before I was to be drafted I enlisted so that I could choose my MOS. [Editor’s note: a Military Occupational Specialty code (MOS code), is a nine character code used in the United States Army and United States Marines to identify a specific job.] I chose 91alpha10 (aka combat medic) to do something positive rather than contribute to the violence of the war. I thought I could patch people up and get them off the battlefield, save lives–I had all that idealism going on. Besides, I didn’t even know these people we were fighting on the other side of the world. Why should I kill them? I thought. Maybe the old white guys who run this country have something against them because they’re Asian, much like some older guys who still talk about the “dirty Japs” of WWII. I hoped I’d be assigned to duty in the States.

I completed basic at Fort Ord, California and was one of five nominees for Outstanding Trainee of the Cycle. By this time the idea of being the best I could be appealed to me, and the disciplined environment of army training seemed to make that goal much easier to accomplish. I had taken the training very seriously, much like in H.S. football: Keep your head down, don’t complain, do the work. For example, on daily jogs with the platoon, I was focused and I never rested. At the end of basic we all had to take a Physical Training (PT) test. I was one of three to receive 500, the top score, in a company of about 250 soldiers. (And one of the other two guys was a Major League Baseball player who’d been drafted.) One of the tests consisted of running a quarter mile in fatigues and combat boots. I won that race. In another we had to carry a guy on our backs for 50 yards within a certain time. Yet another was to run an obstacle course, again in combat boots and fatigues, and also timed. I got the maximum scores on all of them.

I excelled at firing the weapons they gave us to train with: the M14 carbine and the M16 assault rifle. I easily qualified “Expert” on both. I had never even touched a firearm prior to going into the Army. Someone suggested that maybe I just didn’t have any old bad habits to have to unlearn.

On the other hand, in Advanced Individual Training (AIT), where soldiers were trained to do the jobs they’d be assigned, I learned that when your patrol is going through the jungle, the Viet Cong shoot the point man (the one at the head of the line). Then they shoot the medic (easily identified by his specialized field gear) because that eliminates the potential for an immediate medical response for the rest of the squad. I would have been a main target if I were in the field. Another thing I learned was that when patching people up, the idea was to get them back to the battlefield as quickly as possible so they could kill more Viet Cong. My idea was to get them out of harm’s way and maybe back to the States with their loved ones. Instead, all my idealism about doing the humanitarian thing could be undone by the armies’ agendas, both theirs and ours.

AWOL and The Family

Having learned the truth about being a combat medic, I felt betrayed but still duty-bound. A lot of people were confused at the time about the war. I certainly didn’t have enough knowledge and experience to have a cogent perspective. When I was ordered to Vietnam after AIT, my father said, “Son, you’re not going to Vietnam. That’s a stupid, disgusting war, not like the just war I fought in (WWII). This time our government is lying to us.” Still wanting approval for being the “good son” I said, “Dad, Uncle Sam is saying I need to go. It’s my duty to my country, and I love my country.” He said, “No, you’re not going.” I had to choose between Uncle Sam and my dad, so I chose to go AWOL, a status I was to have for 11 months.

I’m glad that my father was willing to speak his mind. In retrospect, I think it was one of the most important things he did for me. And, of course, he was right about the war.

At first, while AWOL, I lived with my mom—my parents were divorced—but I couldn’t stand staying with her. She had more emotional problems than I did, so I moved out. I had been hanging out with some guys, smoking pot, and dropping acid, as I had before joining the Army. Needing a place to live, I finally talked them into letting me move into the rental house they shared on Cerro Gordo in Echo Park, and it turned out that the only available space was the crawlspace under the house. All the rooms inside, including the closets, were filled at various times with ten to fifteen people. Mattresses were strewn wherever there was space. It was the classic crash-pad. The regulars that lived there called themselves The Family. One day the police knocked on the front door and reported that they were looking for the Manson Family. There I was, AWOL, and the main dudes that ran the place were using it to deal lots of drugs. When the person at the door said that we weren’t the Manson Family, the cops just left. When I learned of this, I thought, Wow, this is amazing. In another country they’d probably make some excuse to barge in, search the place, and question each of us. We’d all be in big trouble. I was so relieved.

Strange Days

At this time, I was working for an acquaintance helping him clean carpets for the Red Lobster Restaurants in the L.A. area. A little pickup job, not steady work, but I didn’t need much. The drugs being re-sold at the house on Cerro Gordo paid the rent. The landlord didn’t seem to know, or didn’t care, what was going on, which was typical of those times. Also typical was the fact that most of the cleaning up was done by the women who lived there full-time, so the place stayed pretty clean. I recall there were four women attached to three of the four main guys (The fourth one’s girlfriend lived elsewhere). One of these guys had long, straight blond hair and had a face like Errol Flynn. An (outside) woman we knew, who would show up with her boyfriend to buy drugs, would occasionally come over alone and present herself to “Errol” for sex (His own live-in girlfriend was not home, and how the visitor knew this I’ll never know). He told us that she wouldn’t say a word, just show up, get it on, and leave. Another of the main dudes had a woman (whom he called his wife and who was clearly psychotic), their child of about two years and mute like her mother (not a good sign), and his pregnant mistress (pregnant by another man) all living with him in one of the bedrooms. Signs of the times.

It was the summer of ’69, a time of free concerts known as love-Ins. In Elysian Park I saw Janice Joplin on stage fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company. At another concert I saw The Jefferson Airplane. Their most recent album was called “Volunteers.” I told a friend that I didn’t get the title. “Well, maybe they’re going to join the Peace Corps.” I was out of it enough to think he actually meant it. Wow, they must be really dedicated to peace and justice! So when I saw them later that month I approached the stage and asked Grace Slick, “Are you guys going to join the Peace Corps?” She said, “What? You mean the band?” Clearly, she didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.

I stayed at the Cerro Gordo house two or three months, sleeping in that crawl space. We were smoking pot, hashish, and dropping acid. Visiting dealers would treat us to some cocaine, MDMA and other recreational drugs, but none of the regular residents had a hard-drug habit. I was really into the psychedelics, and like many people, was actually self-medicating. I had suffered from depression since childhood due to family issues, bio-chemistry, genetics, whatever. Interestingly, researchers are now telling us that some of these substances actually do have therapeutic value.

It was at about this time that I had a near-death experience from an unintended drug overdose. I was at an after-concert party in Hollywood when my “friend” offered me a heaping spoonful of some drug. At first I refused it. He persisted until I took the spoonful and swallowed it. It turned out to be 100% pure pharmaceutical Nembutal, a powerful barbiturate, and the amount I took was an overdose. I went out like a palooka who’s just been hit with a haymaker. Someone there must have noticed that we were both slumped over. Reportedly when they first found me I had no detectable pulse or respiration. Later, my first realizations were that I was in big trouble–completely out of it–and that I was being “walked” around–almost carried really–by a couple of guys. This was standard practice at such parties where ODs were common. The idea was to keep the body moving so that respiratory collapse or cardiac failure was less likely. After walking us around until they were satisfied that we might survive, they left us crashed-out on the sidewalk and went back inside. They did save my life, however, and my friend’s too. I never got the chance to thank them. Sign of the times.

Today pharmaceutical Nembutal is approved for assisted suicide in the state of Oregon.

End of Part 2 of 4

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Wearing Whites: My Time in the Military by Roger

12 Aug

Roger lives in the San Diego area, has two children and seven grandchildren, and frequently travels with his family. He spends his summers at a lake in northwestern Montana.

 

In 1966 when I was a junior at college in Billings, Montana, I was drafted because my grades had dropped below the threshold. I believed anyway that serving my country was my duty and that I would be proud to do it. I feared going off to Vietnam but was willing to do so if needed.

I was inducted at Butte, Montana and did my basic training at Ft. Lewis, Washington, where ours was only the second group to go through basic there since World War II. Coal-fired boilers heated the barracks. We had to keep the windows open as a precaution because of the meningitis outbreak at Fort Ord in San Francisco. Doctors thought that open windows would help prevent an outbreak at Ft. Lewis.

After basic, I was sent to Fort McPherson, 3rd Army Headquarters, in Atlanta. I was assigned to the hospital laboratory school for training as a lab technician. Back at Ft. Lewis I had had the requisite testing in basic training and received an extremely high score on the code translation test. I had been exposed to Morse Code in Boy Scouts but never got my merit badge because I hadn’t proved competent in it. So when I took the requisite battery of tests in basic, I just filled in random answers on the multiple choice test. When they called us in to discuss the tests, I was told I got one of the highest scores they’d ever seen in code translation. They  wanted to send me to the communication school in Ft. Huachuca, but I told them I didn’t want to do communication and would prefer to “wear whites,” meaning to be assigned to a medical unit, hopefully in the U.S.

To get to Atlanta we took a Delta jet through Chicago. It was my first travel on a jet plane. We landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and I was overwhelmed at the immensity of it. In Atlanta we waited at the airport for someone to pick us up. Announcements were made over poor loud speakers in a southern drawl; we couldn’t understand any of it.

The Ft. McPherson base (Ft. Mac) itself was luxurious compared to Ft. Lewis. There were 600 acres; more than half of the base consisted of a golf course. It was a place where old soldiers were headquartered shortly before they retired. There was a laboratory school. In retrospect I often wondered if there weren’t connections for most of us to get into this particular school because the really big lab school was in Ft. Sam Houston in Texas with several hundred students. We, on the other hand, had only 21 or so students.

Once two friends, Keith and Bob, and I went to meet Keith’s new girlfriend at a Southern Baptist Church. We were told we would arrive after the service, but it turned out that the service hadn’t yet begun so we reluctantly sat through it. We found ourselves sitting in the front row.

At the end of the service the preacher said, “Those of you who have seen the light of Jesus and accepted him as your savior, please rise.” We three just sat there. The pastor repeated this twice, his voice rising in pitch each time. We were embarrassed but didn’t succumb. On the way out of the church, the minister greeted everyone. As he shook my hand, I said, “I think it’s strange that this is Atlanta, Georgia. Why are there no black people in this church?” Whereupon he pulled on my hand, yanking my arm, and guided me firmly out the door without responding to my question.

There was only one black student at the lab school. Joe was a lifeguard from Los Angeles before being drafted. I’d never had occasion to be friends with a black man before, having grown up in Kalispell, Montana. We’d go out to classy places in Atlanta like the Top of the Mart, where we had no problems being served.

I had married my wife on leave at Christmas time, and we rented an apartment. At a party at my place, Joe was standing by the pool when some of my friends shoved him in, all in fun. The day after the pool incident, I was contacted by my C.O. He was from Lubbock, Texas. “Don’t you know where you are?” he asked me.

“I know very well where I am,” I replied, mimicking his tone.

“Well, obviously you don’t. And you’re going to have to learn!” It turned out that a white sergeant in the same apartment complex had complained about Joe. Later after we were intimidated into moving out, we found out that the pool had been closed for three days to be drained and “cleansed.”

A friend of mine had put a deposit on another unit in the same complex. He was asked if he knew me and my wife. “Yes,” he replied, “and I have a lot more friends [implying black friends] than they do.”

“How do you want your deposit back?” the manager asked him.

Our next apartment was in the middle of a black neighborhood. A twenty-foot barbed wire fence “protected” it. However, the managers did tell me there was no problem if I had black visitors. Six months later a law was passed prohibiting landlords from discriminating against military personnel.

I had a best friend from college in Montana—he’d been best man in absentia at my wedding because he was serving in Vietnam at the time. He wanted to go into politics someday. K.C. [not his real name] felt that serving in the military was important to his political aspirations, (although he would have willingly volunteered anyway). In order to be accepted he had to go through Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, then Senate Majority Leader and a former marine, who pulled strings for him because he didn’t meet the height requirement. He went from Camp Pendleton in California to Vietnam, where he was serving his tour.

It was the end of my lab training and we were sitting in Atlanta waiting to be assigned and watching the national news on TV. The news always reported the number of fatalities and told stories about some of the men. Although his name wasn’t mentioned, I got chills down my spine and said, “K.C. Is dead.” He hadn’t been required to do any more patrols because his remaining tour of service was only three days. However, because he wanted to spend the remaining time with his men, he volunteered to go out on a final patrol with them. He took point [led the patrol], stepped on a landmine, and was killed. My wife and I established a scholarship at our alma mater in his honor. I still think about this incident with great sadness.

One week later I got orders to ship out. It was all hush-hush. We had no idea where we were headed. We loaded our supplies at the train tracks. After flying for three days in a C130 transit plane, touching down in Kentucky, San Francisco, Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam, and flying over Vietnam, we landed at Korat Air Force Base in Thailand.

I was stationed in a field hospital. They called it a mobile lab, but it didn’t really move. It was in the middle of nowhere and I hated it. It served as support for the air base for daily bombing raids on Vietnam and was 80 kilometers from Cambodia. There were illegal flights over Cambodia and Laos against the will of those countries’ governments, in order to reach Vietnam.

While there, I learned that doctors are not what you think. I had always considered them intelligent, but there was one in particular that opened my eyes. Ours was considered a “hardship tour of duty,” which meant, among other things, that no relatives or spouses were allowed there. One black sergeant violated the rule and kept his diabetic wife there. At the time of the incident I was on call. A doctor from Beverly Hills—a draftee—was on duty. The sergeant’s wife came into the clinic, needing insulin. Dr. H refused to see her. I pleaded with him to no avail. After talking to her for a while, I went off to sleep. In the morning I went into the lab, which also served as a morgue, and found her lying on a slab. I was sickened and furious. That rich SOB! I will never forget that incident.

Dr. H would order all the lab tests he could think of, regardless of need and even though he knew we couldn’t carry out many of them due to our limited facilities. But he would make it an immediate order [called STAT] and then ignore the results.

In one area of Thailand, soldiers were collecting mosquitoes for a malaria study. A soldier from the study came into the hospital, feeling sick. Malaria showed up in his lab test. Dr. H didn’t know what to do, and the kid died. The pathologist, a captain and our boss, had the authority to bring charges. But Dr. H had more time in and therefore outranked our boss. Also, our boss had acquired his medical degree through the army; i.e., he wasn’t wealthy. Therefore he feared retaliation and backed down. Charges were never brought.

I didn’t experience much danger in Thailand. Once when I was at the enlisted men’s club, the “Thai Cong” blew up our ammo depot, which scared the hell out of us. The whole building shook.

Once three MIGs were intercepted as they headed towards the base. A red alert was declared; the base was blacked out, except for the lighted red cross on the hospital roof. Our C.O. insisted that that light be turned off also. It took a long time to figure out how to do this. Meanwhile, we sat in the dark in the hospital over a flask of scotch.

Another incident was at the grand opening of Veena’s Restaurant. Veena was the wife of the former hospital C.O., who died leaving her his military insurance, enabling her to start the restaurant on Freedom Highway, a road built by the U.S. headed towards Cambodia. Veena was especially fond of us hospital personnel and treated us like royalty, so 90% of the hospital personnel along with most of the base command were present at the opening of her restaurant. I was approached by a friend from CID [military intelligence] and ordered to inform the general that we needed to evacuate immediately because the CID had found three mortars in the surrounding area directly aimed at the restaurant and it was unknown if there were more.

As to casualties, in order to cope with them, I had to gradually learn to distance myself from the horror that was the reality of my job. I remember one pilot that crashed at the end of the runway and nothing was left of him but a mass of charcoal; nothing human-looking remained of his body at all.

When I arrived in Oakland in 1968 at the end of my tour of duty, we were required to wear our uniforms to fly home on stand-by. Our commander had warned us to ignore any demonstrators. It was a rainy day. As we were driven by bus to a plane bound for San Diego, we saw demonstrators with their anti-war signs. It was painful, the lack of understanding for the effort I had just made in serving my country.

Last year, along with another Vietnam-era vet and a World War II vet, I had occasion to visit the World War II museum in New Orleans. It was a moving experience. It had taken 46 years for me to hear the two words, “Welcome home.”