Wednesday, November 4, 2015

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

I've been thinking about this for so long, I'm kind of nervous to start actually writing.  I've thought my way through this several different ways.  I've frequently said that, if I ever write my memoirs, this will probably be the opening chapter.

It was a dark and stormy night.  Ha!  Actually it was.  It was early January 1966.  It could have been New Years Day.  I can't remember and don't have any way of checking that detail.

I was between basic training in the US Army and Advanced Individual Training (AIT).  I was going to be trained as an Armored Intelligence Specialist at Ft. Knox.  There were many, many questions in my mind about my future.

Basic had been at Ft. Gordon GA and following a 2 week leave at home in Pittsburgh, I was boarding a  TWA Constellation for the first time, to fly to Louisville KY.  My first flight on an airplane had been Augusta GA to Atlanta, to connect on a flight to the Burgh after basic.

The first plane was something like a twin radial engined Martin or Convair.  At that time, I was not capable of making such distinctions.  The second leg was on Eastern Airlines and all I can remember about that is that I saw the name, Whisper Jet.  Coulda been a 727 or a DC 9, for all I knew at the time.  Pathetic.  I think Eastern called all their newer jet planes Whisper Jets.

This was right in the middle of the transition to jet airplanes and the once proud Constellation had been used on trans-oceanic and trans-continental flights.  Now it was the bottom of the barrel at TWA and was flying from Pittsburgh to Louisville, with a couple stops somewhere in Ohio.

I didn't care, I loved it.  The interior was plush, compared to the plastic of the Whisper Jet.  It wasn't crowded and the flight attendant put me in the first class section when she saw my uniform.  She actually had time to chat.  When the engines started I saw the smoke and heard the sound that made me call radial engines growlers to this day.  Vibration, what vibration?

As I said, it was stormy.  It was snowing all along the route of flight.  I could see the plane's lights reflecting off storm clouds and snowflakes and was wondering what it must be like to sit in the pointy end, in control of this beast.

Knowing that this process was going to take a few hours and being uncertain about what was in my future, I started doing some deep thinking.  It was the conceptual kind of thinking, not exactly putting things in words.  That is what I have been trying to do the many times I have planned to write something about the event.

I had been drafted into the army on 22 Oct 1965, as they say in the military.  I managed to get through basic training by following the advice of friends and relatives who had been in the military before me, "Don't volunteer for anything.  Stay in the middle of the herd."  In other words, don't make yourself conspicuous.

The only thing I volunteered for was kitchen patrol (KP), because I just could not get enough to eat.  The level of physical activity was far greater than anything I had ever done before.  I was burning more calories than I was able to consume by just going through the mess line, like all the other 'cruits.  Mom was sending care packages with canned fruit and lots of other goodies, but it just wasn't enough.  Neither was what I could afford when the "maggot wagon" came around with the unhealthy food it sold.   After surviving basic, I had gone from a skinny 160 lbs. to a muscular 180.  I was in the best shape of my life.  Being on KP gave me more opportunity to eat that wonderful army chow, but I missed some time on the range and had to try to qualify with the M-14 a second time.  No problem.

As you probably know, this was the early time of the Viet Nam War and I was on the first wave of the LBJ draftees.  On the plane, I was wondering what my part in all that would be.  I was wishfully thinking that an armored intelligence specialist was some one sitting in a room decoding messages or something like that.  It was not.

Having been born within hours of the end of World War II, I was age 20 in January of 1966.  I was still a school kid during the Korean War.  I had several uncles who had entered the military in the 40s and some made it their career.  That was the last thing on my mind.  I just wanted to survive my 2 years and get back to my routine life.

The whole scenario felt like stepping off into the void.  There were so many things that were now out of my control.  Without putting it into words, I knew this was a pivotal time for me.  I needed to assess what I had done and what I had to do from this point on. I was about to become an adult for reals.

The physical aspects of basic training had given me new confidence.  I felt like a badass.  Being a private E-Nothing in the army, I knew that I had to hold back on that feeling as I moved forward.  I knew that in the past, I had been a little reticent and kind of laid back, sort of drifting with the wind.  I decided to stop doing that with things I could control.  I thought that I might want to try volunteering a little and to be all I could be.

While in the reception station at Ft. Jackson for a few weeks prior to moving to Gordon for basic, I was told that I had done well enough on the tests we took upon entering the army, to qualify for the Warrant Officer, helicopter pilot program.  Following my father's advice, I had let that opportunity slip away.  I was regretting that on the Connie that night, but it told me I had something going on besides just the physical conditioning.  I was gaining all kinds of confidence and thinking maybe I could be somebody.  I also realized there was some danger in that.

We arrived at the Louisville Standiford Airport in what looked like a blizzard.  I found my way to a bus to Ft. Knox and to the place there where I had to report.  The guy there told me my tests had qualified me to go to leadership school at the NCO Academy.  He explained that the class would be 2 weeks and I would be a squad leader in my AIT company.  I thought this was like an omen, considering what I had been thinking on the plane and volunteered to go to leadership school.

Unlike my last few years in high school, the material in these classes was very interesting to me.  When I finally arrived at my AIT company, I was a squad leader and this meant I had a heavier work load than other trainees, but I was enjoying it.

We were being trained to be scouts for armor units.  During the Viet Nam War, guys with this Military Operational Specialty (MOS) were used for many jobs, but none of them involved sitting in a room decoding messages.  We learned how to cover and move, make bombs, drive trucks and Jeeps, shoot weapons from the 1911, to the M 79 and the M 60.  What a blast.  We were to be the descendants of the old mounted cavalry units of the Civil War.  During Viet Nam, the 11D MOS was used as door gunners on Huey helicopters, and as scouts who went out in the jungle to locate the enemy and report intelligence back to our units.  Not necessarily that same kind of blast.

There was competition to be the best trainee in our cycle in a Physical Training Test, an Individual Proficiency Test and as the Outstanding Trainee.  I could see that I was in the running to win one or more of these competitions.  I was no longer trying to be in the middle of the herd.  I was making myself conspicuous.  I won the IPT, which was good enough for me.

My platoon sergeant, was Staff Sergeant Ponds.  He was a quiet guy, but he kind of took me under his wing.  Once I got in some trouble with a couple rowdy friends at the PX.  It was something involving beer.  Sgt. Ponds took me aside for the obligatory ass chewing and the thing I remember to this day is that he said in a disappointed tone, "Cleary, I thought you were of a higher military caliber than those other two."  This indicated to me that others were starting to see the same things that I had been feeling about myself as a result of the tests and training I encountered in the army.  I did have what it took to be what I could be.

Shortly before our  8 week cycle came to an end, Sgt. Ponds came to me and told me my tests had qualified me to go to Drill Sergeant Assistant School at the NCO Academy.  I asked him what that was all about.  He said I could go to a briefing and get it all explained, if I wanted to.

I did.  I was told that I would go through the same 6 week school that Drill Sergeants went to.  When I graduated, I would be a Private First Class (PFC) and an acting Corporal and would be assigned to a basic training company at Ft. Knox as an assistant platoon sergeant.  It had only been 10 weeks since I graduated from my own basic training, so I thought this was really cool.  I volunteered.    

To be continued.