Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Five Esses

Aside from an occasional disagreement, during which we wouldn’t speak for a couple of days, Vern was far and away my closest friend. From the day we met this was, and remained, a lifelong constant. But for a while, in our middle High School years, it was not just Vern and I, but a slightly larger group.

Vern had met, and befriended, a fellow named Dennis S. who was a year older and had both a drivers license, and an actual car – a 51 Plymouth. And then we were three; and a now mobile three, at that. At about that same time I introduced Vern to my old grade school, and current homeroom friend, Mark S. And three became four. Occasionally joined by Dennis’ friend Jerry S, we were now a group (or perhaps a gang, though more in the old-time sense of “Our Gang” than what the term implies today). We even had a cool, if somewhat obvious, name for ourselves; “The Five Esses”, and with matching jackets we were, or so we imagined, just too cool for words.

My memory suggests that we, as a group, spent more of our Friday nights at the CYA dances than at the “Y”. These events were held in the gym/theater on the second floor of the Knights of Columbus building at Lincoln Avenue and Galena – conveniently right across the street from Prince Castle (good burgers and great ice cream), and just down the block from the original “hole in the wall” Don Walker’s Sandwich Center (absolutely the best Italian beef sandwiches on the planet, then or now).

But the main attractions of the CYA functions were that the place was small, compared to the “Y”, and more importantly that it was popular with a lot of girls. We would cruise in sporting our fancy jackets, hair neatly combed, breath newly freshened by “Binaca”, hoping to make an impression. This we usually did, and occasionally a favorable one.

We would circle the perimeter, just as at the “Y” – although a complete lap took a lot less time – and would even dance now and then to songs like “The Way You Look Tonight”, by the Letterman, “Close To Cathy,” by Mike Clifford, or “What Would My Mary Say?”, by Johnny Mathis.

I know they played a fair number of up-tempo rock ‘n roll songs as well, but for some reason I mostly remember the gooey stuff. Maybe it was the dancing part.

Joining The Navy?

One Friday morning in October of my senior year at East High I walked into homeroom and sat down beside my friend Stanley. His first words to me that day were “I joined the Navy last night, and you’re going to join too”. After a couple of moments of mirthful amazement, I listened skeptically to what he had to say.

 Stanley had a good friend whose father was a chief petty officer — of some aviation rating — in the reserve unit at Glenview Naval Air Station. As the first step into his father’s footsteps, this friend had joined the reserves at the Aurora Armory, taking Stanley along.

I had grown up proud of my father’s service commanding a Sherman tank in World War II, and I’d always known that I would follow his example and be a soldier (for as long as the obligation lasted, anyway). This was enhanced to a large degree by watching “Combat” on TV, various WWII movies, and of course by reading the comic book tales of Sgt. Rock of Easy Company (“Nothing’s easy in Easy Company”).

But at the same time I’d also been influenced by my uncle who had been a gun mount captain on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. And many of those war movies with which I grew up informed me that I also liked naval ships.

So this immediately available opportunity presented me with a dilemma. I had spent a fair portion of my youth re-creating, in my minds eye, the “adventures” I imagined my father and his peers had had winning the “Good War”, and knowing that one day I would also be a G. I. (Everyone — myself included — based my academic prowess on what I had demonstrated to this point, so college wasn’t an issue). But now, an altogether different future was presenting itself, and I decided that I at least owed it a fair hearing.

Having just achieved the age of 17, I was a free agent in the matter, so on the following Thursday evening I met Stanley and together we went to the weekly meeting at the Naval Armory in Phillips Park. Perhaps it was a tactic, but once I was introduced to the appropriate people, I was treated as if I had arrived with my mind already made up. It was explained to me what I would be doing WHEN (not IF) I signed up, and where I would go, and what I would learn, and so on.

I was given, that very evening, the aptitude test which was then used by the Navy to evaluate potential enrollees. When I finished I was told the number score which I had achieved. Having nothing to compare it to this meant little to me, but I was told that it was a high score; one which would pre-qualify me for almost any service school which I would choose. This pleased me, but strangely — given my academic history — didn’t surprise me. I knew I was a terrible student, but deep inside I nonetheless felt that I was smart.

The result of this full-court press was that before Stanley and I left that evening, I was a member of the United States Naval Reserve. Serendipity Again! Was this an impetuous decision? Yes. Did this have the potential to be a foolish decision? Yes. Did this turn out to be the right decision? Yes!

Scouting: Part Three – Winter Nights at Camp Kedeka

Camping was of course a big feature of Boy Scouting, which was perfectly logical and expected, given the origins, nature, and mission of Scouting. We had several weekend campouts in various parks and other places. But there were other things, as well. There were “merit badges” to be earned, and meetings to attend at which merit badge work could be reviewed and camping trips be discussed and planned. I’m sure there was more but that’s what I remember.

The meetings, once begun, were OK. They were a bit more regimented than the Cub Scout gatherings, and for better or worse, included very little involvement by our moms. But we were older, and could go off and participate in such things by ourselves. I also, with some fondness, recall the wild, impromptu, undisciplined, “capture the flag” sort of games we would play in the OLGC gymnasium, which nicely counter-pointed the organized meeting which immediately followed.

But it was the outings — in my mind and memory, at least — which seemed to be the predominant activity. As I’ve indicated earlier, we had various campout experiences. But far and away the ones I remember most fondly took place in winter.

Each year, deep in the winter, we would spend a couple of weekends (Friday evening through Sunday afternoon) occupying the small, rustic cabins at camp Kedeka, in the heart of Bliss Woods in Sugar Grove, IL.

For a Boy Scout camp the name Kedeka seems a nicely appropriate Indian-sounding name, but was in fact the concatenation of the first letters of the three counties which the camp served; Kendall, DeKalb, and Kane. We had no idea where we were, and could not have found Sugar Grove a map to save ourselves, and Bliss Woods had a much more primitive and remote feeling than Camp Blackhawk ever did. But the car rides to and from were much shorter, so we knew we weren’t too far from home.

We would settle in late on Friday afternoon and because, as I have said, this was the dead of winter it was already getting dark by the time we arrived. The cabins in which we stayed were actually a bit more than rustic — they were primitive. Memory fails me here, but I’m guessing that they were each no more than 15 x 20′. The central feature was a large fireplace, opposite the entrance. The accommodations were four wood frame double bunks built against on each side wall. The bunks were man size, however, so there was plenty of room, and with a thin mattress to supplement our sleeping bags, they were downright luxurious compared to sleeping in a tent on the ground; even dry ground.

Settling in, we would cook and eat our dinner, then tidy up and all gather around the fireplace of one of the cabins for stories. We were too keyed up from just being there to turn in early on Friday, so we would sit well into the night, mesmerized by the fire, lost in the stories the troop leaders would tell, which of course would include the terrors possibly lurking in the dark snowy woods just outside the thin cabin door.

Saturdays were filled with activities; woodcraft and knots, of course, and usually a hike in the dense woods. We would stop for lunch at some small clearing, or beside a stream, and the troop leaders would again provide proof that a cooking fire could indeed be built and lit in the damp cold woods. After the meal we were taught how to properly douse our fire, and disperse the remnants, so as to leave the woods as we had found it.

After Saturday night’s supper, and a few more stories, or sing-alongs, or whatever, we would turn in; being pretty tired on this night from the exertions of the day. This was what I was waiting for. Every time we went winter camping at Camp Kedeka, I took with me the same plan. My intention was to sleep for a few hours, and then get up about 1 AM, and go for a hike of my own. I wanted very much to hike the winter woods in the complete and silent solitude of the cold dark snowy night. It just seemed like such an adventure, and I would look forward to and plan my trek for days before we would make camp.

Alas, it turned out that each time I had the opportunity I was just as tired as everyone else, and I would sleep through the night. Each time this happened I always had a tiny sense of failure. I hadn’t brought my plan to fruition.

The upside was that when morning came I always awoke fresh and properly prepared for the Sunday breakfast of pancakes and sausage, which set us up nicely for Sunday’s fun. I regretted missing the opportunity to have my solo adventure. But okay, I’d do it next time, for sure.

Homecoming Realized – A Spaghetti Dinner

I landed at O’Hare Airport at about 8 PM on a Saturday evening.  In those pre-security days, I was met at the gate by the whole family — My two aunts, Mary and Ersilia, my uncle Ray, my cousins John and Donald, my siblings David and Mary, and of course my mother and father.

My mother was ecstatic of course, and my father proud and relieved that I had returned unharmed from the war.  I felt a little sheepish about the war, as I felt my experience paled in comparison to both my father’s and my uncle’s service in WWII.  My father had commanded a Sherman tank in the Battle of the Bulge*, and other places, and my uncle was a 40mm anti-aircraft gun mount captain on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in the worst of the kamikaze period.

It seems like the punch line of an old joke, but as soon as I left for Viet Nam my parents moved.  Unlike the butt of the old joke, my parents told me where they moved to.  After meeting me at the airport, they took me to my new home in Boulder Hill and the family reunion continued.  The next day was a Sunday and the three sisters cooked a welcome home spaghetti dinner, made from scratch in the old-style, and it was terrific.  To top it off, my best friend Vern was invited to join us and I was happy to be re-united with those I most cared about. What a great day; my family, my best friend, and my mother’s (and my aunt’s) cooking. I was truly home at last.

*In fact, it was my father’s unit (CCB/7th Armored Div), moving quickly from Holland to the Belgian town of St. Vith, who, at terrible expense, blunted the main German advance and held off Hitler’s best units for a critical week; thus buying time for the much heralded Patten to arrive and relieve the much honored and publicized “band of brothers” at Bastogne. But that’s a story for another day.

Homecoming – Delayed in San Francisco

Returning at last from Viet Nam, I don’t know what became of the Army fellows after we got off of the plane at Travis Air Force Base, but I and my squid comrade were directed to a Navy bus and driven to Treasure Island; a naval facility on an island in San Francisco Bay. It seems a bit strange to say, but I hadn’t really been keeping track of what day it was, and when I checked in at T.I. I discovered it was late Friday afternoon. I was assigned a bunk and told the mustering out process would begin promptly Monday morning. History repeated itself, and once again I checked into a naval facility only to be told that I was not needed, or even required to be there, for several days.

After finding my bunk and stowing my gear, I immediately caught a city bus to downtown San Francisco. I got off the bus on Market Street and simply wandered around for the next couple of hours, amazed at the thought of actually being in an American city. I stopped at a small hotdog place to get something to eat, and in doing so discovered what was to become my home base for the next week or so. I met some people there who quickly became friends. Hanging out with them, sitting in a booth, talking, flirting with the girls, and listening to music on the jukebox was just the kind of thing that people of my age did in real life, and that I had missed for so long.

Add to this the fact that I was in San Francisco in early 1967, one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in the world — at one of the most interesting times in that city’s history. At the hotdog place, I remember the music on the jukebox – “I’m A Believer” (The Monkees), “Poor Side Of Town” (Johnny Rivers), but the song that would captivate me long after I went home was Scott MacKenzie singing “San Francisco, Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair”, for this was 1967 and the beginning of the Summer of Love; well before it all turned bad.

Monday morning came, and over the next couple of days the mustering out process ran its course. I was shuffled around a bit, given some money*, and released into the world. Even though I was free, I stayed in San Francisco for several more days before the desire to go home overwhelmed me.

I know my mother believed that I returned home as quickly as I could, and it would have broken her heart had she known that I had delayed my return. But I had fallen in love with San Francisco, and as wonderful as it was to go home to my family and friends, it was hard to leave. Later that year I would hear Glen Yarbrough sing Rod McKuen’s “So Long, San Francisco”, and the pull would be irresistible.

*The money I was given, in the form of a check, was my “mustering out” pay, by which the military squares with you financially, and in so doing indicates that it is more or less done with you.


Returning To The World: Part Two – The Flight Home

When the great day finally came, there I was, with all my stuff, waiting for the ride to Bien Hoa. Because we were flying to northern California and it was still winter after all, I was required to wear a dress winter uniform made of dark blue wool. Very comfortable in the winter, except that the temperature in Bien Hoa that day topped out at 95 degrees. Fortunately it was a dry heat.

We arrived at the air base at about 8:00 am. The plane departed promptly at 5:45 pm. Was it the longest day of my life? Yes, it was. We were processed, searched, examined, lectured to, fed, lectured to again, processed some more, and finally herded to an open area to wait. This last was easy, because we had waited, usually in the sun, before every event of the day and we were well practiced.

The search turned out to be the most interesting part of the day. It was mainly to keep us from taking prohibited items home with us. This was a major feature of the lectures as well, and focused primarily on three things; liqueur, above the allowed amount, dope, and weapons and/or ammunition. These last in any amounts at all. What was really surprising and often amusing was the amount of all of the above which was found and confiscated that day. Lots, and lots, and lots of booze, of course, not so much dope, this being early in the war, but plenty of the other stuff—an AK47, grenades, plenty of live rounds in many calibers, and amazingly, two live Claymore Mines!

After a long, hot day in the sun, in our winter uniforms, we boarded the plane for home and departed Bien Hoa without incident. Whew! As the wheels left the ground, a cheer erupted from all 165 of us; no surprise. The stewardesses were friendly and not surprisingly gorgeous and altogether wonderful, each and every one of them.

The first surprise of the flight came about 30 minutes after lift-off when a soldier asked for a drink of water. After a few moments we were informed that there was no drinking water aboard. No water, no coffee, no tea, or soda, or nearly anything else. The consolation was, to our great relief there was plenty of pineapple juice. After hearing that there was no water on the plane, we were all immediately very thirsty. But of course we had plenty of sweet, sticky pineapple juice. I must say, the stewardesses were great. They absorbed plenty of mostly good-natured abuse for the remaining 4 hours to Tokyo, where we were properly re-supplied.

The next surprise was that at the Tokyo airport it was SNOWING!! And the temperature was a shockingly cold 28 degrees. A couple of chilly hours at the Tokyo airport and we were off and eastward bound. No cheers this time, but with thirsts quenched we settled in for the long leg of the flight, spent mostly asleep.

About 18 hours later we discovered that we were over land. Someone speculated, probably correctly, that it was Oregon below us and that it would not be long now. And so it was that an hour or so later we landed at Travis AFB. All I had to do at this point was to sweat out the mustering out process and go home – as a civilian!

Returning To The World: Part One – Waiting to Leave

Early in 1967, along with 164 others, I flew on a World Airlines 707 from the air base at Bien Hoa, Republic of Viet Nam to Travis Air Force Base in northern California. Leaving the plane at Travis, confronted by seemingly endless rows of B-52 bombers and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance, I began my return to “The World”.

The flight, indeed the entire proceeding week was something of a Twilight Zone experience. After being detached, I flew from the air strip at nearby Vung Tau on a twin-engine Army transport to Ton Son Nhut air base at Saigon. Bused into town, I was given lodging at the Annapolis Motel; a two story dorm for Naval personal nestled at the edge of a swamp on the outskirts of the city. There I was given the appropriate number of meal vouchers, and stern instructions to be on the transport to Bien Hoa, some 16 miles away, at 6:00 am — six days hence! Within the boundaries of curfew, and subject to a few tedious military rules, I was free to go wherever, and do whatever I pleased until then.

After a day of exploring the city a bit, I was tempted to try and hitch a flight back to Vung Tau for a couple of days. I knew the town, and I had a sort-of girlfriend there, who was at that moment, of course busily forgetting me in favor of the next “Joe” who would buy her plenty of Saigon Tea. (“You no buy, you dede”*). But common sense prevailed and I made do in Saigon, spending most of my days hanging out at the Ypsilanti Snack Bar, the canteen at a much larger Army housing facility, in what seemed to be a much better neighborhood. Evenings were spent in a couple of acceptable drinking establishments. The only down side was of course the waiting to actually go home, and the flinching in response to the many firecrackers of the Tet celebration. This being exactly one year before Tet of 1968, of which we all came to know so well.

*Dede(dee-dee) = Vietnamese for “Go Away”

My musical memories of my brief stay in Saigon are “Last Train to Clarksville” by the Monkees, and “If I Were a Carpenter”, by Bobby Darin. Heard from the jukebox at the Ypsilanti Snack Bar, these were the first contemporary songs I had heard in a very long time.