Donaldson placed his cards face up on the table, scooped up the bills and coins, and delivered a brief lecture on anthropology: “There’s two types of Yankees. The ones that come down to visit are ‘Yankees.’ The ones that come down and stay are ‘Damn Yankees’.”
* * *
We were surrounded by southerners at Fort Gordon. I disliked them. I resented their diabolical ability to exploit my chauvinistic northern prejudices about them and shuck me repeatedly. Donaldson, or one of his brother Rebs, would say something to the effect of, “What’s going to happen to poor little old me?” In the ensuing moments, I would be knocked flat on my back in a touch football match; get crushed in a one on one basketball; lose all my money in a poker game; or watch the poor little old son of a bitch walk out of the bar with the girl I had had my eye on.
Donaldson had played football at UNC, and had graduated with honors, and with a degree in civil engineering. He spoke with a drawl that sounded like a parody of a southern accent, moved slowly, and cultivated a sleepy expression. He had a gorgeous wife named “Cissy”, was Hollywood good-looking himself, and was a practicing Christian who never cursed, didn’t abide bullying or abusive behavior, and was easy going and self-deprecating. The strongest words that came out of his mouth were “Good Golly!”
Fortunately, he did go out drinking occasionally.
Nobody teased Donaldson about being a goody-goody or about his accent because we liked and respected him. Also, when we did PT in tee shirts, we noticed his upper arms.
I tried to pair up with Donaldson when we went into the field. He could set up a radio faster than anyone and it always worked. He could fix any problem without losing that sleepy expression, send and receive messages quickly and accurately, and take apart and put together an M-14 blindfolded. He actually did this once, winning some money from skeptical northerners in the process.
One evening, a group of the Fort Dix alumni were drinking in The Stonewall Jackson Bar and Grill in Augusta. No, I did not make up the name. This band of northerners included myself and the Boston contingent: Brennan, Davis, Mullany, LeTroix, Monteleone, and Dugan. We had been together since basic training.
In basic training, our names had sent Letroix, Monteleone, and myself through the gauntlet. LeTroix pronounced his name “Lay-twá”, but the DI’s pronounced it “Lay-toilet” at first, and later just “Toilet”. Monteleone’s name became “Telephone”. DI’s don’t become DI’s because of their decoding skills in reading.
My real, correctly pronounced last name, Bedrock, got laughs every time it was said aloud, and became part of their “go-to list”.
Whenever “volunteers” were needed for disagreeable details, ours were the names that DI’s remembered, and the three of us gained expertise in digging latrines, picking up cigarette butts, and finding stray brass on the rifle ranges.
Davis and LeTroix had the bad judgement to be black, and this attracted unwanted attention to our table at Stonewall’s. Some of the locals started saying things loud enough for us to hear. At first we ignored them, but Dugan, short, short tempered, and a fighter, started woofing back. One of the thugs said, “You say something, boy?” Then, he moved toward our table along with a couple of his friends. We held our ground. They stopped a few feet away, sized us up, and retreated. We felt proud about staring the bastards down, but then we noticed that Donaldson and Brewington had come over from their table and were standing behind us. Brewington was from Alabama, was also an engineer, and was almost as big as Donaldson. The expression on Donaldson’s face was not sleepy or easygoing.
* * *
After basic training, about 10 comrades had wound up in radio school at Fort Dix for our AIT; later, we were shipped to Fort Gordon for further training in our MOS as radio-teletype operators, code name 05C, or O Five Charlie.
The army loves abbreviations and acronyms. Drill instructors were DI’s. Corporals and sergeants were NCO’s or noncommissioned officers. You bought supplies at the Post Exchange or PX, did PT every day--physical training, and saluted your CO--your commanding officer. AIT was advanced individual training. MOS was your military occupational specialty.
We made up our own abbreviations. We put antennas in our laundry bags so the ends protruded, flattened out the bags, and elongated them; when other troopers asked what the hell they were, we replied with straight faces, DROs: Dead radio operators. If you were chosen for an unpleasant detail, your laconic response might be FAFFF: fucked again by the fickle finger of fate. Every soldier knew what FTA stood for.
Almost the entire Fort Dix group wound up in the same company at Fort Gordon. We referred to Augusta as “Disgusta” and, at first, didn’t mix well with the southerners.
The Fort Gordon barracks were older and more run down than the barracks at Fort Dix. It got cold at night in the winter, and if we wanted to get heat and hot water, we ourselves had to fire up the coal burning furnaces. We chose our own volunteers who were compensated by having their watch duty covered and being allowed to be the first to shower.
I once heard a member of the comedy group Monty Python ask the American audience why American beer was like making love in a canoe. The answer was because it’s fucking close to water. This was not true of the Pabst Old Tankard Ale I used to drink in Wrightstown near Fort Dix, but “fucking close to water” well described the 3.2 beer we were allowed on base in Georgia.
Augusta was further from Fort Gordon than Wrightstown was from Fort Dix and felt more dangerous. What’s more, we didn’t want to patronize establishments in which some of our comrades like Davis, LeTroix, Brewster, and White were not welcome, so many of us stayed on base during weekends, drinking that lousy beer, and losing our money playing poker with Donaldson or other poor little old boys.
Augusta and Georgia were stultifying. The first night I was in Fort Gordon, I went to use the latrine and was startled to see written on the wall above the urinals,
—Aujord ‘ hui, maman est mort.
O peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.
“Mother died today, or perhaps it was yesterday. I really can’t be sure.” These were the opening lines of Camus’s The Stranger and perfectly expressed the Zeitgeist of the wartime army in 1968, and of the draftees that served in it.
* * *
At Fort Dix, the training was Morse code for eight hours every day. Sending it, receiving it, converting the code to encrypted messages arranged in groups of five letters; then, using codebooks, translating the message into meaningful text. We all had security clearances.
In the late sixties, a group called “The Pearls Before Swine” recorded a song about Morse code called “O Miss Morse,”
My dear Miss Morse,
I want you, Yes, I do,
I want you
Dit dit da dit / Dit, dit, da,
Da, dit, da, dit / Da, dit, da
This may strike you
Oddily, But I want you / Bodily.
However, when you listen to Morse code, you hear no dits or das, but rather a series of electronic beeps some of which last half a beat longer than others. The four letters in the song spell “fuck.” The signals we received didn’t spell anything.
In the song, the four letters come slow and easy; in training, the velocity of the code accelerated as the hours advanced. Physical and mental fatigue made it difficult to concentrate, and it seemed impossible that we would ever be able to accurately record the signals we listened to, especially when they came at high speed. Then, one day, the gestalt had come together and we could understand every damn beep.
At Fort Gordon we continued to practice Morse code. We also learned to set up and use generator-operated teletype machines--first in the classroom, later in the field. We practiced firing, taking apart, and cleaning M-14s, but we never touched an M-16. We entertained one another with tales of Viet-Cong proficiency at locating the precise location of radios through triangulation, and blowing them up, along with their operators, with mortars and light artillery.
As training neared its end, “Nam” became more prominent as the subject of conversations in the barracks. Donaldson wondered how he would survive without Cissy. Others worried about their parents or their children. Many questioned their own patriotism and its relevance to this murderous war in the jungles of southeastern Asia. A few of us considered desertion to Canada. I had friends who had moved to Toronto to avoid the Draft and weighed the advantages and disadvantages of joining them.
The jokes about DROs and mortars stopped.
Classes finally ended. There was a lag of a few days before we received our travel orders. We were kept busy with make-work details. Rumors surfaced and sank. Finally, assignments were posted on the bulletin board. Most of the O Five Charlies were headed for Korea, a handful to Germany, and a few unlucky ones, including some friends, to Vietnam. Almost everyone was promoted to Spec 4.
I, along with two other trainees, received no orders at all and no promotion. We were told there were complications with our security clearances.
I never got overseas. I spent my two years stateside. There was never a detailed explanation of the “problems” with my security clearance.
I gave out and collected phone numbers and addresses before my friends shipped out, but never followed up with letters or phone calls. There are things you don’t want to know.