At the start of my senior year of high school, my lifelong ambition to attend Annapolis and then become a Navy carrier pilot looked promising. My grades were right and the initial contact with my congressman held a strong possibility for an appointment. On the second day of classes, Dad and I had a falling out. That afternoon, I was riding a bus to California.
My mother lived in another world. Married to a marine private and taking care of my two younger sisters, the last thing she needed was another mouth to feed. To make matters worse, she had just given birth to a baby Marine. A month after my arrival, the big marine took off. I guess it is true--when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
To say that we had it rough is a gross understatement. We aspired to white trash status. Mom was too proud for welfare and too unskilled for meaningful work. I did what I could. My first contribution was to remove the burden of feeding and clothing me. I did this through petty theft. I robbed newspaper machines, and was quite good at it, using the sewer system, dressed in black, attacking them with a tire iron for the booty of quarters. I terrorized the racks until I landed my first job washing dishes at a fancy restaurant.
I eventually added a gas-pumping job at Miramar Naval Air Station, twenty-three miles away. We had no car, so I hitchhiked. The job was worth it just to watch the big jets take off and land. On the weekends, I worked a ranch. My senior year was no picnic.
My grades suffered and I dropped to half-time schedule. Annapolis was out of the question, but my dream stayed alive. In time, I even recognized it as a dream. At times I grew bitter, watched an F4 climb under full after-burner, pumped gas onto my sneakers, rode a Phantom into the blue, slipped the surly bonds, reached out, and slapped the face of God.
School was a pain in the ass. I had no social life. I was invisible to my peers. No one signed my yearbook. I never saw it. My friends were outside of school.
Brent Corey was my best friend. He lived with his mother. We became close. He could see me and liked what he saw. Connie Keller saw me too. She fell in love. I had a girl and a best friend. Brent envied me because I had a girl and could get another fairly easily. I was cute. Girls liked my blue, bedroom eyes and light brown hair that easily streaked blond from the sun. Brent was a cute guy's best friend. He wasn't exactly ugly, just funny looking. He liked girls, had an obsession, in fact. Brent was a life-support system for a penis. Brent made me laugh, and laughter carried a high premium.
Whenever possible, he and I were at the beach, body surfing. We called it pure surfing. We disdained board surfers and called them wimps. We could not afford boards.
We let the Pacific ocean scour its bottom with our hard bodies, then rested on the sand and watched girls stroll by. Brent inventoried their jiggling parts for me and told me in graphic detail what each part was good for. I saw young girls trolling for Corvette Stingrays and Barracudas. Brent saw life-support systems for vaginas.
Brent indulged my fantasies of flight; I indulged his flights of fantasy. Our reality was the beach, everything else was the BS that supported our reality. Across that ocean, a war raged on. We heard nothing but the roar of the surf.
Connie had a sister named Judy, a sixteen-year-old, jiggling, giggling, package of pleasure, cuter than a puppy's nipple. Judy had not seen her feet since she was thirteen. A few minutes exposed to Judy could put Brent into a catatonic stupor for hours. He could not close his eyes because the skin was stretched too tight. Judy read a book called Those Devils in Baggy Pants. She loved the book and told Brent all about those magnificent paratroopers of World War II. Brent read the book.
Brent was never the same after reading that book. Over night, his life long ambition was to be a paratrooper. Brent sold the paratroopers like a used car salesman sells a little old lady's Rambler. That's all he talked about, paratroopers and girls. In his mind, the two terms were linked like slick on slugs. According to Brent, paratroopers did two things: jump out of airplanes and screw. Sometimes, they screwed and then jumped out of planes. Women, he explained, went weak in the knees at the mere sight of silver jump wings. Evidently, men who make more take offs than landings have an aphrodisiac effect on the opposite sex.
Brent had it all figured out. He learned about the buddy system where guys who enlisted as buddies could go through their training together and probably draw the same unit assignment. He had us fighting in the war, becoming heroes, jumping and screwing, screwing and jumping; and then, when our three year hitch was up, he'd marry Judy, and I would marry Connie. Before the week was up, we stood before an Army recruiter saying, "We want to join the paratroopers."
With a glint in his eye, the sergeant said, "Take a seat, gentlemen." He told us that since we were only seventeen, we needed our mother's permission. Brent wanted to go right away; I wanted to finish high school. Our date was set for two weeks after graduation. We got the signatures, took the induction physicals, spent two weeks living on the beach, then reported to Ft. Ord.
During the in-processing, after taking a battery of tests, dream sheets were passed out. The dream sheet is the means by which you tell the army where you want to go; orders are the means through which the army tells you where to go. Dream sheets are a joke unless you pick what the army wants you to pick. Pick anything else, and you may get your pick, if they need someone there. I looked at that blank line for several seconds, quite certain that Brent would pick Vietnam. I couldn't let him go alone, so I boldly wrote, "VIETNAM."
For three days, we enjoyed the buddy system. I came down with tonsillitis and got set back one week. That was the last I saw of Brent until we met up once again at jump school four months later. After basic training, I shipped out to Ft. Gordon and an experimental advanced infantry training program for infantry recruits bound for Vietnam. The place was called Camp Crocket and was more like Vietnam than Vietnam was.
Brent was not at Camp Crocket, but we had a great reunion at jump school. Brent's infantry AIT was totally different than mine. He learned about open country tank warefare on the nuclear battlefield. I learned how to look for booby traps and search villages, and say things like, "Di Di Maow, Dung Bang," and "Sin co, bow neau tin bac-a-nuoc short time?"
One day, a sergeant from the Green Berets talked to the jump school class and challenged us to take the Special Forces battery of tests. You know, "One hundred men will test today, but only three win the Green Beret." Well, we took the test. I knew nothing about the Green Berets. I thought they were part of Special Services: wrote books, sang songs, and made movies. After graduation, when we were getting our assignments, all the Camp Crocket guys got orders for Nam. Brent got orders for Germany. He looked perplexed. "There must be some kind of mixup," he said.
My orders were to report to Ft. Bragg for Special Forces training. I was livid. I begged; I pleaded, "I don't want to go to Ft. Bragg. I'm supposed to be with my buddies. I signed up for Nam."
Seems the small print at the bottom of the test said a passing grade was an automatic assignment to SF Training Group. They said, "You have to go there in order to quit." On the bus to Fayettville, North Carolina, I realized that Brent was right about one thing: Paratroopers jump and get screwed.
On the bus ride to Bragg, I found out what Green Berets did and what happens to SF dropouts: they go to the Eighty-Second Airborne Division. The old AA--All American. I also learned that the Eighty-Second was predominantly black. At Bragg they were called Mambuzi Rifles or the African Airborne. I was not a prejudiced person; I had a full-blown phobia about black men. They scared the hell out of me. The fear stemmed from a riot where my school bus was assaulted by a mob of angry blacks in Ft. Worth, Texas during the racial unrest of '65. This fear was reinforced by black gangs that raped whites in their bunks at Camp Crocket. I slept with an entrenching tool. Brent was right again: Paratroopers get screwed and jump.
SF training was very tough. Most were motivated to keep going in order to wear the coveted green beret. I was motivated not to be the love puppy of a six-foot four, three-hundred-pound, black sergeant whose nickname was tripod.
I was amazed how much I did not want to join the Eighty-Second Airborne. I damn near graduated with honors. After nine months of pure hell, I stood in formation, a full-fledged Green Beret. I never did feel like a real Green Beret. It was more like I had studied for the part, learned my lines, put on the costume, and advanced onto the stage.
After graduation, I took thirty day's leave and returned to Escondido. I went straight to Connie to begin collecting for the twenty-two jumps I had racked up. I learned that Judy ran off with a hippie and was living in the mountains, raising goats, pot, and leg hair. Connie handed me some snapshots and post cards from Brent. He looked good in his paratrooper suit standing before every famous landmark in Europe, always alone, always with that goofy smile. I read Connie my orders.
So, there I stood before my crying sweetheart with Brent's pictures in one hand, my orders for Nam in the other, an erection nine months old, a devil in baggy pants.