"By the time you finish my class, you will all be able to speak Hangul well enough to appear on national television," says Professor Lee. Tall and thin, not yet thirty but already balding, his doctorate is in Russian — not a high-demand skill in the South Korea of 1972. To earn a living, Lee moonlights at the University of Maryland Extension, teaching American GIs like me to speak Hangul, the language of his country.
As I learn this phonetic alphabet I begin to read, at first street signs, then restaurant menus, soon newspaper headlines. It comes remarkably quickly, it seems to me, so fast that I forget about Lee's opening statement, which I ascribe to hyperbole. So I am astonished and then scared when, two weeks before semester's end, Lee says that instead of using this evening's three-hour class to converse with each other, we will go to a singing nightclub, the Korean version of what will later be known as a karaoke bar, to practice for our final exam.
The exam, he adds, is an appearance on a daytime Korean Broadcasting System game show whose name translates "Joyful Blue and White Games."
We spend an evening taking advantage of the open mike, and I rehearse a takeoff on the Smothers Brothers' act. Singing off-key — of course — accompanied by an Air Force weatherman on guitar, after many fits and starts we almost complete Sarang-hae tongshin-ul, the soulful ballad then topping Seoul pop charts.
Two weeks later I am under the lights with Flyboy, a famous-for-being-famous, over-the-hill television emcee. He rattles off "American" jokes at supersonic speeds; I balance on a flexing two-by-four over a pool of shallow water, trying to nab tennis balls with a butterfly net.
I am not making this up.
Sooner or later, everyone gets wet, and when I do, the rules of this game decree that I sing a song or tell a joke. I belt out Sarang-hae tongshin-ul so badly off-key that everyone in the studio, including my guitar player, is convinced that I am putting them on, the sort of basic, earthy humor that many Koreans find hilarious.
"Do you think many people watch this show?" I ask Professor Lee afterwards, and he beckons over his college roommate, the gameshow producer. "We are number one in daytime," says the producer in perfect English. "Our re-runs air for years and years."
I take my A in the class — those who decline to humiliate themselves in front of the cameras are docked half a grade by Dr. Lee — and go on for three more semesters of Hangul. By 1974 I can understand the lyrics of almost any Korean song, although, even to save my life, I cannot carry the tune of even one.
In July of that year I prepare to leave Korea for what I think will be my last time. I am about to take my Army discharge, about to change my life in fundamental ways, and I crave the solitude of a solo journey as an opportunity to feel, to think, to heal. I also want to experience a region that I have never seen. So I plan a week hitchhiking and trekking through the peninsula's nethermost provinces, so isolated that few foreigners ever visit them.
It is glorious, walking miles down the middle of unpaved roads, accepting brief rides from provincial police, catching a local bus, even resting my backpack on a farmer's cart as I stroll alongside, effortlessly keeping pace with the shambling gate of an ox. It is fine stopping at midday to share my tinned rations and sample the home-grown victuals of barefoot, friendly peasants. They smilingly complement me on my Hangul, exchange sly glances about my Seoul accent, slip into regionalisms and local dialect to talk about me to my face but behind my back. Seoul is barely 300 miles north, but this is another world.
It is a cosmos of close horizons, with steep mountains crowning narrow, emerald valleys, every welcome breeze redolent with turned earth and manure, every field spotted with farmers working unhurriedly through the long summer day. I cover thirty miles or so between nights in one or another yeogwan, the diminutive country inns that offer a coffin-sized sleeping space, a freshly-laundered mat, hot tea on arising and steamed rice with pickled radish and soup to fuel a dawn getaway.
After three days, my transistor radio tells of a vast, unseasonable storm, likely an embryonic typhoon, headed straight for the peninsula. Suddenly the constricted valleys, cut by swift mountain streams that hours of hard rain will send over their banks, seem like a trap. I am two days march from a main road, from a small city where I might take shelter or get a train or highway bus to the safety of Seoul. My map, however, depicts a back road across relatively low hills that would put me a day closer to civilization. What sort of road? My Army map, decades old, doesn't say.
I turn off the main road onto fresh gravel. By noon the stones are gone, the road is a pair of deep ruts. Jumbled rocky hills rise on either side, the air is moist and still, and before me are only mountains and mists. I eat on the march, hoping for a police jeep, a farmer's tractor, anything. At twilight the ruts peter out, and I am on a slim path twisting between steep hills terraced with narrow paddies. I have not seen another human being since midday.
Abruptly the path ends in a tiny village, five or six thatched huts scattered among vegetable gardens. Next to the largest a television antenna, perched atop a high pole and guyed with steel wires, points north towards Seoul. I hear laughter and voices, and trudge wearily toward the antenna. Abruptly upwards of a dozen children come boiling out of the house. They surround me, giggling, pointing. Then a boy of perhaps ten gives me a look. "Omah! Omah!" he shouts, and when his mother's head appears in the open doorway he calls, "Look! It's the long-nose from "Joyful Blue and White Games."
After dinner I am made to sing Sarang-hae tongshin-ul five times. Each time, my hosts, including several adults, laugh uproariously. In the morning, the boy with keen eyes guides me to a mountain path that becomes to a cart track that leads to a road that, after flagging a bus, brings me to the cozy city of Masan. By nightfall, just before the full fury of the typhoon arrives, I am safe.
I like to think that I would have been just as welcome in that nameless village if I had been able to carry a tune — but thinking back to the boy's parting words, I still wonder: "Are you going to be on the TV again?" he asked, and when I shook my head, no, he said, "Do all Americans sing funny?"
© 2009 Marvin J. Wolf
Just before my outfit left for Vietnam I went to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, to photograph a training exercise. I drove there from Ft. Benning, and on the Saturday afternoon that I was to return I found a skinny, worried-looking PFC waiting beside my big Pontiac Bonneville.
“’Scuse me, PFC,” he said, none too sure of himself.
I said my first name and stuck out my hand. He shook it perfunctorily, like a ritual whose purpose he didn’t quite understand.
“Call me Henry,” he said. “I heard you was driving back to Benning, and I wondered if I could ride along. I could chip in for gas and oil…”
Why the hell not, I thought.
No good deed ever goes unpunished. Thirty minutes out of Fayetteville, Henry dropped the other boot. “Say, is there any way I could get you to go a little out of the way, so’s I could stop by home and say goodbye to my folks?” he said. “Before we ship out for Vietnam and all?”
As if he’d just that minute thought of it.
I pulled off the road and broke out a map. “Show me,” I said.
He traced the detour with a dirty fingernail: Instead of heading south through Columbia and then on to Atlanta, we were to swing west, then north through the mountains and on up to a crossroads just over the Tennessee line.
“Just a couple of hours north of Ashville, and then coming back we could drop down through Chattanooga and then it’s a straight shot to Atlanta.”
In other words, 300 miles out of our way.
“That’s an extra tank of gas,” I said. “Maybe more.”
“I’ll buy the gas,” he said. “Got almost twenty dollar.”
At twenty-five cents a gallon, a tank of pre-OPEC regular leaded went for under five.
I’m not sure why I didn’t say no, or suggest that he take a bus from Columbia. Maybe it was because we had only the weekend and I knew little about this part of the country. An adventure, I thought. What the hell. Maybe I’d never get another chance to see rural Tennessee.
“Let’s do it,” I said, and we eased back into traffic.
The sun was just over the trees when we stopped in front of Henry’s home in a bushy hollow. I saw a tired pile of weathered wood and peeling paint that seemed ready to collapse onto a sagging porch. I looked at Henry, mouth agape.
“Round here we say, ‘Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash,’” he shrugged.
Inside we found his parents and three little sisters sitting around a bare table on a bare plank floor surrounded by walls bare bur for a calendar with a picture of Jesus as a honey blonde with pain in his blue eyes.
The looks on Henry’s parents and sisters’ faces mirrored the calendar.
“Who died?” I blurted before my brain arrested my tongue.
“It’s your brother,” said Henry’s mom, only forty-something but all wrinkled skin and jutting bones. For all her Sunday-go-to-meeting attire — it was 7:00 am — she seemed as tired and worn as the house.
“What happened?” asked Henry.
The story tumbled out in roundabout fashion, parts supplied by first one youngster, then another. Henry’s dad sat silent, brooding.
The upshot was that Henry’s 16-year-old brother, William, was in a cell at the Justice of the Peace’s Office.
He’d gone to work at the crossroads gas station the previous evening. Friends came by. They’d offered him a jar of something pale and potent: corn liquor. When he woke up, Mr. Granville, who owned the station as well as the adjacent grocery store, was standing over him. His friends were long gone. The cigar box that had held the cash was empty. The pump meter said the box should have held nearly forty dollars.
I turned to Henry. "We've got to head back to Benning," I said.
"I know. But…"
"I can't leave William in the hoosegow."
"It was 40 bucks. He's a kid. What could they do to him?"
"Could we talk outside?"
We stepped out on the porch and Henry closed the door.
"It's Sunday,” he said.
I nodded, as if to say, so what?
“In an hour ‘most everybody in town will be in church. If William ain't there, people will wonder why. Time the Reverend gives the lesson, everyone will know that William drinks and is friends with thieves. Makes ma and pa look real bad."
"What do you expect me to do about it?"
"Could you maybe drive me over to talk to Mr. Granville?"
“The gas station owner? I thought your brother was in jail.”
“Granville’s Justice of the Peace, too.”
So the victim of this crime was also judge and jury. Sweet, I thought.
I wanted to be on my way. But right then I had an idea.
Half an hour later, wearing my one suit, a starched white shirt and a conservative tie and accompanied by Henry’s parents, I entered the general store. My hair was GI short, but this was the South and crew cuts were common; I just hoped Granville wouldn’t notice my black, Army-issue shoes.
He was a big man gone to fat, wearing pressed trousers and a Panama hat over some kind of off-white cotton shirt, his jowls quivering with indignation. When he saw William’s parents he went off on them, growling that the young pup in his lockup didn’t have the sense of a good hound, wondering why he’d lacked the upbringing to refuse moonshine, and so forth. He vented for a good ten minutes. I let him wind down and then, before Henry’s parents, whom I had asked to remain silent, could speak, I introduced myself.
I never actually said that I was a lawyer, just that my office wasn’t too far from Atlanta, that I’d been visiting one of the boy’s relatives, and that the family had asked me to represent them in this matter.
It was a tissue of truths. As far as it went.
Granville turned to Henry’s parents, and they nodded.
He looked out the window and gave my big, year-old Bonneville a long, appraising stare.
“Well, what are you looking for?” said the big man.
“Bail,” I said. “I’m sure you’ll want some kind of hearing before you dispose of this, but in the meantime, if you have the authority, I’d like to make it possible for this young man to accompany his family to church this morning, where he might be instructed in the Lord’s wisdom and perhaps see the error of his ways.”
All this in my best approximation of a good ole Georgia boy’s accent.
“Certainly, I’ve got the authority,” said the big man, indignant at my implied challenge. I kept my mouth shut, waiting.
“Bail will be fifty dollars. Plus full restitution,” he said.
That was more than a month’s take-home pay for an Army PFC in 1965. Fortunately, I’d drawn a per diem advance for my temporary duty; springing William would leave me broke except for an emergency twenty I kept in my shoe and a couple of dollars in parking change.
And I had to make a car payment the next week.
Maybe I could get an advance on my pay, I thought, as I counted the money into Granville’s outstretched hand.
Half an hour later, Henry’s family, including the chastened William, was in church and Henry and I were on the road to Chattanooga.
“What do think’ll happen to your brother?”
“Probably nothing,” replied Henry. “Granville is just about money, is all. But I’ll pay you back. Every cent.”
I mentioned my impending car payment. “When do you think that might be?”
“Army sends some of my pay home every month.” he replied, shamefaced. It’s gonna take me awhile.”
I grunted, thinking that I didn’t know if he’d return from Vietnam alive. Or if I would. Or if I’d still have legs and arms.
For a long moment the only sound was the purring of the Pontiac’s big engine and the wind rushing past the car.
"What’ll you do about your car payment?" asked Henry.
"I won't need a car in Vietnam," I said.
“I’ll pay you back, you’ll see.”
Maybe, I thought.
“If you come back in one piece, I want you to paint that house."
“I’ll pay you back. Every dime,” he insisted.
I did run into Henry in Vietnam, and he had no cash but did me a big favor. Then we lost track of each other. And although he never repaid the money, by the time I got back from the war I didn’t much care.
In 1990 I flew back to Georgia for a veterans reunion. Over 4,000 men attended, but Henry wasn't among them.
Before returning home I rented a car and drove all night to a Tennessee hamlet. As the sun came up, I wondered if I could find Henry's house again.
It turned out to be easy. It was the only one in the hollow that had been painted in years.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
Another miracle, I thought, turning off West End and easing my Beetle into a space in front of Jack's apartment on the corner of 86th.
An hour earlier I had called him from visiting officers quarters at Fort Hamilton. His wife, Carol, answered. "Jack is busy right now," she said, a brush-off. "Tell me what this is about, maybe I can help you."
My cousin Jack Gelber was in the theatre. He taught drama at Yale and Columbia, and would go on to head the creative writing program at Brooklyn College. But in those waning days of 1966 he was best known as a playwright, author of The Connection, a penetrating look at the desperation of strung-out heroin addicts. Produced off-off-Broadway, its use of language had created a sensation. The play was made into a critically acclaimed movie, and launched Jack's career. While I was close to his younger brother, David, I hadn't seen Jack since childhood.
"Tell Jack that his cousin Marvin is visiting New York for the first time and would dearly love to see him."
A moment later Jack came on the line. "The Cub Scout!" he yelled. "You made it home alive! Look, I've got a house full of people, and we're just about to sit down to dinner. Where are you?"
He recited driving directions. "Leave right now, stay clear of Midtown, and you should get here for dessert. We'll save you a plate."
Half an hour later a woman in a serving apron took my coat and my cousin went around the room with introductions, but after Billy, Sandy, Norm and somebody and Suzie, Linda and somebody and somebody else, I gave up trying to remembering names. Since my call, Jack had called his mother, or perhaps mine, because he introduced me as "my cousin, just back from Vietnam, where he won a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a battlefield commission."
What Jack omitted was that I went to Vietnam as a rookie combat photographer, had learned to write news copy, and that circumstances had propelled me into becoming the First Cavalry Division public information officer’s go-to guy. It was a high-profile job. My reward—a field promotion to second lieutenant—was such a rare event and so unexpected that I hadn’t yet grasped its full implications.
Fifteen months with combat pay, no taxes and little to spend money on had enabled me to save enough to buy a new VW. A week trying to referee the interminable battle between my parents was all I could take, so after seeing a few friends, I took my leave of Los Angeles and sought the solace of the open road. I had a month to report to Fort Benning, and I was hungry for America.
Covering only 200 miles a day, I reacquainted myself with the comforts that Americans take for granted, the small amenities that are unimaginable luxuries to a grunt in a war zone. I stopped in little towns and small cities to shake the stench of Vietnam, looking at the country of my birth with new eyes. I reveled in the hygiene of cheap motels: crisp white sheets faintly scented with citrus, fluffy fresh towels, water that didn't reek of iodine, or household bleach, or Kool-Aid. Hot water any time, hamburgers grilled to order, fresh vegetables, crunchy French fries, people who looked me in the eye and smiled. I was home, I was healthy, I was an officer and a gentleman, a shining future lay ahead for me. I should have been elated—but I could muster no extreme emotions of any sort.
I traveled solo and made no friends. I told no one that I was just back from the war. I watched and listened and avoided lengthy conversations.
In Vietnam, something interesting or frightening or memorable had happened every day. Now I was struck by the humdrum tediousness of safety. By the time my Volkswagen's tires sang their way across the high span over the Verrazano Narrows into Brooklyn, I craved human contact. I needed people to hear my stories, needed to feel that I was again part of society.
Jack parked me between a tallish blonde woman and a shorter man. He seemed to be in his forties; there was something familiar about his craggy, Semitic face and large head covered by unruly coils of salt-and-pepper hair. Suddenly ravenous, I speared a piece of potato with my fork. I opened my mouth, already salivating at the odor.
"Battlefield commission, eh?" the curly-haired man hissed, leaning close. "So you must have bayoneted a few babies, right?"
I put the fork down.
On my second air assault, a whirring cloud of Hueys dropped a rifle company on a small, grassy plateau. As our ship flared for landing, a door gunner sprayed lethal tracers at a boy of maybe ten tending a herd of scrawny cows. The kid ran, bullets skipping by him. I yelled at the gunner to stop, then jumped off to join the infantry. But I took time to note the aircraft tail number, and later I hunted up the unit's executive officer, a major who assured me that we weren't in Vietnam to kill children, that the gunner would be disciplined. Soon afterward an order came from division HQ with new rules of engagement: We were not to shoot at civilians unless they shot first. Maybe this had something to do with my report, maybe not—either way, I felt better.
I wanted to tell Curly about this, defend not only myself but my comrades, but I was so furious that it was all that I could do to shake my head.
"Well then, you must have burned down a few villages, right? I mean, they don't just hand out battlefield commissions!" The man came out of his chair, assumed the classic boxer's stance, cocked his arms, taunting me.
"Maybe you'd like to try fighting somebody your own size?"
For the record, he had three inches and thirty pounds on me.
I jumped to my feet, balling my fists.
Someone stepped between us. Three men grabbed Curly and bundled him into an overcoat, then jammed his hat on his head. His wife murmured apologies as they were all but pushed out the door.
"Who is that jerk?" I asked when the door closed.
"You must forgive him. When he drinks, he likes to fight," said Jack.
"But who is he?"
"We thought you knew! That was Norman Mailer."
Later everyone went into Jack's den, where they passed a joint around and I was asked to explain the war. Bright, sophisticated people from the arts, from publishing, from the theater, they were friendly and open-minded, but I struggled for answers to satisfy them. What was Vietnam about? What were we doing in a civil war?
I told them of the Ia Drang Campaign, savage battles against a division of North Vietnamese regulars. I spoke of a pile of little arms chopped off by Vietcong cadres after American soldiers inoculated village children against smallpox. I shared an eyewitness account of a boy who begged a candy bar from a GI in Bong Son, sat down and ate it, then flipped a grenade into the cab of his benefactor's truck. I described accompanying a surgical team that repaired 30 cleft palates in a single inbred hamlet.
But what national purpose was served in Vietnam? they asked. Were not the South Vietnamese corrupt and venal, and the North Vietnamese hostile fanatics? Why were we involved at all?
I was a brand new second lieutenant, and such questions had not yet begun to trouble me. It would be years before Lyndon Johnson's lies and hypocrisy would be exposed, and while some reports of official duplicity had been published, I remained ignorant of them. I went to Vietnam because a democratically elected commander-in-chief had sent me, I had served with the finest men our nation could field—of that I was proud.
But there was more, and for this I could find no words: I wanted to tell these men and women, most a decade or two my senior, that I went to war in search of myself, under compulsion of some inner force to prove my manhood, to show that I might be undersized and Jewish but that I could soldier with the best. I wanted to shout that I came from a line of orphans, that I never expected to see my fiftieth birthday, that I hoped to pack as much living into the years that I had before cancer or heart disease or something worse claimed me, as it had so many of my ancestors. I wanted to tell them that Vietnam would be the defining event of my generation and that I didn't want to miss it as my 4-F father had missed serving in World War II. I wanted to know that I had served my country.
Most of all I wanted to add that beyond all that, I had sought to better myself, to learn a craft, find a useful profession, and that my commission had been unexpected, that I still wasn't sure if I ought to have accepted it.
I wanted to say all this, but could not focus my thoughts. And later, as I jolted down unfamiliar roads toward Brooklyn, I realized that among Jack's guests that night, only one might have understood what I had so recently experienced. But the author who had come to world prominence by summoning the ugliness and futility of war in The Naked And The Dead, the lone war veteran who might have felt some resonance in my mixed motivations, was the man who had been so wounded by his wartime experiences, so damaged and angry that he routinely anesthetized himself with alcohol, was the man who had left early.
© 2012 Marvin J. Wolf
I stepped out of the Hotel Caravelle and into the gathering darkness. The streets were alive with pedicabs and taxis. The youths we called “Saigon Cowboys” whizzed by on motorbikes or called out from saloon doorways.
I headed across the square, past the Parliament toward the shabby-elegant Continental Palace Hotel.
Someone shouted my name. I stopped and peered into the twilight.
On the Palace veranda, a tall, bespectacled man of about 30 waved. He was with a young American woman and some journalists I knew.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
I stared, confused.
“Have we met?”
“You were at Camp Kaiser?”
“Why are you still in the Army? And why are you a PFC?”
I mumbled something about my break in service and he introduced me to his wife and said that he worked for the New York Times.
And then it came back. He was the clerk.
I came to South Korea on a troop ship and was trucked, with several hundred other replacements, to Camp Kaiser. We were delivered to a Quonset hut to wait for “in-processing.”
I immersed myself in a book until it was too dark to read and my stomach began issuing ultimatums. I was alone; everyone else had been called.
Then a tall, dark-haired, bespectacled clerk with an Irish name beckoned me into a room where contingents of clerks pushed paper through typewriters or cranked ancient mechanical adding machines.
“Sit there,” said the lanky clerk and I waited as he leafed through my file, skimming each document.
“You have unusually high scores,” he said.
He meant the tests that recruits take when they enter service. The most important was the General Technical; it measured vocabulary, reading comprehension and math ability. You needed 110 to get into Officer Candidate school; training as a medic, electronics technician or finance clerk, for example, required higher scores. I had my choice of Army schools; I picked infantry.
I was tempted to say something clever. But you mess with a personnel or finance clerk at your peril: There’s nothing to stop one from mailing your records to Greenland and screwing up your pay for years.
“Thanks,” I replied.
“You’re scheduled for Delta Company,17th Infantry,” he said, reading. “But when I saw your scores…. How’d you like to work here?”
“I’m an infantryman,” I replied, amused.
“We’ll give you on-the-job training.”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
He peered at me as though I had just confessed to an axe murder or announced that I was uncertain if the earth was round.
“Let me tell you about Delta Company,” said the clerk. “You’ll spend three nights a week in the field the year around. You’ll eat mostly C-rations and there’ll be days when you don’t eat at all. This division is under strength, so there’s never enough men for all the shit details. When you’re in garrison, you’ll pull guard duty twice a week. And you won’t get the next day off.
“In winter it gets down to 20 or thirty below. In summer it goes over a hundred. In spring it rains for weeks. You’ll be out in that, night and day, until you wonder if webs are growing between your fingers and toes. Like a frog.
“But here we get three hot meals a day. We sleep between clean sheets. A shower every day. We have stoves for winter and air conditioners for summer. We’re off at five No weekend duty. No holidays. No guard, no KP, no details.
“So, what do you think?”
I had no words for what I was thinking, no vocabulary to express the contempt that an infantryman, who even in peacetime spends days and nights and weeks in the field, feels for those who don’t. Every man who has gone days without sleep, without bathing, without decent food while being forced far beyond his own fearful notions of personal limits, who has marched and crawled and climbed and faced the elements and done his job well, feels that anyone wearing the uniform but removed from danger and hardship, whose duties are performed in relative safety and comfort, is a pussy. The Marine hates Navy swabbies and looks down at anyone in Army green. Most of the Army sneers at the Air Force and Navy. The rifleman or grenadier knows that he’s a better man than any mechanic or cook, better even than mortarmen. The infantryman scorns headquarters types as chair-borne rangers, not even poor warriors but rear-echelon MFs, unworthy of the uniform.
So when this clean, well-fed, rested, and doubtless well-intentioned clerk offered me the opportunity to walk away from the privation and denial that is the infantryman’s daily ration, it made me angry.
“So what do you think?”
“I think I’ve got a better chance to make rank in a line outfit,” I said.
He pulled my file closer and extracted the Form 66.
“You made PFC at ten months. Two months later than usual. Then Specialist Four less than a month after. How did that happen?”
“Don’t be modest — you were honor graduate,” he said. “It’s not true that line companies get more stripes. We pass out the quotas. We keep our share. So, what do you say? Want to work up here?”
I was torn. A little.
“I’m not sure.”
“So what the hell is a smart kid like you doing in the infantry?”
I’d heard that before. On the rare Friday nights when I could attend religious services, I had mingled with the doctors, dentists, lawyers, chaplains and clerks who made up the great bulk of the Army’s Jewish ranks.
“What’s a nice Jewish boy doing in the Infantry?”
“Give my sergeant a call; I’ll have you transferred to a nice office job.”
“Ever thought about law school? Clerking in the Judge Advocate’s office wouldn’t hurt your resume!”
They meant well. They just didn’t understand why I would limit myself to serving as a common soldier, as cannon fodder.
And they knew of the Army’s casual anti-Semitism, of the many who believed that negotiating a better price is an exclusively Jewish practice, or, paradoxically, that Jews and communists are synonymous. That Jews are clever weaklings—thinkers, manipulators, swindlers. Never men of action.
I chose infantry because I wanted to show that an undersized Jew could be tough and smart. That in a macho, testosterone-driven world where the strong push aside the weak, I wasn’t going to be pushed so easily.
But I was eighteen. I didn’t know how to say all that. And it was none of his business.
“Just lucky, I guess,” I replied.
He shot me a hard look. Here it comes, I thought.
“I hate it here. You will too. But you’ll hate it a lot more in Delta. “
I nodded to show that I was listening.
“Let me train you. In 60 days you’ll be my replacement; I’ll go home 90 days early. If I time it right, I won’t be reassigned—I’ll get an early discharge.
“So, what do you think?”
I was thinking, This is how REMFs game the system, looking out for themselves instead of thinking like part of a team with an important mission. Jerk-off REMF, that’s what I was thinking.
Still, if I ever wanted easy duty…
“And listen — guys like you have nobody to talk to in a rifle company.”
“Guys like me?”
“Smart guys. And you’ll be the only Jew.”
In hindsight I know that he didn’t mean it maliciously. But to me that was the last straw. I was never going to be just another Jewish candy-ass, another Jewish Finance clerk.
“I’ll go to Delta Company.”
“If you change your mind…”
Life in Delta was much as the clerk predicted, but worse. I regretted my decision only about 52 times.
The war that began in 1950 had paused with an armistice–a cease-fire–in 1953. Soldiers on both sides still died in brief skirmishes or from occasional artillery shells or land mines. Infiltrators and saboteurs were common. Tough and battle-tested, the world’s third-largest standing army was 30 miles away, poised to resume the attack any day. Our mission was to prepare for that day.
So we trained hard. We went without sleep longer than I believed possible. I marched holes in three sets of boots. I ate everything I could get my hands on and lost weight. I got crotch rot in the summer, frostbite in the winter, and trench foot in the spring. I grew more than an inch. I sewed on sergeant’s stripes before my 19th birthday—one year and six months after enlisting.
I ran a squad. I made mistakes and learned to lead men. I made friends and won the respect of far better soldiers than I would ever become. To this day I’m proud to say that I served a year in Korea as an infantryman: What I learned in those frozen hills and boiling valleys was of immeasurable value ever afterward. My experiences fostered a deep and abiding kinship with every American who ever shouldered a rifle.
The clerk, Neil Sheehan, didn’t finish his full tour. He was a Harvard man with journalism experience. He was a few months from going home when an unexpected opening at Stars & Stripes took him to Tokyo. Months later he was discharged and hired to run UPI’s Saigon bureau. He worked with some of the best reporters of our generation and distinguished himself. He met John Paul Vann, a senior US military advisor, and a former Marine named Daniel Ellsberg. Sheehan spent years researching and writing a book about Vann, A Bright Shining Lie, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
When Sheehan left UPI he joined the New York Times. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg, then working at the Rand Corporation, discovered proof of the lies and deceptions that the Johnson and Nixon Administrations had used to justify the Indochina war. Trusting Sheehan, Ellsberg slipped him secret government documents exposing these lies, the so-called “Pentagon Papers.”
Publication of the Papers by the New York Times led to a Supreme Court ruling that reinforced the First Amendment by prohibiting prior restraint. Ellsberg and Sheehan changed history.
The Bible tells of Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers. He might never have found them but for a mysterious “man” who directed him to distant Dothan. Some rabbis say this was an angel sent to ensure that Joseph met his fate.
Because if he had not been sold into slavery, there would have been no Exodus, no Sinai. No Bible. Our world would be different.
And so I wonder: What if I hadn’t been insufferably full of smug self-superiority? What if I’d accepted Sheehan’s offer? What if he’d gotten his early discharge, never worked at Stars & Stripes, never made to 1962 Saigon, never met Ellsberg or Vann?
How different would the world be now?
I don’t know about the Pentagon Papers, but I would have been just another REMF. Instead I lived among wolves. I earned the right to tell stories around the campfire.
Did God send Sheehan to tempt me with easy duty, to make me fully consider the difficult path I’d chosen?
Or did God harden my heart, like Pharaoh’s, so Sheehan would meet Ellsberg and get the Pentagon Papers?
Or was God napping on that dreary Camp Kaiser afternoon and all that followed was blind chance?
Take your pick.
© 2008 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.