Excerpted from my unpublished memoir, Five-Foot Soldier, Six-Foot Army
I stepped out of the cool lobby of the Hotel Caravelle into the gathering darkness, wilting under the stifling humidity and recoiling from Saigon’s signature perfume, Eau de Garbage. It was almost 9:00; the streets were alive with cyclos and taxis. A flock of Saigon Cowboys whizzed by on motorbikes. Others, dressed in tight jeans and Western shirts, called out to passing Americans from the doorways of gaudy, neon-lit saloons.
Why weren’t those guys in the Army? I wondered. South Vietnam’s draconian draft laws demanded years of military service of practically every able-bodied man under forty. These cowboys were in their late teens and early twenties; none displayed any obvious physical disability. Like bats, they appeared at twilight, flitting around the streets on noisy bikes and trolling for customers on Tu Do Street and other GI haunts, peddling booze, girls, drugs and black market goods. The young Americans GIs to whom they hawked their wares had been plucked from jobs, schools and families and sent halfway around the world to fight Communism, to sweat and bleed and sometimes die for Vietnam’s freedom. For Vietnam’s privileged youth, that freedom very apparently included dodging the draft to enrich themselves.
Most of these young pimps and drug dealers came from families with sufficient means to bribe an official to remove their names from draft rolls or to assign them to an ARVN unit in which they would never serve. Corrupt commanders pocketed these “ghost soldiers” pay and sold their rations, uniforms and sometimes even their weapons.
Years later, as North Vietnam’s legions overwhelmed South Vietnam’s armies of ghost soldiers, the Saigon Cowboys, their families and the corrupt officials who had grown wealthy peddling draft exemptions, fled to America with their money. Many found havens in Orange County, California, Houston, Texas, or other politically conservative communities. They invested in real estate, opened restaurants, shops and other businesses, sent their children to public schools and energetically attacked the idea of Communism with raised voices and clenched fists. They penned bitter press polemics criticizing their brethren for anything supportive of the Hanoi regime and railed against America for abandoning South Vietnam, all the while waving the red-and-yellow flag of the vanquished nation for which they had gone to great lengths to avoid taking up arms to defend against Communists.
But on that warm, fetid, Saigon evening I knew only that I wanted a good dinner. I had arrived at midday, and by seven had completed my round of network and wire service offices, briefing each bureau chief on an upcoming operation. Siler wanted to make sure that plenty of cameras and reporters were around for it, so he dispatched me, with instructions not to provide too much information, to pitch the story. Freshly showered, I was looking forward to my first decent food in six weeks. Afterward, I would return to the hotel to spend a cool, flying-insect-free, low-humidity night between clean sheets, rise refreshed, shower again, make a quick trip to the Class VI store for bottled barter goods, then stop at Saigon’s well-stocked PX for a few necessities. By noon l would be at Tansonnhut for a ninety-minute Air Force ride upcountry; I’d be back at the An Khe Mortar Lodge in time to enjoy a supper of stale, canned “B” rations.
As I strolled across the square past South Vietnam’s Parliament building—some waggish newsie had dubbed it “the world’s largest rubber stamp”—toward the Continental Palace Hotel, a rambling, shabby-elegant relic of the French Colonial period, I heard my name shouted.
I stopped and peered into the deepening twilight.
Another shout and I knew that it came from the Palace’s veranda, a popular dining and imbibing spot. Because Americans congregated there, a few roguish passers-by sometimes lobbed in hand grenades; hotel management responded by covering the porch with thick wire mesh. It was from behind that steel grid that I heard my name shouted a third time.
I stepped up and into the veranda and a tall, bespectacled man of about thirty waved to me. He was with a pretty young woman and a couple of men whom I recognized as journalists.
“Wolf!” he said.
“Sorry—have we met?” I said.
“You were at Camp Kaiser—Seventeenth Infantry, right?”
“Yes, in 1960.”
“Why are you still in the Army? And why are you only a PFC?”
Before I could answer, he introduced the woman as his wife, Susan, and said that he was working for the New York Times. And he told me his name.
And all at once it came rushing back. In February 1960, I had sailed from San Francisco on a troop ship, the USNS Daniel I. Sultan. Nineteen days and 51 paperback books later, we dropped anchor off Inchon. Two days of processing through replacement depots, an issue of cold-weather gear, and I reached Camp Kaiser, well north of the 38th Parallel, and just beyond artillery range of the North Koreans on the DMZ further up the valley. With about 200 other replacements, I entered a Quonset hut complex marked Personnel and Finance and waited to be “in-processed.” Two hours later, after everyone else had been processed, a tall, dark-haired, bespectacled specialist five in his mid-twenties appeared. His nametag said “Sheehan.”
I followed him into an office where squads of clerks pushed paper through typewriters or cranked mechanical adding machines called Comptometers.
“Sit there,” said the lanky Irishman, in what I took as a Boston accent.
I waited as he leafed through my file, stopping to skim each letter and document. He laid the open file before him on the cluttered desk.
“You have unusually high scores,” he said.
He meant the test scores that in that era every recruit established upon entering service. The most important was the GT, or General Technical, a measure of vocabulary, reading comprehension and mathematical reasoning; an average score was 100, plus or minus ten. To get into Officer Candidate School you needed 110; schooling as a pharmacist, medic, electronics technician or finance clerk, for example, required still higher scores. Only infantry training required no minimum.
My scores, I knew, would get me into any Army school; I was tempted to say something clever to Sheehan. But every soldier learns that messing with a payroll clerk is risky: There’s nothing to stop them from mailing your records to Greenland and screwing up your life for years.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“You’re scheduled for Delta Company, 17TH Infantry,” he said, reading from mimeographed orders.
“Delta company. Okay.”
“But when I saw your scores…. How’d you like to work here?”
I was surprised, then amused. My face, I’m sure, gave me away.
“I’m an infantryman,” I replied.
“No problem,” said Sheehan. “We’ll give you sixty days OJT, then award you the MOS.”
Two months on-the-job training would lead to reclassification as some kind of clerk. I’d probably never see infantry duty again.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
He looked at me as if I had announced that I was uncertain that the earth was round..
“Let me tell you about duty in a rifle company here,” Sheehan said.
As if I hadn’t spent the last six months in a rifle company.
“Most weeks you’ll spend three or four days in the field, and I mean, all year round. You’ll eat mostly C-rations and there may be days in the field when you don’t eat at all. This division is less than full strength, so the duty roster is short; when you’re not in the field, you’ll pull all kinds of extra duty, including guard, twice a week. Korean winters get down to twenty or thirty below zero—plus the wind chill. In summer it gets over a hundred degrees and it’s very humid. In a few weeks, the spring monsoon begins—it rains for weeks. You’ll be out running around in that, night and day, freezing or boiling or wondering if webs are growing between your fingers and toes. That’s rifle company duty here.
“In this headquarters, we get three hot meals a day. We sleep between clean sheets every night. A shower every day. We have stoves for winter and air conditioners for summer. We’re off at five o’clock. No weekend duty. No holidays. No guard, no KP, no dirty work, no shit details.
“So, what do you think?”
I had no words for what I was thinking. I had no way to describe the feeling of contempt that an infantryman, who even in peacetime spends his days and nights and weeks exposed to the elements, feels for those who have not. Every grunt who has gone without sleep, without bathing, without decent food while being forced far beyond his perceptions of personal physical limits, who has marched and crawled and climbed while cold and wet or hot and sweaty, feels that anyone who wears the uniform but is removed from danger and hardship, whose military service is performed in relative safety and comfort, is a pussy. The fighting Marine loathes the Navy swabby and is openly contemptuous of Army green. Most of the Army sneers at the Air Force and Navy. The rifleman, gunner or grenadier knows with certainty that he’s a better man than any clerk, cook or mechanic, better even than a candy-ass mortar gunner who rides in a truck. The infantryman scorns the headquarters soldier as a chair-borne ranger, a fourth-rate warrior. A clerk is no soldier. He’s a rear-echelon MF, unworthy of the uniform.
I had been a soldier scarcely a year when this well-fed, clean, rested, nicely-scrubbed and doubtless well-intentioned clerk offered me the opportunity to walk away from the privation and denial that is the infantryman’s daily ration. I couldn’t say exactly why, but it made me angry.
Oh, and there was another thing. The height thing.
It didn’t help that this clerk was six feet tall.
“So what do you think, Wolf?”
“I think there’s more chance to make rank in a line outfit,” I said.
Sheehan pulled my file closer and extracted the manila Form 66, my service record.
“You made PFC at ten months total service. Two months later than most. Then Specialist Four less than a month after. How did that happen?”
“NCO academy,” I said.
“And you were honor grad, right?”
It was all there in my records for him to see. I just nodded, yes.
“And then you were the Fort Lewis Soldier of the Month?”
He had me cold.
“Well, it’s not true that line company duty is better for promotion. Headquarters passes out the stripes, and we get our share. So, what do you say? Want to work up here?”
I’ll admit it. I was torn. Just a little.
“I’m not sure.”
Sheehan held up my Form 66.
“We never see scores like yours up here. I bet there’s no one on this base, including the officers, with your GT score. When I showed this to the personnel officer he said ‘How did Eighth Army miss him? Get him in here.’
“So what the hell is a kid like you doing in the infantry anyway?”
It was not the first time that I’d heard that particular question. At Ft. Lewis, on the rare Friday night when I was allowed to attend religious services—the price for skipping the barracks cleaning party was Sunday KP or guard duty—I mingled with the doctors, dentists, lawyers, chaplains and clerks who comprised 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.”
“I’m looking for a dental assistant. Can you type?”
“Ever thought about law school? A couple of years in the Judge Advocate’s office wouldn’t hurt your resume!”
They meant well, but they were truly mystified by my apparent acceptance of serving among gentiles too dumb to realize that they were cannon fodder.
Then there was the casual bigotry that permeates the speech of those who grow up learning, for example, that negotiating a better price is an exclusively Jewish practice, or, paradoxically, that Judaism and communism are synonymous. In the Fifties, most American Jews were familiar with the phenomenon. When pressed, I told my co-religionists that the infantry wasn’t so bad, that most of the guys I knew didn’t seem to know or care that I was Jewish.
Except for the time in basic training when Milam and Smith, two hulking recruits from some West Virginia hollow, cornered me in the shower and probed my skull for horns, then examined my backside, genuinely mystified when they found no trace of the tail that their preacher claimed was standard equipment on every son of Moses.
Nor did I mention that I had been profoundly affected by childhood encounters with films, books, and lectures about Nazi death camps. Mass murder as an industrial process. Piles of pale, emaciated bodies bulldozed into ditches. Acres of half-burned corpses. Six million dead for the crime of being Jewish. What could be more frightening to a young, impressionable mind? I told no one, but I had long ago decided that if something like that happened in America, I would not be led sheep-like to my slaughter. I clung to the belief that if enough Jews showed the will to fight, we might avert an American Holocaust.
Yes, yes, yes. I was young and naïve and, deep down, very frightened.
Before I could hope that Jews could fight, I must first prove that I would, so given the pick of Army schools, I chose infantry’s crossed rifles.
But I didn’t know how to say all that to the tall Irishman with pomaded hair and thick glasses. And it was none of his business anyway.
“Just lucky, I guess,” I told him.
He shot me an odd glance.
“Look, I’ll level with you,” he said. “I hate it here. You’ll hate it too. But you’ll hate it a helluva lot more down in Delta Company. “
I nodded to show that I was listening.
“Let me train you. In sixty days you’ve got the MOS. Then you’ll be my replacement; I’ll put in for a ninety-day drop and go home early. If I time it right, they won’t even re-assign me—just give me an early out.
“So, what do you think?”
I was thinking, This is how a REMF’s mind works. This is how headquarters types game the system, looking out for number one instead of thinking like part of a team with an important mission.
Jerk-off REMF, that’s what I was thinking.
But still, if I ever wanted easy duty, this was my shot.
“And listen—guys like you have nobody to talk to in an infantry unit.”
“Guys like me?”
He glanced at my records. “And of course, there are no other Jews.”
He didn’t mean it maliciously. I’m sure he had Jewish friends. I know for a fact that he would one day have a Jewish wife.
But I was looking for a way out, a graceful way to turn him down.
“Sixty days and you’ll get your Finance MOS. ”
I was never, ever, going to be another candy-ass Jewish finance clerk.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll go to Delta Company.”
“If you change your mind…”
Life in Delta Company was much as Sheehan described, but worse. I regretted my decision only about fifty times.
Our mission was to prepare for the real possibility that the shooting war that had ended with the 1953 armistice might resume. This was during the most frigid period of the Cold War and only months before the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crises. The world’s third-largest standing army was dug in less than 30 miles north of Camp Kaiser. Between us was an untested division of the seven-year-old South Korean Army; few of its officers and none of its conscript troops had been blooded in battle. Behind us lay the main supply route to Seoul, a narrow, unpaved road between rugged mountains that twisted and turned for some 50 miles to the outskirts of the national capital. If hostilities resumed, we expected the South Koreans in front of us to fold, and quickly. Our mission was to delay the enemy’s advance down that road long enough to allow the evacuation of Seoul, then a city of a million. Our officers told us, point blank, that Eighth Army expected us to hold only two days. They also said that none of us should expect to survive the encounter.
That was what we trained for. And so we froze. We went without sleep longer than I had believed possible. I marched holes in three sets of boots. I ate everything I could get my hands on and still 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 shortly after my nineteenth birthday.
I ran a weapons squad. I made stupid mistakes and learned to lead men. I helped guys fill out income tax returns and make sense of Army paperwork. I made friends and gave respect to men who were far better soldiers than I would ever become. To this day I am proud to say that I served a year in Korea as an infantryman. What I learned about soldiering in those frozen hills and baking valleys was of immeasurable value when I got to Vietnam, and to my life ever afterward. And from my experiences grew a feeling of deep and abiding kinship with every American soldier who has ever shouldered a rifle.
* * *
Sheehan didn’t finish his Korean tour. He was a Harvard man and had worked as a reporter. Instead of finding a replacement and getting an early out, he moved to Eighth Army PIO, then wangled a job at Stars & Stripes, in Tokyo.
He stayed in Tokyo until his discharge in 1962, then went to UPI and took over its Saigon bureau. He worked with David Halberstam, Peter Arnett, and Malcolm Browne. Like them, he distinguished himself as a reporter. He met a senior US military advisor, a slick, politically-gifted light colonel named John Paul Vann, and a former Marine named Daniel Ellsberg.
Bad luck cost Sheehan a shot at the Pulitzer Prize when he was recalled to Tokyo just before Ngo Dinh Diem was deposed in a 1963 coup. But Sheehan later spent years researching and writing a book about John Paul Vann and got a Pulitzer anyway.
When Sheehan left UPI, he joined the New York Times. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg, his pal from 1962 Saigon, was working at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California. A hawk, keen to stop Communism’s spread through Asia, Ellsberg discovered proof of the falsehoods and deceptions that the Johnson and Nixon Administrations had used to justify and perpetuate the war. Trusting Sheehan to do the right thing, Ellsberg slipped him a trove of secret government documents exposing these lies, the so-called “Pentagon Papers.”
The Nixon Administration sued to stop publication of these secrets. The Supreme Court said that the First Amendment didn’t allow prior restraint.
Ellsberg, Sheehan and the New York Times altered the course of history.
The Bible tells of Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Would that have happened had Joseph not come to his brethren at the precise moment when there was murder in their hearts? And how did Joseph, many miles distant without any idea where his brothers had gone, locate them? Because “a man” whom he encountered while wandering the fields of Shechem in search of his siblings directed the seventeen-year-old Joseph to Dothan, where he found his brothers. But who was this “man”? The ancient rabbinical sages concluded that this fellow, about whom we know nothing else, was a Divine messenger—an angel— sent to ensure that Joseph found his brothers.
Because if Joseph had not gone to Dothan, he would not have been sold into slavery. He would not have brought his family to Egypt. There would have been no Exodus. No Sinai. No Bible. World history would be entirely different.
And so, once in a while, I wonder: What if I hadn’t been such a cocky kid, so full of smug self-superiority? What if I’d accepted Sheehan’s kind offer? What if Neil Sheehan had left Korea early, never worked for Stars & Stripes, never went to Saigon in 1962, never met Ellsberg or Vann?
What would have happened? How different would the world be?
I don’t know about Sheehan, Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers or his Pulitzer Prize, but I would have become just another REMF. Another smart-ass Jew finance clerk.
Instead, though I suffered, I became a soldier.
Did God send Sheehan to tempt me with easy duty so that I would fully consider the difficult path I had chosen before fully committing to it?
Or did God harden my heart, as he had Pharaoh’s so that in time Sheehan would become Ellsberg’s vehicle for publicizing the Pentagon Papers?
Or was God taking a nap on that dreary Camp Kaiser afternoon, and all that followed was a series of random acts, of blind chance?
Take your pick.
Three days after I ran into Sheehan in Saigon, the First Cav kicked off a massive operation in the mountainous region east of An Khe. Dozens of reporters, photographers and camera crews reported on our activities.
But Sheehan had another assignment, and I never saw him again.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
In 1965 I was a PFC and rookie combat correspondent with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam. In November, two of our battalions engaged with regular North Vietnamese regiments in the Ia Drang Valley, in what would become a famous battle. With my colleagues in the Public Information Office, I flew to Camp Holloway at Pleiku, 30 miles from the battle but the nearest US base with an airstrip.
By the middle of the second day casualties were evacuated to Holloway and I had an opportunity to interview several of the less seriously, wounded troops before they were hospitalized.
From these interviews, I wrote a 1,000-word story, and brought it to my boss, Major Siler, for approval. He deleted four words in the last paragraph and told me to phone our tent office at An Khe, about 30 miles east, and read it to whoever answered the phone. Siler said to tell the man who took the story to send it to Stars & Stripes in Tokyo without changing a word.
The voice on the other end of my phone was new to me, a sergeant D’Angelo. I read him the story and to my surprise, he typed as fast as I spoke. When he finished I passed on the major’s order to send it without changes, the D’Angelo lectured me on the importance of proofreading, fact-checking, grammar, sentence structure and so forth.
It was three days before I got back to An Khe and my bunk in the section tent. I was filthy and exhausted. I took off my dirty uniform and underwear and slept for ten hours. Then I hitched a ride to the shower point, got a cold shower, and hitched a ride back.
Then for the first time, I began flipping through the previous few days Stars &Stripes, looking for my by-line. When I didn’t find it, I was disappointed. I was a new writer and I assumed that the story wasn’t good enough for the Stripes’ editor.
The next day, reading those papers again, I found five stories by-lined by D’Angelo. It didn’t seem possible, because he had spent the whole battle 60 miles away at our basecamp. Reading the third D’Angelo piece I recognized my own work. He had transposed two clauses in the lead sentence, but otherwise, the story was exactly what I wrote.
I respectfully asked him to explain why his name on was on my story. I got a long-winded lecture about teamwork, that it didn’t matter whose name was on a story as long as it got published and that in any case, he had rewritten the story to fix my grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and poor organization. I replied that the story published in Stripes was exactly what I wrote, except for those transposed clauses in the first sentence.
He repeated his whole spiel about teamwork, and how it did not matter whose name was on the story.
“If it doesn’t matter, then why your name instead of mine?” I said.
He repeated the entire teamwork spiel yet again.
Later that day I ran into Captain Coleman, the major’s deputy, who told me that Major Siler was away on Army business.
I knew Coleman fairly well and saw him as a tough but fair officer with years of civilian news reporting and editing experience. So I told him about my encounter with Sergeant D’Angelo. He said that he would look into it.
Standing in line for evening chow, D’Angelo and another new member of the section, a Staff Sergeant Jameson, came up on either side of me and took me out of line. They marched me about a half mile to a small patch of jungle inside the base camp, where Jameson held me while D’Angelo pounded by midsection, arms, and legs until he was covered with sweat. I was cautioned that PFCs do not go over their sergeant’s head to talk to an officer. After a few more punches, I was threatened with re-assignment to an infantry company if I didn’t shape up. Jameson told me that I needed “extra training. I was to report to him at 8:00 pm.
I was bruised and sore, but they had avoided hitting my face. When I found Jameson that evening he took me outside, handed me an entrenching tool—a small folding shovel--and told me to dig a standard foxhole, six feet long, two feet wide, and four feet deep.
That took until midnight. When he came back he seemed surprised that I had done as told.
He ordered me to get some sleep and report to him at 0500.
When I did, he had me fill in the foxhole. He warned me again about speaking to officers.
I was angry and frustrated. The next day followed without incident.
After breakfast on the day after that, Major Siler re-appeared. He told me to report to Division Headquarters and the Command Sergeant Major.
There I was promoted one grade to Specialist Four and told that henceforth I was the acting press chief, in charge of all the reporters in the section.
“What about SGT D’Angelo?” I asked.
“He requested re-assignment in his other military occupational specialty, maintaining databases of helicopter replacement parts.”
Staff Sergeant Jameson had also requested re-assignment to an infantry battalion.
It developed that D’Angelo had stolen the stories of every other reporter in the section. Siler had flown down to Saigon where he found high-quality international circuits, which he used to call Stripes in Tokyo and also the European edition, published in West Germany. Apparently, D’Angelo had been stealing stories for several years.
Fast forward to 1970. I arrived in Kaiserslautern Germany for duty as the Communication-Electronics staff officer for the 93rd Air Defense Group, a large collection of surface-to-air missile units whose weapons were pointed at East Germany and Czechoslovakia. I was assigned the additional duty of Public Information Officer.
In that capacity, I was invited to meet with the lieutenant colonel who served as regional public affairs officer, the better to coordinate public affairs goals and the means of achieving them.
Entering the PAO outer office, out of the corner of my eye I saw a familiar figure wearing the stripes of a sergeant first class. I was greeted by the PAO sergeant major, who took me in to see his boss.
As I strode across the office I heard D’Angelo telling someone, “See that young captain? He’s a hell of a writer. I taught him everything he knows about news reporting.”
Inside the lieutenant colonel’s office, we shook hands and had a collegial chat of about ten minutes. I asked a few questions, and he answered them. Then I turned to the sergeant major. “Have any of your enlisted men made any complaints about SFC D’Angelo?
The sergeant major was startled. “A few, but D’Angelo told me what really happened.”
Leaving myself out of it, I described what had happened in Vietnam, down to Siler’s discovery that this was a habitual behavior.
“Is that Chuck Siler?” asked the lieutenant colonel.
“He’s an old friend,” replied the PAO. “Do you know where he’s stationed these days?”
I told him, we shook hands and I departed for my office, an hour’s ride distant.
When I was back behind my desk attacking a pile of paperwork, my right-hand man, Master Sergeant Bill Solomon, came into my office and perched on the edge of my desk. I didn’t mind—he was almost a friend, Despite the difference in our ranks, he knew more about my job than I knew about his.
“You used to know a Sergeant First Class D’Angelo?” he said, eyes twinkling.
“Tell me,” I replied.
“Got a call from a sergeant-major we know. D’Angelo is up for a court-martial.”
“How interesting,” I replied.
The Sicilians have it right. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
I was hired away from a job that I enjoyed but which paid little to become editor-in-chief of the Northrop News, a monthly tabloid sent to Northrop’s employees in the US and abroad, and to stockholders. The woman who recruited me promised that I would have broad authority to transform the News from its stodgy 1950s format into a contemporary magazine and that I would have six full-time employees and one part-timer at a small Northrop facility on the East Coast.
I took the job and immediately learned that none of six at Northrop headquarters worked for me. They reported to “Mary,” my boss, and if I needed them to do something, I had to ask Mary.
But Mary was never around. She traveled constantly, and in that era before cell phones, she was almost impossible to reach. I left countless messages for her in the offices that she was supposedly visiting, but she never called back. Meanwhile, each of the six individuals that I had been promised worked for me were all busy on tasks that Mary gave them, none of which had anything to do with the Northrop News.
So for the first two months, I wrote the whole magazine myself. I also served as the art director. The one thing I persuaded one of Mary’s people to do was to proofread my copy.
My first issue would, in the year following, win several national and international awards. We received over 200 requests for copies and had to go back to press to satisfy the demand.
My second issue won a few awards as well.
On one of her rare visits to her own office, Mary sent for me and scolded me for my re-design work during the transmutation from tabloid to magazine. She said that the secretary to the vice president of one company division had written a note of complaint. She was angry that some “college boy” had taken over and changed her beloved News. (I was then 37 years of age, a Vietnam veteran and yes, a college graduate.) Apparently, Mary was terrified of this secretary. When I took the opportunity to remind her that I had been promised six and a half workers under me and that instead, I had none, she got angry. “All you have to do is ask me, and I’ll assign someone to help you on a specific task,” she said. “But everyone in this department reports to me, and to me alone.”
I reminded her that she was rarely around to ask, and she rose from he chair and hurried off without replying.
After another month, I was burned out. Midway through the third issue of my tenure, I was working seven days a week. I took work home every night and wrote until I could hardly see the page. I got up early and was in the office at 7:00 so I could work without interruption by phone calls and office business.
When Mary returned from her next trip, I went into her office a little before noon and closed the door.
“Did you have an appointment?” she asked, as I sank into the visitor’s chair.
“Mary, I must have some help. I cannot do this job alone. Just give me ONE person who can assist me.”
“Everyone reports to me,” she said. “That’s how it is.”
“Mary,” I said. “You’re an attractive black woman in an aerospace company. THEY WON’T FIRE YOU. You need to learn to delegate.”
“I have a lunch,” she said and grabbed her purse as she flew from the room.
When I returned from my own lunch, there was a firing notice on my desk. My tenure at Northrop Corporation was over because “I did not fit in with the corporate culture.”
I would learn in the years ahead that this had been Mary’s first management position and her first communications assignments. She was previously in charge of corporate equal opportunity at Northrop. Before that, she was a flight attendant. Her husband was an actor, but I have yet to see one of his credits in a film or TV show or on the Broadway stage.
When Mary got that employee communications job, she immediately spent some $27,000 of Northop’s money to hire an international business consulting firm to do a corporate communications audit. They produced two copies of what was essentially a how-to book. That’s why the other six writers were doing things for Mary. When they weren’t out of the office on personal business, they were trying to create a package of new communications media: A virtual bulletin board, a complaint hotline, A weekly video report to all employees, etc.
Mary was unable to secure funding for most of those projects.
And at a writers gathering 22 years later, I ran into the woman who had replaced me at Northrop. She lasted six weeks. He replacement lasted five. I learned from the first woman that apparently one or more of my office colleagues had eavesdropped on my last conversation with Mary.
Apparently, I had become an office legend for the manner of my departure.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
The truck lurched off into the twilight, and we gathered in the road, eleven recruits in the last week of Army basic training. Self, the squad leader, handed me a map and compass.
"You get this land navigation stuff, right, General?"
I hated the nickname, but it was my own fault. After years of high school ROTC, from day one in the real Army I acted like I knew everything the other recruits were struggling to learn.
Everything except when to shut up.
I spread the map on the ground. As men gathered around, I oriented myself on the terrain. "We’re here," I said, pointing.
"We need to get there." I pointed again. Folding the map, I used an edge as a straight line between spots, about 14 grid squares—8.5 miles—apart. I laid the compass along this line, turned the map until the arrow settled.
“Azimuth 32 degrees," I said. A little east of due north. “That way.”
"Let's go," said Self, and we moved into the woods. Soon we came to a clearing; as the point man plunged ahead, I called "Halt!"
We’d been trained never to cross open spaces without checking the far side. "Might be Aggressors over there," I said.
Armies train to re-fight their last war; a few years earlier, in Korea, many US units had been cut off by a surprise Chinese offensive. Soldiers survived in small groups that stealthily picked their way back through enemy lines. That was our exercise: Escape from behind “enemy lines” by applying land navigation techniques. Barring our way were "Aggressors"—GIs in distinctive uniforms. They carried a license to be brutal. Anyone caught went to a kind of “training” POW camp; Aggressors wouldn’t kill or maim us but they could do almost anything else.
"Someone should recon the far side," I said.
Self glanced around. "You go," he said.
He took the map and compass and I low-crawled across the clearing, edging into the woods, listening and looking. When I was sure that it was safe, I walked back.
The grove was empty. I searched quietly, listening, but my squad was gone.
Captured by Aggressors, I assumed, wondering why I’d heard nothing.
I was alone in a wilderness of rattlesnakes, mountain lions, coyotes and 200 Aggressors.
I had no weapon, no compass, no map, no food.
Fighting panic, I took several deep breaths, then sat down and went through my pockets, as my dad, a Scoutmaster, had taught me. I had a folding knife, a handkerchief, matches, a full canteen and a poncho secured with a bootlace.
Waiting for darkness, I told myself that I would be fine if I didn’t surrender to the terror within me. When stars became visible, I used the Big Dipper to locate Polaris, the North Star. My azimuth lay just right of that, a hair east of north. I did the math in my head: I had to cover 8.5 miles. My stride, I knew from high school, averaged 30 inches, 2.5 feet, so forty paces was about 100 feet.
I set out; after 120 paces—a hundred yards—I stopped to listen and tied a knot in the bootlace. A mile was about 18 knots; at 150 I should be near my objective. A full moon rose, casting eerie shadows. Nearby a coyote howled. Then another and another. Chills tap-danced up my spine. Would coyotes attack a lone man? I didn't want to find out.
As I hiked the hills flattened; pine and redwood gave way to scrub oak, chaparral and sage. I avoided game trails, detoured around clearings, trail junctions and other danger spots, always returning to my azimuth. When I’d tied 17 knots, I came to a road and stopped to listen.
Halfway across I heard an engine’s muted throb. A shaft of light stabbed the brush. I went flat under a sticky canopy of chaparral as a darkened jeep rolled by. Laughing, Aggressors probed the hillside with a searchlight.
I had no watch, but the moon's arc gave me a sense of time. On and on I went, counting paces, tying knots—until a sudden breeze brought the odor of burning tobacco.
I knelt on rubber knees, scanning the darkness, hearing myself breathe, listening to the kettledrum in my chest. I heard the clatter of metal on metal, the murmur of voices. A man screamed—one long, continuous cry.
Then raucous laughter.
My blood ran cold.
I crept forward. The silence was shattered by the ear-splitting yammer of a machinegun. Muzzle flashes silhouetted nearby gunners in ridged Aggressor helmets.
I went flat, stopped crawling. Suddenly it was quiet.
I heard the clink of belted cartridges: a gunner reloading. A dark shape left the gun pit, stopped near where I lay. A sloshing sound, then the acrid stench of urea filled my nostrils.
When the gun resumed its stuttering roar, I crawled as fast as I could, skinning elbows and knees on my way to a copse of stunted pine. Shaking, I stood, then edged forward. To my left was a barbed wire enclosure with guard towers, searchlights and Aggressors screaming obscenities at men doing sit-ups and pushups in a muddy quagmire.
In movies this is where the hero rescues his buddies. I never considered it. Unarmed, alone and scared, I felt that I’d be lucky to save myself.
Circling the camp, I crept between two more gun pits. A cigarette glowed in the dark. I smelled after-shave. When the firing stopped, I heard the distinctive click of red-hot metal cooling—the gun barrel.
I crept toward a rise until a shadowy man and leashed dog appeared on the crest. The shepherd barked, rousing a canine chorus behind me. I froze, praying that they wouldn't catch my scent.
I moved left, upwind, bent double, running hard.
When the camp was far behind me, I found Polaris and resumed my course.
After a long while I topped a grassy slope. The low moon lit a dirt track. I went prone in the tall grass as I fingered my bootlace, counting: 147 knots. To my left, near the track, stood a large tent with a jeep in front, hood raised.
I crept forward until I could read the white stenciling on its bumper: HQ-9-3.
HQ Company, Ninth Battle Group, Third Brigade.
A pair of legs protruded from the jeep’s hood. Then a trunk and head emerged from the open engine compartment. The man turned — and jerked backward in fright when he saw me.
"Where the hell did you come from?" said the sergeant. "You scared me half to death!"
I held the flashlight while he attached wires to the jeep's generator. He started the engine and the tent glowed.
"There’s coffee inside," he said. "A debriefing team will be along soon."
Before midnight I’d showered and was asleep in the deserted squad room. The rest of my squad arrived at sunup, exhausted, filthy with mud, cursing the Aggressors.
Nobody said a word to me about the preceding night.
After graduation we dispersed to units and schools worldwide. Along with others from my company, but no one from my squad, I went on for advanced infantry training.
I rarely thought about that night until an afternoon in 1967 when I encountered a captain outside the Ft. Benning Officers Club. There was something familiar about him; as he returned my salute, I glanced at his name tag.
We turned back at the same time.
"General!" he said.
It was my old squad leader, Self.
Over beer we reprised our respective careers. He’d gone to OCS, made captain three years before and was headed for Vietnam. I’d finished my first hitch as a sergeant, left the Army, returned three years later as a private. Now, just back from Vietnam, I was a second lieutenant.
He asked what OCS class I attended; I said that I never went; I was commissioned from the ranks. In Vietnam.
"A battlefield commission?" he gasped. “The Army still does that?”
I nodded, yes, then confided ambivalence about my new status. War had altered my perspectives; I wasn't sure if I was up to an officer’s responsibilities.
Finally we talked about Basic Training.
"Some of us were a little worried when you didn't turn up at the Aggressor POW camp," Self said. "How did you get back to the barracks?"
"I found the objective and the debriefing team brought me back," I replied.
Self stared, incredulous.
"They didn’t get you? You made it through alone?"
I nodded, yes.
“I guess we underestimated you,” he sighed, then finished his beer in one long swallow.
"It was the swagger stick," he said. "At the Open House."
Because of my ROTC experience, I’d been put in charge of a drill team; we strutted our stuff in front of hundreds of visiting family members. Swagger stick tucked under my arm, I was a celebrity for ten minutes.
But now I was mystified. "What about it?"
"The stick was the last straw. That's why we ditched you."
It had never occurred to me that I’d been abandoned.
"You were like Joseph with his coat of many colors. You knew everything better than anyone else. And then that stick. You were just a kid—what, 18?"
"And so full of yourself—insufferable! You crawled off and someone said, 'We've got the map and compass, let's split.’ We thought you’d get caught and the Aggressors would fix you good. Couple of times before, we’d talked about giving you a blanket party. This was better."
Throw an Army blanket over someone so he can’t identify the men kicking and punching him. That’s a blanket party.
I didn’t know what to say.
We shook hands and went our separate ways.
And when I calmed down, I realized that Self was right. My first months in uniform, a soft, baby-faced, five-foot recruit in an Army of tough six-footers, I was terrified of failure. How could I compete with bigger, stronger men? So I played know-it-all, too dumb to know how others saw me, insensitive to their feelings, unable to imagine that they could feel just as scared and inadequate as me.
Performing under pressure on that night alone in the wilderness did wonders for my self-confidence: When I left Ft. Ord, I finally felt worthy of my uniform.
At 17, Joseph flaunted his gifts and his ten jealous brothers sold him into slavery. When he realized his shortcomings, he forgave them and accepted his ordeal as necessary to prepare the way for his family's survival.
I forgave my Army buddies, who, like Joseph’s brothers, forced me to prove myself.
And long years later, reading the Bible, I discovered the importance of names. In Hebrew, Joseph means "to put in." He put all 70 Hebrews into Egypt.
Moses means "to draw out." He drew the Hebrews, by then a nation, out of slavery. Out of Egypt.
Could it be only coincidence that, at that turning point in my life, when I sought to find myself, the man who revealed my secret past, pointing the way to understanding, acceptance and self-confidence, was named Self?
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
"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
If Lowell had known anything about corporate culture or management, he never would have hired me.
That’s because in most big companies, Human Resources professionals screen employment applications and perform résumé triage, putting each into a pile: Meets minimum qualifications; doesn’t meet them; maybe. Usually only the first pile goes to the interviewer.
I did not then have a bachelor’s degree, as the job required, so my application should have gone on the second pile, thence to the shredder.
But Lowell told HR he wanted to see all 200-plus applications. He found mine, with tear sheets of published picture stories and magazine articles, and barely glanced at my resume.
The job was associate editor of a profusely illustrated monthly employee magazine for a financial services company. Lowell was its editor.
My interview went well: We both smoked Borkum Riff in our pipes; we were both recently discharged from the Army, and both our wives were Asian. Lowell said this was “propitious.” (I didn’t mention that I was getting a divorce.)
On my first day Lowell explained that we would write four pieces each per issue, then edit each other’s stories. All copy then went to HR to check name spellings, and to Richard,a vice president and Lowell's boss.
Lowell then handed me six pages. “Peruse these,” he said. “Edit as you go.”
I wasn’t sure what “peruse” meant. Not wanting to seem stupid, I looked it up in my office dictionary, then went to work.
Carefully reading each page, I examined each word, each line, each paragraph, every comma, period and colon. I perused it.
An hour later Lowell stuck his head in my office. “Have you finished perusing my piece?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I replied.
He asked twice more, and twice I replied as before.
Just before lunch he marched into my office and snatched the pages.
“What is wrong with you!” he shrieked. “How long does it take to read a short story?”
“A few minutes,” I replied. “But you told me to ‘peruse’ it.”
“Yes, peruse it. Read it over quickly.”
“No,” I said. “Peruse does not mean to read quickly.”
“It certainly does,” he insisted, his face flushed.
“I looked it up,” I said. When I showed Lowell the dictionary, he stomped off in fury.
Lowell’s stepfather was chairman of a Fortune 500 manufacturer. Lowell attended prep schools and then a pricey private university, a campus better known for its football teams than academics. Then he was drafted into the Army; afterward, with his wife, he toured Europe trying to be a freelance writer. When his family shut the money tap, they returned.
Tally and rangy, Lowell was 25 but looked at least my age, 33. He favored tweeds and elbow-patch jackets and used $50 words, sprinkling his conversations with literary allusions and gratuitous wine commentary.
This was his first real job. A week after coming aboard as associate editor, the old editor left and Lowell took his place. Two weeks later, he hired me.
The company operated nationwide; each month one of us traveled to a different state, where we spent a week interviewing staff, doing research and shooting photos. I wasn’t making much money, but I enjoyed the travel.
I needed this job, so from the first day forward, conscious of Lowell’s pretensions, I humbled myself to him. He seemed satisfied with my work; when it began winning awards he found ways to share the glory. I didn’t mind. I was trying to put my life back together and learn enough to prepare myself for my next move up the career ladder.
Lowell was on a different journey. A few months after I started, his pretty wife gave birth to their first child. He soon moved out, took a bachelor pad and entertained a succession of girlfriends. He began locking himself into his office until lunch, taking no calls. He claimed to be working on his novel, but everyone in the office knew he was sleeping. Once a janitor found a pair of women's panties in his waste basket.
Meanwhile he gave me first one, then two, of his stories to write each month, in addition to my own four. Claiming that my expenses were excessive, he cut back my travel schedule. On the road I usually ate hamburgers and always took modest lodging, so I wondered if he was using our budget to fund dinner dates.
But I said nothing.
By then I was again single; after years in uniform and classes at eight colleges, I was anxious to finish my degree. From HR I learned that the company reimbursed tuition, books and expenses for work-related classes, so I enrolled in university editing and graphic design courses.
Reimbursement required Lowell’s signature — but he refused to give it. Why spend department funds when I could get GI Bill education benefits, he said. HR told him that education reimbursement came out of their budget, but as usual Lowell wouldn’t back down.
My graphic design class required that I turn in a camera-ready piece project. I created a fold-out brochure; it needed type, so I called Frank, the vendor whose company set our magazine’s type. When I asked the price, he said “Not much — I’ll bill you.”
Soon after that, Sherry, Frank’s saucy, irreverent, 20-something daughter and his company’s messenger, flashed our office secretarial pool to display her new breast implants.
Lowell caught a glimpse of the new Sherry and invited her to dinner. They went to a fancy restaurant; as the vichyssoise arrived, he made it plain that he expected her to spend the night with him.
Sherry laughed at him.
Lowell gauchely mentioned the price of the meal they’d just ordered.
Sherry threw her soup in his face and called a cab.
Around then our corporation bought a credit card firm, a competitor of American Express. Lowell was told to interview Ken, its president, and write a profile. That required a long, rush-hour drive back from Los Angeles in brutal heat — but Lowell had a dinner date, so he sent me instead.
While I was writing this profile, Lowell obsessed over Sherry’s humiliating rejection, which she had, of course, shared with our secretaries. To punish her and end the buzz that accompanied her messenger visits, he fired her father. We were Frank’s biggest account; trying to change Lowell’s mind, he reminded him of past favors, including several weekends that he’d allowed Lowell and various girlfriends to use his hideaway beach cabin. Frank also mentioned my school project; he’d never billed me for the type.
Lowell ignored him and hired a new typesetter.
When my profile was published, Ken was so pleased that he asked our CEO to promote me. The editor-in-chief of his company’s magazine, a rival of Travel & Leisure, was old, ailing and due to retire. Ken wanted me to come over, and after a six-month apprenticeship, take over for him. I’d get a small pay raise immediately and a big one when I became editor.
This was a terrific break: a leap from the employee communications backwater to the glamorous cosmos of a consumer travel publication.
Lowell was furious. The next day he berated me for misspelling a name, the sort of trivial error that we’d both made and that HR always caught. “If you spent less time perusing dictionaries, maybe you’d have time to check names,” he growled.
He’d never forgiven me for revealing his ignorant pretentiousness!
“That’s hardly fair, Lowell,” I replied. “I’m writing almost the whole magazine now, and —“
“You’re not a captain now,” he said, seething. “I tell you what’s fair.”
I saw then that bossing me around compensated Lowell for the indignity of having had to take orders from men like me while he was in the Army.
Then Lowell bypassed Richard, went to the CEO and demanded that Ken interview him for the position I’d been offered.
He got his interview. But Ken still wanted me.
Two days before I was scheduled to start, however, while working on a special issue commemorating the tenth anniversary of our Australian division, Richard sent for me. He shut his office door behind me.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said. “Lowell went directly to the Legal Department, so there’s nothing I can do.”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You accepted a vendor’s gratuity worth over $20,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s grounds for termination,” he said.
“What exactly did I do?” I asked.
“Typesetting. Some kind of fancy résumé you were having printed. So you were planning on leaving anyway?”
“That was for my graphic design class. Frank said he’d bill me.”
“It’s out of my hands,” said Richard. “Sorry.”
“What about my promotion? I was supposed to go to work for Ken.”
“Out of the question,” said Richard.
I was in shock. A security guard escorted me from the building.
At home I found a message on my answering machine: Jim, another company VP, was appalled at what happened. He’d found me a job with a competitor. The new position was considered management, offered a flexible schedule and paid much more than my former one. The only downside was a 75-mile daily commute.
I took it, of course.
A week later Lowell left a message on my machine: He, too, had been sacked. That was all — no explanation, no apology.
Then Richard left a message. I ignored it until he called twice more and begged me to meet him that night.
He got right to the point: “The special Australia issue — it’s imperative that we publish on schedule,” he said.
“I have a new job,” I said. “Staff of four, expense account, managerial title and much more money than I was making.”
“Can you work nights for us? Put out one magazine? And hire a new staff?”
“I accepted a vendor’s $20 gratuity. How could you trust me?”
“Our mistake,” he said. “But you’re the only one — and if you don’t, the Australians —”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You break my sword over your knee, cut the buttons off my tunic, pour out my canteen and chase my camel into the desert – and now you want to say, ‘oops’?”
“What’s it going to cost?” he said.
I thought about my long daily commute and my plan to start night school full time. I’d need a new car soon.
So I worked double shifts for a month, including weekends, to put out the Australia issue, and hired two friends to replace Lowell and me.
In return, my former employers bought me a new car.
Lowell vanished from my life. But more than 20 years later, by chance, I encountered the woman who actually took the job that Ken had offered me and that Lowell so desperately wanted. She’d spent three years as an apprentice editor at a beggar’s wages before she quit.
“The editor was old and sick,” she said. “But he was never going to retire. He wanted to be carried out on his shield.”
Despite his perverse intentions, his pretensions and his inflated opinion of his own talents, it seems that Lowell’s intervention saved me from a depressing career detour; getting fired put me on the right path.
All these years later, I remain in his debt.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
The elevator slid open and a man in handcuffs and blue jail coveralls stepped forward. Behind him came a uniformed officer, who pointed to the bench next to me. "Back in a minute," said the cop, and parked his charge in an alcove deep inside Parker Center, LAPD's Downtown headquarters.
I noticed that the inmate was cuffed in front and that his hands and nails were clean. Then I looked away. "Whatcha here for?" he said, and I turned to peer at him again, a slender man, probably in his twenties, clean-shaven, with short reddish blonde hair. I inspected the floor tiles and stifled my urge to reply.
"I'm down for receiving stolen property," volunteered this prisoner. "Bought some copper wire off a guy, turned out he stole it," he added. "What about you?"
I had lunched with a private investigator, who shared an anecdote about recovering funds ripped off in an insurance scam. He bragged that he had cracked this case after a police captain sold him confidential documents.
I hardly knew this PI, and I had grown up watching "Dragnet" and "Adam 12," believing that the police are my friends, that in Los Angeles, as perhaps nowhere else, the men in blue are above graft and larceny, that they are the finest citizens among us. And so later, chatting with someone whom I had known since high school, a man who had made a fine career in the LAPD, I had asked if such a thing was possible.
A week later a pair of detectives knocked at my door. They were from LAPD. From Internal Affairs. They wanted the name of the captain who had been bribed.
I didn't have a name. I didn't know which department the captain worked for, or even if he was LAPD or another force. And I didn't even know with certainty that there actually had been a bribe. But when I said as much, and explained that I had been talking to a PI about a book that I might write, these police who police the police began to float scenarios: Maybe I was the guy doing the bribing. Maybe I hired the guy who bought the documents. Maybe I had tried to bribe a police officer, but he refused.
Biting back my anger, I told them, again, what I knew, and what I didn't. They were not satisfied. I was invited to take a polygraph.
I had heard and read about polygraph tests, and knew just enough to be wary. The instrument measures blood pressure, respiration, and galvanic skin resistance — sweatiness. Those who favor it insist that these phenomena reflect the liar's inner anxiety, and that measuring them while responding to questions reveals deception, when present.
Those who don't believe in the machine say that while it may be that bodies scream "no, no, no," when their owners say "yes, yes, yes," interpreting the data is more art than science, that the real purpose of the "lie detector" is to frighten a suspect into confessing, and that as science its product is worthless.
I respectfully declined the LAPD's offer to prove my sincerity.
A week later, one of the detectives telephoned to offer me a chance to change my mind about the polygraph — and about what I had recounted about the cop captain on the take.
I declined again.
Later I started to think: I had done nothing wrong, committed no crime. I knew nothing that I hadn't shared with police. But how often does a writer get to experience a polygraph test? I dreamed of writing novels. Perhaps someday I might find such an encounter useful. Even if I never wrote about it, it would undoubtedly be an interesting experience.
When the detective called back yet again, I agreed to the test.
And so I was at Parker Center, listening to an inmate talk about buying stolen telephone cable. And going into shock: Many years earlier, my father, a junkyard owner, had been arrested for the identical crime. I was in Vietnam then, and never knew much about that incident. Dad had hired a lawyer. The matter evaporated.
Suddenly I was afraid.
My only previous brush with the law was a misdemeanor: Selling encyclopedias door-to-door without a license in a small town that wouldn’t issue said permits. But surely my father's felony arrest remained in some cop shop file. Could it really be coincidence that the first person I met at Parker Center was up on exactly the same rap, the only charge that my father had ever faced? I turned it over in my mind, realizing at last that what he was telling me, chapter and verse, was probably right out of Dad's case file.
I was getting the full treatment.
My mouth stayed shut until the Internal Affairs detective beckoned to me.
While I will never qualify for sainthood, I have never been much good at lying. No matter the temptation, I am quite unable to tell a woman that I love her if I don't. I am equally unable to withhold professions of sincere sentiment, even when I know that the object of my affections would rather not hear them. In ordinary conversation I tend to say whatever comes to mouth, without considering it for the merest instant, and so later I am often unable to recall my exactly words. Until well into middle age, when I learned that it was often better to be quiet than right, I found tact a challenge.
I feared no lie detector.
The room was small and worn, with faded lime-hued walls, the requisite one-way mirror, and a rumpled, balding operator who explained how things worked as he affixed a blood-pressure cuff at my biceps, a galvanometer sensor on my finger, a strap across my chest to measure how quickly and often my lungs filled. The detective read me the questions that he would ask and we began.
After preliminary queries — my name and age, used to establish a baseline of body responses, came the main event. And an unscripted question: "Your only reason for being here today is to help this investigation, is that correct?"
Not quite. I was there partly so that the police would stop bothering me, and partly for the possible literary value of the experience.
"Not exactly," I replied.
"Yes or no," said the detective. "Answer yes or no, please."
"Yes or no!"
Yes," I said. My body temperature rose. Perspiration oozed from my every pore. My heart beat wildly, and my blood pressure rose so rapidly that I grew dizzy. I fought for air.
The polygraph needles etched arabesques across the chart.
I have slogged through rice paddies with bullets snapping and hissing past my ears. I have spiraled down toward a landing zone while fountains of green tracers searched for our chopper as it jinked and side-slipped and zigzagged and shuddered from hit after hit. I have taken the witness stand in open court and had my motives and mores and credibility gnawed by a pit bull in a thousand-dollar suit. I have been about as afraid as it is possible to be, yet kept my wits and did my job. But in that small green room I was suddenly overcome with dread. Panic seized my body and refused to release it until the questions ended and the polygraph was turned off.
"Anything you want to say?" asked the sneering detective afterward. "Are you ready to give us the truth now?"
I tried not to be sore. The police were just doing their job, I told myself, and in their world everyone is a suspect, a sleaze ball who lies to save himself. But then, a few months later, the lid came off the LAPD toilet and I learned about cops manufacturing evidence, "testilying" about crimes that never occurred, shooting an elderly homeless woman who waved a screwdriver at them — whole barrels of bad apples ruining innocent lives in the name of blue power solidarity.
The more I think about those cops, the less sure I am of my feelings toward them. My only certainty is that I will never take another polygraph test.
And that is the truth.
© 2000 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.