I went down to the enlistment center, took a bunch of tests, and was assigned to the 256th Station Hospital Unit; they were going to make a medical corpsman out of me. These are the guys we saw on shows like "Mash" running around the battlefield patching up wounded soldiers while enemy bullets whizzed overhead. To this day I thank God that I was never required to perform this duty. What I didn't know at the time was that my assignment to this unit was a great bit of luck in my fledgling military career.
The place for our unit's reserve meetings was an armory on Christopher Street down in New York City's Greenwich Village. We met on Tuesday evenings, and all spruced up in my soldier suit, I made the long walk from the subway to the armory. The Village in those days had not yet become respectable, and wildly flamboyant gays clustered on every street corner trying to hustle dates. It was like running the gauntlet. I have to say that at 18 years old, hard and trim in my army togs, I made quite a dashing figure, and if I was inclined in that direction, my dance card would have been filled.
I was called to serve my six months of active duty starting at Fort Dix, New Jersey. This meant 8 weeks of basic training there, followed by assignment to another military post for advanced training. I survived basic training at the hands of drill sergeants right out of the movie "Deliverance", and (here's where the luck kicked in) was assigned to Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio, Texas for my army medic training. Fort Sam turned out to be like Club Med. Because of the brutal summer heat in Texas, training was frequently cancelled. This meant we got to spend the day lounging around the pool working on our tans.
On weekends, passes were almost always granted unless we pulled KP (Kitchen Police) and had to work in the Mess Hall (Dining Room). I had hooked up with three buddies, Sidney, a gift shop owner from Atlanta, Melvin, a pharmacist from Syracuse, and Eddie,(occupation unknown) from Philly. Sidney, who could have body-doubled for Woody Allen, had money and a white Pontiac Bonneville convertible. On a typical weekend, we would book two rooms at a Great Western motel just outside of town. I remember thinking as we sat by the pool sipping cold beers and listening to Frank Sinatra's "Autumn in New York" playing on the outdoor speakers: "This is the Army?!"
Sometimes we would slip across the Mexican Border to Nuevo Laredo, or if wanted to splurge, drive all the way to Monterrey. We had some amazing times, but one scary experience sticks out in my mind. In an unsavory part of Nuevo Laredo (actually the whole town was unsavory) we stopped for a beer in a bar with an upstairs brothel. (Having seen the horrid army training films on the dangers of social diseases, we had no intentions of going upstairs in that little Petri dish.) (As an aside, my favorite anti-VD military training film title is: "When You "Do It" with HER, You're "Doing It" with HITLER!)
To continue, while drinking at the bar, we noticed a group of Mexicans at a rear table looking us over. Now you may think I'm making this next part up, but it's true. This was 1961 in a backward border town, and all the Mexicans were wearing six-guns and full ammunition belts. I thought I heard one of them mutter: "Badges, we don't need no stinking badges". They angrily gestured at us, and to my mind seemed to be trying to decide where to dispose of our bodies. Luckily we were in uniform, and this may have discouraged their murderous impulses. Needless to say, we vamoosed.
I'll never forget the look of surprise on my parents' faces when they met me at the airport after my six months service was up. I stepped off that plane looking tanned and fit, much to their relief. It was the first time I had ever been away from home, and they were happy to have me back. You can sneer about my "Club Med" stint in the military, but all I know is that from May to September, 1961, San Antonio never once came under enemy attack.
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