Where to Begin?
Lord, where to begin. Some times in everyone's life, I suppose, are epochal. Kagnew Station was like that. It was a place in which a story took place which would require a Shakespeare to write, in a landscape which would require a Rembrandt to paint. But, in spite of this, it is not a place which has become, with the years, idealized in my memory, despite the scenery which would have done justice to the most lavish production of the most romantic opera ever produced. What I remember about it, and the time, is real, though, as real as the feeling of the sun on the beach at Massawa.
The Genesis of the Lifer Puke Wars
When I first got to Kagnew, I was a SP5, and, at that time, a SP5 could join both the Oasis (EM) Club and the Top 5 club, which I did. There was a band which played at both the Oasis and Top 5, called the Morocks (pronounced mau-rocks) and so I got to see them every weekend. I'd sure like to hear from Vic D'Amore, Larry Kaiser, Butch and Tuk again. Vic was the drummer and Larry played the electric piano in the band. Tuk sang and played bass, Butch was on lead guitar. Vic and Butch were in Headquarters Company, I think, and I have no idea what they did. Larry was, if my recollection is correct, an Arabic linguist. Tuk was in the Navy, I think. Later, when people of both higher and lower ranks got jealous of SP5's they were restricted to joining one club or the other, not both. During the time I was there was an awful lot of bitterness that built up, especially between the one-tour Army ASA people and the career (lifer) people. Part of this was a product of the times, I suspect. Guys were continually getting transferred to Viet Nam, and most of them had joined the ASA (two years more than a draftee had to pull) to get out of Vietnam or, at least, get rear area jobs as their recruiters had promised. Their recruiters all told them they were in the top 10%, and that was the hook..tell them how smart they are and that, therefore, they are among the very few worthy of initiation into a top secret fraternity, and tell them any more specifics were classified, then sit back, wink, nod, and let them use their own pen to sign the papers for four years instead of two. These fellows then found out that reality was different. They could have signed up for three years, instead of four, for instance, and learned to be a finance clerk, or gone to radio repairman school. As these guys waited for their orders, they obviously resented what was happening, more especially because they had to serve so much longer than finance clerks or radio repairmen who had, perhaps, a less risky job. They were right, you know, it was a fucked-up deal. But that's how the Army played it. It was made worse by the fact that these guys had done it to themselves, by making what they thought was the smart play.
The Times They were A'Changin'
The times, of course, were wild back in Europe and the States, everybody was smoking dope and getting laid. Sergeant Pepper came out while I was in Asmara, and I heard my first Grateful Dead in Asmara. It was obvious that we were stuck far, far from what was happening, and this helped increase the tension. I, of course, was a lifer, having re-enlisted for six years in 1963. I was also, after May of 1967, a SSG E6, drawing P2 pay, with over six years service and without any dependents, and so I probably had as much disposable income as anyone at Kagnew, which a couple of guys who were married really resented, and told me so. As I've said many times, though, imitation ain't the sincerest form of flattery, envy is.
I spent most of my time playing basketball, volleyball, table tennis, badminton, in the perpetual athletic competitions between the companies, as well as teaching English at a local Catholic (LaSalle, run by the Christian Brothers) School, working on set design and construction and (in one case, see below) acting in the local plays put on at the post theater, as well as helping organize and participating in a folk dancing group, attended by some soldiers, but mostly by the local Jewish community, and taking two classroom college courses given on post by the University of Maryland.
At work I was, in turn, an analyst on the Congo Kinshasa problem, a TA trick chief (A Trick), and, finally, Operations Sergeant for the Sub-Saharan African section. At the company, I was, for much of this tour, a platoon sergeant (I was supposed to be living in the barracks), and, since I was the junior NCO, the Re-Up NCO of Company B.
Where in the hell I found time for all this remains a mystery to me to this day, but there it is, listed. I did all this stuff, and, in most cases, still have the paperwork. I obviously didn't have a lot of free time for boozing and whoring in Asmara. The on-post clubs, and the bands that played in them, really dominated what disposable time I had. It was a hectic life, but I loved it and I would have been happy to have stayed there, forever young, forever running.
I first started playing basketball with HQ company, who had a civilian who was 6' 10" (Bob ?, from Philadelphia) but, soon after the season started, I was moved to Company B. I had a great time playing on both teams. We lost a couple of the best players from Company B when I joined the team because they didn't want to be on the team with a lifer, but I didn't see why I should do a damned thing to accommodate idiots like that. So we didn't have a lot of talent, as the guys that quit were a lot better than I was, but we pulled off some great upsets and played some great games, and ended up breaking about even in wins and losses, even against teams like the HQ team. It was great playing there. Unlike other Army posts, people actually came out to the games, and there would often be crowds of 200 or more. Since I was the ranking person on the team, I had to sign for all the uniforms, and ended up paying for a couple of them as a couple of fellows didn't mind stealing from a lifer. But generally the experience was great, and the players, both on our team and the opponents, mostly made the game fun. Some of them were quite good.
I taught English for one semester in a class composed of 25 or so Italian 10-11 year old boys, and a couple of Eritrean boys there on scholarship. What an experience, since I spoke no Italian, and the Priest who was the Principal and was French, prided himself on his English which was often unintelligible to me. Even though I'd finished at DLI, for some reason, he had difficulty understanding my French (it always sounded ok to me, I knew what I was saying). I attempted to teach English as they had taught me French at Monterey, but we had to use their text book. You know what one of the first words these kids learned from that text book was? "Ink-pot". Ink-pot? One day one of the boys, who was quite a cut-up, was sitting in the first row and turned around while another fellow was reading and distracted proceedings. I stopped the recitation and called on the fellow and he turned around with a big smile on his face, and black ink dots all over it. All the kids were breaking up laughing, and, just at that moment, while I was trying to figure out how to handle the situation, the Priest walked in with the cut-up's mother. Whooo boy did the crap hit the fan, the priest grabbed the poor kid by the ear, and dragged him out of the classroom, his mom was crying and wailing to me in Italian and bowing, and the entire class was sitting transfixed. We finally got started again, and the cut-up came back, a changed boy. He'd been beaten as only kids in European Catholic School are spanked. Man I felt bad. The kid's father later made a special trip up to the school next time and brought the Priest in to translate his apology to me and his son was made to also. They brought me a carton of cigarettes, which must have set them back a bunch, but which I could buy for $2.50. What a deal. I kept on saying that it was not a real problem for me, and that it was ok, but the fellow's father was mortified and thought I was only being polite. The Priest told me that I didn't understand, and I was just making things worse so to politely accept the apology, as the father felt disgraced by his son, and the son would catch more grief yet. I only taught there the one semester. Can you imagine that sort of thing happening in America today? Heck the father would have been in jail, the Priest would have been in jail and probably me too.
Remember the USS Liberty
I had been Trick Chief of A Trick for only a month or so. We were just completing a mid shift and I was sitting around the Congo Kinshasa section with Pat Amick, Mike Ro(d?)gers, and the rest of the gang shooting the breeze when some guy came running in from a voice intercept station yelling that some guy was screaming in French and there were clearly bombs exploding in the background. Pat went to check it out (he was the best French Linguist there, not me) and it turned out that it was a reporter from a French news service at the Cairo airport, which was in the process of being bombed. When we found out that the Israelis had launched a sneak attack and that a full scale war was in progress, the entire mission was reorganized. We all went on twelve hour shifts, and, for some reason, I was in charge of the evening shift. The Traffic Analysis Trick Chief's major responsibility was distributing the traffic from the communications center to the various recipients, being particularly careful not to send any classified documents to the PX, or some place else on post but outside the secure area. This last part I did very well which is the only reason I could see that they left me there every night. Anyway, I released a couple of Critics when various Arabic countries broke off diplomatic relations, and read a lot of other Critics and Operational Immediate messages to determine whether the officers should be called, but otherwise just performed routine tasks until the evening when one of the fellows who was operating a non-morse intercept station came running to me and said that the Israelis were attacking the USS Liberty, which was a ship which cruised the Mediterranean Sea intercepting for the good old USA. Against all standing orders and procedures he continued to intercept what was a Sixth Fleet (do I have that number right?) voice net between an Aircraft Carrier and several jets who patrolled the Mediterranean. The attack continued for quite a time, it seemed, until, thankfully, the Sixth Fleet sent a couple of fighters to "defend the USS Liberty". When the pilots asked what "defend the Liberty" meant, the Admiral said "Exactly that, they were to find the ship and destroy any and all attacking forces, no matter what the nationality". Well, conveniently, at almost exactly that time, the Israelis noticed the American Flags flying from all over the vessel and that the ship was only armed with a .50 caliber machine gun and so could not be that Egyptian Destroyer they thought it was, and so broke off their cowardly attack. Before that time, the Israelis were heroes to me, since that time they have been the personification of Evil Incarnate. If I were to pray, I would pray that their enemies consumed them. I'll never forget the USS Liberty and the men who died on it, hung out as targets by a United States government more worried about what its allies might think that about the lives of the men they had ordered (on pain of execution, for that is the possible price of mutiny) into harm's way. Of the things that America has done, and of the crummy way America has treated her veterans of this era, this was the worst act, in my book. A salute to the brave Officers and Crew of the USS Liberty, and a prayer for justice for those who died that day at the hands of back-stabbers and sneaks.
My Acting Career is Launched with My First Starring Role
I read for, and got the part of Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol", which to this day, people say is type-casting. I still don't get it. Anyway the play was a wonderful experience. The Suez Canal had been closed by the Egyptians sinking ships in it, so we were unable to get costumes in time so it was decided to do the play in a contemporary setting. But Ron Roark and Phil Klinginsmith insisted that I would need white hair, as Scrooge had to be old, for artistic integrity. Now there was no way to get a wig from USAREUR by that time, since ships had to go around the Cape of Good Hope, and the item was not important enough to ship by air, so I quit the part so they could get someone who was old enough for the part. They would have none of it, though, and insisted that I was perfect for the role and could get my hair dyed by one of the beauticians who worked at the post beauty shop who was helping on the play, at her house, in private. I was skeptical, but I put in a Disposition Form Request (I've still got it somewhere, I think) to dye my hair white for the four or five days of play performances and not get a haircut for a couple of months. To my everlasting amazement, it was approved, endorsed all the way up from my Company Commander (Capt Ron LaBreche), to the Post Adjutant, to the Executive Officer to the Post Commander. Well, you guessed it, on the day we had to get my hair dyed, the lady had to work at the beauty shop and I had to go there. At first, I refused to do that, but my good friend Ron Roark insisted he'd stay with me and it would only take an hour or so. I got there. and they got started, and, after I had all sorts of chemicals in my hair, Ron left, laughing. Then the lady told me that they couldn't dye hair white, they had to bleach the hell out of it and then powder it white and the whole thing was going to take several hours. I sat there in a rubber hat with holes in it, as woman after woman came into that shop, laughing and talking with her friends. Then they'd eye me and go silent. Then all the ladies in the shop would amuse themselves by explaining my predicament and they would all laugh and make fun of me. Fellows, I can tell you, bleaching your hair to the roots hurts. I knew then, sitting in that chair in the beauty shop that I would never understand women. Why in the world would someone do something to themselves that hurts so much, just for looks? The problem probably is not so apparent to people today who routinely get tattoos and piercings, but I don't get that, either.
Anyway, by this time, I'm Operations Sergeant for Sub-Saharan Africa. I have a desk in front of a map of the continent, in the middle, flanked by an NSA civilian (the Bob of basketball fame, above) and a CWO, the three of us facing the 25 or so people in the section. At that time, also, I had one of those great tans everyone had in Asmara. Coming to work the Monday after the Beauty Shop Saturday, I was sporting short-sleeved khakis and an overseas cap rakishly tilted to show my snow white hair, two months long and swept back in a duck-tail, contrasted against my deep, dark tan. Man, one little trip to the beauty shop, a couple of hours of agony and I really looked good! The entire ensemble was set off, and stylishly completed, I think, by the Italian sunglasses. Oh, I can tell you, I was a marvelous sight to behold. Major Dodd (?) who was Operations Officer came running into the office just as I got back there with my coffee and looked at me in horror and asked what I had done to myself. I patiently showed him my DF, smiling. Well, it seems we had just gotten our 72 hour notice of the IG coming, and the powers that were at the field station wanted me lost. So, I got two consecutive three day passes and missed the entire inspection and the chicken-shit preparation for it. Ron Roark and Phil Klinginsmith went through hell, I understand, what with all the last minute preparations for the play and getting ready for the inspection. Ah, the Lord works in mysterious ways to avenge the Good against the machinations of Evil. Opening night of the play, the IG party had seats right up front and center and I did my best to give them a great performance.
The Lifer Puke Wars Make Me a Rock and Roll Star
One night, after everyone had been required to choose which club they wanted to be a member of, I helped the band set up at the Oasis, and then went out to listen and drink a couple of beers. After a couple of hours, someone turned me in and I was asked to leave. Since I had the keys to the car the instruments were carried in, I went to the band to leave the keys. Someone asked me where I was going, and I told him someone had ratted me out, and, since I was not a member of the Oasis and was not eligible to join I had to leave. Tuk got enraged. Butch was not a member of the Oasis either since he had chosen to join the Top 5, and he asserted that if I could not stay it was only fair that he couldn't either, and the entire band ended up walking off the stage. What a deal. I tried to get them to go back, but they informed the crowd that they were leaving and why and started pulling their instruments down. I thought there was going to be a riot and I just wanted out of there, and the band to go on playing. The NCO who ran the club came running out and worked out a compromise which I didn't want, but the band wouldn't go back on stage unless I agreed, and went back into the club. So I ended up being obliged to stand on the end of the stage as if I were a part of the band, and the Oasis club had to pay me, as if I were a member of the band. Oh man was I embarrassed. I never went back to the Oasis, and I never helped the band set up again, though Butch and Tuk especially remained my friends. The Brave Lad who turned me in never owned up to his courageous act, and the Lifer Puke who ran the club never gave him up, which I think said a lot for the character of both actors in the situation.
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