Monday, October 03, 2005

How not to be a subversive

In a comment to one of my blog posts a few days ago peacebug tells the story of trying to get the Army to stop sending her high school daughter recruiting propaganda, but ends with a real concern "... that by standing up for myself and my daughter, I would shine a light on us that I will regret."

This is an understandable worry in Bush's America. Bush's war is seeming strangely like Vietnam to me, even though we do not have a draft. Yet. Probably we won't. But somehow we have the same end result--poor people getting sent to fight in a brutal and murderous and pack-of-lies bloody war.

For whatever reason, Bush himself never makes any mention of his own abortive military service. I suspect it is less a matter of shame about skipping out on his last 2 years than the simple fact that the Vietnam war never concerned him personally, even if it inconvenienced him some, because he knew in his heart that no grandson of Senator Prescott Bush and son of Congressman George Bush could ever come to grief in a war fought by peons. No doubt, though, he hated every minute of his actual time in uniform, which for what it's worth was probably even less than the time I spent.

I joined the Army reserves in 1965 to avoid going to Vietnam, the same reason that Bush 2 years later joined the Air National Guard. But unlike Bush, I actually felt a certain alarm about getting killed in Lyndon's war, so I felt pretty lucky to get into the reserves, which at that time, were not being called up and sent off to fight.

Everyone in the Army, whether reservist, National Guard, or regular Army, had the same basic training. Mine was at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, during the summer. It was pretty awful. Ft Polk was a pestilential hellhole of yellow wooden barracks strewn over bare red dirt where there had once been loblolly pine trees before the bulldozers prepared the ground for military training of the young.

What I mainly remember at this distance in time is standing at attention for roll call every morning gazing, already sweating, at the great red ball of the sun which would torture us for the rest of the day, beyond the glaring silhouette of the first sergeant who would be howling curses and imprecations at his unworthy charges. Soon, across the post, there would be dusty columns of men marching under banners and often to the beat of a drum, to various training venues, counting cadence as they marched and occasionally chanting stuff like "Ain't no use in lookin' down, ain't no discharge on the ground," as the distant updrafts of pigeons rose wings flashing their own cadence in the blue empty sky. I envied the pigeons.

I will not tell you stories about basic training, except to say that the first sergeant was just as sadistic as the DI in Full Metal Jacket, but not nearly as articulate, and nobody murdered him.

After basic, I was sent to be trained as a medic at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, where it was not as disagreeable, and I had a little free time occasionally. There I met and became friends with a guy named Joe Partansky, from San Francisco, a college graduate and philosophy major, who with the real-world acumen common to philosophy students had actually gotten drafted, and so stood a greater chance of going to Vietnam than I, and as a combat medic, which is probably worse than going as an infantryman, hazard-wise.
We spent a lot of time trying to think of ways out of the Army which would not involve going to jail, so we evolved a bizarre scheme to get kicked out of the Army. It was kind of dumb, or more to the point, a grasping at straws, but we thought for reasons of stupidity and optimism that it might work. At least I did. Joe might have been smarter, and may have just been entertaining himself.

San Antonio at the time had a notorious local and public Communist. Most communists were thought to be secret operatives, spies. Remember this was in 1965, years before the end of the cold war, and a couple of years before the rise of the New Left had made leftists ho-hum even in central Texas. Now in 1965 there was an actual, barely legal communist party. But being a card carrying member of the CPUSA could get you in real trouble. San Antonion's known public communist was named John Stanford, and had I think he had occasionally filed lawsuits on behalf of Gus Hall's party (Gus Hall being the leader of the Communist Party of the United States), and had nonetheless avoided going to jail. I don't recall how, or if, he made a living.

He was in the phone book. So Joe and I decided to call John Stanford on the phone and tell him that we, local soldiers, were interested in discussing communism with him and possibly joining the Party. And no sooner than we hatched this plan we placed the call, confident that the phones were tapped, and that we would soon be called in and summarily given some sort of less than honorable discharge as security risks, which at that point both of us would have been happy to accept.

But John Stanford, who was a polite and mild mannered and possibly starved-for-conversation individual, was happy to chat with us and invited us over to his house when we had our next weekend pass, to discuss communism and world affairs and have dinner. We accepted. I think we showed up in uniform, just so the FBI could not possibly miss us, from their white van parked down the street.

But when we got there we saw no white vans anywhere. Now John was extremely gracious and accommodating, and his wife had cooked us a delicious supper, and as it turns out we had a lovely time, as we say. Now in the course of the evening John asked us very skeptical and probing questions, though in quite a jovial way, and midway through the meal Joe and I both realized that John thought that we, ourselves, were FBI agents, and very transparent and clumsily disguised ones at that.

At this juncture, (and later, in talking to Joe about it, I learned that he had the same reaction) I felt a sudden and burning need to convince John of the truth--and it really was the truth--which we leveled with him about, of our ridiculous plan to get out of the Army.

As we unfolded our cockamamie scheme, John continued to be gracious, amused, and amusing. Obviously, he did not believe a word of it. Less than a word of it. But he seemed willing to play along with the FBI's little game. He said, well, yes, probably the FBI is watching you guys, wink wink, but I doubt if you will get kicked out of the Army, or something to that effect. The dinner went on and we discussed world affairs, the War, and left-wing issues of the day.

The upshot of all this was that we were invited back, and went over for dinner with the only out-of-the-closet Communist in San Antonio and possibly in Texas, every weekend for a couple of months, I guess, till our training had come to an end.

John was always gracious and urbane--he had the manner of an accountant with an actual sense of humor--and believed us as little at the last as at the first. As far as we knew, we never got on any subversives list. Perhaps those were more innocent times.

Or perhaps not. I have never put in a Freedom of Information Act request for FBI records on myself. I doubt if I will, so I'll never know.

But we certainly did not get discharged.

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