Part II-Melvin/Lance and A Real Catch 22

(This is Part II; see Part I-Rubino and the Horrible News for continuity)

As I reported to the next phase of training, I had some serious emotions to deal with.  Of course I was nervous about the prospect of going to Vietnam but a part of me was secretly excited.  I decided to make the best of the situation since I no longer had any control of what will happen.  At least the facilities had improved.  In basic training we were housed in an old wooden barracks with paper thin walls.  Your choice was to leave the windows closed and suffer from the heat or open them and let a little of the cool night South Carolina air in along with the mosquitoes.  This new place at least had air conditioning which would be welcomed given the coming of the ever increasing heat of summer.

I tried not to think too much about the future but concentrated on the present.  Training proceeded okay with a few glitches.  I remember we were at a shooting range getting ourselves familiar with firing the 45 caliber pistol.  My group was the first to finish and was trucked back to base.  The others were late in returning.  Turns out soon after we left a thunderstorm blew threw in and 8 GI’s were hit by lightning.  They eventually all returned to us after spending some time in the hospital.  A week later a similar storm occurred and this time we were told to put on our ponchos and lie down flat.  I guess they wanted to avoid the situation of the prior week.  The only problem was that we were in sort of river bed and a few guys had to be rescued as they were swept away by the flash flood.  We all hoped that this was not an omen of what was in store for us.  I soon received a phone call that changed a lot of this for me.

My older brother was also in the army and was completing his two year commitment in a few months.  We chatted and he informed me that he was going to volunteer to extend his stay for another year and would go to Vietnam.  Under the rules, two family members could not be sent to Vietnam unless they wanted to go.  In effect, he was saving me from going there.  The logic was pretty straight forward.  He too was single and unattached and was looking to see another part of the world.  You don’t have to be a genius to figure that odds of survival for an officer in a non-combat branch is better than it is for a grunt soldier.  Bob had always looked out for his little brother and this was just another extension of that love.  The decision was also based on not only what was best for him or me but also the family in general.  The decision was made and that was that.  Talk about mixed emotions.  On one hand I was happy about having the burden of Vietnam lifted from me but it was replaced by guilt.  It was not only because of my brother’s potential plight.   Also, by this time I had accepted where I was headed and was completely bonded with my fellow trainees.  I couldn’t share my news with them.  I knew I could not celebrate my good fortune.

Graduation came and was sad to see the troops leave.  All but 2 guys had orders for various units in Vietnam.  I and a few others became what the army referes to as “Holdovers”.  We would be held in limbo until our situation was resolved.  In this group was Cilmi who was in my squad during basic training.  We didn’t like each other then but had patched things up later.  He was the only son of a widow who was trying to be re-assigned near his Long Island home.  Another fellow was a former child actor who I remembered from a Bonanza episode who wanted to enter the Special Services branch so he could entertain the troops.  The last guy I remembered was a blue eyed dude from Puerto Rico who claimed to be one of the few bullfighters back there.  I’m sure what his angle was to get out of going to Vietnam.  I never followed up on his bullfighting claim either.

The work detail possibilities were endless.  The Army had sort of a blank canvass for us to demean ourselves.  If they couldn’t find anything for us to do, the fallback was policing the area (sort of a trash pickup like you see on the side of the highway but without the cool orange uniforms) or KP.  I didn’t mind KP or working in the mess hall because I had developed the two secrets to success.  First of all, always have a rag in your hand.  When you sense that one of your overlords is watching, just put your head down and keep wiping things down.  The Army abhors idleness.  You never want to give the appearance of not being busy.  With the rag, you can quickly be engrossed in busyness.  Secondly, if you hear the phrase “Hey you!”, don’t flinch or react in any way.  In most cases, all they want is a body.  The first person that turns around usually gets selected.  If they really want you, they’ll call you again and you can respond “Sorry I didn’t hear you; I was so busy cleaning this spot with my rag”.  Later on in life when I entered the corporate world, I replaced the rag with a notepad and when someone would call on me I’d tell that “I was sorry but I was busy taking notes during meeting”.

I had what I thought was a fairly straight forward and reasonable request.  I wanted to visited my brother while he was on leave before he shipped off to Vietnam.  Seems very appropriate don’t you think?  After all, who knows anything can happen and I deserve the chance to at least say goodbye.  The Army’s response was as follows:

Me: “I want to go on leave to say goodbye to my brother”.

Army:  “You can’t go because you don’t have orders”

Me: “When will I get my orders?”

Army: “Your orders will come when your brother arrives in Vietnam”

Me: “So the only way I can visit him is when he is Vietnam?”

Army: “No.  Not even then since it is a combat zone and you have to have orders to be there”.

Me: “Why can’t I just visit him before he goes to Vietnam”

Army:  “You have to wait for your orders which will be issued when he arrives in Vietnam”

Me:  “Do you understand that this makes no sense?”

Army:  “Is it supposed to”?

Yes Virginia, there is a real Catch 22.

We went round and round and got nowhere fast.  I guess I must of made my frustration about how the Army operates.  The Army was about to meet Melvin/Lance.

A few days later after my leave request discussion, I was told to report to the company commander.  I didn’t know his name and I had a vague image in my mind as to what he looked.  I reported to his office and stood at attention while I waited for him to complete his assessment of me.  He had a stern face on and got right to the point and asked “Do you know a General”?  I remember my response as if it was yesterday.  I said “A general what, sir?”.  I meant it with no disrespect; I had no idea what he was getting at.  Maybe it was the way I said it.  It could have been interpreted as a wise-ass New Yorker remark.  In any event, his ears seemed to glow brighter as he proceeds to tell me that an Army General called and chewed them out about not letting me go on leave to see my brother.  I told them I thought my father may know some  people in the National Guard but I didn’t think he knew any General.  The interrogation continued for a while until finally he told me that this was not over and that I was assigned CQ that night.  CQ or Charge of Quarters means you stay up all night in case something happens.  Sort of a modern day Paul Revere.

My head was spinning a bit as I was trying to understand what was happening.  Then the phone rang. On the other end was Melvin/Lance.

(Melvin/Lance was Melvin Gordan from the neighborhood.  Melvin was his given name which I think he had it legally changed to Lance.  His reasoning was indisputable.  He would ask “If you were a girl and were offered a blind date, would you rather go out with a Melvin or a Lance?”.  Can’t argue with that.  Anyway, Melvin/Lance was about 6 foot tall, kind of curly light brown hair and had the thickest glasses possible that made his blue eyes appear larger than they actually were.  He was a good athlete with an unusual developed upper body.  Barrel chested seems to best describe him.  His most prominent characteristic was, let me see what the correct medical term is.  I guess you could say that his brain would tend overheat on occasion. Whether we were playing softball with our local bar team or touch football at the schoolyard, Melvin/Lance would eventually blow up and disrupt things.  It was my job,as his caretaker, to calm him down and restore order.  It was a full time job it seemed and I was one of his few friends.  He was fearless, nervy and could talk his way in and out of any situation.  And he was a con artist.  For example, one day he was walking down the street and passed by a driver who was backing into a parking space.  The driver accidentally hit the a car causing minor damage.  Melvin/Lance starts screaming at the guys claiming horrendous damage.  He tells the guy he’ll settle for $50 and the guy agrees.  He collects and walks away.  Of course, the damaged car was not his.  I’ll have more stories on Melvin/Lance in a future Blog).

When I first heard the news, my immediate reaction was Melvin/Lance was involved but I soon dismissed it.  How would he be able to find me?  But it was true.  He told me over the phone that it was unfair and he was going to right a wrong.  I told him there was probably a better way of handling it.  I felt a sudden panic.  I no longer could use the “I don’t know what you are talking about” defense.  I now was part of the “Impersonating an Army General Conspiracy”, which I was pretty sure could be a significant offense.  I decided to lay low and hope things would blow over.  I was sleeping the next day when I was called in again to the company commander’s office.  This time the company clerk was there advising me that a sergeant had just called on behalf of the General with the same request.  The Company clerk was not too happy.  They tend to abuse their power and have enormous amount of leverage over us lowly trainees.  It turned out the company commander was about to rotate out to his next assignment.  It could have been that or they were just  too lazy to file court martial papers, but in any event they allowed me to go on leave.  I had escaped another bullet!  I was able to spend some time with my brother.  I remember we went to a NY Football Giants exhibition game in the Yale Bowl.  We thought it would be better than going to some lame rock and roll concert in some place in upstate New York called Woodstock.  We said our goodbyes and hoped for the best.  When I returned from my brief leave, the calls from the General had mercifully stopped.  They decided that to keep an eye on me so I was assigned to the office.  The company clerk over time let go of his resentment towards me and we had a civil relationship.  He liked the arrangement since I was doing most of his job for him.  He offered to find a position there but I told him I’d rather take my chances elsewhere.  Finally my orders arrived.  I was going to The Land of The Morning Calm.  Next stop, the Republic of Korea.

(stay tuned for Part III-The Driver/Accountant and the Magical Slide Rule)

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