Date: February 18, 2018
I am dedicating this post and all subsequent posts to the graduating class of Grand Rapids High School 1967, Grand Rapids MN 55810
On the occasion of the 50th Class Reunion
The class presented all the Vietnam Era Veterans with a Quilt of Valor:
I was not able to attend the 50th Class Reunion, Grand Rapids MN at the Sawmill Inn on July 22, 2017. The organizers of the reunion were Bev Johnson and Catherine McLynn.
A friend and classmate, Bryan Stenlund, presented this to me on Friday, February 16, 2018. He was in Duluth MN for a conference and took time, after a long day, to drive thru Proctor MN and spend an hour or so reminiscing of days gone by, good and some not as good, but all part of the fabric of our lives.
He took some photos to post to the Facebook page of the Class of 1967 and also asked me to write a little something about my time in the military. I have previously written about an experience in basic training and how I compared that of Captain John McCain on his release from a North Vietnamese Prisoner of War Camp. The post is titled: A Tribute to Senator John McCain – Prologue, published on December 6, 2017.
When I wrote that post, I had a thought floating around in my cobwebs, that maybe I would write another article of the times my wife, Becky and I spent the first years of our marriage hosted by Uncle Sam. As I was writing this piece for Bryan and the Class of 67, I realized that it was going to be much longer (much, much) longer than I had originally conceived. I was a bit tired of banging on my keyboard and I checked the word count. It was over 1,400 words and my abbreviated account only got me out of basic training and to setting up our first household at Fort McClellan Alabama.
I’m not sure that I have that many more words in my story of those two years (I just chuckled as I thought of Mozart’s words in Amadeus, ” There are as many notes as there needs to be”), but we will see. I didn’t think there were that many words to get to this point either.
So enough chit-chat.
The title, “A Time to Sweat” does not mean that I sweated in the jungles of Vietnam as Matt Miltich did. No, my sweating was getting thru basic training and more than a year at Fort McClellan AL.
Becky and I were married on February 6, 1971. We arrived back in Grand Rapids from our honeymoon (a wild weekend in Duluth MN at the Radisson Hotel – don’t you DARE ask her for any details!). We walked in the door to her parent’s house, where we were staying, and found a letter. Any guesses? Yup. My invitation to join my fellow Americans in a 2 year all expense paid vacation with Uncle Sam.
Well, the expenses weren’t paid and it definitely was not a vacation. We waited for the dreaded departure date to arrive. I canceled classes at Itasca State Junior College, gave notice with my job as a busboy at Bridgeman’s Restaraunt and Ice Cream Parlor in Grand Rapids and waited.
The day came, the agonized goodbyes were said and I jumped on the bus to Minneapolis MN. There were several of us on the bus but I didn’t know anyone as I recall. We had a few hours that evening to spend before reporting in the morning to MEPS (Military Enlisted Processing something). (I remember the name because we dropped our sons off for their processing into the Marine Corps as their dates arrived many years later.)
A few of us spent several alcohol-fueled hours crying in our beer. As I remember we really had several McMaster’s Whiskey and cokes. We took in a few local bars that were within walking distance of the hotel. I recall a show at the Gay Nineties Bar. That was an eye opener for a small town boy!
The next morning broke with horrible hangovers. Whiskey! I swore off that stuff forever! But no sleeping in that morning. Physicals to pass and swearing in to attend to. By then it was a late March day and we were bussed to the Minneapolis International Airport for a flight to? We didn’t know where.
We landed at St. Louis Missouri. Our plane had trouble so we waited while buses were arranged for our final leg to? We made it, still a bit hung over or travel sick early in the morning. We were greeted by Drill Sergeants who yelled and swore just like in the movies.
We were rushed into buildings with rows of tables for desks so we could fill out all the forms that the government wanted. We may have been given a cheese sandwich on dry bread (the usual fare when standing guard duty I was later to learn). I can’t swear to that since my bones were more interested in running away than eating.
Daylight broke and we were hustled off to get buzzcuts, fatigues, boots and all the other equipment that the Army provided free of charge. As we made our way down the lines with everything stuffed into a duffel bag. That thing was stuffed so full and weighed so much by the end of the day I don’t think I carried it as much as dragged it around.
We were hustled, I say the word ‘hustled’ as in the supersonic sense of speed when in fact we learned that ‘Hurry up and wait’ was a true Army motto.
We were hustled to a wooden frame building leftover from the Korean War and probably from World War Two for that matter. Each of the next ten or so days (it was longer than usual since we arrived on a weekend) was filled with filling out more forms, more tests and whatever else the Army thought fit for us to do that day.
One day was a workday. We were farmed out to different parts of the for, oh yes it was Fort Leonard Wood Missouri, Little Misery was the ‘loving’ nickname’. I was farmed out to the officer’s horse stalls to muck manure. Bad Duty? No Way! My stiff, feet-killing boots came out buttery soft as soon as they dried. They were even comfortable when the smell finally cleared.
My very best day was when I volunteered to take the typing test. Typing, geez I had not typed in four years or more. This was 1971 and it had been four years since high school graduation and I don’t remember typing much in school either. Maybe for Mr. Volker’s journalism class.
My hands were sore and bruised and scraped raw so that all I could do was pound on the keyboard (much as I am doing right now). Little did I know the test was my salvation. The second to the last day of basic was ‘Order Day’. We would get our orders for AIT, Advanced Individual Training. Some lucky fellows, this was definitely not co-ed by the way, got to stay at Little Misery and learn how to be combat engineers. Others were granted the not very enviable MOS, Military Occupational something, of 11Bravo or 11B – a one-way pass to infantry school. They were headed to wherever those poor guys had to go.
I was NOT GOING TO AIT! No advanced schooling for this GI. I was assigned Permanent Party to Fort McLellan Alabama. That had a nice ring to it. Kind of sounded like a home away from home. Basic for ten weeks and then a one-stop ticket for two years less ten weeks, and then home. I hoped anyway. I was even promoted to E2 and was told to wear yellow chevrons on each arm.
I was going home for two weeks leave before heading to Fort McClellan Alabama. Becky and I couldn’t even find it on a map! No Google back then either.
The time to depart Grand Rapids flew right into our faces. We packed our wedding gifts on top of our car and headed to Highway 65 to our new life. Wham! We were sucked out of our lane by a semi barreling past.
Then Becky and I noticed stuff. Stuff here. Stuff there. Stuff. Our stuff. In tatters and pieces and laying all over. After the tears stopped flowing it did not seem like an auspicious start to our new life.
We limped back to Grand Rapids in our 1965 Pontiac Starchief. I located a number for the fort and was put through to a sergeant. He didn’t offer much in the way of condolences but did give us a few days to regroup and then head out.
The trip from Grand Rapids to Fort McClellan, AL was the honeymoon trip we never had. Let’s see, the first night we got lost in Chicago and ended up in Gary, Indiana. A wrong turn on a toll road. What the heck was a toll road? Bleak, dark, industrial, scary Gary.
It started to pour buckets. We decided to find a motel because we just couldn’t see the road. We had a cat and a dog. This was going to be fun! No point in telling the night clerk. The cat got sick from riding in the car and we had to throw her in the tub (without water) to get her clean. This was vacationing in fine style.
The next night we camped out in someplace and woke loaded with chigger bites. We, of course, had to be told what caused those horrible, itching, painful bites. We just knew they were many times worse than mosquito bites. Many times. The next night we parked in a parking lot at Mammoth Cave National Park. We didn’t have the money to take the tour but we did get to sleep in the car out of the rain.
The next day we did stop at a less expensive roadside cave. Pretty impressive and COOL way down in the bowels of the earth. As we traveled south we marveled at the freeway hewn out of the mountains. Above the ribbons of concrete, up in the hills, we could just make out some shanties. What a contrast.
It seems to me about this time I started to listen to Becky as she was navigating our way to Anniston, Alabama. We even made it to Fort McClellan’s Headquarters Company, my new home, to sign in. I was given instructions on how to collect some much-needed pay and directions on where to report to Personnel building which would be my duty station. After formalities, we were given advice and directions on finding housing off base.
I have no recollection of why or how we made it to the town of Jacksonville Alabama. We found a row of apartments. We knocked on the manager’s unit and were met by a guy in big muttonchop sideburns and a thick Alabama drawl. Dwight said that rent was $100 a month. That was a problem. I was only paid $90 plus a small housing allowance. He asked if we would like to earn a small amount by painting apartments. We found a home and a part-time job all in one stop. I looked across the road at small tall buildings. A college. A college town. A college town beats Army barracks any day.
We looked at the apartment. Small but very inviting since it had air conditioning. Did I mention that Alabama was HOT! And MUGGY! This was not Northern Minnesota.
The apartment was furnished. We brought in our meager belongings and crashed. The air-conditioner worked well. Our first night in our new home. Everything looked pretty good.
The next day we took the paycheck and went shopping for groceries, drapes and some liquid refreshments. No, we couldn’t. Jacksonville was in a dry county. The only way to get any booze was in a state store in Anniston or on base.
Our time in Alabama was always eventful or it wasn’t. The morning we woke to a quarter inch of snow that stopped traffic dead in its tracks.
One of the first oddities we noticed as we took evening walks with our black dog. There were huge openings under the curbs seemingly without a purpose. Then we met our first rainstorm. Ran was roaring into our apartment, we were on a slope wouldn’t you know. The parking area for our car was right outside our door and a speedbump directed the torrent of water right under our door. Those high and wide holes in the curbs? The torrential rain had to be directed into storm sewers somehow and the high and wide gutters were necessary to meet that need. Even after spending two months in Missouri I had not seen these rains of biblical proportions!
Another was the grasshoppers. We lived in a low area which supported a lot of creatures. The first one we saw looked almost like a red-winged blackbird. With a red flag on it shoulders it seemed only slightly smaller in size.
I wrote about a few experiences from basic training in a blog post here.
While writing and re-writing that post I was thinking there may be enough material for another post or two. We had some interesting times, running out of gas on a trip home for Christmas, driving up a mountain for a party which featured a huge metal watering trough filled with ice for a cooler. “Bring your own beer but we have a place to chill it”! We were a dog, a cat, and two best friends off on our first adventure of married life. And to think, Uncle Sam was paying us on top of it.
I think I’m going to have to make you wait for my book. Seriously this is probably much longer than Bryan was thinking when he offered the invitation. I know it is longer than what you want to read in one sitting. So I will close here. It seems a reasonable place.
If I do write future articles on this topic I will post on the Class of 67 page. Ya’ll were so kind to acknowledge our service and that of the other classmates who were veterans by honoring us with the fabulous quilts. If you will send me the contact information to the people that made the quilts I will acknowledge the great work they did.
I am going to sneak in our thank you to our sons for their service. They did the heavy lifting. They enlisted in the Marine Corps for their duty to their country. Thank You.
Craig and Becky
Fort Leonard Wood Missouri Basic Training – Different Uniforms Now but Same Drills
Welcome To and First Stage Barracks
Gas Mask ‘Experience’ and “Cattle Cars’ for long distance travel on base
Obstacle Course, Weapons Training and Testing
LEST WE FORGET
Veterans of the Wars in Iraq and Afganistan:
200,000 Veterans are Homeless Each Night
1 in 5 Veterans Suffer PTSD
20 Veterans Commit Suicide Each Day