Military Stories #13


I was born and raised on the West Coast, I knew nothing about seasonal living. For the next year I would be living in New Jersey within a mile of the Atlantic Ocean and I fully expected to experience the complete range of seasons and weather that came along with it. I arrived in winter and I would be departing in winter next year. While I didn’t have a car, I thought about driving everyday in this stuff and I wondered how I would manage. 
Ft. Lewis experienced the most snow in twenty years, but it wasn’t like New Jersey. There was snow in drifts!  

In late April my son was born. It was remarkable, and my lack of detail here does not diminish its importance. This is my recollection of my military experience. I do remember the fear of understanding and being able to repair each separate gear. I also remember the stress of not being able to study at home, because everything was top secret. The stress of being a new parent, the loss of sleep, everything conspired towards failure. 

I was also convinced that the security investigated has uncovered my plot to fake “my limp” so that plan was no longer active. I just had to tough it out and pray that I would be assigned anywhere but a combat zone. We got used to the shower down the hall and the tiny kitchen. The apartment was on the second floor and we rarely heard the neighbors. The winter turned to spring, I was doing well in my training, parenting was starting to be easier. Matt was sleeping through the night and in the belly spinning stage. He moved around a lot, but he didn’t go anywhere. 

One minor difficultly was the introduction to cicadas. The telephone pole was directly across from out second story window. All the wires for the neighborhood came to that pole. Apparently at least one cicada decided to take residence right at that junction. So for the next six months he rubbed his legs or wings together about 8 feet from my open window. Shutting the window would only muffle the sound slightly. It was deafening, monotonous, and crazy making. I would have bought a BB gun to shoot him to the sidewalk but I could never tell exactly where the sound was coming from. 

Maybe if I had grown up with it, I was never bothered by frogs croaking or crickets, but this was far too much. 

Spring also brought a little savings so we considered the purchase of a vehicle. We finally bought a 1967 Chevy Bel Aire, a stripped down brute of a car. I think it crossed the country three times, lived through several blizzards, and a half dozen snow tires. It was monster purchased from an old school mafia chop-shop. At least that was my impression then. The real challenge was trying to figure out how to afford insurance and gas. Just about then congress decided to give a pay raise, almost doubling my salary after also getting a promotion. I was now a private first class and we no longer qualified for food stamps.

Sometime in the middle of summer, I was sitting by the open window, again trying to a determine the location of my noisy cicada, when I happened to hear an operatic line or two. I was confused because it was lovely but not from the radio, and the only logical source was my 88 year old landlord puttering around in the garden below. Wait! It was Mr. Carlo Ponti, and he had a great voice. I went downstairs to talk to him.

I asked if he had ever sung professionally and he replied that he had been with the Metropolitan Opera in NYC for twenty years, from 1920-1940. I was surprised, not because of any lack of skill. I was surprised because I might actually know someone that he sang with.

While I was a student at Contra Costa College I actually declared my major to be philosophy because of one man. I became a fan and registered for all of his classes, semester after semester. What I did not know was that Pasquale Anania was not well liked by most of the faculty. I thought that perhaps they were jealous because he had three doctorates, two in the hard sciences. That still may have been a reason, but mostly he was disliked because he was perceived as a blowhard and a liar. He had said that during WWII that he was shipwrecked on an island, that he was a speechwriter for Truman’s Last Campaign Train, that he dated several Hollywood starlets including Marilyn, oh, and Shirley Temple was a teenage tramp. There were so many things that were so unbelievable that it stretched the imagination. He was a very good philosophy teacher. He had also mentioned that his mother, Maria Ponti was a star of the Metropolitan Opera. I don’t know why I remembered that, but here I had an opportunity to prove the liar.

I asked Mr. Ponti if he remembered a female singer with the last name Anania. He, replied “Maria?, sure I sang with her lots of times, very beautiful. I would sing with her and sometimes babysit her little Pasquale while she rehearsed.” Okay, so he didn’t lie. Maybe he never lied and he just had a remarkable life.

It was getting close to the end of my training. I had tested out of the four major pieces of equipment and survived a grueling written test. I had about a month left and I was wondering why we were still in class. Most of us had received top secret crypto clearances and I thought what next? Well, since at least two different machines were installed in combination locked safes, the Army thought we should be trained in how to crack a safe, either by a light touch, by a 35lb. Pick axe, or by a sheet of thermite that would melt it into a pool of hot steel. So the last month of training was simply a lot of fun, wrecking things, picking locks, a setting fires.

Winter came along with my orders. I wasn’t going to Vietnam, I wasn’t going to Germany, like my friend Carl. I was going to a secret site in Pennsylvania, I was staying stateside with my family. I couldn’t believe it. All my planning, worry, and paranoia was for nothing. I was going to be safe, in the United States, not being shot at, and not shooting at others.

After the graduation ceremony I drove all night to arrive late at the trailer that we had rented. The next morning I woke up to a blizzard that had sealed us in the trailer for the next four days..