Summer is icummen in,
Llude sing cuc-cu…
—Medieval song (1225)
In the summer of 1955, when thousands of us graduated and lost our college deferments, I was drafted into the U.S. Army. Happily for us, the Korean War had just ended. Granted a few weeks to travel home, take physicals, and fill out endless papers, I was loaded on a bus at the end of June, and sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for Basic Training. On Friday night, after two days of trying on our uniforms and learning humility (“Get yo’ hands out yo’ pockets!”), our sergeant barged into our barracks and yelled, “OK faggots, you’re off until Tuesday!” and left. That’s how drill sergeants talked in 1955. Actually, they talked worse; add your own expletives before each noun.
We soon realized that it was the 4th of July weekend, the 4th fell on Monday, and Fort Dix basically just shut down. (Did we learn nothing from Pearl Harbor?) Early the next morning, while most of our fellow soldiers were sleeping off the evening’s beer, another soldier from New Jersey and I hitchhiked home. We were in our still-neat uniforms and were patriotically picked up, so I was home in Mountain Lakes before lunch time. My parents were stunned when I, whom they had sent off with prideful tears to guard their country less than three days before, strolled in the door. Ten-hut! I said. After blinking a few times, my dad blurted, “Goddammit, no wonder we can’t win a war anymore!” That seems prophetic somehow; in retrospect, my military service was more like Gomer Pyle’s than Bill Mauldin’s.
Our parents, who hadn’t traveled out of the United States, encouraged me and my two sisters to see the world. They worked hard so that we would go farther, in all senses. Eventually, my sister Carol went to Europe singing with the Skidmore College choir, and my sister Pat lived in Venezuela with her young family for several years, and has traveled all over the world since then.
As it turned out, my first trip to Europe was on a troop ship the next summer, on the way to Schweinfurt, Germany, perhaps not the easiest way to travel nor the classiest destination (Schweinfurt means “pig fort”); but I was excited in any case, and wasn’t disappointed. Besides growing fond of the town — Klaus, the kind bartender at my favorite brauhaus, Der Fliegende Holländer, "retired" my beer mug when I left Schweinfurt — I made short visits to Munich, Nuremberg, Frankfurt and the ancient villages along the Romantische Strasse; and was able to see three great European cities: Paris, Barcelona, and Madrid. In those days, G.I.’s could hitchhike free at the military airports, as well as on the roads.
On the 4th of November, 1956, the Russians invaded Budapest, so I almost got there, too. We’re going to kill us some Russkies, boys, our sergeant gleefully told us, instructing us to get our gear ready, and disappointed in our less than enthusiastic response.
We did come close to war. There was great pressure on President Eisenhower to step in to help the Hungarians: Time magazine chose “the Hungarian Freedom Fighters” for its Man of the Year Award; but unlike his successors with Vietnam and Iraq, the president paid attention to internal reports of how complicated our intervention could become. (As an extra complication, England and France were intervening against Nasser in Egypt at the same time during the “Suez Crisis”; Ike could see the problems.)
I liked the Army, and didn’t mind being drafted for our six-year commitment: two years active, two years active reserve, two years inactive reserve. Of course, my timing was extraordinarily lucky. I still support the idea of a draft system, because it seems fairer to get us all involved, and because three major things happened to me during those years of active duty: 1) I liked Ike, but seeing more of the world nudged my politics leftward (my parents and our neighbors were all stalwart Republicans); 2) I decided I wanted to be a writer — if I could figure out how to do it; and 3) When I went back to school, I was ready.
Winter is icummen in,
Llude sing Goddamm…
—Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
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