I don’t know what exactly the flight crew could do to make my flight more comfortable than they were already doing. Except for getting me to Travis Air Force Base sooner, that is. Other than that I only needed my seat, and occasional cup of coffee to help me stay awake, and anything that I could dream up to occupy my mind. Outside the window I could see a vast expanse of landscape carpeted with thick forest, jagged mountains protruding skyward above the treelike and lakes and rivers sparkling like jewels on a green velvet table. I imagined myself fishing, trapping, and maybe panning for gold down there, although you could fit what I knew about fishing, trapping and panning for gold in one of the cups that the flight attendants brought my coffee in. Or maybe half of that cup.
After an hour or two my new neighbor nudged me in the shoulder, breaking into my almost hypnotic trance just as I was about to shoot a moose and provide my wilderness cabin with meat and other necessary products for the next six months. “Hey buddy” he began. “Where you going to when we land?” “I stared at him stupidly for a moment, and then pulled myself completely back into the here and now. “I’m getting out at Oakland” I told him. “I extended an extra eight months in ‘Nam so that I could get the three month early out. How about you?” “I’m going on to Fort Hood” he replied. “I’ve got another ten months to go.” “Fort Hood!” I grunted with a look of disdain. “I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of Fort Hood” I told him, and he laughed. “Yeah, I heard from some of the guys in the 11th Armored that it was an armpit. I only have ten months to go though. I can stand anything for that long. Oh, my name’s Clayton Mildenburg.” He stuck out his hand and I grasped it. “I’m Glenn Durden. I’m going home to San Diego the second that I get finished processing out at Oakland.”
“San Diego!” Clayton exclaimed. “I want to go there! ‘Two girls for ev–ry boy’ he began to sing the lyrics to Jan and Dean’s song ‘Surf City’. Is it really like that?” “Well” I began, “Yes and no. We have great beaches and a lot of people surf—” “Do you surf?” Clayton interjected. “No, not with a surfboard. I do a lot of body surfing but could never afford a surfboard. Damned things are expensive! And my father never let me work when I was a kid. ‘When you get straight A’s I’ll know that you have enough spare time to work’ I growled in a gruff voice imitating my father. “Well, I never got straight A’s, crooked A’s or any other type of A’s very much, so no work and no money. I’m buying a board as soon as I get home though. Gotta make up for lost time.”
Clayton seemed dazzled by the thought of bronzed bodies riding waves and partying on the beach all night long with that delicious two-to-one ratio that Jan and Dean had sung about, and the soldier and bullshit artist in me couldn’t resist playing along with it. I filled his head with tales of my irresistible attractiveness among the surfer girls and how not two but three of them would be waiting to pick me up at Lindbergh Field in San Diego when I arrived, no matter what the time of day or night. The truth, of course, was that an Anchorite monk living in a cave in the Egyptian desert would have more chance of three girls waiting to pick him up if he got lost and stumbled into an oasis somewhere than I had of three girls, or any for that matter, waiting to pick me up at Lindbergh Field or anywhere else in the world. Clayton didn’t know that however, and it made a great story, so I shipped that and a whole lot of other bull his way.
“So what are you going to do when you get out?” I asked Clayton, finding talking with him more interesting than I thought that it would be. Clayton didn’t take a moment to respond “I don’t have any idea. My dad owns a radio and appliance business in Grand Junction, Colorado. He was on the ground crew for the bombers that flew from England on bombing raids over Germany in World War II, and he was really good at fixing anything. So, he started fixing things back home and then started selling them. He’s done really good, I guess. We have a pretty nice house in town, everybody likes him and my mom. They’re members in good standing at Gethsemane Methodist Church and the Elks Club and blah, blah, blah. And I’m not putting them down. I love my folks. I just don’t want to be my folks.
You see, Grand Junction is only one of the wider wide spots in the road. There’s a little hospital and a nice downtown, and the trains come through and pick up stuff raised and grown around there and then take it somewhere else. Well, I want to go to that somewhere else. I volunteered for the Army and I volunteered for Vietnam too. I just wanted to see other places and do more than fix television sets and sell washing machines.”
“I know what you mean” I said. “When I got out of high school I had no idea what to do next. I didn’t even know how you went about looking for a job and I just couldn’t see me doing anything in particular. One of my best friends started going to school to become a cop, but I knew that I would never do anything like that. A lot of other guys got jobs at the aircraft plant or shipyards, but I’m no good with tools and I couldn’t fix shit. Thing is, I still really don’t know what I’m going to do. My dad’s a teacher, and so I might go to school and learn how to do that. I wasn’t great in school, but I can do pretty good in classes that I like and can survive the ones that I don’t, so maybe I’ll go to school and become a teacher. Anyway, the G.I. Bill will cover me for four years, so I might as well give it a try.”
“Not me man” Clayton responded. “I never did like school, and they didn’t like me much either. I’ve never really done well with authority. See this clean sleeve?” Clayton pointed to a shoulder that was devoid of any stripes or patches denoting rank. “Four months ago I was sitting at a base camp in the Central Highlands. We were supporting the 173rd Airborne but there was nothing in particular going on then. I was driving a jeep for our battalion commander but he choppered up to Kontum for some kind of meeting, which I knew meant that he was going to drink some good whiskey and get laid. ‘Why should he have all the fun?’ I asked myself. So I fired up his jeep and drove it to Pleiku, where I got drunk and laid too. And that’s where the MP’s found me the next morning and drove me back to our base camp. The Old Man was thoroughly pissed, and threatened to do all sorts of evil shit to me. I just asked myself ‘What’re they going to do, send me to Vietnam?’ All I ended up with was two weeks on the shit detail and busted down to private.” At this point I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. “Was it worth it?” I asked. Clayton laughed too. “Every damned bit of it.”
We talked on for much of the rest of the flight, sharing stories and no doubt snowballing each other with equal amounts of bullshit tales and blatant lies. It therefore came as something of a surprise when the pilot announced that we were beginning our approach to Travis, advised that we buckle our seatbelt, and then dropped the nose down toward that patch of concrete and asphalt midway between San Francisco and Sacramento, California. We all felt the tension mount as the ground rushed up toward us, and we held our breath as the wheels touched the ground and then raced like a bullet along the runway, slowing down bit by bit until it taxied up to a parking area away from the terminal.
After an interminable wait the door cracked open and the warm spring air of Northern California flooded into the cabin. We jostled and shoved like grade school kids in a fire drill, trying to get off of that plane as quickly as possible and touch the ground in what finally felt like home to many of us. I came down the ramp and, at the bottom, got down on my hands and knees and kissed that dirty concrete surface, as did many other guys.
I felt like I was in an alternate universe. Looking out across the airport I could see some guys driving fuel trucks and others baggage-haulers, while others were bringing up the buses that would take us the fifty miles or so to Oakland Army Terminal. None of them seemed to be aware of how extraordinary these jobs of theirs were; how amazing it was that none of them would be shot at that day, and that no siren in the night would call them out of their beds to squat in a bunker or muddy ditch waiting for the mortars to stop falling and see if they would be followed by an attack. Still feeling disconnected, I climbed onto one of the busses that had rolled up to us and stopped. The driver was irritable and obviously in a hurry for us to get on his bus, probably so that he could get back to Oakland and then home to his full refrigerator and warm, soft bed. I wondered if one of the other guys would punch him in the head, but we all just wanted to get on with it and ignored him with prejudice as best we could.
The bus was filled with excited chatter as the convoy started up and then rolled down the interstate towards Oakland. Many of the guys on my bus were getting out of the Army, and the others were anticipating leaves of up to a month before they had to report to a new duty station. The buses rolled first across the flat Central Valley terrain and then passed through low hills which opened at last onto the ring of communities which surrounded the San Francisco Bay. The waters, when we could see them, glittered in the late afternoon sun, and lights were beginning to appear in some buildings.
But most of the time we couldn’t see the Bay. Instead, the buildings of Richmond and Berkeley and Oakland filled our view, and that was all right with me. This was very nearly home; just a few more hours to go. We slowed down, exited the freeway, wound through a couple of streets and then entered the Oakland Army Terminal.
“All right you men, listen up.” An NCO had appeared at the front of the bus and began to get us sorted out. “All of you who will be discharged from this facility will report to Bay ‘C’ to the right of the main entrance within the building if front of you. Those of you who are being reassigned will form up in that area to the right of the lead bus. You will be marched to the mess hall and then shown to your quarters for the evening. You will be told in the mess hall what to expect during your stay in Oakland, which will be brief. You men who are to be discharged will be given access to the mess hall once your process is underway. There will be time during the process for you to eat. We will get you finished with the process as quickly as we can. Now, let’s get moving smartly so that we can all go home.”
That worked for me. I entered the big building that the NCO had indicated and checked in with a clerk with a clipboard who pointed out a set of risers where I was to go and wait to be called. I ended up in a group of about fifty men and we all sat down to await the next step, and wait is exactly what we did. Slowly; painfully slowly, our names began to be called, and when they were called we shuffled into another room, only to pick up our duffle bags, sign a form, and then return with the bags to our seats.
At length however, five guys were called and disappeared down a hallway, dragging their duffle bags behind them. The “duffle bag drag” was a legendary maneuver in the Army when I was there. Those guys went slowly from station to station where they would sign papers declaring their intention to leave active duty, their declaration that they had returned all government issue property, an acknowledgement of severance pay and acceptance of the amount, and so on. The process was glacial, and it was at this time that we broke off in groups to get a quick meal of spaghetti with some sort of red sauce and garlic bread, with all of the black coffee that I could drink. I wanted to stay awake for the last push to freedom.
I returned to my seat quickly after my meal, stopping to buy a four pack of cigars from a vendor in the main lobby of the building on the way back. I lit one when I sat down and my neighbor on the risers bummed one from me. I had just began to enjoy it when a Specialist came through a door and bawled out “Jenkins! Carter! Grafton! Mingerton! Durden!”
Hot damn! I stubbed out the cigar on the riser and formed up with the other four guys. We were led down the hall to a row of seats where four of us sat down. Jenkins went through a door, and I never saw him again. Twenty minutes later it was Carter’s turn, and so on. It was past ten o’clock when my name was called and I began the process which I could not believe took so long. Something would be ‘explained’ but I didn’t really hear it, and when they shoved a paper towards me I would sign that I understood and agreed to everything that was on it. Then on to the next station. “Crap” I thought. “I’m not getting out of here until midnight.”
Wrong. After the fifth station, where I felt like I was hearing the same bureaucratic bullshit and signing the same stinking papers over and over again, the clerk informed me “That’s it. We’re closing down at 2300 (11:00 PM). We will re-open at 0700 tomorrow. “You. Have. Got. To. Be. Shitting. Me!” I shouted. “You do! You have to be!” “I’m sorry man” the clerk replied. “I don’t make the rules.” I’d heard enough of that damned line for one day. “So what am I supposed to do until 0700?” I asked. “Well, if I was you I’d stay close to here, but what you do is your own business.”
I really did want to hit the bastard. Hit him and choke him. It had been a long eight hour day for him and he was tired, poor baby. I had no idea how many hours I’d been up and I was a little bit tired too. Fortunately however I was cautious enough to not do anything that would get me thrown into jail, and so with a heartfelt curse I dragged my duffle bag back to the risers where I began this final part of the journey. I regained my old seat and threw the bag down next to me, determined to spend the rest of night right where I then sat.
I couldn’t find the stub of my first cigar so I lit up the third one. All but a few lights went out while I sat on that riser, smoking my cigar and alternating my thoughts between what the guys might be doing back in Vietnam, what my family and friends might be doing in San Diego, and what I wanted to do to that snide-ass clerk. I got another cup of coffee from a stainless steel urn on a table in the corner of the room but it tasted like shit, so I returned to my riser and smoked the cigar down to a nub. I drowned the cigar butt in my undrunk cup of coffee and put it back on the table.
Eight hours of quiet and darkness. There was no way that I would stay awake for that, so I dug an old set of fatigues out of my bag and used them as a pillow. Then, stretching out on the step of the riser and yielding to the inevitable, I fell into a deep but not especially restful sleep.