A Memorable Day With My Friend Clay

The year 1971 is a year that was nearly lost to me. I grew up in a very authoritarian family, and upon reaching eighteen years of age in 1966 joining the Army, even in the middle of a way, was like liberation to me. My father was raised in a strict rural Georgia family and spent twenty years in the Navy where he flourished in the military environment. It was natural then that Dad modeled that regimented style into his parenting.

Being in the Army was, as I said, like liberation. After basic and advanced training I found the Army to be a routine which left me more or less alone for a good piece of the day, with large amounts of free time of which I could dispose pretty much as I wished. I know that this will sound odd to a lot of people, especially those who have also served in the military, but that is the way it was. My first real duty station was a supply company in name only. We didn’t supply anyone with anything. After breakfast we were supposed to return to our barracks and wait for the First Sergeant to come and select us to perform menial labor around the fort where I was stationed. Most of us elected not to hang around the barracks, and our sergeant became very good at finding us in the snack bars, the PX, the post swimming pool and so on. I don’t think Sarge was much of a reader however. I mostly hid in a branch of the post library not two blocks from our company area and Sarge never looked for me there. He really hated me for hiding so efficiently from him.

When my name was called and orders arrived for Vietnam I was glad to go. I had had enough of Texas and needed some newer scenery. I arrived in country and soon was working twelve hours on, twelve hours off, with every fourteenth day a day of rest for me. I found a surprising amount of free time within that schedule as well and, in the absence of all of the spit and polish that is common to the military life outside of a combat zone, I actually felt free and mostly left alone except for the inevitable annoyance which comes with being in a place where people are trying to kill you.

When I left the Army after three years I was now free of my father’s close supervision, free of the regimentation under which I had lived in the Army, and free of any kind of good sense. All of this took place in the late 1960’s and as most people know the late 1960’s were a time when, for many people, moderation and restraint were ripped out of our lifestyles and thrown into the ash bin of history.

Being ungrounded in any spiritual or moral framework I embraced a lifestyle of radical personal freedom that was visceral and not philosophical. If I wanted to do something and it seemed like I could probably get away with it, I did it. I was neither nihilist nor anarchist; I just wanted to do what I wanted to do and mostly did it. All of which is to say that I was stoned a lot on recreational drugs in those days and don’t remember a lot, and that is why there are big parts of 1971 that I do not remember so well. On the other hand there are parts which I remember quite vividly, and this is a story of one such event which stands out clearly in my otherwise foggy memory.

I loved to travel then, even as I still love to travel now, and when one of the guys in the group of students and ex-military guys with whom I was hanging out returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to become involved in his father’s large construction company, this gave me all the excuse I needed to pay a visit to that magnificent part of the country. My main traveling partner in those days was Joe Medina. Joe had been in the Air Force with Clay Wistler, the recently moved friend, and we all met at college. Joe and I needed almost no excuse to drop whatever we were doing and go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California or just putt around the state visiting his friends and/or mine. Joe and I would throw a few items into his Volkswagon bus (yes, when you were stuck on a two lane road going uphill in a string of 200 cars behind a chugging VW bus, that very well might have been us) and roll down the roads and highways of California stoned and happy.

We would camp near Lake Tahoe, stop in for a few days in Sacramento to visit his friends Mike and Yoko, or drive over to Petaluma to see my friends Lara and Sherry, whom I met on a camping trip in my teens in the Laguna Mountains behind San Diego. A couple of times we stopped in Yosemite, parking in the public areas and then hiking way back up the east end of the valley where it begins to climb up into the Sierras. That was some of the most beautiful country that I have ever beheld.

On one trip however we went specifically to visit our friend Clay. Clay was now driving a cement truck for his father’s construction company when he worked at all, which was not very often. One can sometimes get away with a certain amount of laxity when one is the only son of a wealthy businessman. Most of the time Clay spent loafing on a twenty-six foot sloop which he tied up to a buoy thirty yards or so off the dock in Sausalito Harbor on the north side of the Bay. Clay had a six foot boat called a dinghy tied up to the back of his sloop, and when he wanted or needed to go ashore he would cast off in that little boat and putt into the dock. This guaranteed Clay a certain amount of privacy, a situation which Clay valued greatly.

Joe and I arrived at the dock and locked up his VW. We walked to the end of the dock and Joe took out of his pocket a little compressed air horn, such as people use at sporting events to make a loud, annoying noise. This horn was Clay’s doorbell. Joe pointed it at the sloop and gave it three short blasts. Shortly after that Clay’s head appeared over the side of the boat, or the gunnel, I think nautical types call it. Clay waved back to us, mounted his dinghy, and putt-putted his way to the dock to pick us up.

Clay’s boat was surprisingly comfortable for the three of us, with room for three sleeping bags, a galley, a head, and room to lounge on outside on the deck. We relaxed from our long drive, smoking a joint or two and sharing a six pack of Budweiser that we brought out to the sloop with us. At length however the sun began it’s descent in the sky above and we decided to go into Sausalito and eat rather than cook in the small galley. We climbed into Clay’s dinghy and he navigated it over to the dock, where we tied the dinghy’s rope to a piling and climbed up a ladder to the surface of the dock, and then walked a short distance to the No Name Bar.

That was not really the bar’s name. In fact, the bar had no name. There was no sign on the front identifying the establishment as a bar. Only a sign in the front door window alerting people under the age of twenty one that their presence was not welcome gave any indication whatsoever of what to expect upon entering that establishment. If you lived there however you knew exactly what you would find there; excellent mixed drinks if your preference ran to that (mine didn’t), great wines, cold beer, and pub grub that bordered upon gourmet.

We sat at a table, ordered our food and some beers, and spent quite a while at the No Name. I don’t really know how long because time was not something that I cared about all that much and so I usually chose to ignore it. However long we were there, it was quite dark when we exited the building and began to wobble back across the street and along the dock to where we had tied up earlier. When we returned to the dinghy we learned that time might be a concept of little consequence to us but tide was a much more substantial and pressing issue.

The tide may have been coming in when we tied up in the afternoon or it could have been at low tide, but one thing was abundantly clear; it was certainly coming in now. The point on the piling at which we had tied up the dinghy was several feet below the surface of the bay now and the rear of the dinghy was being raised out of the water as the bow of it was being pulled down by the taut rope. Clay cursed his stupidity and began to peel off his shirt and shoes. He extracted a knife from his pants pocket and slipped into the water, submerging near the piling and slicing through the rope as close to the piling as he could. The rear of the dinghy slapped back down as the rope gave way and Clay broke through the surface of the water, still fuming about his rope and unschedule dip in the water.

We climbed into the dinghy and made the short trip back to the sloop, where Clay toweled off and changed his clothes. His shower facilities were on land and so he would have to wait until the next morning to wash off the salt water from his swim in the Bay. We smoked another couple of joints and then turned in to sleep to the rocking and rolling rhythms of the swells on the Bay. It was a relaxing motion and I slept like a baby.

The next morning Clay got up early to shower and pick up some supplies at a store. By the time Joe and I awoke Clay was back with bacon and eggs cooking in the galley and a couple of six packs in the cooler. We had decided the evening before to cast off from the buoy and take a ride out on the Bay in Clay’s sloop, and although we had slept late it didn’t take us long to eat and clean up, and soon Clay was navigating his sloop out of the harbor and onto the broad expanse of San Francisco Bay.

If you have ever been there you know that the Bay is one of the most beautiful places on Planet Earth, and this day was one of the finest and most clear that I had ever seen. The massive yet graceful span of the Golden Gate Bridge stood out in its red/orange glory against the indescribable blue of the sky over the Pacific Ocean. Alcatraz Island slipped past and behind us as we slid effortlessly across the slight chop of the untroubled surface of the Bay. Sipping our beers, sharing joints and gliding like a phantom over the waters I felt as free as I ever had. Out in the middle of the Bay there were no rules, no expectations, no timetables to be met. This was exactly where my radically individualistic, unmoored soul longed to be. Nothing could touch me here. Nothing could make me dance to its tune. Nothing except—.

AHHHWOOOOOO! The deep roar of a ship’s horn brought the three of us out of our stoned reveries. The Gate we had seen. Alcatraz we had seen too. But somehow the gigantic oil tanker that was now bearing down upon us had eluded our attention. “Holy Shit!” we bellowed in unison, and Clay instantly maneuvered the sail and tiller so that we would catch the maximum amount of wind to push his sloop out from in front of the black behemoth which was looming up over us already. Joe and I leaned far over the port (left) side of the boat as the starboard (right) edge dug deep into the water after Clay’s maneuver. From that position I could see the top of the ship’s bow which was pressing relentlessly straight towards us. Some Asian crewmen were looking down at us, probably certain that we would be run down and killed beneath the hull of their great ship.

Somehow, that didn’t happen. Clay’s quick action and a good breeze propelled us like a shot across the water and we looked back with relief as the tanker, with a huge “Phillips 66” emblem painted on the side, plowed irresistibly past us. Clay backed off on the sail and we slowed down to a more measured pace. For a minute we just looked at each other, too shaken to say anything. Joe had peed his pants, and I have no idea why I had not done so too. Then we began to laugh so hard that piloting the boat became impossible, We lay more or less dead in the water while we laughed away the terror which had so recently owned us. Joe peeled off his soiled pants and underwear and gave them a good wash in the Bay. He got some fresh clothes out of his pack which was stowed in the sleeping area below deck and we proceeded to continue our tour of the Bay.

On the way back we stopped in Tiburon to pick up a case of beer and then returned to the safety and calm of the buoy in Sausalito Harbor. After tying up the sails, I think that may be called “reefing” them but I am not sure, and immobilizing the tiller we climbed into the dinghy to go get showers and a meal somewhere that was a little less expensive than the No Name Bar. That night we slept the peaceful sleep that God grants to drunkards and fools before arising the next day and continuing with our journey to wherever we went next (I’ve forgotten that part), blissfully unconcerned with how close we came to a watery death the day before on the beautiful but sometimes dangerous waters of San Francisco Bay.

You’re In The Army Now

In the summer of 1966 I graduated from high school, celebrated my eighteenth birthday, and joined the Army.  Graduation came naturally as I was a better than average student, and turning eighteen was almost inevitable.  Enlisting in the Army however was an act born of shear boredom.  I had no desire to become a police officer or a fireman, a college student or get married and generate one child per year until the war ended, and so after a couple of months kicking around the neighborhood and doing nothing in particular my friend Walt and I took the route 5 bus to downtown San Diego and paid a visit to the Army recruiter.  Three days later we were in a shabby hotel in Los Angeles and a day after that, at about midnight, I was rolling through the gates of Fort Ord, California.   Walt was not with me as he had some issues to clean up before he could enter military service, so I began this journey entirely on my own.

It took another two days of processing paperwork, receiving my issue of Army clothing and equipment, G.I. haircut and so on before we were bussed to our three story concrete barracks on the highest occupied point on Fort Ord.  Beyond our barracks was the brush and trees of the undeveloped portion of the vast fort.  On a day when it was not foggy or I was not so tired that I showered, shined my boots and brass and fell dead asleep on my bunk, I could look out of my window and see the Pacific ocean and the curve of Monterey Bay as it swept north towards Santa Cruz.  Today you would pay $750,000 to $1.5 million for that view.  Back then I would have given it to you for a nickel.

Basic training for me contained the usual mix of activities know to so many other servicemen;  some demeaning, some exhausting, and some terrifying, but even in this millieu sometimes fun.  Fun?  You mean while crawling in mud under barbed wire obstacles with dynamite explosions going off around you as live machine gun fire is flying over your head while an assistant drill instructor is blowing tear gas on steroids at you through a three inch hose?  Yeah, even with that nonsense going down we still found ways to relax and have a little fun.  Young men always seem to be able to ignore the worst of their lot.  Maybe that’s why the military drafts them instead of older guys who want to hold a town meeting.  There were the usual diversions; writing letters and reading their replies, sharing stories, playing cards and so forth.  We filled our few free hours with such activities.  There were other times, special times however, when we were able to lift the cork out of the bottle and really have a laugh.  This little story is about just such a time.

One of the things that recruits of any branch of the military truly hates is vaccinations.  The military seems to have identified about 100 different dread diseases against which a vaccine has been produced to keep government property (us) in top working order.  When I was in basic there were several different methods for administering these vaccines, with the air gun being their favorite. Unlike the old needle and syringe method, in which the medic administering the shot would plunge a needle the size of a railroad spike into a targeted body part until it bounced off of the bone, and then injected a wad of syrupy vaccine the size of a golf ball, the air gun used highly compressed air to literally blow the vaccine through the skin.

It was bad enough if you stood there still as a statue while a medic on either side of you hit both shoulders or upper arms at the same time.  It got worse if you moved.  The force of the air gun would rip the flesh open if it did not encounter a perfectly flat surface, thereby wasting the vaccine and causing the medic to select a new flat surface and try again.  Usually we would line up by platoon, with each platoon taking it’s turn to be the first to go through the ominous doors of the barracks and get the needle in the rump and two stations of air guns on either side as you walked the gauntlet before falling out into formation on the company street and await as our comrades in the final platoons got their share of the pain.  We would then march off to do physical training or close order drill or throw grenades or whatever sadistic nonsense our instructors would dream up to exacerbate the pain in our violated bodies.  As I wrote earlier, we really hated vaccinations.

It was with this history in mind that we were lined up by platoon on the company street one day for the dreaded vaccinations.  My platoon, the Third, was to go first, and we waited nervously for the door to the barracks to open and the medic to wave for the first victim to step inside.  At last the door opened and our platoon leader stepped up onto the small porch and disappeared into the gloom of the barracks.  We slowly shuffled forward snaking our way towards our turn in the gauntlet, but stopped dead in our tracks when we heard a blood-curdling scream and saw our platoon leader stagger out of the exit from the barracks, stumble forward clutching his crotch, and collapse writhing on the grass of the company lawn.

We all stared in horror at this.  The line simply froze from front to back.  After a moment’s pause however the Drill Sergeant and the medics, with maniacal grins on their faces, began to exhort the line forward with the usual curses and threats.  I was in the first third of my platoon and so it was not long before I stood before that baleful portal which led inside where the screams and cries of the soldiers for mercy continued, and men continued to stagger back into the sunshine clutching their family jewels and collapsing on the lawn.

It was finally my turn to step into that torture chamber and as I did so my eyes adjusted to the lower light inside.  I saw that the vaccination du jour was for polio.  Dr. Sabin had created a vaccine for that nasty disease which was dripped onto a sugar cube which was then popped into the mouth of each G.I. as he passed by the medic’s station.  That was it.  The first soldier passing through had the bright idea of faking out a company of 250 men, and when he pulled his practical joke the drill sergeant, medics, and every G.I. in line behind him picked up the cue and continued the joke until the last man stepped into the barracks that day.

I played my part to the hilt, and as I staggered to the nearest patch of green lawn I slumped to my knees, holding my guys, and fell forward moaning piteously on my face.  From that vantage point I occasionally cocked a surreptitious eye towards the line and I could barely keep from laughing as I watched horror, disbelief, dread, and even rebellion wash over the poor Joes waiting their turn. I would have to writhe a little so that I could turn my head the other way to keep the joke going.

We all had a good laugh with that bit of clowning and the Drill Sergeant and Company Commander were in such a good mood because of it that the rest of our day of training was light and we were released to our platoon areas early.  We ate and then relaxed in our barracks and generally felt good about life.  At two A.M. tear gas was pumped through the ventilation of Third Platoon and we fell gasping in underwear and gas masks and not much else into formation on the company lawn, while the other four platoons watched out of their windows and laughed at our discomfort.  It was a small price to pay for the best act of punking that I have ever been a part of.