Friday, July 6, 2012

Three Years, Nine Months (Part One)

Last October, if I recall correctly, a friend of mine -- whose main interests concern finding homes for abandoned dogs -- told me that a group of veterans was being interviewed by the big local paper, the Newark Star Ledger, and the group was asking for other folks to show up, so there would be more bodies in the room.  Bodies doing things, that is.  Not just lying about. 

This group, my friend went on to say, focuses mainly on making paper from old used military uniforms, and then uses the paper for artworks.  I thought this sounded interesting enough to take the following Sunday off from church (it's rarely difficult to divert my attention), and to drive the 30 or so miles from South Orange, out to Branchburg NJ.  Besides, I would get to drive on Rattlesnake Bridge Road -- how cool is that?

So, I got there, and met some other folks, and learned, in a general sense, what they were about.  There are maybe four or five such groups, each referring to itself as Combat Paper, currently in operation, from San Francisco, to the hills outside Ithaca NY.  The Branchburg incarnation is housed by the New Jersey Print Council, which has an attractive little building down the street from the train station.  In the building are presses and basins and trays of type, a well-lit gallery, and a basement area where the messier paper-making operations can be accommodated.

A couple of the vets were, like me, from the Vietnam era.  The others, fully a generation younger, had served in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.  It was clear that this group was driving the effort.  I settled into a semi-comfortable position, leaning against a vertical support beam beside a work table, as I learned more about what these people wanted to do, and how I might be able to help.  As I listened, I picked up a seam-ripper and began to undo the sleeve of a fatigue jacket -- a newer one, printed with what the kids call 'digi-camo', devised to fool, not the human eye, but the hi-tech surveillance sights of enemy weaponry.  Stories unfolded.  The newspaper called to say they couldn't make it until the next week.

So, the next week, I came back.  And the week after that.  And the next week too.   Some months later, I feel like something of a regular.

But I still have a haunting sense of ineligibility, about working alongside these young men and women, most of whom have seen, often a matter of inches from their faces, things that would make my most gruesome nightmares seem bland by comparison.  I guess it's a kind of survivor guilt, in a way, in that for me, my service in the Air Force, from the fall of 1964, to the early summer of 1968, was so relatively benign, and actually personally beneficial.  Not that I was all that crazy about the military in general, and specifically, what our military was doing in Southeast Asia at the time, but given that there was a universal draft when I enlisted, I felt fortunate, in many ways.

So today, I thought I'd talk about that particular chapter in my life, though it's going to make me profoundly uncomfortable to do so.

Some of it, of course, some of you reading already know -- for instance, the battery of psychological tests I took, while awaiting tech school training, and which revealed that, to quote the doctor reporting the results to me, 'The Air Force wouldn't be good for you.  And you wouldn't be good for the Air Force.'  (I'm still sorry I didn't have the sense to ask for more specifics, about what harm or damage I might wreak, my own little self, on what I considered a monolithic military institution.  I felt oddly dangerous, like maybe a plague-infested flea)  And this may prove to be more than can be contained in one posting -- either that, or my fingers may give out -- I notice that I've already depleted my computer battery down into the teens of percentage of power -- but at least, getting started, I'm that much more likely to finish.  Being generally the responsible type, as long as the results are easily reached, and don't matter very much.

So.  Let's begin.

It's the third week of September, 1964.  My summer job, in the disreputable amusement park some miles from my home in McKeesport PA, was over, and there were no plausible prospects for other employment.  I did have an interview, for a position of stock clerk in one of the city's upscale men's wear stores, but when the interviewer threatened to end my working career in Pennsylvania if I didn't do this job correctly, I thought maybe unloading boxes of shirts was too extreme for me.  My parents had made an ultimatum -- you're out of the house by the end of September, with either a job or a military enlistment.  Because I was only 17, my father would have to sign the necessary papers.  I suspect he always had a pen handy, about that time.

I chose the Air Force partly because my father had been in the Army Air Corps, at the end of WW II, and partly because, even though my eyes are more brownish, I thought I'd look better in a blue uniform.  The Army enlistment officer had been very lavish, in outlining the various programs I would be eligible for, once certain ill-defined criteria had been met; I thought I'd better choose the blue trousers to the brown ones.  My father, who had exerted no pressure one way or the other, just wanted to write his name on something that would remove my place from the dinner table as quickly as possible. 

Sept. 21st was selected as the day of transition.  (Don't worry about the level of detail here -- there will be whole years that won't be described at all)  We drove into Pittsburgh in the fading light of early evening, to some great stone building.  We went inside, stood in line for a while, and finally my father got to use his pen, and leave his famous scrawl (all my brothers and I have copied it.  As there are no Zimmerman boys, it will die with us) on my enlistment papers, obligating me to four years of service to the United States Air Force.  I wonder if I thought at all, right then, about the early American use of indentured servitude?  Wasn't that usually seven years, I recall?  So really, I was getting off easy.  Wasn't I?

My father put his pen away, and then said goodbye.  And there I was, alone, standing by my horrid grandmother's green suitcase, which I'd had to borrow for the occasion, and I was in the midst of a  troop of other young men who were equally alone.  With their suitcases.  It makes me think of a ballet, for some reason.

Anyway, we were gathered up and shuffled through a series of rooms, where we filled out more forms, and answered questions, usually as a group.  I especially recall the pudgy leering sergeant who guided us through a health-related form -- 'Any of you queer?' he asked.  There was a general lurid chuckle through the room.  I wonder if I blushed.

Finally, all forms having been completed, the thirty or so of us were brought to yet another room, where we filed into two lines, and were then administered the Air Force Oath.  I don't remember a single word of it.  That done, we picked up our suitcases again, and boarded a bus for the airport, where we were then put on an airplane bound for Chicago.  One of the older enlistees, with a year of college under his belt, was put in nominal charge of us, but as we were all just sitting on an airplane, that didn't seem to mean much.  

This was my first flight, ever, and I don't remember it at all.  What I do remember is the layover in Chicago -- maybe two hours, while all the concessions were closed.  Some of us wandered about a bit, and then tried to sleep on the ultra-uncomfortable seating.  When our next flight, to San Antonio Texas, was finally ready, it must have been after midnight.

I later learned that all of this, from the evening sign-in, to the lay-over in Chicago, was designed to disorient us.  It certainly worked.

Well, goodness -- speaking of disorientation -- just look at the time!  Here I am, describing my military experience, and using all this time for barely half of the first day!  As I said, though, it will soon blur (if it hasn't already), and readers may understand why I feel so unworthy, standing next to my much-younger fellow veterans in Branchburg, and disassembling uniforms that have been worn in places I can only imagine.

More, then, to come...

©   2012          Walter Zimmerman

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