OLIVE DRAB FOR ME, 1964– 66
We saw each other once or twice that summer. Tina was scheduled to go to the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. Her father was going to take a sabbatical to teach at the college in Sheffield, England, joined there by Mrs. Su. I was working at IBM in Kingston, NY, as a junior physicist. Briefly, as it turned out.
In the fall of 1964 I received a terse communication from the Defense Department:
“Greeting,” not “Greetings.” Short, not too sweet, legally binding. I would be off to war, sort of.
Only months before, in June, I had nearly signed up with the U.S. Army Security Agency for a three-year hitch that would include more Chinese-language training at the Monterey Army Language School, then off somewhere to do top-secret communications activities, using the Chinese I had learned. I was three days away from enlisting in this program when my parents told me of a help-wanted advertisement they had seen from IBM in Kingston, NY, seeking–among others–physicists. My parents thought a career in physics might hold more promise than one emphasizing my Chinese-language training. (They also probably thought that my outgoing, iconoclastic, smart-alec personality was ill-suited for undercover activities. They would mime furtively looking over the top of a newspaper they were reading to suggest being a spy was not really my style.)
Yes, IBM wanted me, called me back immediately after the interview that day with an offer I couldn’t refuse, as Kingston was only seven miles from home, and I had no other offers. I liked the people I worked with there, got involved in measurement standards work, to which I brought my physics training and an interest in statistics, and chugged along. Non-working hours often found me lying in bed listening to Peter, Paul and Mary and similar folk singers, often with tears in my eyes. I wished Tina and I could be together. I still can’t hear those songs without getting sad.
When the Army called, so to speak, I was in fine shape. Basic training (Ft. Gordon, GA) was not too tough. As noted above, I had played, enthusiastically but not very skillfully, several sports in high school, continued basketball in intramurals at Cornell, and had boxed a bit my freshman year. I liked to think of myself as fairly tough. Not tough enough to be a Ranger or a Marine, but tough enough for the Army, as my basic-training experience confirmed.
I was, however, a mediocre marksman with the rifle, though not on purpose. It did not seem I was Infantry material, although I admired the toughness of those who were.
Testing put my I.Q. near 150, and I was part of a small group of recruits they called together to try to induce us to become officers. It would mean extending my two-year draft commitment to three years. The closing line in the recruitment film was, “Don’t go to Officer Candidate School unless these gold bars mean more to you than anything else.” That convinced me: two years and out.
Toughness, not intelligence, was a high value among our basic training sergeants, as you might expect. I was surprised by one incident, though, where a grizzled trainer addressed one of us privates as “Usarmy,” having read out the familiar identification on one side of the uniform rather than the recruit’s last name, as usual appearing on the other side.
While in Basic, I practiced the art of not being conspicuous. I headed for the central zone of each formation, what I called the “noncommittal middle,” figuring that when the first few rows or first few columns were called out for something unpleasant, I might be spared. Later in life, I learned that “flying under the radar” could be valuable. Better to be underestimated than overrated. (On second thought, maybe I was wrong: some people may successfully glide through life without much merit, making being overrated a plus.)
At the end of our eight weeks of Basic, assignments were distributed; three of us were put into the special Science and Engineering (S&E) program, being sent to laboratories, one of us to the Chemical Corps testing grounds in Tooele, Utah, two of us, John and I, to Ft. Detrick Biological Laboratories in Frederick, MD. We were pleased not to have been sent overseas, as the Viet Nam War was beginning to pull many soldiers into it. We even had a ditty that went “There are no S&E’s overseas/There are no S&E’s overseas....”