Saturday, February 21, 2009

You'd better be dead, smack!

I was watching TV the other night and listening to the stories of Minnesota National Guard troops who are soon to be deployed to Iraq. Old memories returned of my National Guard years, back in the ‘70s. As a 17-year-old kid who had just graduated high school, it most likely wasn’t a sense of overwhelming patriotism that spurred me to join the Guard. To be honest, I was sweating out the draft lottery. I wasn’t too thrilled about the possibility of being drafted and going to Vietnam, but weighing equally was the fact that I wanted to be in control of my life. I didn’t want to delay my plans for anything. I had just landed an interesting job in the graphics business, had a nice car and a sweet girlfriend, and the world was mine. So to maintain some degree of control and to avoid the chance that my draft lottery number would be low, I joined Headquarters Company, 47th Infantry Division on Jan. 17, 1970.

Within 3 months I was on the first airplane ride of my life, headed to Fort Lewis, Washington for basic training. I had no idea what to expect but will forever remember the evening I arrived. There must have been a hundred new, young soldiers, from all across the country, sitting or standing around and making small talk while we waited in a tiny, smoke-filled room for our name to be called. We were expecting to be told what to do next, where to eat, where to sleep, or whatever. Outside it rained cats-and-dogs. Finally, above the cacophony, I heard my name. The gruff looking sergeant, with a combination sneer/snicker facial expression bellowed, “Sterner! Your MAMA is on the phone!” My mother, concerned about her eldest son’s welfare as he left home for the first time, had somehow tracked me down to make sure I had arrived at Fort Lewis without incident. I laugh about it now but at the time it was no laughing matter. I was mortified!

Treated like grunts, we recruits made it through the usual boot camp activities. “Drop and give me twenty!” became a familiar command. If we weren’t up and moving at 4 a.m. as the drill sergeant entered the barracks, we were shouted awake with, “You’d better be dead, smack!” We learned quickly not to oversleep. We learned quickly how to become a team. This was my first exposure to other young people from around the country. There was a tough, muscular Texas ranch hand that everyone was afraid of. Lucky me – I was assigned as his partner in hand-to-hand combat training. There was a fat kid with a buzz cut from out east that was constantly teased. (He became a good friend of mine). There were even two guys, I think from California, who I found in bed together one night while I was on guard duty. That was a new one on me!

Throughout those 8 weeks of boot camp, and for the additional 2 months in OJT (on-the-job training), I had many opportunities to do art. I had a sketch book that I doodled in whenever I had a chance, drawing pictures of other soldiers, memories of home and odd looking “psychedelic” images. That was the era of anti-war, flower power, hippie counterculture, Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix influence. Loud rock music was everywhere. It was quite an experience for this na├»ve, clean-cut kid from the east side of St Paul.

Once my artistic talent was discovered, I was often recruited by the sergeant of our platoon to make signs. I did everything freehand, probably breaking regulation because I didn’t use standardized Army stencils and lettering sets. I later bought a set of oil paints and brushes and did a commissioned painting for our commanding officer.

During my time at Fort Lewis, I experienced varying degrees of homesickness, fear, awe, and eventually great pride and honor. I got to know a lot of good men, most of whom were Regular Army. After our 16-week stint, those of us who were members of the National Guard or Army Reserves went back home to continue our service. For the other 150 men of our company who were transferred all over the world, including South Vietnam, I still wonder to this day what happened to them.

I salute all of you.


Tonia said...

Great story! It read like a novel. Mike and I are sitting here talking about what it must have been should tell us more about that experience. It is so cool that you did some art for the commanding officer! We found you in the picture- very studly.

Mike said...

Hey Pops, I love it when you write about stuff long ago. Hearing some of your stories makes me feel like i've been the only one talking my whole life. Its a pops-mcgee i don't even know. I remember going through all of your drawing books and seeing the hundreds of sketches and stuff that you had. I loved the picture of Holiday, do you have more like that?

Can't wait to come down this weekend again. You can tell me more stories and show me more of your drawings.

You're more interesting than i give you credit for! ;)

Dana Leigh said...

Yet another chapter in your life I was unaware of. Keep the good stories coming! I can totally picture Grandma tracking you down and calling you to see if you are doing ok. :)