Last time I mentioned a bit of how I came to be in the Army.
The Monterey Historic Races every August is an amazing event, if you have any gearhead in you. Over the years, I have seen them honor various marques, and the factories have flown their historic cars out to show them on the track.
Two of my most memorable times there were when they honored a man many consider to be the greatest driver of all time, Juan Manuel Fangio. He was at a table signing the posters that were given us, and I didn’t want to wait behind 20 others. Maybe I can attribute that to my Army days of so many lines.
Then there was the time that Audi, being honored one year, flew out their Auto Union 16 cylinder GP car and Daimler flew out their GP car to then to be together on the track; perhaps for the first time since the 1930s.
But that road to Laguna Seca racetrack also makes me a bit melancholy. You see, if you want to avoid the traffic getting there, you take the “back way”, the Salinas exit on Highway 101. And on the last turnoff to the track, you pass the remnants of what was the US Army’s Ft Ord.
Ft Ord was one of the country’s biggest bases, just behind in size to the USMC’s Camp Pendleton down south by San Diego.
The Army closed Ft Ord in 1994. Here it is recently.
You’ll see old WW2 era boarded up buildings, with the paint peeling. You drive along a barbed-wire fence with signs warning you of the danger of trespassing – there was a mortar range and lots of unexploded munitions over the decades.
During Vietnam, Ft Ord was a small city to itself, with a PX the size of a box store and its own hospital. About a year or so before I got there, there was an outbreak of spinal meningitis. You would start with a sore throat, just like a cold. In 24 hours, you would be dead. Nobody knew at the time how it came there or how it was transmitted.
Before they knew what was going on, medics would simply proscribe aspirin, with the patient being dead within 24 hours.
And being right on the Monterey coast, every morning when we assembled after reveille, a large proportion of us would have sore throats. And the sergeant would say, “sick, lame and lazy, fall out!“. If you fell out (left the formation), you’d go to a dispensary but the Army didn’t want any shirkers or goldbrickers. Hence you would fall out under an onus. I’m pretty sure I could speak for many others when I say that most of us stayed in formation, sore throat or not. And at least in my case, occasionally wondering if I would be there for the next day 😉
Even Lex wrote about this ghost town with a visit his family had through what was Ft Ord.
The base housing was a particularly sobering site, since military family housing looks the same just about everywhere – it was as though “any town USA” had become a ghost town, like some plague or disaster had only recently swept through, leaving the swing sets still gently swaying in the breeze even as the people had all been snatched away. It’s difficult to describe, but this photo exhibition ** gives you a sense of it.
We were happy to clear the base and drive down to Monterey.
Imagine being stationed there for a short time and now seeing ruins.
I wonder how Lex would have thought if he had been given a chance to tour his beloved boat, the Constellation, after it was decommissioned but before it would have been scrapped. I can see him carefully treading the darkened passages, and his light finally shining into the now dark and empty ready room.
And for a brief moment, the intervening years would melt away. The room came to life, and he could see the smiling faces of men he would soon consider as brothers, and a grinning squadron commander.
…Being tired, I put my uniform together looking in the mirror, where it looked just right. I headed on down to the squadron ready room with five minutes to spare (and a smile on my face!) only to be accosted immediately by the squadron commander: “What, are you dyslexic or something?”
“Your wings are on the wrong side of your uniform!”
So that got abbreviated to “Lex” ultimately, and thankfully has never changed since. I felt relieved actually, the callsign running second in the competition was “Fifi.”
—Callsigns, May 14, 2004
When reality quickly intervened back to a dark, dusty and empty room, I know would would have been Lex’s thoughts.
Today what was Ft Ord reminds me of a time that is disconnected. A reminder that I cannot even revisit my past as an outsider.
The following picture I found here.
Any video or picture of Vietnam you see of an Army helicopter was crewed by men who came through Ft Wolters.
By the time I went into the Army in late 1972, Vietnam was winding down and they didn’t need the pipeline of pilots that were coming through Wolters. They were washing them out wholesale; I knew a few.
So if I may, let’s dissolve the last 48 years and briefly go back to the Ft Ord of 1972.
For the first few days, we were billeted in an old WW2 era wooden barracks. It had a pot-belly stove for heat, and we were told should the barracks catch fire, the old dry wood would ensure it was completely engulfed in 5 minutes.
So, we learned one of the basic military fundamentals of guard duty. Every night, there would be a roster of who would stay up, walk silently back and forth for 2 hours, ensuring that there would be no fire.
And the 2nd fundamental was taught: to not leave your post until relieved. In this case it was easy, as you woke up the next guy slated for guard duty in his bunk.
They also had us guarding the parking lots, armed only with a billy club. I got the feeling it was more to ingrain in us discipline than actual guarding. And the 3rd thing we were starting to learn of the 24 hour clock – you were on duty whenever the Army wanted you to be on duty, whether it was during the daytime or 0300.
The next thing on the Army’s agenda was getting us uniforms. They didn’t spend a lot of time outfitting us. Other than my cap (cover to you Navy and Marines) everything was reasonably good though. Still have it in a trunk in my garage, in case they ever need me again 😉
As far as the cap, the fitter pressed it down my head so tight I thought I’d better just get one more befitting at the PX.
Once we were given our olive-drab fatigues (called BDUs now, I guess), more things changed. We no longer moved or thought as individuals, but as a unit. We no longer walked singly, but in columns. And lead with the left foot. There would always be someone in the beginning that started with the right, to which the Drill Sgt would snarl to the offender, “Your other left!”.
After about a week in the old barracks, the Drill Sgts came and all hell broke lose. They were “nice” during that period and now on that particular day we couldn’t do anything right.
We became familiar with a mode of transport that we would know for our remaining time in Basic Training. I called them “cattle cars” but it was a walk on trailer with grab rails (everyone stood like a subway) pulled by a truck.
They took us to some more modern barracks built during the Vietnam War.
Over the next week or so, we learned the basic commands when marching. I was trying to find a YouTube video that showed you the basics that didn’t bore you to death (too much explanation), but here is the command of Column Left. Within a couple of weeks, we were looking good.
The last time I was in San Diego, one of the Lexicans had a son graduate from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. And to see those 400+ graduates on the parade ground, moving as one, was to me a thing of beauty. Not one was out of sync.
And right after the uniforms came the shots. No, not rifle shots but the other kind.
At the time, the Army (and the rest of the services I presume), used “jet injectors“. You’d get into one line, and slowly file through the “cattle chute”.
Three in each arm, as you walked through. And as I made it through the end, things got light and then the lights went out. It was only the 2nd time I ever passed out; the first time was in the 8th grade when I told a boy he looked like Alfred E Newman, and he apparently took offense. He got me in a choke hold after class and the lights went out.
Anyway, I came to with a medic giving me smelling salts and looking up at the drill sgt with a big grin.
Anything to make people happy, I say.
Anyway as we assembled outside the dispensary, many with blood running down their arms, they had us do pushups. I guess after all those injections the muscles would cramp.
This whole endeavor started with my promise to give you a drill sgt story, and I haven’t forgotten.
Next after the uniforms and the shots came the time to get oriented with the M-16 rifle.
We were each issued an M-16 with an empty magazine.
We were, as I remember, in formation and Drill Sgt Claiborne was giving a talk on the basic characteristics of the rifle.
I had grown up with firearms since I was 12, being on a youth shooting team and shooting with a childhood friend out in the country.
I know the basic safety rules. Bolt (or action) open, muzzle not pointing at anyone, empty magazine.
But I was curious as to how the magazine fit and clicked it into the action.
Drill Sgt Claiborne, within 10 seconds of seeing me do this, walks 20′ over, grabs the rifle, pulls out the magazine and throws it about 100 feet away.
He then gives me back the rifle, walks back and resumes his talk.
All without saying one word.
Like close formation drill, everything about firearms use in the military is “by the numbers”.
I didn’t realize that the term “lock and load” came from the Vietnam era and the M-16. Lock the magazine onto the rifle, and chamber (load) a round. That was a familiar term on the range at Ord.
Instead of a bolt or a slide to initially chamber a round, the M-16 has a charging handle. You pull it back, it takes a round from the magazine and loads the round.
Until a few years ago, a drive down Hwy 1 would still show you the old rifle ranges along the coast. I think that was my favorite part of Basic Training.
The range was 300 meters, and had pop-up targets. If you hit it, it would go down, then come up. Took what seemed to be a second for that bullet to go down range and that target would fall down. One guy in our platoon was so bad a Sgt told him that he couldn’t hit the Pacific Ocean.
He was that bad.
We used to double time down to the range every day, and once, when we were ready to come back a recruit (I remember his name, but let’s call him “Gomer Pyle”) told the Sgt that he had a water blister on his foot, and could he ride back in the truck?
The Sgt was so astounded at the request – shocked – he said “ugh, yeah”.
Other things I remember?
The gas chamber.
Yep, they’d have you go in with a gas mask, set off some tear gas, then make you take off the mask. And don’t try to hold your breath; they’d make you take a deep breath.
All you wanted to do was get out there.
The confidence course.
I forget everything that was on this course, but one thing they had you do was climb up a 20-30′ tower and shimmy across on a rope. There was sand if you fell – I think it would still mess you up but wouldn’t kill you.
You did things you didn’t think you could do.
It had a composition like a Hollywood movie: a kid from Beverly Hills, 2 Indians from the rez, a few blacks from the ghetto but mostly middle class kids. All we needed was a Kowalski.
One of them recognized me years later when I was living in San Diego and he was working at a Shell Station in Kearny Mesa. The military gets you friends like that for which years apart mean nothing.
Our company commander, Captain Brown. Like Drill Sgt Claiborne, just back from Vietnam, a barrel-chested Army Ranger who drove a 50s BRG Jaguar XK140.
Reveille in the morning.
Taps at night.
The cool ocean air at 0500.
We got our assignments on that last day. I was surprised to learn that they wanted me in “Army Air Defense” and I was to report to Ft Bliss, TX near El Paso.
As I left Ord I said goodbye to Drill Sgt Claiborne and he gave me the black power salute.
Ft Ord will always be in me even if it’s gone.
03/17/20 Here is an old Army film on helicopter training at Ft Wolters.
H/T to the Lexican who found it.