On October 3, 1951, after learning that I would be spared deployment to Korea and getting a customary 14-day leave from the U.S. Army, I reported to Union Station in Los Angeles, dressed in my Class A uniform, shoes and brass polished, to make a trip to Alaska, where I would spend the rest of my time in the service. The train went to Seattle, Washington, the port of embarkation for Alaska-bound troops. As I rested in my Pulmanette, a private room with a pull-down bed, and the train climbed the Tehachapi Range, I listened to the Brooklyn Dodger-New York Giants playoff game on the radio. Reception was spotty but still clear enough for us to hear Giants announcer Russ Hodges when Bobby Thompson hit his home run. “The Giants win the pennant!” he shouted. “The Giants win the pennant!”
In Seattle, buses transported us to Fort Lawton, where we were billeted while we awaited a troop ship. We spent several days at Lawton housed in ugly tarpapered barracks. Our days were unstructured and therefore long. Some of the guys played poker, and others who looked more studious played cribbage and taught the game, too. Soon I was expertly calling out, “Fifteen two, fifteen four, and a run of three for seven points,” and moving my peg seven places forward on the wood scorekeeper.
On the morning of our departure we stuffed our belongings into our duffel bags, took our leave of the potbellied coal-burning stove that had kept us warm during that cold and rainy Seattle week, and boarded trucks that took us to the U.S.S. Frederick Funston (which had landed American troops at Salerno during World War II). As we walked up the gangplank, I pondered my good fortune in not having to board a ship bound for Korea, where so many of my fellow soldiers were going to lose their lives.
We immediately descended into the bowels of the ship to our assigned bunks—hammocks stacked three or four high (it took a little practice to maneuver one’s body into and out of a hammock). The ship sailed out of Seattle and through the Juan de Fuca Straits on an exquisitely clear day, Mt. Rainier presiding in the distance. At night, the Frederick Funston sailed under wartime conditions, blacked-out. Coming out on deck after sunset was to enter a world of absolute darkness. I heard the water of the ocean but could not see it. The only illumination sparkled in the heavens many light-years above, a wondrous, and humbling, sight.
Three days out of Seattle we docked at the military port of Whittier, Alaska, on Prince William Sound (where the Exxon Valdez caused an oil spill decades later), where we boarded a train that would take us to Fort Richardson, just outside the city of Anchorage some two hours away. That would be my permanent station. We saw moose grazing along the track and got our first glimpse of the snow-capped Chugach mountain range that overlooks Anchorage and Fort Richardson.
Our barracks were Quonset huts with semicircular metal roofs that curved down to form walls. The huts were heated by the same kind of potbellied stoves we had at Fort Lawton. Those stoves, and the fur-lined parkas over our uniforms, were our indispensable allies against the bracing Alaska air. (The coldest it ever got while I was there was 29 degrees below zero. That, the Anchorage newspapers assured us, was a cold spell.)
I put my gear away and lay down to continue reading about C.S. Forester’s Commodore Hornblower and his battles against the French in defense of the interests of the English Crown. Someone asked if I would like to join a group that was going to the PX, the Post Exchange. We stomped over the crinkly snow, led by a fellow soldier with a flashlight. There were no streetlights. There were no streets.
Not long afterwards we moved from the huts into a newly constructed fortress-like, three-story concrete building. Our 50th Army Postal Unit occupied one half of a first-floor wing of the building. In the other half, separated from us by a wide aisle, lived another unit, the 43rd Army Band. Each half was divided into cubicles about 12 feet square into which fit three bunks, two beds per bunk. Six of us used each cubicle. We lived in very close quarters.
The members of the Band lived close to us physically, but they were miles apart culturally. Like musicians everywhere they talked about their gigs, often playing for dances at the Officers’ Club. Still, one lazy Saturday afternoon I did join a group of them in one of their cubicles. One of the band members was trying out the art of hypnosis on a volunteer and telling him that, after coming out of his trance, he must say “Hooray for Hollywood!” every time someone lit a match. The post-hypnotic suggestion worked. Each time somewhat lit a match the volunteer would blurt out “Hooray for Hollywood!” We all found it hilarious, but the subject got angry over being laughed at for reasons he didn’t understand. When the amateur mesmerist tried to break the spell and failed—the subject kept yelling out “Hooray for Hollywood” with every lit match—he began to panic. Fortunately, a more experienced hypnotist came and restored order.
Our new building had a spacious mess hall, a barbershop, a laundry room, and a dry cleaner. One day I went to the dry cleaner with some uniforms, and, as I walked to the counter to set down the clothes, the proprietor, an Eskimo woman, moved to the door, shut and locked it, switched off the lights, and sidled over to me to try to embrace and kiss me. I was not flattered, and got out of there as rapidly as I was able. The Army word for Eskimo women was “clootchie,” a terribly offensive term, but incidents of heavy-handed female-to-male seduction attempts such as the one I experienced were, I learned from my fellow soldiers, common.
On most days we would rise at a leisurely hour, shower and shave, make our beds, police the area, have breakfast in the mess hall, and walk to work. I enjoyed trudging through the snow, especially on days when it was falling heavily, and we padded silently through the hushed world that enveloped us. Only our muffled voices disturbed the still whiteness that blanketed the landscape.
Major Wilson, a dapper man in his late 30s in the mustached style of the actor Ronald Colman, was the officer in charge of our unit. In civilian life Wilson had been a counselor at National Schools, a trade school that was located on Figueroa Boulevard in Los Angeles.
The army allowed for a modicum of individuality, contrary to what you might think. I never wore the droopy matching cap to our fatigues. Many soldiers wore their pant legs loose so that they covered their boots. Others, including me, had the more stylish sense of attaching the bottom of our pant legs to the tops of our boots with rubber bands.
Life became so routine that it was easy to imagine that we were just civilians who worked at a military facility, and this must have come to the attention of higher-ups. For a while, the reins tightened, and Major Wilson was forced to rouse us from our barracks in the early morning for calisthenics and close-order drill. Wilson would stand off to the side, a luxurious camel hair overcoat covering his tailored uniform, gloves on, cap firmly in place, and clearly irritated and bored. After a few weeks of strict Army-style living, we reverted to our more leisurely pace.
Our unit had men from all over the United States. Two were from New York City: Frank LaCara and another we called Nicky. Lars Nelson was an Aleut, born and raised in the Aleutians. Norbert Fleischacker and Paul Buechner were from Minneapolis-St. Paul. Our complaints about the cold amused them. “This isn’t cold,” they’d say. “Minneapolis is cold.” Joe Pinski, “Whitey,” was from Milwaukee. The first thing Whitey did when he awoke in the morning was to reach over to his locker for a cigarette. Vic Rak, from Cleveland, was forever asking me questions, possibly because I was rarely without a book in my hands.
I particularly liked Jim Barthol, from Colton, California. Jim was always cheerful and optimistic, never sloppy or unkempt, and never vulgar in his speech. I often made him laugh, usually because of some malapropism of mine. For instance, when I absent-mindedly referred to the RCA Victor logo—a dog with his ear to the phonograph with the words “His master’s voice”—as “the talking dog,” Jim laughed uncontrollably and told me what a great sense of humor I had.
Our post office was located in the large basement of a large building. On one end was a mail chute though which mail bags were dropped. Canvas sacks containing packages were emptied onto a large sorting table. Airmail came in large, bright-orange sacks. I worked in first-class mail with a San Franciscan named John Hession, who was a good worker but did not sort as rapidly as I did. When company mail clerks from the various military units came in to pick up their daily batch, they’d rib him about the deliberateness of his movements. “Hey, Hession,” they’d call out. “How come you’re so slow and Rodriguez is so fast?” John took it well, as did I.
A movie house provided diversion. It was there I saw Call Me Madam, a musical with Ethel Merman and Donald O’Connor, and the reaction of my fellow soldiers, who booed every time an actor burst into song, portended the end of movie musicals. When the audience is unable to suspend disbelief, the game is over. A few times I accompanied Barthol and a couple of others to the post beer hall. Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” and Tony Bennett’s “Because of You” were popular, as was Johnny Ray’s “Cry.”
Anchorage was a thriving town with a population of 12,000, and on occasion we ventured in. Jim Barthol, Vic Rak, John Hession, Joe Sabo, and I went to a restaurant one evening and all ordered steak. The waitress began with me, asking how I preferred my steak, but I had no idea what she meant. After an uncomfortable pause, Jim Barthol, eager to rescue me from embarrassment, broke in and ordered his steak first. He was a class act. The more adventuresome members of the 50th APU patronized an Anchorage nightclub called The Green Lantern. They called it The Green Latrine.
Our unit had three sergeants. One we knew as Rick, a fidgety unsmiling fellow of about 35 with crew-cut blond hair. Rick was above it all, including all of us. He had a curious habit of painting his toenails red. No one ever asked him why. Sergeant Walton, from the South, was easygoing and pleasant. His sleeves were heavy with service stripes that told us he was a veteran of World War II. The third sergeant, Kowalsky, was completely useless. He reported to work on Monday mornings with a hangover, and if we were lucky he would gather himself on some old canvas mailbags and fall asleep.
Another unique character was a private named Bill, whom we all called by his preferred name, “Queenie.” When he was in the mood, Queenie held court on his bunk and played records, his favorites being those of Hilo Hattie with the orchestra of Harry Owens and his Royal Hawaiians. His favorite song went, “The Princess Poo-poo-ly has plenty papaya, she loves to give it away.” We never asked Queenie about his private life. Our rule was “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Several times during the winter we would bivouac, leaving the warmth and comfort of our barracks to live in the boondocks, simulating our response to an attack by an invading enemy. Field kitchens were set up and food prepared in giant pots. At meal times we lined up, metal eating utensils in hand. After eating we washed them by dipping them in scalding water. We slept in sleeping bags laid on the snow, our rifles nearby at the ready.
During one bivouac we engaged in war games and camouflaged ourselves by donning oversized white winter uniforms, pulling them over our parkas. White hoods obscured our faces, and we wore enormous white boots. Reconnoitering the area we spotted an enemy force some distance away and approached stealthily, satisfied to hear their muffled voices grow louder as they chatted on, seemingly unaware of our approach. Moving closer, we heard more clearly what they were saying: “Wow, what big rabbits!”
In my final Army weeks, time slowed down, but the day of my departure finally arrived. Those of us scheduled for discharge took a train to Whittier, a ship to Seattle, a flight on a scheduled airliner to San Francisco, and a bus to Fort Ord, where I was discharged, with the rank of Corporal, on May 6, 1953. I had served a few days less than two years. In that time, I had taken my first train rides and traveled for the first time by air, by sea, and by Greyhound bus.
The Army forcibly removed me from the unrewarding life I had been living and gave me the opportunity to meet people from every part of the country. A camaraderie exists among Americans who have served in the military, and, while combat veterans rank higher in honors, we ordinary veterans, too, have our place. I’d expected to encounter men very different from me. Instead, I encountered fellow Americans.