Cold Winter Morning

The alarm clock woke me at 4am. I rolled over in bed and punched the off button. Bleary-eyed, I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth and washed my face. The mirror above the sink reflected my sun-bleached hair and deep tan; reminders of my days at college in Florida from September until right before Christmas. Had I gone to my classes there, I wouldn’t be here now. But it was a good time, anyway. I took off my pajamas and threw them on the bed where Mom would take care of them as she always did after making the bed when I was home. I put on clean underwear, an Arrow blue striped shirt with button down collar; light tan Levi corduroy pants; Adler black wool socks; and six-year-old Bass Weejuns penny loafers (minus the pennies). Finally, I ran a comb through my hair that hadn’t been cut in six months.

My life was about to take a different turn, but I didn’t expect it to be upside down, inside out, and sideways.

At 4:30am I was sitting at the kitchen table eating corn flakes with milk and sipping a hot cup of coffee with lots of cream and sugar. Mom and Dad came downstairs, still in their night clothes, and we sat at the table making small talk. Dad gave me the keys to his car and told me to park it at the train station, leave the driver’s side door unlocked, and the keys under the floor mat. He would walk down to the station and get the car later. I put the cereal bowl and coffee cup in the sink, threw on a waist length jacket, hugged my Mom and shook my Dad’s hand, then went outside to the dark, cold winter morning. There was no snow on the ground.

The AM car radio was tuned to one of three or four New York City stations that we received in town, and I caught the end of Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel. It was one of the songs from the movie, The Graduate, which had hit theaters in January; although, I hadn’t seen it yet. When I did see it three months later I would be in Monterey, California failing miserably to learn the North Vietnamese language. Who knew I was tone deaf.

Before I went inside the train station I looked back at the 4-door ’64 Pontiac parked under the glow of an overhead light. I had put a lot of miles on that car, especially weekend trips to the Jersey Shore during the previous three summers. I was a “day-tripper” to Seaside Heights and Long Beach Island, sleeping in the car at night, roaming the beaches during the days. Meeting and forgetting people along the way.

By 5am I was sitting on the hard wicker bench seat on one of the passenger cars of the Erie Lackawanna commuter train, powered by overhead electric wires, headed east to Newark, NJ. The train made several brief stops including Brick Church — where years ago my Mom and I would get off the train and walk up Evergreen Place to spend the day with my grandparents — to pick up business men going to the Hoboken Ferry Terminal where they took the boat ride into New York City for work. When I stepped down to the station platform in Newark, I pulled out a sheet of paper from my coat and read the directions I had scribbled the day before. I walked 20 minutes to the federal building, went through the revolving door into the lobby, found the wall directory, then took the elevator up to the 7th floor.

Getting off the elevator, I walked down the corridor to an office door with the number 715 stenciled in black on the milky glass window. Inside there were about 20 other guys already scattered around the room, some seated with coffee and glazed donuts. I poured coffee into a paper cup from a metal pot with a spigot and took a napkin and two donuts before sitting at an empty school desk with the attached writing surface on the right side. I made small talk with a couple of guys around me as we nervously smoked cigarettes. The room filled up quickly and it was getting hot and noisy. There must have been 50 of us by now — all in our early to mid-20s.

A soldier came into the room at 9am, told us to put out our cigarettes, throw our coffee cups and used napkins into the large trash cans scattered around the room, and take our seats. When we had settled down, he said to address him as sergeant then told us to be quiet, listen, and hold our questions until he was done talking. He had on creased green trousers, a green jacket with lots of bright brass, three rows of colored ribbons, yellow chevron stripes on the upper arms of the jacket, and highly polished black shoes. His tan colored poplin shirt was cinched tight at the neck by a black tie. His hair was shaved close on the sides and cut short on top. He was clean shaven.

Including 45 minutes for a box lunch and soda plus several 10-minute breaks, we spent the next six or seven hours taking a battery of written tests — mostly multiple choice — that were supposed to measure aptitude in general subject knowledge, math, English, mechanical ability, and foreign language comprehension. It was after 4pm by the time we all finished testing, and the sergeant told us to take 30 minutes to use the head, which we found out was the bathroom. Once we were back in our seats, another soldier came into the room. He had two silver bars on each shoulder of his jacket. He also had a black strip around his jacket sleeve by the cuff and one running down the outside seam of each pant leg. I noticed that he didn’t have as many ribbons as the sergeant. Suddenly, the sergeant instructed us to stand straight up with arms at our sides and eyes looking straight ahead. He told us that the captain was going to administer the oath of loyalty. Once we were all standing and quiet, the captain told us to raise our right hands. Hardly moving my head, I quickly scanned the room in front of me to see if anybody was making a break for the door but evidently we all were committed or too scared to run. When the captain was satisfied that we were paying attention, he read the oath out loud, stopping every few words for us to repeat it out loud.

“I, (First, Middle, Last Name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

Once we were done, he congratulated us and said that we were now officially the property of the United States Army. It was February 5, 1968. I was 22 years old.

This story is in memory of one of my best friends who I had known since Kindergarten. As a second lieutenant in the United States Army, he served in South Vietnam from August 20, 1968 until September 7, 1968 when he was killed by hostile, small arms ground fire. If you ever visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., you can find his name at The Wall on Panel 45 — Line 62.