Copyright© 2010 by Joe J
The early morning sunlight glinted blindingly off the silver wings of the huge jet as it cleaved a path toward the sun. Fittingly, the light reflected off the jet's wings poured through the small window next to me and lit up the silver paratrooper badge on my chest. I smiled as the drone of the engines subtly changed pitch and the nose of the Air Force C-141 transport dipped downward. The pilot was throttling back and shedding altitude. That meant he was starting his approach into Pope Air Force Base. Pope was adjacent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, my ultimate destination. I was coming home after an intense combat tour in the Republic of Vietnam; back to the loving arms of my beautiful wife and sweet daughter.
The trip home had been excellent, even though we were flying in a cargo plane. There were about two dozen of us returnees on it, mostly Army and Marines, with a couple of Squids and one Zoomie, all of us in dress uniforms. We even had a civilian on the plane, an older gent dressed casually in tan trousers and a light blue Filipino type shirt. I didn't figure out his function until we landed. The rest of the aircraft was occupied by cargo lashed to shiny aluminum 463L pallets locked into the rail and roller system on the aircraft deck.
I ended up sitting next to the civilian. He was a kind and friendly man named Michael something or other, I never did catch his last name. He insisted on me calling him Mike anyway. Mike asked me about myself, and before you know it, he was listening attentively as I told him my story...
We were high school sweethearts, and we were the couple that no one could understand being together. Megan Stedman was pretty and popular; she was the sweet girl-next-door. She taught Sunday school and sang in the church choir. At school, she was on the pep squad and the A-B honor roll. Everyone loved her.
Everything Megan was, I was not. I was shy, introverted and a loner. I was one of the most intelligent students in the school, yet my grades were mediocre. If a subject interested me, I did okay in it, if not, I did just enough to squeak by. I was the classic underachiever; never living up to my potential. I was Jody (is capable of doing much better work) Jamison to every teacher I ever had.
Listen, that day early in our sophomore year when she sat down next to me in the lunchroom, I was just as shocked as the rest of the Robert E. Lee High School student body. I sat there like a lump, pretending my bologna sandwich was the focus of my universe.
"Ignoring me is not going to work, Jody Jamison," she said firmly.
Yes, Megan knew who I was, because in a school with only five hundred students, it was hard to be invisible, no matter how hard I tried. I raise my head and looked at her, my face in its normal neutral mask.
"Hello Megan, what do you want?" I responded curtly.
She regarded me steadily with those indescribably deep blue eyes for a second, then smiled warmly.
"That's better. Do you realize that we've been in the same geometry class for three weeks, and those are the first words you've ever said to me? That's okay, though, because we're talking now."
Well, actually Megan was doing all the talking, but I was suddenly focused on her every word. It took me months to actually believe that Megan really was attracted to me, but it only took me a second to fall in love with her. Megan's story, to anyone who wants to hear it, is that when she saw me sitting there that day, something told her that I was the man she was going to marry. Since she knew it was unlikely I'd ever approach her, she took matters in her own hands.
Megan didn't try to change me, but her presence in my life did move me more toward what people considered normal. Our relationship worked then, and works now, because Megan keeps us on the right path. I don't mean that she runs my life or anything like that. I just have enough common sense to leave anything requiring interpersonal skills up to her. I can't think of a single thing she ever suggested that wasn't good for me in the long run.
Megan's parents weren't as convinced of my potential as Megan was. Still, they trusted their daughter and let us date. I liked her folks, although her father intimidated me somewhat. Megan's dad was a State Police captain. Every time I walked in the Stedmans' front door, the first thing I saw was the captain's Sam Brown belt hanging on the coat rack. Tucked in the holster of his belt was this huge Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolver. Stedman would always make a point of glancing at that pistol when he briefed me on when to have Megan home, or what he considered good conduct on my part. He never had a problem making his point to me.
I lived with my grandmother, Alice Jamison, because my mother died when I was seven and my father couldn't, or wouldn't, raise me. He moved out to California and started another family about the time I turned twelve. I flat out refused to go live with them because I wasn't about to leave my grandmother. To this day, I think she is the finest person who ever drew a breath. Most everyone who met her felt the same way.
Granny loved Megan from the first time I introduced them. The two of them seem to have some ESP connection when it comes to me. Granny would pick out a shirt for me, saying that Megan would like it, and Megan would rave about the shirt when I wore it. Things like that happened too often to be a coincidence. Megan's parents even treated me better after they met Granny J.
We graduated from high school in June of 1961, but we had to wait until I turned eighteen in November before we could marry. By then, I was working for the Georgia Power Company as an apprentice lineman. I scored high on the power company's aptitude test and Megan's dad put in a good word for me so they hired me, even though I was only seventeen.
On our wedding night, Megan Claire and Jody Lee Jamison invented making love. Oh sure, folks before us were doing something like it, but it was impossible for anyone to have ever done anything that felt as good or was as intense as when we did it. We were virgins when we tumbled into bed in our motel room in Palmdale, Florida, but thanks to a lot of reading and fooling around, we had a very good idea of what it took to remedy that. Had it not been for the very sweet woman who owned the small beach-front motel worrying about us, we probably would have stayed in our room making love until we starved to dead.
The January after our wedding, Megan started college at Valdosta State. I had promised her parents that I would not prevent her from going to college, since they were willing to pay her tuition. We rented a little place in town and settled into married bliss. I worked, she went to school, and we were incredibly happy.
Megan excelled in college and graduated in June of 1965. At about the same time, I completed the apprenticeship program and received my journeyman's card from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Instead of an apprentice lineman, I was now a full fledged transmission line electrician and making good money. I wasn't crazy about my job, but I worked hard at it to put food on the table and a roof over my wife's pretty brunette head. Megan's degree was in Early Childhood Education. There was a shortage of teachers then, so she had job offers even before she graduated.
We had the world by the tail and our lives looked set. We were even talking about starting a family, when a little thing named Vietnam reared its ugly head. In July, my draft status changed and I lost my marriage exemption. The Selective Service Board switched to war time criteria so that married men were now eligible for the draft. My birth date had been drawn early in the December, 1964 draft lottery, so it was only a matter of time before I received my induction notice.
After a long heart to heart talk with my wife, and with some advice from my father-in-law, I enlisted in the Army on the first of August. My reporting date was August fifteenth. My reasons for enlisting were more practical than patriotic, as I felt that by enlisting, I'd have a better chance of controlling the duty I ended up with. I was not trying to avoid combat duty, but if I ended up in a frontline unit, I wanted to be something besides cannon fodder. I chose the Army because the sergeant at the recruiting station was honest and straight forward, and that impressed the hell out of me. I realize that's not the greatest of reasons for a decision that big, but it was reason enough for me.
I gave my notice to my employer on the day after I enlisted, and my supervisor graciously waived the two week notice clause of my employment contract. The business agent down at the union hall told me I would continue to earn seniority while I was in the Army, as long as I kept my dues current.
For those two weeks between enlisting and shipping out, Megan and I spent every moment together. The situation made our relationship stronger instead of putting stress on it. That's mostly Megan's fault, because she refused to have any negative thoughts about what I was doing. When it came to backing her man, Megan Jamison was Grizzly Bear fierce. As for me, there wasn't a hound dog in South Georgia half as loyal.
Megan drove me down to the Greyhound station at noon on August fifteenth. Both of us tried to be brave for the other. We clung together desperately as the bus's driver and passengers waited patiently for me to board.
Four hours later I was in Jacksonville. I spent the night at a contract hotel and at six the following morning, I was on a dark blue Navy bus headed to the Military Enlistment Processing Station. I spent the early morning taking the vocational aptitude test. In the afternoon, it was the physical exam, followed by a session with the guidance counselor. The guidance sergeant looked at the results of the tests and glanced up at me.
"These are some of the highest ASVAB scores I've ever seen, Jemison. You are qualified for any job in the Army. A month ago, I could have offered you twenty career fields to choose from, but today that's down to three. So what'll it be Jody, Infantry, Armor or Field Artillery?"
The sergeant handed me a job description of all three and I quickly eliminated humping cannon shells or being cooped up in a tank. 'So much for enlisting to get a better job', I thought, as I signed on the dotted line for a three year hitch as a light weapons infantryman.
I took the oath of enlistment and was herded with about fifty other guys out to a waiting Continental Trailways chartered bus. A sergeant took roll call and when he was satisfied everyone was on board, we hit the road in a cloud of black diesel smoke. We stopped at a road side HoJos in Waycross, Georgia, for supper, then motored through the night westward to Fort Benning.
I made acquaintance with a few of the men on the bus as we rolled through the Georgia night. We were a Heinz 57 group of blacks, whites, rich, poor, volunteers and draftees. Most of the fellows on that bus ended up in the same basic training company as me; about a quarter of them in my platoon.
As soon as I departed for basic training, Megan moved our possessions into storage and herself back home with her parents, so we could cut down on our expenses. Megan and I were savers; we squeezed our money tightly so we'd have some of it for the future.
On the day after Labor Day, she started teaching second grade at the Azalea Avenue Elementary School there in Valdosta.
While I was in training, Megan and I wrote each other at least every other day. I called home every Sunday evening. We missed each other so badly that it physically hurt.
During basic training, I discovered that I had an aptitude for the military and that I actually enjoyed being in it. I was a squad leader after a week and the Platoon Guide after two. The Platoon Guide was the trainee acting sergeant in charge of the platoon when the drill sergeants weren't around. I was honor graduate for my company and was promoted to Private PV2.
Megan drove up from Valdosta for my graduation. My first sergeant, a WWII veteran named John J. Stubbs, arranged for me to spend the night with Megan before I shipped out to Fort Gordon, Georgia for Infantry Advanced Individual Training. My sweet and friendly wife had some sort of magical ability that turned gruff old noncoms into reasonable human beings.
Oh yeah, and while I was in basic training, I volunteered for jump school, mainly because my drill sergeant was a paratrooper and he was cool as hell. Sergeant First Class Dahl convinced me that a leg (a non-airborne soldier) was the lowest form of life in the universe.
"I'd rather have a whore for a sister, than a leg for a brother," he once told me.
The Infantry Training Brigade at Fort Gordon was located in an isolated section of the post named Camp Crocket. Camp Crocket was a collection of Quonset huts set in company rows. Each Quonset hut housed half a platoon. There were two battalions in the brigade and four companies in each battalion. Every week, one company started training and one company graduated. Camp Crocket was unique, in that every soldier in training there was destined for jump school and then Vietnam.
We infantry guys were persona non grata around Fort Gordon proper, so we were confined to Camp Crocket for all eight weeks we were there. We weren't even allowed to go to church, instead some chaplain held a nondenominational service in our mess hall.
With no distractions, I applied myself conscientiously to my training, ever heedful of the cadres' oft-repeated maxim, "If you don't learn this, you will die in Vietnam."
I made a radical change of plans during the third week of AIT. It came about because five of us from my company were called to the dayroom to receive a pitch from a tandem of Special Forces recruiters. Both men were dressed in dress greens, their trouser legs bloused into the top of spit-shined Cochran paratrooper boots, and their green berets worn at a rakish angle. The senior of the two men, a Sergeant First Class named McLemore, sported a chest full of awards and decorations and a hook where his left hand should have been. He looked us over for a minute and heaved a disappointed sigh.
"Is this all of them?" McLemore asked the drill sergeant who had rounded us up.
The sergeant nodded affirmatively and McLemore turned his attention back to us.
"I was hoping for a better turn out, but I guess you five are it for tonight. You are here because of your test scores, physical ability and the recommendation of your company cadre. I'm not here to sell you anything, so if at any point you want to leave, don't let the door hit you in the ass."
Two guys took him up on the offer and beat feet. McLemore watched them go, then turned back to the three of us remaining. He gave us a wolfish smile and started talking again.
"I am not going to blow smoke up your ass with some rah-rah speech, that's not our style. What I am going to do is offer you the opportunity to attempt something that only five percent of those who try actually accomplish..."
There was more, but I think you get the drift. In the end, one other guy and I ended up taking the five hour Special Forces written test the following Sunday afternoon. The test was the most difficult I'd ever seen, because it did not test anything I had ever learned. Instead, it tested problem-solving ability and adaptability to strange situations. I was proud as hell I passed the test, even if it was by only the slightest of margins.
I told Megan about volunteering for Special Forces the same Sunday night that I took the test. Meggie didn't know beans about the green berets, but she told me to go for it anyway. We were both that way about supporting one another. I learned a lot in the Army, but I learned the concept of unstinting loyalty from my wife. Megan stood by me regardless of whether I was right, wrong or indifferent.
In week four of AIT, I competed for, and won, Brigade Soldier of the Quarter. In week five, I competed for the same award at post level. At the post level, I competed against soldiers from the other training units at Fort Gordon, namely the pukes from the Signal School and the pretty-boy prima donnas from the Military Police School. To everyone's surprise, my own especially, I won. I was the first Camp Crocket soldier to ever win the award. The Brigade Commander was happy enough with me that I was promoted to Private First Class. He also gave me a letter of recommendation for Officer Candidate School. I was proud as hell sewing those mosquito wings onto my uniform sleeves, but I shrugged off the idea of OCS.
Three quarters of the way through AIT, we stopped training and were sent home for Christmas. Just like that, every trainee on the base was moved out on the seventeen and eighteenth of December to return to duty on the fourth of January. It was a huge cluster-fuck the Army called Exodus. Each trainee received a round trip ticket and a flying-fifty (fifty dollar advance pay), then away we went. Thank God all I had to do was travel a hundred and fifty miles.
Megan started her two week Christmas school holiday on the twenty-second. For those two weeks, I don't think we were ever further than a few inches apart. My in-laws were great to me, even though I think Megan and I embarrassed them with our public displays of affection. We split the holidays between their house and Granny Jamison's place to give them a break. Granny made sure we had plenty of time to fool around when we stayed with her, then teased us unmercifully about it.
I caught a bus from the Greyhound Station on Sunday morning, January Second, 1966. I came back to Camp Crocket a day early so I could make sure my platoon was squared away when training started Tuesday morning. I hadn't been ordered to return early, but as the Platoon Guide, I figured it was my job to do regardless.
We spent our final full week of AIT on a field training exercise (FTX) that ended in a live fire assault on a pretend Vietcong camp. Then we spent four days squaring away our gear and the company's equipment for the next bunch to use.
On Wednesday, we had an early morning dress greens inspection, then a brief graduation ceremony. It was mid-week and I'd just been home, so Megan didn't make the trip. As soon as the graduation ended, we lined up alphabetically outside the dayroom to receive our orders and another advance on our pay.
Pay had been a hot topic for our evening bitch sessions in the barracks lately when we found out the price of our tickets home for Christmas had been collected from our January pay. It was pretty comical when we all had to stand in the pay line for an hour just so they could hand us a pay voucher that was stamped "No Pay Due". A private made $90.60 a month back then, and a PV2 made $99.10. Out of that princely sum, Uncle Sam took taxes, social security, laundry and the dollar a month the first sergeant coerced us into donating to the Army Emergency Relief and Red Cross, so we all started the new year owing the Army money. Some wag observed that it was all a plot to keep us in the Army longer.
As soon as Mort Adams, the first man in line, stepped out of the orderly room, the suspense was over for everyone in the company, except two of us. Mort's orders cleared up any confusion he might have had as to what he was doing for the next fifteen months. It was jump school, a thirty day leave, then assignment to the 173d Parachute Infantry Regiment, Republic of Vietnam.
"At least we are staying together, boys, because Top told me that everyone's orders are the same, except for Jody and Steve's," Mort said.
I made some friends there at Camp Crocket, but they were all transitory. By that I mean after jump school, they were all going in a different direction than me. The exception to that rule was Steve Pleturski, the other guy who signed up for Special Forces. Steve and I decided to stick together throughout our training to help each other out. He ended up becoming the best friend I ever had.
Pleturski was about my polar opposite when it came to backgrounds, personalities and looks. He was loud, outgoing, and boisterous to my reserved and quiet. While I worked hard at being a good soldier, Steve did it effortlessly. I am a little taller than average at five-eleven and weight one-eighty. Steve was six-two, two-ten. I have brown hair and eyes. Steve's hair was a sandy blonde and his eyes a porcelain blue. I was nondescript looking, I thought, while he was handsome, with a ready smile that drew women to him like bees to pollen. Steve was a Yankee from the big city of Chicago while I was a country boy from the Deep South.
As soon as I finished drawing my advanced pay, the first sergeant pulled me aside and took me to the company commander's office. I reported to the CO, he returned my salute, and then nodded to the first shirt. Top moved up next to my right side and whipped out a knife about the size of a machete.
"I'm sorry Jamison, but there seems to have been some problem with your promotion to PFC," the CO said as the first sergeant sawed my stripe off with that pig sticker.
I gulped but kept my face as impassive as I could.
"Yes sir," I replied.
"So you won't need those skeeter wings any more, I'm afraid," the captain said. Then he paused for a few seconds as the top kick moved to my left side and sliced off that stripe. Then he continued, "But you will need these."
I looked on uncomprehendingly as he handed the first sergeant a set of corporal chevrons. The first sergeant took up the narrative.
"The top ten percent of graduating trainees get promoted and since you were our number one graduate, you were in that number. The problem was the earlier promotion you received for Soldier of the Quarter. I talked to the Brigade Sergeant Major about it and we agreed that you deserved E4. The sergeant major called his counterpart at the jump school at Fort Benning and worked out making you a corporal until you graduate the Airborne Course and depart Benning. During the first week there, when the new arrivals provide KPs and details for the students in training, you will be the noncommissioned officer in charge of our troopers. When you leave Benning you will be laterally appointed a spec four."
A corporal and specialist four were the same pay grade, the difference in the ranks was that a corporal held a leadership position. I almost soiled my skivvies when the first sergeant pinned the new stripes to my sleeve.