Love in the Time of Spies
Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky, 1974
I remember the day well, because it was just after we got back from that night march. At reveille, the First Sergeant called
out my name and when I raised my hand he told me to report to him at Company HQ after chow. Because of all that marching and other strenuous stuff, we were always famished at breakfast, knowing that another similar day stood before us. So despite being nervous, and the other guys asking me what I had done to be called to the First Sgt’s fearful presence, I shoveled it down as usual. Between mouthfuls I told them I had no idea, which was true.
AT HQ he told me that I had been ordered to report to Division Classification and Assignment at 9 a.m. When I asked why, he shook his head and said, “Don’t know, son.” I was surprised at such a benevolent expression from a tough looking guy with all those stripes and medals, not to mention a pot belly. Frankly, it worried me.
“Just go,” he said. “Do you know where it is?”
“Never heard of it, Sergeant.”
He told me how to get there, that I could walk it in fifteen minutes, and dismissed me with a wave of an index finger. The rest of the company had already left for the firing range and I had a couple of hours to kill. I didn’t hit the sack because I was afraid I wouldn’t wake up in time, so I took a paperback from my footlocker – James Jones’ From Here to Eternity – and walked to the C&A building, then around it, then to the PX for a cup of coffee and some leisurely reading.
At C&A we were greeted with “Youse guys have been called here because of those IQ tests you thought were dumb that you took when you entered this man’s army seemed to show that you have an aptitude for foreign languages,” a sergeant told us with what smelled of a sneer, like he couldn’t believe it. We were only fourteen grunts from the whole division.
“Now pay attention, cause I ain’t gonna repeat it, and I only speak one language and that's army American.”
Suddenly his tone and his army American changed. “According to those tests you are all qualified to attend the Army Language School in Monterey, California in order to learn one of the foreign languages the army needs or may need.” He waited for that to sink in; obviously he'd done this before. “It's voluntary and there's a catch...isn't there always?” We nodded, at least I did.
“If you decide to attend the school, and are accepted, you have to re-up – reenlist in the queen's English – for three years upon completing basic training. Is that clear?”
We were all adding up the time: after four months of basic training, another three years instead of the remaining twenty months. But we knew that we were in the pipeline to Vietnam where the war was going on and who in his right mind would prefer dodging bullets to a vacation in California? Heroes, which we weren't. No one said anything. It was clear.
He handed out applications. After filling in the usual data, we were to select our first choice of languages to be studied. They were:
Being in one's right mind would seem to indicate that Swedish was the rational choice. Imagine spending the rest of the time after the Language School in Stockholm surrounded by beautiful Swedish broads! Vietnamese or Chinese would be for those not in their right minds. And me? I was in the midst of a Dostoevsky binge and dreamed of reading The Brothers Karamazov in the original, so on impulse I checked Russian, fearing that I would live to regret it.
Two weeks later we were called back to C&A. The sergeant was in a better mood. He even smiled; so did we, at first. “Bad news I'm afraid,” he said. “The Swedish quota had been filled by the time your applications were received, so all your applications were rejected, except...” he looked down at the file on his desk... “Pvt. Marvin Jacks, who chose Russian. “Are you here, Jacks?” I raised my hand. “Answer like a fucking soldier!” he said with feigned anger, still smiling. “Yes, sergeant.”
“But there's no need for the rest of you to despair. Vietnamese and Chinese are still open, so you can reapply.” His eyes scanned the room. No reaction. “There's no time to consult your mothers, gentlemen, so decide right now. If you don't like those beautiful oriental languages you can leave now.” After a pause, two guys stood up and left, grumbling. The rest chose Chinese. I was in a kind of mini-shock. What did I ever do to deserve this? I asked myself. Going to sunny California to learn Russian instead of dodging gook bullets in Vietnam with winter approaching. Nothing, I decided, but it is what it is.
After basic training was over half the company was sent to Vietnam, the other half to Germany. The army decided that alphabetically: names beginning A to M to Vietnam; N to Z to Germany. Very scientific. I, however, was on my way to the Army Language School in Monterey, California to study Russian for a year. That last day the whole company stood in front of the barracks in dress uniforms. First Sergeant Quinn called each man by name and handed him his orders. Then shook his hand. Field First Sergeant Silas Taylor stood next to him and shook all hands as well. The Company Commander stood a few paces behind them watching – which was correct, because he didn't really know us. I could almost swear I saw a tear in the First Sergeant's eye as he said “Good luck, son,” to each one of us.
My father drove me to the airport in New York. My duffel bag didn't fit into the trunk, so we left the trunk-lid open with the bag half out. When we got to the airport the bag wasn't there; it'd either bounced out or was stolen when we stopped for a red light. My father said he’d look for it on the way home, but it was never found. So I arrived at the Language School with only the clothes on my back. I gradually bought the uniform stuff from quartermaster, but I didn't complain. It was better than Vietnam.