What Did You Do During the War, Daddy-O?
Copyright © 2006 by Tony Zurlo. All rights reserved.
I turned down the volume on Apocalypse Now, just after Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) snapped, “You want to surf soldier?… That’s good soldier, ’cause you either surf or fight, is that clear?”
Earlier in the day, my class had grilled me about the sixties. Did I fight in Vietnam? Had I smoked pot? Tripped on LSD? Tried group sex? Hitched across country? Worn my hair down to my knees? Seen Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock?
“Hey Daddy-O, what did you do during the war?” Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) mumbled from the TV screen.
“What the hell did you do during the war, Brando?” I countered. That ought to shut him up, I thought.
“During your war, Brando — I mean Kurtz — I worked for peace in the Peace Corps,” I continued, prepared to impress him with stories about eliminating the guinea worm from Nigerian water sources or feeding wafer-thin Nigerian children. Or inoculating whole villages against polio. None of which I did, of course.
“Wrong war, Daddy-O,” Kurtz shot back at me from beneath a canopy of heavy, dark palms deep in the Southeast Asian jungle.
‘I knew he meant the Vietnam War, not the Biafran War. Although I did confront death and madness on the eve of the Biafran War while in Nigeria.
“Stick with acting, Brando. You can’t change history.”
I wanted to impress him with tales of heroism: defending helpless Vietnamese villagers against atheistic commies; tossing my combat ribbons and medals into the reflecting pool beneath the Washington Monument. But I maintained my composure.
On the TV screen, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) received a message from a CIA operative: “Terminate with extreme prejudice.” But Willard must also understand that “this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist.”
The sixties in a nutshell! “Flim Flam Man” “Magic Mystery Tour” “Puff the Magic Dragon.” “Hell no, we won’t go!”
But I did go, in a fashion. After my two years with the Peace Corps, I drifted into and out of graduate schools, tried pot, tripped on LSD, and lived in a commune for a week. None of these helped me find my calling.
Uncle Sam came calling, though. After seven years of draft deferments for college and the Peace Corps, my draft board left a message on my answering machine: “Your country needs you. Big time.”
The movie screen flickered with Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms) water skiing behind a Navy patrol boat. I turned up the volume and swayed to Mick Jagger whining: “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” In 1967, I desperately wanted to be Lance, that tall, tanned, sun-bleached blond California surfer champ; with tall, tanned, sun-bleached blond California babes begging for my services.
Instead, I was destined to be a short, balding tanker serving in uniform in Germany.
Seven months before my 26th birthday, my country called and asked not what it could do for me, but what I could do for my country, again. Being of “sound mind and body,” I was afraid of jail time for messing with Uncle Sam’s call. And Canada was too far and too cold to consider. The Army was looking for men who could walk straight, tie their shoes, and understand Peter Rabbit without Cliff Notes. I qualified.
A recruiting sergeant told me that they had no job openings for pacifists, but that if I enlisted, I could choose my field of training. I figured that if I picked something like librarian, I might be able to stay out of Nam. But when I saw the pay scale for enlisted men, I hesitated. The recruiter then informed me that as a college grad, I would be a natural for Officers Candidate School. Much bigger pay checks would follow. The Catch-22? The Army only commissioned people in combat fields: Infantry, Armor, or Artillery.
“Canada Express, Daddy-O,” Brando/Kurtz interrupted from the screen, a sarcastic rise of the eyebrow taunting me. He was sitting at a bamboo desk swiping at mosquitoes with a bayonet.
“Screw you, Brando. Go skin a cobra or something,” I scolded.
The government offered to provide me with free food, bed, physical training, and travel for three years. “Just like the Peace Corps, except an extra year,” the sergeant said, as he handed me an Army pen to sign up. And with my finely tuned intellect cultivated during several years of college, I figured out that tanks were still not popular in Nam at the time, so I signed up for Armor OCS, located at Fort Knox, just outside of Louisville, Kentucky. I pasted a peace sticker on the front window of my red Austin Healey and set out for the Kentucky hills.
A wicked grin crossed Kurtz’s face, as he inquired, “So, Daddy-O, what did you do during the war?”
“I didn’t go to Armor OCS. They closed the damn school down a week after I got there.”
“Now you’re beginning to understand what the hell I’m doing out here in the jungle,” Kurtz said. “Daddy-O, it’s all one big con game.’ The screen faded to a commercial about a local gun show.
I threw a fit about the U. S. Army’s breach of contract because they had promised me in writing that I would be a tanker. The brass got a big laugh from my threats of a lawsuit. Then they cut orders sending me to Infantry OCS at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I was the smallest candidate in the entire unit of about 150 men. For nine months, every time we maneuvered in full gear, I slogged along with so much equipment that the edge of my back pack left tracks in the dirt trials. How I survived OCS is one of the mysteries of the sixties.
Even more amazingly, the army honored my armor commitment. After the Ruskies sent tanks into Czechoslovakia, I was assigned to “command” a tank platoon in the suburbs of Mannheim and Heidelberg, Germany.
“So Daddy-O, you skipped Nam,” Kurtz challenged, as he walked back into the screen from the commercial break.
“Kurtz, call me Kurtz.”
“Whatever, Brando. Yeah, I missed the big one.”
“Bunch of pussies, if you ask me,” Kurtz mumbled.
I tapped myself on my chest and said, “It was dirty, exhausting work, Brando. What do you think I was doing over there, smoking dope and chasing fräuleins?”
In case the Ruskies crossed the line, we had a defensive position about a hundred miles from our base. A couple of times a year we rambled out of our maintenance buildings onto the autobahns — a five-mile trail of giant dinosaurs inching our way toward the border to scare off the Ruskie war machine. We had to pull twenty or thirty of these iron cadavers to and from the border each trip because we could never get enough replacement parts to get them running.
“Tanks? Awesome, Daddy-O,” Kurtz said, as he rubbed black camouflage face paint onto his checks.
Yes, tanks. Big, greasy, noisy, ugly carcasses. Until then the most engine I’d messed with was changing spark plugs on my Austin Healey. I soon loathed tanks. Every object in those tin cans was designed to penetrate something or someone. Besides, I was too small to lift, move, or rotate any of the equipment inside or outside those clunkers.
“Sounds like hernia city, Daddy-O.”
“Right on, Kurtz.”
“Those tanks have some big boomers, don’t they,” Kurtz said. “Must have been a blast riding through the countryside taking out targets of opportunity.”
How could I tell Kurtz that I avoided all guns while in Germany? My Battalion Commander, Colonel B, saw into my soul without ever raising the issue. Maybe it was the peace symbols on my front and back car windows. Colonel B was a lifer. He awoke daily at 5 a.m., shaved his head, put on his cardboard-starched fatigues, and came to work with the express purpose of harassing me. He’d inspect my sideburns, which ended at my temple, and say, “Hey, Z. When are you going to shave those damn sideburns?” Then he’d smile and let me off the hook.
Every time we were about to have tank gunnery competition, Colonel B transferred me from a combat command position, such as platoon leader, to a non-combat slot. I had short stints as company and battalion maintenance officer and battalion executive officer. Then when we switched to field maneuvers, he restored me to combat status because I was one of the six men in the entire battalion who could read topographic maps.
“But those guns, Daddy-O.” Kurtz acted out firing a 60-millimeter from a tank turret. “The death and confusion you can reap with those wonderful weapons.”
“I hate to disillusion you, Kurtz, but once I got to Germany, I decided I would never fire another gun in my life.”
“Impossible. Court martial bound, Daddy-O. I’d have your body parts mounted on bamboo pungi sticks.”
“The wonderful thing about the military is that if there’s a will there’s a way. A bottle of booze here, an extra day of leave there. No problem. I was supposed to qualify on about fifteen or twenty weapons while in Germany. But young American enlisted men who keep records are always looking for a little extension for their R & R.”
“At least you showed some initiative. Maybe you’re not so hopeless after all,” Kurtz said.
“Right on, Kurtz. They just put down an average passing score for each weapon.”
“Regular John Wayne Audie Murphy wrapped into one.”
“Did my duty, Brando.”
“Cop out, if you ask me.”
“Brando. Let me ask you something. Did the Ruskies ever invade West Germany?”
He shook his head. “Mission accomplished,” I said with conviction.
The music on the screen signaled another commercial, and Brando disappeared through the dark jungle vines in the TV screen.