December ’65

February 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

 “The best laid schemes o’mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley.”
It’s the story of my life.

The Buildup

In March, 1965, following the fictitious Tonkin Gulf Incident, President Lyndon Johnson dispatches 3,500 US Marines to Viet Nam; by December, 200,000 soldiers are deployed, with more to follow. It happens so fast, I never see it coming.

Others do. College friends and relatives get married, go to grad school, conscientiously object; I blithely blunder. My awareness of the world is aesthetic and naive, romantic, academic, I never watch the news, only read the comics (arts, sports, crosswords); never politics, opinions. Even worse, I don’t see why we don’t just drop the bomb instead of sending soldiers. Killing’s killing.

Worst of all, I know that if I’m called, I’ll go.

The Sting

The Moon is Blue closes in Roanoke Thanksgiving weekend, and I drive home to report for my physical, stopping off to talk things over with my fiancee. If I’m drafted, will she wait? What if I come back crippled and maimed? (The thought that I might not come back at all never seriously enters my mind; I’m that naive!) What if we get married now? If we’re married, I’m exempt. We decide to set a date, and I continue home.

I’m one of a dozen or so naked men in a line, bending over and spreading cheeks, poked and groped and probed, answering question, all too easily passing our physicals, fit for service, 1-A. From there I’m directed to a friendly (slick) recruiting sergeant, who will help me explore my options.

I smugly inform him of my forthcoming marriage, I can only imagine the sadistic giggle he suppresses as he lets me down gently: LBJ has changed the law. Marriage is not exempt.

It takes a moment to sink in. Then the sergent does his thing.

He asks me what I like to do, and when I say I’m an actor, he tells me about Special Services, Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) 442, sports and entertainment. My eyes light up. He doesn’t tell me there’s one Entertainment Specialist for every several thousant grunts in the Infantry (MOS 11B).

Better still, he learns I’m a college grad and tells me about the Army’s College Option plan for recruiting officers: enlist for two years, go through Basic (and Advanced) Infantry Training (AIT) and Officer Candidate School (OCS), and when I finish (nine months later), choose either to accept a commission (two more years) or remain a grunt for fifteen months. Either way he knows I’ll probably die in Vietnam. As an officer, he lies, I can pick my own MOS.

What else can I do? More to the point, what do I do unil I’m called, in case I’m not—in case it’s months from now? I need a job. Who’s going to hire me knowing the call is likely? I sign on the dotted line.

I don’t blame him; he has a quota. The Army needs officers. And in the end, incredibly, it all works out almost exactly as he promised. I often wish there were a way to let him know that I did (barely) finish OCS, transfer to AG (Personnel), and (the miracle) receive the officers’s MOS Code 5000, Special Services! And not in Vietnam, but Germany! No matter the assignment is (ironically) in sports, not theatre; I get the last laugh.

The Wedding

We decide to tie the knot regardless of necessity.

Or I decide. It’s my decision to marry her; she goes along. Does she want to? Likely not. Likely I just wear her down (like Dad did Mama, like Bozo did Mamah). Throughout our early years together, I’m the one who makes decisions. She keeps her hopes to herself.

Time is of the essence. I’m to be inducted January 13; it’s December 3. We drive to Chapel Hill to meet the minister and book the church, and after spending the better part of an hour wisely (presciently) trying to convince us were aren’t ready for marriage, probably not meant to marry at all, he says there is one available date: the Monday after Christmas.

Then I go tell the folks at home and sit around Gastonia anticipating the happy occasion while Sandra takes care of the details. That’s the way it happens: I decide, she makes it work. She hires a woman to make her dress, sends out the invitations, buys me a gold band, volunteers her mother and Ruth Hunt to cater the reception, prevails on her best friends to sacrifice a vacation day as bridesmaids, and graciously accepts the offer of William and Ruth to sing and play—all in less than a month. I’m no use at all. I’m in a fog. This isn’t the life I had in mind last August. Is this what I really want? I’m too young to die in Vietnam.

How it happens is beyond recall, but I spend the night before the big day in my old room on North Street, and whether all my doubts and fears attack my bowels in revenge or I eat something rotten, I wake up at four AM as sick as I have ever been or will be, wracked with abdominal pain and erupting from both ends. How I get though the day remains a mystery. Surely we rehearse, which means Brother Bill (my Best Man) comes up early, bringing Mama, April, and Mary, as does Lionel (Father of the Bride), with Lucy and Dane. My first recollection is the church parking lot, late afternoon, as all my other relatives arrive, Grays, Torrences, and Shaffers intermixed, along with Sandra’s Melvins and McKayes, Bynums, and Lambeths. More than forty, fewer than seventy, less than half the capacity of that little chapel. It’s cloudy and cold.

Our only unrelated friends (as I recall) are Bill and Baraba Hannah, with Catherine, their 6-year old, who remain among our closest friends today, and Sandra’s Bridesmaids, fellow artist Pat Samuels (Ocean Isle) and college roommate Susan Phillips. Any other friends we both may have are otherwise disposed.

There are no photographs of the ceremony (one detail Sandra overlooks), so I have nothing to remind me of the moment we said “I do” except the gold band on my finger (until it gets stolen in ’79). I’m still queasy, but survive. I vividly recall the sound of William’s creaky rendering of “Oh, Promise Me” (the one song Sandra says she doesn’t want, the only title he remembers) and Ruth’s organ-grinder Romeo and Juliet—lah lah (boop-boop) la-la-la-la-la lah (boop-boop). You have to be here.

I borrow from Bill to pay the preacher $25 and mosey into the reception, shake ands and hug, nibble briefly on hors d’oeuvres homemade by Lucy and Ruth, sip lemonade (no booze; it’s in the church), and after ten or fifteen minutes I decide it’s time to go.

Part of me remembers my erroneous belief that it’s customary for the bride and groom to escape the crowd soon after they shake hands and hug, to be alone in their bliss. More likely my discomfort, both physical and psychological (my two families together, everyone aware, with the impecunious Melvins), make small talk unendurable. In any case, we say goodbye and drove away, leaving my dysfunctional families with strangers (hers), their only common link and reason for coming vanished, introducing themselves, searching for things to say…

Why doesn’t she object? She wants to stay. She knows she supposed to stay. It’s her wedding party, our wedding party. All these people driving all the way to Chapel Hill, and we just leave? We haven’t even opened the gifts! Why can’t she tell me what she wants? Half a century passes, and I never understand.

We retire to Bill and Barbara’s little house on North Graham street, where these two photographs—the only two from that day—are taken, and where we spend our wedding night. I’m as happy as I look, but I’m sick as a dog.

Wedding gifts are a random assortment of table and kitchen ware (an olive green blender), towels, sheets and pillowcases, all per Sandra’s list, with gaps and overlaps (three fondu pots). She chooses not to register china or silver patterns, no matter Mama’s etiquette; our needs are practical. As for who gives what, I just remember Aunt Marg’s stainless steel flatware and, from Dad, our honeymoon week in New York City.george_and_sandra_wedding

The Honeymoon

I have the flu. I don’t recall our flight (it’s her very first, my second), nor whether rain or shine, brisk or freezing.  Vague memory of not liking our hotel (too far uptown?) and we move down to the Edison.

Someone has given me pajamas and a red satin dressing gown; Sandra’s in a heavenly light blue nightgown and matching peignoir, chiffon and satin. We share a smile, almost a sigh of quiet happiness, of satisfaction, that says alone at last, and then the time has come. The nightclothes fly off, melt away, no matter burning up or clammy, I lay claim to my prize.

It’s not like we’ve never done it before.

In spite of the flu, I’m again a swirling dervish in New York. We see Liza Menelli in her deput rule as Flora, the Red Menace, Julie Harris in Skyscraper, Barbara Harris in On a Clear Day, and Samson and Delilah at the Old Met (which closes down this spring). We go to the other “Met,” Museum of Art, and MOMA, and the Empire State Bulding, then walk down Fifth Avenue to Tiffany’s, where we register their most expensive flatware (Olympian, sterling silver dipped in gold, engraves with scenes from Greek mythology. We never receive a single piece.

And on New Year’s Eve we stand freezing at 27 degrees in a misty drizzle among tens of thousands in Times Square, most of whom pinch Sandra’s butt, sucking face as the ball drops.

The next day the New York Transit strike begins, and all the trains stop running for twelve days. We’re forced to take a taxi to the airport, but grateful that the union holds off until our honeymoon is over.

Carr Street

Househunting miracles come in threes. First there’s North Street, then the house in Greenville. Where will Sandra live while I’m in training? (She’s still in school.)

Two weeks before the wedding I pick her up on campus, buy a paper at the bookstore on The Corner, and park a block down Tate Street to see what’s for rent. Here’s one: 930 Carr Street. Serendipity already, Carr’s a family name. Where’s Carr Street? Sandra looks at the map; I start the car, look out the window at the street sign: Carr St. Honest to Bo-Diddley.

We call the number, knock on the door, and pay the first month’s rent. It’s more than we can afford, but a block from campus; she won’t need a car. (She’s only had her license for a year). There’s just one bedroom, but it’s large, so she starts looking for a roommate; but it’s Christmas and no one’s around.  Then classes resume and she has her pick, chooses fellow artist (first name) Cary, knocked up, then married, husband working elsewhere. It’s cramped, but they get along.

More serendipity: pets are welcome! Our most cherished wedding/Christmas gift is the puppy Ann Hubbard (Bill’s friend Dick’s little sister) dumps on us from her bog’s latest litter, a black lab mix we name Andromache (to go with Bill and Barbara’s Hector), who keeps Sandra company while I’m gone and comes with her to Georgia, but remains in PG when we go to Europe. Two years later she’s grown up and we take her to Kansas, where she almost immediately, mysteriously, disappears.

The only time I spend at this address is when I’m home on leave, two weeks in March, another two in April. The first is my own stupid fault; this GI friend I barely know and never see again complains he has no place to go, and I say, “Hell, come home with me,” forgetting there’s just one bedroom and I haven’t made love to my wife in eight weeks. What am I thinking? What am I afraid I’ll find, that I need to bring a second? As soon as it’s out of my mouth I’m thinking Jesus, don’t say yes! But he does.  We make the best of it.

My second leave coincides with her exams and the menstrual cramps that continue to plague her womanhood until the babies come. I leave for OCS uncertain and confused.



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