We’ve all had those... “Ah, so” moments, when something suddenly became clear… like a light turns on in our head.
And we’ve all had the … “Ah, shit” moments when we realized that we were in a tiny little bit of trouble.
We’ve all had just… “Aaaah” moments when something wonderful has happened.
And probably most have had significant, often life-changing, epiphanous “Ah, HA” moments.
And the “Ah, please no” moment when something not so good has happened.
And there are those silent “Ah!??” personal, ponderous and profound moments. Often in the way of questions we ask ourselves. Like we see something, or read something or someone tells us something, and we wonder without moving our lips, “Ah!?” As in trying to figure out “what’s with that?”
Like I’m prone to say, I’ve been places and done things. I’ve had my share of “ahs.” But we’ve all been places and done things… We’ve all had our “ah” moments. What follows are just mine.
It had something to do with Oak Ridge Institute’s regimented school work, where we had to go to class, there was no smoking in the bathroom, the student to teacher ratio was small and at night we had to be at our desk for two and half hours because the faculty advisor who lived in our dorm would patrol the halls looking in on us. Whatever it was, I maxed some of my classes at Oak Ridge, not because I loved math, or had a knack for science or a foreign language or English… I was more or less forced to study and I’ve always been able to test pretty good. But I was skimming the program, cheating on an education… I was just putting in my time, getting my grades, moving on… memorizing things for tests, not really learning shit.
Until I took English under Dean Chandler who said one day that there was great magic in Shakespeare… not magic in the way we might think of some guy pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but magic in that Shakespeare proses spoke to timeless emotions and tragic drama and tribulations that we don’t always see or appreciate. All told in iambic pentameter which produced a rich, mellifluous sound, like music, only different.
What was alerting to me here was the word “magic” he used in describing Shakespeare. My wonderful Aunt Wilma, a teacher in Johnson County, North Carolina, told me once that she had found “magic” in her school work as a young girl. And here that word again in basically the same context.
Dean Chandler, now that he had my attention, said he wanted each one of us in that class of maybe 12 or 15, to take one Shakespearian sonnet apart, word for word, and then put it back together sentence by sentence. And in doing that try and get an understanding of it. Memorize it.
We were given a week’s time or two weeks, I’ve forgotten, but at some date near at hand we had to stand in front of the class without notes and recite the sonnet and tell what it meant. That was in the fall of 1959 or the spring of 1960, I’ve forgotten, but certainly more than half a century ago… and I still clearly remember the words (more or less) to the Shakespeare sonnet I selected… the 29th.
Me and my roommate Johnny B. (Good) Anderson
in our dorm room at Oak Ridge.
The following from memory:
“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
Wishing me to be more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends processed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I must enjoy contented least,
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Happily I think on thee and then my state, like a lark,
Rising from sullen earth, sings hymns at Heaven’s Gate
For thy sweet loved remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my place with Kings.”
17 years old, reading that sonnet over and over, it began to sound almost like the music Dean Chandler said it would and it told about this wonderful conundrum that I could relate to… desiring this stuff other people had… feeling sort of down and out…. I didn’t have anyone that in thinking about, made me want to sing hymns, but I understood the concept…how love can happen… from that one sonnet. The more I read it aloud, the more I understood the “magic” in those musical words.
I think I did OK on the day of the recital, I’ve really forgotten and I don’t remember Dean Chandler saying anything particular about my interpretation of its meaning… but Shakespeare’s 29th sonnet forced on me by a teacher who cared, gave me my first clear “Ah, So” moment. It was solid proof to my Aunt’s argument that there was more to school than just taking test. Good education was “magic”. Truth be told, I never shared that moment with anyone at the time… I continued with my fart jokes, my country ways and week-ends commandeered by raging adolescent hormones. But I was wiser, and I felt good about that.
I’ve found myself in a tiny little bit of trouble often in my life… however nothing like the spring of 1966 when my 3rd platoon, “A” Company, 1st/28th Battalion, 1st Division was on patrol in an area near the Minh Thanh road in South Vietnam. Here’s the way I described it in my The Vietnam War Its Ownself book:
“During “Operation Lavender Hill” we were searching for VC supply caches in an area near the Song Be River. On point in my platoon was a young soldier who had recently arrived as a replacement. He came to a clearing, took a couple of steps out and dropped to one knee. Beck, coming up behind him but staying inside the wood line, said, “Get your ass back here. You goin’ to get shot.”
I was walking forward up the platoon file as the new man stood up to move back. Suddenly a VC automatic weapon opened up from across the clearing. The point man yelled out, grabbed his stomach and lunged forward and to his right behind an anthill out in the clearing. Other VC began firing at us from around the field. The point man was hit again in the leg and screamed. He pulled his legs up as far as he could behind the anthill and continued to yell.
I called Manuel to come up with the M-60 machine gun and told the rest of the platoon to get on line and put some fire on the enemy positions. As our counter fire increased the VC sought cover and their fire died down. The point man was still yelling and I went to the edge of the clearing and looked out at him. He appeared lightly wounded in a couple of places but seemed to be in fair shape otherwise.
“Hey, shut up,” I said over the din of the firing. “You’re all right. Just keep your head down. You’ll be OK.”
He continued to yell, and I dived out beside him.
This encouraged the VC and they began firing again — at me.
There wasn’t enough room behind the anthill for both of us, so I rolled to my left behind another anthill. I brought my knees up to my chest as rounds began to hit the ground on either side. Then fire from an automatic rifle began to saw down the anthill gradually. As chunks of the rocklike structure were shot off, pieces fell on my helmet. When I looked up, I saw the top of the anthill coming down.
“Shoot that son of a bitch with the machine gun. Shoot him,” I yelled to my men.
More VC rounds came in and hit the ground on either side of me. The top of the anthill was getting lower and lower. Trying to roll myself into a smaller ball, I looked back at the wood line where my men were firing past me.
I said to myself… “Ah, Shit” (added here for emphasis) and had a clear though… if I were to get out of this alive, I’ll never worry about the small stuff of life again. Then I had another clear thought: I hope no one in my platoon shoots me.”
There is also another “Ah, shit” story that comes to mind. In the CIA I was stationed in west Africa in late 1970 when, one afternoon, a riot broke out in the capital city because the gov’t raised the price of rice… Terribly bloody noisy dangerous destructive urban riot. By the next morning however the street mobs had disbanded and the looting was pretty much over but the city was laid waste, with whole sections burned to the ground. I had been on duty in the US Embassy – protected by the Marine guards – during the night.
Port area where I was ambushed
The official American community plus all the expat Americans we could contact had survived…. All accounted for except for two technicians who had arrived at the international airport early afternoon, and had departed in a car sent by the embassy, but had never appeared anywhere. They would have normally headed into what became the center of the riot. Still no word on the pair at first light, so I took a car from the embassy motor pool and was cruising the route the men must have taken from the airport… at one point following slowly a half block behind a bus picking its way through the broken glass and other debris on the road… when my car was suddenly overtaken by a group of Africans, some with machetes, all drunk – no idea where they came from… things were relatively quiet, some popping in the distance from lingering fires in some of the downtown buildings, smoke was everywhere – which was why I had my window down – the bus was moving ever so slowly – then in a second’s time 6 or 10 men were on my car, on the hood, jumping on the roof – yelling, a couple reaching in trying to get the keys from the ignition… both so close that their liquor smelling sweaty faces were pressed against mine as I tried to keep their outstretched hands from reaching the keys… men on the hood started hitting the windshield with their machetes… but that’s another story that takes some telling to really appreciate…
I met Brenda Joyce Denton Christmas eve 1967 and proposed to her on Valentine’s Day 1968, 58 days later.
She was everything I sought in a wife; intelligent, caring, considerate, beautiful, personable, plus there was that extra something that made us better as a pair. I know it’s corny, but our relationship was bigger than the sum of its parts, and that biggerness was the Love thing. I cared more for that tall gorgeous smiling generous country girl than I had ever cared for any girl I had ever known… save mother… and mother liked Brenda a lot.
Mom helped me pick out an engagement ring, and I sort of knew that when I asked Brenda to marry me, that she’d accept and kiss me and kiss me and kiss me and cry and…. then – the way I figured it – she’d tell me that I, of course, would have to ask her father first.
She shared a house with several other girls in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the night I proposed we were sitting on the couch in the living room of that house after I arrived for what was planned as a Valentine’s Day’s dinner out… and I asked if she’d be my wife as I offered her the ring… and she paused only a moment and said, yes, yes, yes, yes and she kissed me and kissed me and kissed me as I put the ring on her finger…… and then she jumped up from the couch and went running through the house showing the girls the ring and telling them that I had proposed.
And I sat on the couch and was smiling when she can running back into the living room and jumped into my lap to tell me that I had made her the happiest woman in the world…. Then she got pseudo-serious and said… well that first I was going to have to ask her father if it was OK. It was the southern thing to do, you know, she said.
So rather than go to a restaurant that night, instead we drove back to her home in Sanford, North Carolina. It was fairly early when we got there, but her parents were already in bed. Brenda went into their bedroom and told her Dad that I was in kitchen and wanted to talk with him a minute. She stayed with her mother, while Mr. Denton came out, and sat at the kitchen table listening without expression as I said that Brenda and I wanted to get married and I was asking him for her hand in marriage. In that particular way about him, he looked off in the distance and said, “Well if it is what she wants, it’s OK with me and her mother…” or something like that. I know he said that as long as it was something his daughter wanted then he’d certainly go along.
I was really feeling good about things…. Not in the “Aaaaah” state of mind really, because I sort of knew Brenda was going to be happy with the offer, and Mr. Denton would go along with it. But like everyone who’s just had the woman he loves accept his proposal of marriage, I felt pretty damn good.
The next morning first thing I called Mom from my apartment in Sanford, where I was working for Dad managing a veneer plant, and told her that Brenda had accepted and that ring was actually a pretty good fit. She was wearing it and the last I saw of her she was pretty damn happy… I could feel Mom smile through the telephone wire.
It rained that day and there were problems at the plant and I got back to my apartment after dark. I was fixing a sandwich for supper in the little kitchenette when the front door bell rung.
It was Brenda standing in the rain outside… crying.
I pulled her inside and hugged her, completed confused by all this – it was the end of the work week, but I knew that Brenda was working the next morning in Raleigh… what was she doing here at my place, crying the night after she had accepted my proposal of marriage?
She cried and cried – her body shaking with sobs – and I moved her to the couch where she cried some more… finally she stopped shaking from sobbing and though still crying she looked up in my eyes, her hair a mess from the rain, and her make up running from the crying, and she said, “I can’t marry you.”
And I almost died.
“I’ve lied to you,” she said. “And we can’t get married.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say… I was numb. “Lied?” Can’t marry me? What!
She said… in a rush of words… that the whole meeting and dating and then the friendship and the love that developed… had happened so fast, it was so wonderful, just so perfect in her mind, but there was something she never told me that would take away from this most wonderful time for her and she realized last night after the proposal, the drive to Sanford to see her parent and then back to Raleigh and our finally long kiss that night… after all that, her guilt building… she realized in bed that she couldn’t - for sure – go through with the marriage. She never told anyone at work today about the proposal, and the ring. She tried to say more and couldn’t…
“I love you,” I said, “and there is nothing you can say that will change that, nothing that you could possibly have done that will ever matter…. I promise you, nothing could change my commitment to you.”
She said when her mother was pregnant with her, she took some drugs, maybe the doctor had prescribed, maybe not, or maybe there was something else, no one knows for sure, and she said she has seen doctors since she was a kid. Her ovaries never developed. She cannot have children. There’s nothing there in her to make babies. She’s infertile… she never told me, she said. That we’d never have kids. She deceived me…
I didn’t pause. I swear to you I remember this clearly that I never hesitated. I said, “I don’t care. I love you. And I want you for my own forever… I promised I don’t care about this other thing. I want you the way you are.”
And she looked at me wanting so badly to believe what I said, you could see the great hope I was telling the truth in her eyes, and I said again that I loved her and I desperately wanted her to marry me….
And then she was shaking when she hugged me, and then she started babbling about how she was goin’ make me the best wife there ever was, ever, ever. And she was kissing my ears, and my nose and my mouth and my neck and the top my head…
That, my friends, was a wonderful “Aaaaahhhh.”
I was recruited by the Special Operations Group of the CIA on contract in 1970 to do paramilitary chores. I was part of what was called the IUJEWEL program, in that we had to have combat experience, and also we had to test to regular new-hire CIA intelligence officer (aka “ICs”) standards.
ICs and JEWELers were trained together. In my class, us of the paramilitary persuasion were called “knuckle-draggers” as if we were part of the gorilla family. Certainly we had higher developed playground skills than did our IC brothers (there were no women in clandestine corps training when I joined), but the ICs tended to be a little more brainy then us Vets. No that isn’t true, they just thought they were smarter. We told them that they were the type students who used to sit in the front row of classes in high school and were on first name basis with the librarian. Us, on the other hand, knew the sheriff. “We knew girls” younger than “they knew girls.” We could cuss better. Repartee was always lively between our groups.
The great separator for all new hires into the clandestine corps – both ICs and JEWELers – was the long intelligence operations course at the main training facility known as the “Farm.” Long days of classroom instruction on the business of espionage were followed by day and night and day and night of meeting instructor role players doing this and that, and working them as if they foreign agents, bending them to our will, according to principles of intel operations we were being taught. And then going back and writing all that up on our Remington typewriters.
My job was made difficult by the fact I had Dr. Ed Carroll as my mentor, who expected – now get this – he expected me to spell all the words I used, just like he did. And he had this mystery aversion to the “passive voice.” And there was nowhere to hide. No, “I’d like to change mentors, please.”
It always makes you feel better to see someone having a tougher time than you are. I think there’s a word for it. Whatever, during my ops course, that person struggling would be my friend Larry R. Another JEWELer. Larry had been a Marine officer in Vietnam. Before that he was a starting guard on the U of San Francisco basketball team. But he hated – absolutely got faint of heart - over those one on one instructor/role players exercises. Before going out for training meets, he would start to sweat and his shirt by the time he launched would often be soaked. His eyes wild.
My situation, as I said, seemed better by comparison, but this ops course was not easy. Dr. Ed Carroll was seriously tough. And I remember clearly that the Remington typewriters had no spell-check.
You ask anyone I grew up with, they’ll say, “Parker, a brainiac? I don’t think so.” But you needed some of that to do this CIA ops training work. I didn’t know if I had what it took to do this. CIA clandestine crops new hires in 1970 were alpha animals and pretty quick-of-mind. This was the major leagues, as it was. Training was like spring try-outs in baseball. There was doubt in my mind if I had what it took to make the team.
But then I don’t know, mid-way through the course Dr. C did in fact smiled or at least nodded at something I wrote, and then one sunny afternoon I had a one on one training session with a kick ass instructor/role player. Part of his role was to come to this make-believe meeting as an agent who had not done what I asked him to do.
I listened to his prepared patter about why he had failed me, and I said to this instructor/role player, leaning in, motioning for him to lean in too, speaking slowly, almost in a whisper, “Listen, shit for brains, don’t you fuck with me, I’m trying to do good here…”
Maybe it was the moment, or the innocent southern twang in our little “time-out”, or the conspiratorial tone to my voice, but he broke up laughing. He wiped the smile off his face, looked away, got serious, and turned to me to say something else and started laughing all over again.
And I knew, “I can do this…”
A hole didn’t suddenly appear in the skies and no angels started playing harps and singing or anything like that. But it was a special moment, an epiphany … an “Ah, HA,” realization that yea, I can do CIA intelligence work… this agent acquisition and handling thing is learnable/doable.
Good moment… not as hard-fought, or as clear as the time just a few years before when I joined the US Army as a Private E-nothing and had a chance to become a commissioned officer.
What follows is that story…. of another “Ah, HA” moment.
So I’m out there growing up, raising hell: Southern Pines High School, Mars Hill college summer school, Cuba, Nicaragua, Myrtle Beach, Miami Beach, lot of young ladies, little bit of UNC, lot of beer… then holly shit I woke up one morning with my head sheared to my skull, bad fitting fatigue there on my trunk, new boots under the bunk, and Drill Sergeant Willie O. McGee yelling at the end of the barracks for all us molly wolly asshole recruits to get our stinking butts out of the bed in a military manner and god damnit do it fast or he was goin’ chew some recruit’s ass for breakfast…. move, move, move, you lower than shit, fuck-heads…. And he was more or less talking to me.
This wasn’t an “Ah, shit” moment as much as it was shot of reality that I was in the Army now… 3 years worth. There wasn’t time – and this wasn’t the place – those waking mornings early in US Army basic training, for an “Ah,shit” exclamation. But it did cross my mind sometime during the start of every day that I had really, really fucked up… took a left when I should have taken a right in life…said I do to the question of Army enlistment, when I should have said, I don’t.
Then as things turned out, Drill Sergeant Willie O. McGee saw me do a pretty damn good manual of arms and he didn’t look at me thereafter when he was yelling about the molly wolly shitheads in his platoon, and he endorsed my application for Officer Candidate School before graduation from Basic… which got the ball started but didn’t mean all that much in the end. Here’s what I wrote in The Vietnam War Its Ownself:
”After advance infantry training (AIT) there were almost eighty of us in my training regiment, still awaiting disposition of our Officer Candidate School applications. We were assigned to two barracks near my AIT training company and assigned day to day duty, some just “make-work.” Me, I was given temporary corporal rank, which I wore on a band around my upper-right sleeve, and was assigned to a basic training company as an “assistant” DI (drill instructor) or more correctly a “gopher,” as in commands from the regular, “real” DIs, “Hey shithead (that would be me), go for this, or go for that.”
Almost every day, someone in our two-barracks group received a rejection notice from OCS. When we came in at night a mattress would be folded back and the bed coverings gone — like tombstones of the departed.
Five weeks after I graduated from AIT we heard that someone across post in another holding company had been accepted to OCS for the November 1964 class. Following this first acceptance, we all had new hope, but then came a spate of rejection notices. Our eighty-man group was reduced to twenty. One barracks was closed, and we finally moved down to a single floor. Every night, another mattress had been turned down. We continued to hear of other candidates receiving acceptance, but no one in our group had been selected.
I came in one night from a long march with the basic training company and found a notice to see the first sergeant at our holding company headquarters. He and I had had a run-in during the previous week over the weekend duty roster, and he had threatened to put a reprimand in my OCS application folder. He was an unlikable, crass individual and I knew the message to see him was related to extra duty that weekend. He was in the company commander’s office when I entered the orderly room. The door was open and the commander caught my eye and motioned me into his office. I was sweaty and dirty from the road march and regretted not cleaning up before answering the first sergeant’s summons, but I walked in and saluted. The commander stuck out his hand and said, “Congratulations.” I had been accepted for the November OCS class.”
And later in the book…
“On November 15, 1964, after home leave, I drove my uncle’s maroon 1949 Ford from Southern Pines to the Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Parked across the street from the three-story barracks of the OCS company that I was to join, I sat silently smoking, as I watched new OCS candidates arrive. Immediately, they were set upon and summarily hazed by both the senior candidates in blue helmet liners and the more lethal commissioned officers assigned to the school as instructors. These officers, referred to as “Tac officers,” were cool predators, hanging back in the shadows until they decided on a new candidate to attack. They walked up to a new man, called him to attention over some slight, got close to him and talked angrily — sometimes fast but sometimes, for effect, very slowly. Even from where I sat it was apparent that the comments of the Tac officers were hard-hitting, as they evoked painful grimaces from the candidates.
I resolved to ignore them — that had been Cottonpicker’s advice. Show no emotion, take nothing personal, find out what you are expected to do, and do it. “It’s not a personality contest,” he had said. “OCS is a six-month test to find the fuck-ups. That’s it. Don’t fuck up. You got it more’n half licked getting to the school. That’s the hard part. Don’t fuck up. Don’t try too hard. They’ll try to break you down, you’re going to get tired and sometimes you’re going to want to quit, just keep on. Don’t show emotion. Keep on. Don’t fuck up.”
I put out my cigarette, got my duffel bag out of the trunk, and walked across the street. As I expected, I was immediately attacked by blue-helmeted upperclassmen. I stood at attention and responded to their loud orders to get my chin in, suck in my gut, straighten up my back, get my gig line straight.
“I saw you sitting in the car across the street, candidate.”
Someone had come up to my right side and was talking into my ear. His voice was lower in tone but clearer than the voices of the upperclassmen yelling in my face about my shave and haircut. I could feel the man’s breath.
“I do not know why you were sitting in your car for so long, but I do not like it.”
The man moved in front of me, his nose a couple of inches from mine. The blue-helmeted upperclassmen moved aside, as if they were getting out the way so the big dog could eat.
”I do not like sneaky people. The Army wants its officers to be upright. Men of character.” He continued to speak in a low, soft voice. “You, I am going to watch very closely. This is no joke, candidate. I don’t like you. I am going to get you out of here. I don’t like your looks, I don’t like your sitting in a car spying. You are finished before you start because you’re a sneak. You’re finished, I guarantee it. I’m going to kick your sniveling little young ass out. I’m gonna do it. I promise.”
I looked straight ahead into the distance and did not focus on the Tac officer in front of me. I tried to show no emotion. He stepped back.
”Look at me. Look at my face. Look at my name. I am Tactical Officer Lieutenant Taylor. Every time you see me for the next week — every time you see me — drop down and give me twenty push-ups. You understand? It’s going to be my way of telling you to get out.”
”Yes, sir,” I shouted.
”Drop now, and count them out loud.”
I did the push-ups. When I got back to my feet beside my duffel bag, Taylor was gone.”
Within hours, all the new OCS candidates were sectioned into platoons in the company street and our Tac Officer moved from the side to our front. Again this from LThe Vietnam War Its Ownself:
“My name is Lieutenant Joseph C. Hailey,” he said in a conversational tone. “I am the 4th Platoon Tactical officer. The U.S. Army has asked me to find out who among you isn’t qualified to be an officer. And you know what, most of you aren’t. Not,” he said, with emphasis, “because you aren’t smart. You are all smart enough. Not,” he said, again with emphasis, “because you don’t want to be officers. You all do. No, most of you are not qualified because of,” he paused for emphasis, “need. The U.S. Army just doesn’t have much room in the officer corps right now. It doesn’t matter if you are all relatives of MacArthur or Eisenhower, the Army doesn’t need us to manufacture many second lieutenants. They’re going to take the West Pointer and the ROTC grads first, and this year there’re plenty. So there are not many openings. Sorry,” he said. “It’s just the way it is. Most of you are going to be weeded out.
At the end of the first week, we were introduced to the most insidious aspect of the weeding-out process — the infamous “bayonet” sheets, in which everyone ranked everyone else in the platoon. Every Friday each member of the platoon submitted, on a single sheet of notebook paper, names of all the other men in the platoon listed in order, according to the way we judged their individual officer potential. The man we thought would make the best officer was number one, the man we thought was least qualified, was last. The “bayonet” sheet got its name because of the knife job that one could do on his contemporaries. With thirty-five people in the platoon submitting a bayonet sheet every week for eleven weeks, a lot of evaluation was developed. The total process, called peer or student rating, counted for much in assessing the overall officer potential of each candidate.”
Not a very easy road ahead for us…. And me… I had this fucking Lt Taylor on my ass. He was everywhere. It was as if I couldn’t get away from the wise guy and all his “I’m goin’ to get your ass out of here. You aren’t officer material.”
For almost nothing he’d call me out from ranks and have me run around the company as we marched to and from training session. 220 men started out in our company, but like Hailey had said that first day, most would be kicked out. Taylor told me again and again that I was a goner. He said I was trash and he didn’t want to share a commission in the US Army with shit like me.
My nemesis Tac Office Taylor
Somewhere that first week, at a time Taylor wasn’t in my face, the guy standing next to me – I was Parker, he was Peterson – whispered something about this great friendship I had somehow developed with the good Lt Taylor.
“You want an introduction?” I responded.
“Nope,” he half-whispered back, “I don’t want him to know my name.”
When we received the order to fall out to class soon thereafter, I looked at the candidate who had spoken. His name was Larry (“Pete”) Peterson and I learned later that he was from Lincoln, Nebraska. Before coming to OCS he had been the PFC driver for the commander of a medical battalion at the Fort Benning hospital. Of medium build, he was wholesome looking, straight-forward and he cackled when he laughed.
Tac Officer Taylor’s attentions continued. Pete thought it was because Taylor sensed — right or wrong — that I had a cocky attitude. Pete worked with me on appearing humble, but he finally gave up, “I reckon you’re just an asshole, Parker, and Taylor seems to know that.”
We worked well together, Pete and I. Although our mutual sense of fun and irreverence was a liability. As the weeks progressed, we became more accepting of the traditional OCS hazing and no longer took the constant harassment personally… except with Taylor, who never ever let up. But then every day Pete told me to keep my pecker up. “We’re goin’ to make it. You’re goin’ to do OK,” he’d say and smile or slap me on the back. I don’t remember him having any doubt himself about getting through. Sumbitch was just crazy optimistic. He just didn’t figure the odds or something. But I sure appreciated his confidence.
Every Friday we filled out the bayonet sheet… Pete and I agreed that sometimes you had to work the system for it to work for you, so on each of our sheets we had the other as the # 1 candidate in our judgement in the platoon… figuring it might be needed later during tabulations before the 11th week panel, a time ostensibly for candidates who were not doing well to go before a board of Officers to answer to their standings in the platoon. Pete and I had no idea how we stood in the platoon.
We were rooming together Friday morning, January 29, 1965 when the panel took place… the night before we had sat at our desks in absolute terror as candidate after candidate in our platoon, and throughout the company, were called down and given a time to appear before the panel.
We were not paneled – everyone who was, was dismissed from the OCS program, although a handful were given the opportunity to be recycled.
The next day – our company now at half the size it was before – Taylor came by where I was standing at attention in formation and gave me a blank look. Not mocking or mean… just blank.
Then in the 12th or 13th week, it happened… I was laying on top of my made-up bunk – Pete was across the room… when it came to me… that I was goin’ to graduate, failing some major mistake on my part. Or Pete’s. We were going to get a commission in the US Army and my life was goin’ to be OK. It was an enormously wonderful feeling… a world of improvement from a skin head, ugly, Private E-nothing feelings I had in basic training.
I’ve often wondered if I could have done it without Pete. I don’t think so. Pete never wavered from saying “We can do this.” When it finally dawned on me, “He’s right, we can do this thing. I’m going to get my commission.” I have always taken great confidence in that moment, goin’ on now 50 years later.
Pete and I did graduate… our proud parents were there for the occasions. He and I were assigned as brand spanking new 2nd Lieutenants to the 1st Division at Fort Riley and due some finagling on someone’s part, we got assigned to the same Company “A,” 1st/28th Infantry Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division… I had the 3rd platoon, Pete the 4th.
We gyroed over to Vietnam together, were wounded on the same day – Pete much more seriously than me – and we eventually ended up together back in the states at Fort Ord, California in the fall of 1967, living together in a house we rented in the Carmel Highlands right up the hill from Kim Novak… where one Saturday afternoon he saved my life. But those are other stories.
Our house in the Carmel Highlands overlooking the Pacific
I got out of the US Army after Fort Ord. Pete stayed in and went to helicopter pilots school, and then back to Vietnam where he flew combat missions almost every day. He retired from the military as a highly decorated Lt Col and taught the 7th and 8th grade in a Lincoln, Nebraska middle-school until 2012, when he retired to help his lovely wife putter around their Lincoln, Nebraska house.
I’ve often said I’ve been blessed in life by many of the people I’ve known, but none compare with the love I feel towards that guy, a much better man than I’ll ever be.
But listen, if you ever see him in Lincoln and ask after our time together, whatever he has to say about the life insurance policies we took out on each other before we shoved off for Vietnam, or any article in The Parade supplement to most Sunday papers… anything about insurance or The Parade, don’t believe him. That’s all I ask.
We adopted our daughter Mim in Udorn, Thailand a week after we adopted our son Joseph. It’s a long involved story of how all that happened, for another telling. As a two/almost three-year old, she was an exotic looking kid. Stunning. No every day child.
She would often take off my boots when I came back from assignments upcountry and painted my toenails. Every one. And especially as a kid she had an impish personality. She was my pride and joy. Just a gorgeous child, my best friend. Playful, laughing. Later as a young teen she was a professional model – had an assignment in Japan, had a singing voice that could reach the high notes, went to prep school in Hawaii and then later was one of the most popular girls in the American school in Bangkok… vivacious, well-rounded, thoughtful.
As things worked out she finished her last year of high school in McLean, Virginia and was accepted to both the voice and dance department of Shenandoah Conservatory in the fall of 1987 where entrance officials said she had the making of a professional singer.
But something happened her senior year at McLean and she was not as perfect a daughter as she had been or pretended to be in years past. She drew away from me and was constantly at odds with Brenda over everything. We tried counseling, family talks. Written contracts. Brenda and I both just didn’t understand what was happening, what made things so bad. I considered quitting the Agency. Moving to some rural area of Montana or somewhere. Anything to keep the family together. There were times where things appeared to be getting back to normal, but then she wouldn’t come home some week-night when she had left supposedly to go to the library.
And then one day, I was working at Hqs and I got a call from Brenda. She said she and Mim had had words, Mim had hit her and left the house…. Never, really, ever to return.
The silent “Ah!?:”
My Aunt Wilma – a full-time teacher who was at the same time a full-time farmer – had a gift of making personal connections with people. On trips back to the farm where my father was raised, or to Aunt Wilma’s and Uncle Paul’s farm nearby, I’d wait my time to talk privately with her. For as long as I can remember that was my habit, to hang back, waiting for others in my family to go first. I’d be doing boy things on the farm – checking out the mules and the goats and hunting dogs and the hogs – but staying close, keeping her in the corner of my eye, waiting.
And when I finally got her one on one, she’d smile the biggest smile and say, “Jimmmmeee. How are you doing?” And as impossible as it might seem after an hour sometimes talking with others, she always gave me the impression that she was sincerely excited to be talking with me… and was really interested in what was going on in my life.
She encouraged my imagination, loved wild stories. With her sharp old eyes dancing, she’d ask questions about my school and my plans and maybe about some trouble she had heard I had gotten into. And she was never rushed. I never remember her saying, well I’ve got this other thing to do and we’ll continue talking later. She never had anything more important than talking with me. And she told me often when we finished, that I was special. She’d say, sometimes in a low voice meant just for me, “Now you remember this, Jimmy Parker, you are special. You have gifts. You’re special. Hear me good. You are special. Believe me. I know.”
My problem was that away from her, I wasn’t special. Not as a ten-year old. Or a twelve-year old. I wasn’t particularly fast or smart or cute or popular or athletic. What made me special, I always wondered on the way home from our visits? Where did she get that? But she seemed so sure! She never lied that I know of. She said she knew. Special? Special! ”Ah???!!!” And in time, that “Ah???!!!” became part of the way I thought of myself.
In my lifetime I have been called a vainglorious jerk, hircine, arrogant and insensitive… and probably all that fits.
But, my Aunt Wilma said I was special… so what you goin’ do?