Adjusting to life's changes with hope… through poetry, haiku, and commentary

Chapter 4: AFEES, Newark NJ


I opened the heavy door and stepped inside. The first thing I noticed was the sign, START HERE, in a metal frame standing on the highly polished floor. A bright yellow line painted on the floor proceeded from there.

The building smelled of years of floor wax, strong disinfectant, and the sweat of young men. My eyes followed the yellow line. The line made its way from the front door to a desk then made a right down a long hallway. A black line went from the same desk to another hall on the other side. There was another hallway off of this main vestibule, with a white line. Alan got in line behind the other young men waiting their turn to check in at the desk. This would be the first stop of many along the yellow line.

The sound of typewriters echoed down the hallways. I turned around as the door behind me opened and shut. A big fellow with red hair moved in line behind me. I couldn’t help but notice how happy this guy was. I was faced with ineffable joy and didn’t know how to respond to it. I couldn’t stop staring. I never saw anyone so happy. I fluctuated between different levels of melancholy, not different levels of happy. I guess that his freckles and thick carrot red hair didn’t bother him. He was just happy. Before I could turn around, the big fellow engaged me with a one-word question.

“Army?”

“Yes. Army Security Agency. ASA for four years. You?”

“The name is Tom, but everyone calls me Red. Yep, ASA. Ditty bopper? Monterey Mary?”

“Name’s Alan. Ditty what, Monterey who?”

Red laughed. “I guess you’re not going to be a ditty bopper either. The MOS is 05H for Morse Intercept Operator. I thought foreign language study and a 98G was a better deal. I believe we get to wear the ASA unit patch at language school.”

“Voice intercept operator sounded good to me, too.”

“Yeah, better than a poke in the eye with a stick or the Marines. Of course, we got to pass the language test to get it. I think we take it after lunch sometime.”

The soldier at the desk looked let go with a loud, “NEXT!”

“Talking about lunch, I hope it is soon. I’m hungry already.” Red laughed and tapped me on the shoulder to get me to turn around.

“That would be you, Four Eyes!”

I approached the desk.

Four eyes? That was original. Not much I can say. My dad told me, my friend’s dad told me, my uncle told me, and my neighbor, too. They all told me to keep my mouth shut, do what I’m told, and never volunteer for anything. I guess it starts now.

The clerk at the desk was a private first class. A PFC with power. He knew it and loved his job.

“Full name?”

“Alan Slaff. S as in Sam, L-A-double F as in Frank Frank.”

“Full name, Four Eyes. You have a middle name?”

I responded loud enough for only the clerk to hear, “Leslie.”

I tried to hand him one of the papers that I got from the Department of the Army, but the PFC didn’t want to see it. He flipped through some pages he had on a clipboard. I moved closer trying to read upside down leaning over the desk.

“Hey, Four Eyes. You see the yellow line on the floor in front of the desk?

I looked down. My feet were under the front of the desk. The yellow line was behind me.

“Yes.”

“Get behind the yellow line.”

I jumped back. The PFC continued to flip pages, checked something off, and turned to his typewriter. He slammed the return. The paper jumped. Down two lines to the next empty row, with a little manual adjustment. The PFC could do it in his sleep. He typed. Tabbed. Typed, tabbed, and typed. He fiddled with a two-hole punch and added a few pages on both sides of a thick manila folder to the long metal clips.

“Ok, Slaff, follow the yellow line down the hall to the right to Mr. Tanaka at Station #1. Keep this folder with you at all times. You will take it station to station. Here are two meal tickets you can use in the cafeteria next door for your two meal breaks. Here is a claim ticket for your suitcase. You will come back and claim it after processing today. First, follow the black line down the hall to the left to the baggage room. Don’t lose the ticket. Then, come back to my desk and follow the yellow line to Station #1. After lunch, report to room 201 Alpha no later than thirteen hundred for your language test.”

I turned, “See you later, Red.”

“Later, Alan.”

Thirteen hundred! So the military lingo begins!

I started down the hallway. There were a few offices on both sides of the hall. I continued along the yellow line. I smelled something in the corridor. Mr. Tanaka sat on a high stool just beyond the station marker. I stopped in front of him.

“Name?”

“Slaff.”

“Give me your file.” Mr. Tanaka reached into an open box on a stack of boxes along the wall near him and handed me a small glass bottle with a screw on lid. Mr. Tanaka reached into another box and gave me a net bag.

“Go in the latrine. Put all clothes except your underwear and shoes in the bag. And pishinthebottle. Don’t come out until you pishinthebottle. There are paper cups in the latrine for drinking water. You must fill the bottle above the red line. More okay. Less not okay. Okay?”

I get it. Maybe this guy is a holdover from World War II, sent to Newark, and he’s still here. Great. And if I don’t piss in the bottle, I won’t get out of this building either.

“Okay. Thanks.”

I took the bottle and net bag. The smell of urine was stronger in the latrine. One guy moved past me going back out to Mr. Tanaka, carefully holding his full bottle. A little guy was sitting on the floor in his underwear with a net bag and bottle.

I asked, “Hey, you okay?”

“I’ve been trying to piss for over an hour. The Army sucks. Their idea, not mine.”

“Good luck.”

I looked for a stall with a dry floor. I entered the stall and stood there with the bottle in hand. And, I stood there. And I stood there some more.

That is all I need, to have my dad told I failed a piss test. Finally! I’m out of this smelly latrine.

I got undressed without letting my bare feet touch the floor. When I came out and turned around, I saw the same little guy enter a stall. Then, I heard the sound of breaking glass followed by an “Oh shit.” He headed out for another bottle.

I returned to Mr. Tanaka, turned in my bottle, got my file, and continued down the yellow line with my net bag in hand. I made it through one test station after another. Doctors prodded, probed, and pushed. Finally, a doctor with a white medical robe over his uniform called my name.

“Slaff!”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Go back to the latrine and get dressed. Put your net bag in the large canvas basket in the latrine. Then go back to the main door and go outside. Continue down the stairs. The cafeteria building will be on your right. Take your lunch break.”

“Thank you, Sir!”

I returned to the latrine. Both Mr. Tanaka and the little guy were gone. I got dressed and put the net bag in the basket. With my folder in hand, I followed the yellow line back to the main entrance area and made my way to the cafeteria. The cold fresh air felt good.

I entered the cafeteria, got in line, took a tray, and looked down the hot line. The steam table was scorching. It made gravy look like glue. I passed on the water-logged corn-on-the-cob. The giant hotdogs caught my eye. I got them with beans and fries. It came with two slices of white bread, two pats of butter, and a plastic cup to get milk from the dispenser.

At the register, I gave the clerk one of my meal tickets. I walked over to the milk machine. One spout was regular milk; the other was chocolate. I put a little of the chocolate into my cup and tasted it.

The chocolate milk is too sweet!

So I filled my plastic glass with about half chocolate and the rest white milk. I picked up a knife, fork, and a few napkins. I saw Red sitting alone at a table in the back. Red waved at me to join him. As I put my tray down, I noticed that Red was eating something with gravy and mashed potatoes.

“Hey Red, how’s it going? What did you get?”

“Supposed to be chicken fried steak. Not sure what it is. But the gravy’s hot. Doing okay so far. They don’t tell you anything at the test stations.”

So, we sat, talked, and compared notes on everything from high school to our recruiters and our morning activities.

The time passed quickly. We stood outside and talked until it was time to take the language test. Red lit up another Lucky Strike. I re-lit a pipe that I had in my jacket pocket. The weather was getting colder. When it was time, we ran up the stairs and entered the main building. I noticed that it was a different PFC at the front desk.

I wonder where Hitler went.

Red asked directions. We followed the black line to a stairwell which took us upstairs to a quiet floor lined with classrooms. The door to 201A was partly open. We entered. Some people were sitting in the room. I noticed that no one sat together. Then I noticed that a booklet and two pencils were sitting on every other desk in each row, staggered, so no one was directly next to or behind anyone. The sergeant sitting at the desk at the front of the classroom spoke.

“Men, give me your folders. I’ll give them back to you after the test. Take a seat anywhere you see a test and pencils. Do not open the test booklet until I tell you to do so. No talking.”

I looked around. They were all right-handed desks. No matter, nothing new for a lefty in a right-handed world. Red and I sat in the same row.

The sergeant looked at the clock on the wall, got up, closed the door, and returned to the front of the room facing the class.

“Men, you have two hours to take this test. When you finish the test, bring the test booklet, the answer sheet, and the pencils up to me. At any time during the examination if you have a question, raise your hand, and I will come to you. If you need another pencil, raise your hand. No talking. If I think you are cheating, it is an automatic fail. When you leave this room, quietly close the door, and proceed back to Station #7 for your final evaluation of the day. After you fill in the cover information on the lines provided, go to page one. Read the three sample questions and answers so you know how to complete the test. Begin now.”

Ten minutes into the test, everyone was surprised to see a fellow get up, move to the front, and turn in his test. About an hour and a half into the exam, Red finished. I didn’t like tests. Tests make me nervous. With five minutes left, I figured I was finished. I turned in my test and left the room.

I got to Station #7. It had a row of chairs in the hallway. I took the next open seat. A doctor stuck his head out into the hall.

“Next.” The man in the first seat stood up, handed the doctor his file and disappeared inside. Everyone waiting got up and moved down one chair. Finally, I was closest to the door.

“Next.” I got up and moved inside.

An older doctor in uniform watched me enter, “Give me your folder, son, and take a seat on the gurney over there.”

He had a stethoscope around his neck, sat down at a desk, added papers to the file, then asked me to open my shirt. The doctor checked my ears. He thumped me on the chest and back to listen to me breathe, then told me to open my mouth.

The doctor reached into a glass jar on a cart, grabbed a wooden tongue depressor, and put it into my mouth.

“Wider, son.”

I thought I was going to gag. The doctor threw the depressor into a trash can, returned to the desk and made some notes. Then he turned toward me and said, “Slaff, you like girls?”

What kind of question is that? I like girls. I just don’t know any at the moment. Is he trying to trip me up on something here?

“Yes, I like girls. I don’t…” The doctor cut me off.

“That will be all, Slaff. At 18:00, after your dinner break, report to the auditorium. Follow the black line from the main entrance. Any questions?”

“My folder?”

“Your folder is now my folder. Like you, it is now the property of US Government. That is all, Slaff.”

I made my second trip to the cafeteria. It was more crowded than lunch. The steam table was about the same, except that they added spaghetti. I went for the spaghetti and handed the clerk my last meal ticket. I made the chocolate-white milk mix again. This time I sat alone. Trying not to be seen was second nature. I ate, watched, and listened.

A quick twenty minutes later I was back outside. Red was standing with a few other guys. I stayed by himself. and sat on the steps. I took my pipe out, fiddled with it, clean it, filled it but didn’t get time to light it. The crowd of young men started to move back inside to the auditorium.

Two sergeants stood at the door and directed draftees, known as US, to one side of the room and enlistees, known as RA for Regular Army, to the other side. Two large groups started to form in the large open area behind the rows of chairs facing the front podium.

A Marine sergeant standing in the front of the room blew a whistle. The room got quiet. No one moved. “Listen up. Listen up. For “US” only. You men on this side. “US” only. Form a single line from me to the back of the room. Let’s go. If I tap you on the shoulder, report to the corporal here.”

The Marine sergeant made his way down the line of men touching every fourth man on the shoulder. “One, two, three, Marine. One, two, three, Marine. Move over there, son, you are a Marine now. You belong to me.”

I watched some guy toward the back of the line tap the person in front of him on the shoulder. I could hear him say, “Hey, change places with me. Come on, change.” They changed places.

The Marine sergeant came closer continuing his count. At the sound of the next “one, two, three, Marine”, the Marine sergeant’s hand fell on the shoulder of the fellow who made the other person changes places.

“Sarge, it can’t be me. I’m not a Marine. You didn’t count right.”

The Marine sergeant stared at him, “You are mine, bud,” and pointed toward the corporal. The whole room watched as the young man blubbered all the way to the corporal.

The other sergeant, an Army sergeant, could be heard over the laughter. “Men, take your seats. RA on this side. US and other services on that side. When the captain enters, I will call you to attention. That means you will stand up, face front, and no talking.”

I moved into the row nearest to me. The room got quiet.

“Ten-HUT! On your feet!”

The sounds of chairs scooting back and men getting to their feet filled the room as a captain entered and walked to the podium microphone.

The captain said, “Men, for this special occasion on the 28th of September 1965, please stand and repeat after me.”

I, (state your full name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

I repeated it like the captain said, but there was a lump in my throat the size of a tennis ball. There wasn’t a sound in the room after that.

“Men, congratulations. Remain standing. Sergeant!”

The Army sergeant came forward and changed places with the captain. The captain left the room. The sergeant spoke.

“Men. Listen up. When I dismiss you, go from here to the baggage claim room on the main floor. Use your baggage claim ticket to get your bags. Go out the main entrance and down the stairs to the street level. You will see the bus transportation. On the sidewalk in front of the buses, see the uniformed service member of the service you joined today. He will give you your file in a large envelope with your name and bus number on it. The driver will help you get your bags loaded on the bus. Then board and take a seat. The buses will be leaving around 19:00. Dismissed.”

Nothing new for me. Spent most of my life dismissed. This is just a new type of dismissed.

The room emptied slowly forming a long line of men getting their bags and moving outside on the sidewalk.

I got my file. The sergeant called it my “201 personnel file.” I handed the driver my mom’s suitcase, which the driver stored in a compartment under the bus. Then, I boarded the bus. It was already dark, and I was starting to get tired. It was a long day. My bus was going to Ft. Dix, New Jersey, a few hours south of here.

The bus was filling up fast. I took a seat next to a window. Red was sitting a few seats back. The guy next to me on the aisle was playing cards with a guy across the aisle. Some loudmouth got on the bus and started looking for a seat. Most of the young men still had their regular haircuts, but this guy had his head shaved. And when he laughed, he was missing half his upper teeth on one side of his mouth.

I was thinking, “I’m glad this card shark is sitting with me. Toothless will have to find a seat somewhere else.”

Toothless bragged, “I’m going to kill me some Viet Cong.” He repeated this as he moved down the aisle. A big black guy with fists as big as hams stuck out his foot. Toothless tripped and fell to the floor. The bus roared. Toothless squirmed into a seat without a sound.

I saw the same PFC who called me four eyes get on the bus.

“Listen up. When I call your name, answer, Here, PFC.”

Wonderful! Hitler’s back.

The PFC called off all the names from a list on a clipboard, marking them off as he went. Only two didn’t answer. He called each of them twice. The PFC left the bus. The driver closed the door, turned the overhead lights off, and pulled out from the line of buses.

I dozed off from time to time. At first, I recognized parts of the highway. Then I didn’t know where I was. I woke up when the bus turned off the highway onto a two-lane local road. For a while, I couldn’t see a thing out the window other than pitch black and an occasional street light.

The men started to wake up when the bus stopped at the entrance to Ft. Dix. Military police waved the bus through. The bus came to a stop in a big parking lot in front of a large complex of single story wooden buildings.

The overhead lights in the bus came on. The door opened. A sergeant appeared up front.

“Let’s go people. Off the bus. Get the lead out! Move.”

I started to get up. My mouth felt like it was still asleep. The air felt colder as I got closer to the door. I stepped off the bus. It was cold. I looked at my watch. It was after ten p.m. As I moved with the group of men away from the bus, I saw him.

I don’t believe it. I can hardly move and this guy looks like he just got up after a good night’s sleep, shaved, and not a wrinkle in his uniform. Boots with a high shine. He’s just standing there with his hands behind his back looking at us. I think he’s a drill sergeant.

Our eyes met. I froze. The drill sergeant started to move.

Oh no, I think he’s headed straight for me.

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