Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Walnut St. Berkeley - Home for a bit

While I was being trained as a combat medic, I was "put on orders" to report to Letterman General Hospital.  I was living in barracks at Ft. Sam, but almost without notice, I was given a plane ticket back to Berkeley with instructions to report to the hospital.  Sarah had given up our beautiful Berkeley apartment and was preparing to drive to Texas.  Within a few days, that trip was cancelled and I flew home.

We rather quickly found a new apartment in Berkeley on Haste Street.. In fact, Sarah found it.  It was furnished and down a rather dark hallway.  It was near campus.
Walnut St. in Berkeley

In the span of a few days, I went from waiting for orders to Vietnam to unpacking in a new strange apartment with my wife.  This was a brief stay before we moved, yet again.

The war was churning. I reported to the hospital.

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Can an institution be rambling? The hospital was a huge single story structure made of wood.  At the main entrance, there was a typical drive around spot with a flag pole in the middle.  Of course, there were rocks painted white to denote the road. Flowers grew around the rocks were carefully tended by prisoners with a large “P” painted on their denim jackets.  They were guarded by men with shotguns.  The scene was never noteworthy.  You saw it but never looked carefully.

Inside the hallways was a painted wooden floor. The floor had slats of wood which caused rolling gurney’s to make a staccato and precise sound.  If you stopped to listen it was a constant roar throughout the hospital.

Along the many long hallways that connected the wards, there were windows with window seats.  The patients wore dark blue pajamas that were heavy.  Patients could wear them outside on a cold and foggy San Francisco day.  The pajamas had matching jackets for those extra cold days.

The window seats were a good spot to rest as you navigated the hall. Depending on their level of recovery, young men would pull and steady themselves using the handrails along every hall.

 Occasionally there would be heavy swinging doors that defined different wards.  People on crutches or with new prostethics took these doors as challenges.  Fully functional people were never allowed to help. That was part of the culture.  Every patient had to struggle with each door and an observer no matter how troubled must never help. To do so was to invite cursing and anger. You might even evoke misplaced rage by a boy on crutches with 1 real leg.

I had a very easy job working as a social work technician in the psych ward.  Surrounded by variously wounded soldiers, I knew I was a very lucky person since I had not yet received “orders” to go to Vietnam.

After lunch, each day, we would cluster around the mail room. Since we were in San Francisco, not far from the United States, it was not mail we were seeking. It was “orders.”  If you received orders they came on a yellow sheet of paper.  So, as we craned our necks to look into the mail room, we each learned to spot our little mail slot located on a huge rack.  If nothing was there, we could relax for another day. 

Each day some of us did get orders, so that kept us coming back.  Typically those that were called just disappeared into the machine. They would pack up and depart.  No farewells were spoken.  If you had a good friend you might get a postcard some day.

I did get a postcard but it was from a college friend. He was indeed in Vietnam and somehow knew where I was stationed.  He told me his friend John had lost a leg and was coming to Letterman. He asked me to find John.

In a time before computers and in a hospital with 1000 patients, finding John became a quest.  Each day, all new admissions were put onto a 3X5 card.  A fresh deck of such cards was sent all over the hospital each morning.

I read the cards for weeks with religious determination to find this stranger who was a kindred spirit and another stranger in the army.

I found him.

He was on a ward for persons who had lost 1 or more legs.  I went to the ward and found it completely empty.  I wandered around and found a medic who knew of John and told me that John was in surgery but soon, very soon, he would be out of surgery and standing on his new leg.  That was an important part of recovery. Get up quickly.

The ward was, as all such things in an Army hospital, pristine and orderly. The beds were all in perfect alignment. There were perhaps 60 beds.  Pillows were centered on skin tight sheets.  But something was strange. There were prosthetic legs standing at attention near the foot of several beds.  They were waiting.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Army Years

I lived for a short period of time in barracks but for most of my two years, I lived right in good old Berkeley.  But to begin this period, I took an early morning bus to Ft Ord. The barracks look pretty modern, but austerity was on the inside.
Ft. Ord - 1966
Although I only lived there about 10 weeks, it is a vivid memory.  In fact the flood of memories is so intense, it is hard to select a few words.

We lived in large rooms with bunk beds stacked quite close.  Part of the training involved obsessive concerns about cleanliness, floor polishing and sweeping.  That is not unexpected, but I was surprised that we were ordered to keep the large windows open all night.  It seemed, I arrived in the midst of a meningitis outbreak.

I left Ft. Ord around Christmas time to go to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas for training as a combat medic  In fact, it was a great First Aid Course.  If you ignore their emphasis on sucking chest wounds and the construction of field morgues, it was pretty useful. 

At Ft. Sam, I spent much of my free time trying to get a specialty assignment into mental health.  It was my first big foray into the world of self advocacy in a complex bureaucracy.  Here I got critical life lessons that I have used forever.  Some of the things I learned: "Never act too smart."  "Learn to act confused and helpless as the situation may require." "You can often change your own fate."

Using these ideas , I was pulled out of Combat Medic School and sent to Letterman General Hospital to be a social worker in a psychiatric unit.  From the specter of future combat to two years
working in a safe hospital in San Francisco.
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Scenic Avenue - Berkeley, 1966

On the Northside of the Berkeley campus, there was a lovely residential area.  As students, we never went there.  In fact, I think we went 4 years without ever seeing a child. We stayed on the South side in the student zone.  But after graduation and working only a year, Sarah and I were ready to move up.  We were driving around in the hilly area on Northside just near Peets, an unusual coffee place that served espresso.  We spotted a for rent sign high above the street.  We parked our VW bug and knocked on a door and before long we had a new apartment.

The Scenic Apartment
We found a place on the 3rd floor. It had an Italian ornate fireplace with sculpted plaster balustrades around the fireplace.  The front door was all glass with stained glass panels.  We had hardwood floors and we were immediately visited by our neighbor below us to beg us to either get carpets or take off our shoes.

Oh! I must mention the Bay views. Out our windows we had the most amazing views which we enjoyed. The 3 flights of stairs seemed no problem for two young people. Did we complain about the climb? I don't recall.

Unfortunately, I only lived in this wonderful place for about 2 months. My draft notice came and I went.  Sarah stayed and continued to work at the University Extension service while her husband went off to be in the Army.

We had never had more than 2 rooms and for this place we visited the used furniture stores on San Pablo Avenue.  For less than $100 we bought a huge dining room table with 6 chairs.  It was an elaborate dark wood table with extensions to allow for big parties.  We dragged that monster around for many years.

I was working as a Deputy Probation Officer and drove to Oakland each day.  I spent my days interviewing low level offenders and then writing court recommendations.  I used a machine to dictate and then a typist would produce a document for the judge. The report had 3 copies and the typist used carbon paper. Each correction involved fixing 3 copies. Arg!!! Hard to imagine.

Jill,  who did my typing also helped me with my adventures with my Draft Board. I had been seeking a deferment, but got none. As the time approached, I desperately wanted to know what was happening.   Jill and I plotted a strategy.  She would call the draft board pretending to be Sarah and then she would plead that we needed to know because ... some piteous story.
An unwelcome notice from Selective Service
Who knows what we said 50 years ago, but it was said.  The person at the draft board did take pity and told us to get ready that my notice was coming. It did.



Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Our first apartment

Our First Apartment on Haste St. in Berkeley
I recently discovered that I could use the internet to find all of the 17 places I have lived.  Within a few hours, I had pictures of all my homes.

Our very first apartment was on Haste Street directly across the street from Herrick hospital. We could walk to the University from this home. It was a real apartment. It had wall-to-wall carpeting, a sliding door that lead to a tiny patio. We bought a hibachi for that patio/ balcony. It was totally grand.  The rent was about $130.00.

Until I was aggressively invited into the US Army (along with 43,000 other men), I lived with my new wife Sarah.  I worked as a deputy probation officer and Sarah worked for the University Extension service.  For a brief period we felt rich. Two incomes, no debts.  I once bought 8 white shirts for work and paid cash; Whoohoo!! We shopped at Safeway and bought Dungenes crab and sometimes steak.

Without children, we visited with friends and briefly enjoyed being out of school.  Sarah graduated a semester after me since she worked while I finished off at Berkeley.   For those few months, we did have some fun. We went to wineries  in Napa. The wine was free for tasting.  We drove across the bay to Golden Gate Park. We smoked marijuana and drank very cheap wine.

 I worried constantly about the draft, but I could put it out of my mind and I don't think we really understood that it was  truly  coming.

We watched the nightly news and read the San Francisco Chronicle.  The Vietnam War was the news I watched the most.  The Berkeley campus was tremendously focused on the war, but we were done with school. We were in the real world and rarely went back "on campus."

Some time after we began to live on Haste Street, Sarah's mother and father separated.  The result was that our little apartment suddenly had a tearful mother with two children (Gazelle and Fred) in tow.  They had left LA suddenly and we took them in.

I was not terribly kind or generous since we now had 5 people in a 1 bedroom apartment.  I think we had been married just over 1 year.  Sarah's mother was a LVN (Licensed Vocational Nurse) and found work very quickly.  She got  an apartment and moved nearby.  None-the-less, our life was pre-occupied with helping Sarah's mother and familly.  I was 23 years old at this point. We were not happy.  Or I should say, I was not happy.

Around this time, the draft began to get real.  I had tried to get a deferral based on my occupation.  I failed at that. My request was denied.  I didn't have the resources for legal help and really didn't try very hard to avoid the draft.  Things at home were very chaotic.  Looking back, I saw the tusunami coming and just stood there.

I got "the letter" to report for duty October 20th, 1966. That was the day,  my father got up at 5:00 a.m. to drive me to the Long Beach induction center.  It was still dark when I took my little bag and went on to the bus. In the darkness, I hoped my father did not cry, but I know he did.

But before I left, in the early part of October, Sarah and I went to the Grand Canyon for a "vacation."  What a ludicrous thing it was.  We tried hard to enjoy the time we had.  We walked down the a path into the canyon and then dragged ourselves back up just as the sun set.  We were both very sore and exhausted.  We went to the El Tovar hotel and drank wine.  I had an inkling that I was in terrible shape and the Army would not be a good experience.

The last night before my dad took me to report, Sarah and I went to a bar that served rum drinks in ceramic coconuts. I staggered badly when I stood up in the bar. Later, hat same evening, I drove Sarah to LAX so she could return to Berkeley.  I had the foresight to avoid a farewell the next morning The farewell at the airport was awful.  In those days, you could accompany people right to the departure gate.  We both cried.  There was a war on and we didn't know just what was going to happen.