Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween, 1997

I was at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Having graduated Army Basic Training in late June, and finished AIT (Advanced Individual Training) in mid-August, I spent the next 2 1/2 months on "security hold" while the Army untangled some snags in my background investigation. It was ironic, since I was an artillery Cannon Fire Direction Specialist, requiring a secret security clearance (my job required the handling of radio encryption material), whereas in the Navy I had been an intelligence specialist for eight years, holding a top secret/SCI clearance. Since I had also, on my return to the military, been demoted in rank, perhaps the FBI was concerned that I had taken leave of my senses?

I already knew that I had orders to South Korea. I will never forget the day I got the news back in June. I went and hid under my bunk, contemplating having to spend another year away from my wife and my 79-year-old mother. (My orders were to Area One, too close to the DMZ for the Army to allow my wife to accompany me.) But between Fort Sill and Korea, the Army gave me two weeks leave to savor, enough time to be with my family and to say my goodbyes, knowing it would be six months before I would be with them again.

But that Halloween, my leave commenced at midnight - 0001 hours. I was scheduled CQ (Charge of Quarters) right up to midnight, so when my watch was over, I walked from my barracks straight over to the CQ desk in the headquarters of Second of the Eightieth Field Artillery, where the duty NCO took one look at my BDUs and told me I had to sign out on leave in my Class A uniform. So I had to walk back through the dark to the room I shared with three other soldiers, change into my Class A's, dress shoes, garrison cap and all, and return to the CQ desk. The NCO didn't expect to see ribbons on my chest and service stripes on my sleeve. To him, I was just another private, despite my being an E-4 and having turned 39 - with nobody noticing - in the middle of Basic Training. He signed my leave papers, officially setting me free from that awful place. I still had to wait until 0800 hours, when my bus would pick me up in front of my barracks and take me home. Until then, I was effectively invisible. With my leave papers safely in my pocket, I didn't have to worry about being present and accounted for, no longer subject to the whims of Sergeant Majors or First Sergeants.

I was standing at the bus shelter at the appointed hour in the bright sun of a Halloween Friday in Oklahoma, with two well-stuffed duffel bags behind me, when one of my roommates named Bill Muffler, who was coming back from breakfast in the chow hall, saw me and approached me with the usual cigarette in his hand. "Well, Harpis?" he said smiling, mispronouncing my name the same way that an especially clueless drill sergeant had done some weeks before.

"Well, Mueller?" I answered. He asked me what time my bus was coming. "Any minute now," I said. (The bus was already late.) He put the cigarette in his mouth and took my hand with both of his. We said nothing. There was such unexpected emotion in his eyes that words were unnecessary. He was 30, a prior service MP who, like me, had come back to active duty through a window that recruiters had opened briefly. We told each other our stories over the course of several drinking bouts and our friendship was as close as the two and a half months we were stuck together as roommates would allow. Some months later in Korea I learned that the security hold he was on lasted well into 1998, when they decided to pull his orders to Germany and station him permanently at Fort Sill, situated near a town called Lawton in the godforsaken southwest corner of Oklahoma. I have tried and failed a few times since then to find him, not knowing if he stayed in the Army until retirement or if he had quit after doing his three years and gone home to Big Torch Key. Fellow suffering always has the effect of fostering comradeship among the unlikeliest people. This is what the military has always depended on.

When my TNM&O (Texas, New Mexico & Oklahoma) bus drove out of Fort Sill's front gate, past the Korean barber shops, massage parlors and strip clubs, the sudden access of emotion that I felt didn't compel me to go so far as to look back. When one's life is full of so many departures, the only direction, it seems, is straight ahead. I settled back for a long ride.

Despite the direction to Denver being northwest from Lawton, my bus first took me south all the way to Wichita Falls, Texas. (Of course, it made me think of the long Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays piece, "As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls.") At the terminal, the wait for the bus connecting to all points northwest was mercifully short. Once on the road (U.S. and local highways - my bus didn't go near any Interstates) we traveled more or less straight past Amarillo all the way through brown grasslands into southeastern Colorado.

Being on leave means that you're on the clock, that every moment spent in travel is a moment stolen from your family. I heard that Denver and the front range had been hit with an early snowstorm, so I expected some delay. What I didn't expect was that my bus would lose its hydraulics somewhere near Pueblo, and that the trip home would take thirteen hours out of my leave.

I phoned my wife on finally arriving in Denver in the evening. Despite my being seated the whole journey, I was exhausted. I felt the straps of one of my duffel bags digging into my shoulders as I stood outside on the street, watching for our Mercury Tracer to come around some corner and pull up to the curb in front of me. When it did, and I looked into my wife's tired eyes, I didn't wonder that I had spoiled her Halloween, since I knew that it was, when all was said and done, the leaving Lawton, the reds and russets of West Texas, the mounting anticipation of arriving home, probably the sweetest Halloween of my life.

No comments: