David Caruso (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)
David is the academic vice president at Worcester State College in Worcester, MA. He is married and has 5 children, two from a previous marriage. He is also the grandfather of 3. He is a practicing Buddhist
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania. My dad died of lung cancer when I was fifteen. He was 45 years old. He had been in the Army in World War II and had been a prisoner of war, captured in the Battle of the Bulge. He never would talk about his military service at all. He had this little box of mementos that I didn’t see until later. After his death, I went away to a small college in western Pennsylvania, Westminster College.
I was a musician, and I majored in music education, but I didn’t really want to be a high school music teacher. After two years I transferred to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. I was really into jazz and was a jazz player. My mother didn’t fully support the idea of me being a musician. I was majoring in composition and music. She said, “If you want to do this great, but pay your own way.” I ended up going to school full-time for one more semester and then I couldn’t afford to keep going to school full-time. In the spring of 1966, I went to school part-time and got a job in the housekeeping department of Boston Children’s Hospital, mopping floors.
Because I was a part-time student, I lost my student deferment which I foolishly thought wouldn’t be a problem because I had had, throughout my childhood, a lot of back problems, pretty significant ones. I had been over and over again to osteopathic doctors and to chiropractors. I thought they would never let me into the Army with all these back problems. In the summer of 1966, I got my draft notice. I was living this very intense, somewhat crazy I’d guess you’d call it, wild jazz musician life in Boston. The people I hung around with were like the precursors to the hippies, in the earlier ‘60s; very counterculture, anti-culture really, but very serious about music. A lot of people I had known during those years had gotten draft notices and done really crazy things. There was this aura around, in the environment I was living in, of the kind of crazy things you do to avoid being drafted, like taking LSD for two straight weeks and going in for your draft appointment like you’re completely psychotic. Or dressing up in drag and going around pretending you’re gay or transsexual. Not eating for a month and going in looking like you have an eating disorder. I just wasn’t that kind of person. I came out of this very respectful family with very solid values, and I just couldn’t do that kind of stuff. I wasn’t brave enough anyway to do anything really crazy like that
I remember very distinctly having really serious talks with friends about Vietnam at Westminster College before I transferred to Berklee It was a church-related college. In 1963 when I was a freshman, you were required to go to chapel every morning. It was related I think to the Presbyterian Church. You had to take Bible 101 and Bible 102 in your freshman year, which I hated. It was very restrictive. On weeknights they locked the girls in their dorms at 8 o’clock and on weekends at 8:30. The windows on the girls’ dormitories had these metal bars welded on them so that they wouldn’t open more than 2 inches so they couldn’t sneak out at night. There was no curfew for boys though.
I remember sitting around talking to people as the war spun up, as we went from 100, 000 troops in Vietnam to 200, 000 and 500, 000. My friends and I would say to each other, “Our generation is going to war like our fathers did.” We were actually stunned by what was happening. We realized very intensely that the draft hung over us; that we had this deferment for being in college, but our age mates out there who weren’t in college were being yanked off the streets and sent to Vietnam. The likely course for us was that the minute we graduated we would be in the same position. I remember it entering into my consciousness and my thinking in my freshman year and then growing in my sophomore year. Of course, coupled with the growing war protest movement, you couldn’t help but be aware of what was happening.
So I got my notice and at the time I was going to two forms of schooling. I had started studying composition, in addition to going to Berklee, with this old Russian music teacher who ran this little music center down on Beacon St. It was called the Chaloff School of Music. He was an old Russian guy, really old with little stubs of cigars. It was a music conservatory like the European type that didn’t grant degrees. You couldn’t get an American-type college degree there. You went for three years and got a certificate. I went there just to study composition. My instrument was the trumpet. I was going to Berklee, taking some private lessons at Chaloff, and working evening shifts at Children’s Hospital.
My draft notice must have been mailed to my mother’s house in Pennsylvania. She sent it up to me, and there was a little box you could check in there to transfer to another more convenient draft board. I didn’t really have the money to get back home to Pittsburgh and my mother, a single parent since my dad died, didn’t make much as a secretary either. Consequently, I just checked the little box and they transferred my physical up to Boston. I assumed my medical stuff would be transferred, too. I had been submitting the medical documentation I had for my bad back to my draft board, which was the one fairly smart thing that I did during that era. In fact, I had had a really bad episode when I was at Westminster College, and I had seen this osteopath and I had all kinds of stuff from him. I had x-rays that I had sent there and then I had been to see someone in Boston.
I had to go out to the Navy Yard by bus. When I got there they hadn’t sent my medical records as I’d expected, because the people drafting you aren’t the same as your draft board, the little bureaucracy of citizens in your town who literally picked names out of a list and decided who to draft every single night. I went in for the physical and I remember there being people doing these crazy things. People were dressed up as women and things like that. Given what we all faced going in there, the atmosphere was quite light, and the procedures were quite straightforward. You walked in and they made sure you were who you said you were. They checked your i.d. Then you went into a room with a doctor, like an examination room and you got a physical and that was pretty much it. I told this doctor about my back and I must have gone on at some length. He said, “Ok. Take off your shirt. Turn around.” He took his thumb and he went down my back like that, down my spine, and he said, “Oh, you’re fine.” And I passed the physical.
I left the physical and I thought to myself, “Well, that was disappointing,” but I knew from talking to lots of other people that if you got inducted there would be one more chance of seeing a doctor during the day of your induction. They called it an induction physical and mine would be back in Pittsburgh. This time I’d be more prepared.
At the music school I got to know this old man named Julian Chaloff, who was in the Navy during World War I as conductor of the US Navy Band. He was awesome and he soon realized that I was going to be drafted. I must have told him what had happened at my first physical and he said, “You’re an idiot.” (pounds the table) “Why would you stop going to school fulltime?” He used to give me these lectures in this broken English. He said, “You have to see my orthopedic surgeon because he’s very much against the war.”
It turned out this old guy, Mr. Chaloff, when he was a younger man, had been a concert pianist and had broken his wrist doing something. His orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Dine was the chairperson of the National Council of Orthopedic Surgeons and a big orthopedic surgeon in Boston. Chaloff said, “I will get you an appointment with him.” He set up an appointment and I went in to see him. He did this amazing examination. He measured my legs, and said, “Oh, one legs bigger than the other. That’s what’s causing all your back problems.” He did this whole diagnosis and he wrote me a letter and told me to take it with me when I went to my physical. The letter basically said, with all these medical terminologies, “I told him that he shouldn’t walk, run, bend over, or carry any weight.” Of course, these are all the things you do in the Army. Jump, dive on the ground. The letter just went on listing all these things I should never do. It was the best letter you ever saw. It felt great to have it with me when I got on the bus for Pennsylvania.
In Pittsburgh I tried to get even more documentation of my back problem. I thought, from the experience of getting this great letter from the orthopedic surgeon, I’d go find this osteopath I had once seen. He had told me, “You can never have sex. You’ll hurt your back,” which was idiotic to say because it wasn’t true. HHe was a real strange guy who had taken my back problem very seriously. I found him again near where I had gone to college. I went in and I told him the truth. “I’m going to be drafted. You saw me several years ago. I was wondering if you would write me a letter, which says I can’t do physical things because of what you said when I saw you.” He completely blew up at me. He was in support of the war. “My cousin was killed over there. You assholes who are trying to get out of the war are a disgrace.” He was yelling at me. I had to get out of his office, not running, but I had to get away from him. He blew. He got really angry. It was the opposite experience from the other doctor. I didn’t get a letter from him, but I had some documentation from when I had seen him before. I had this whole folder with x-rays, letters from doctors and things like that.
The next day I took a brown military bus with 50 incredibly glum looking young men. Some dressed in women’s clothing, some obviously just tripping out on LSD, or they were totally crazy. We were all going to be inducted. This was like a funeral march as far as these people were concerned because they were going into the Army. You didn’t know what that meant though, nobody told you. I didn’t know either. I really didn’t know that if I were accepted or if I passed this physical, I’d be in the Army that day. I had no idea of that as I was riding the bus. Like everyone else, I just had the clothes I had on: Nobody had brought a suitcase. My dad wasn’t alive. My mother didn’t know. No one else was around to give me any advice and say, “You idiot! You know that you’re going to be in the Army…today!”
I didn’t entertain the possibility for a second that they were going to take me, because of the medical documentation I was bringing with me this time. In fact, back in June I had been naïve enough to rent a little apartment of my own on Symphony Rd. just behind Symphony Hall in Boston, which I thought was the most fantastic address to have as a musician. It was only a one-bedroom apartment, totally cockroach infested, but that didn’t keep me from having a baby grand. I was paying for it in installments. I also kept my trombone, a trumpet, extensive instruments and 400 record albums there. I left it all there thinking I’d be back. All my clothing and everything! I was this 21 year old kid without a real job or anything, positive they weren’t going to take me.
So, we got to the induction center. The 50 young people from my bus joined hundreds and hundreds of others in this huge warehouse, the size of a football field. They took you over to a section. There were many parts, like little classrooms with desks and chairs along one wall. They took our whole bus over and they let us fill out some paperwork. Many, many very personal questions like an interrogation. So you spent maybe an hour filling out your form: who your next of kin was, whom you wanted to be notified if anything happened to you.
Finally when that was all done, down at the other far end there was a big line and they told you to take your clothes off, except for your underwear and go get in that line. It was clear as you got closer that at the end was this doctor, and you finally realized that you were going to see the doctor and that was it. He was sitting at a little tablet desk, the kind where the desk is attached to the chair. He was sitting – nothing else, no stethoscope. Nothing.
One after another these young people were coming up and he would ask them a few questions and you could see him stamping something and then they would go away. When I got up there I stood at his little desk and—you’re standing and he’s sitting. He looks up at you and says, “Has there been any change in your physical condition since your last physical?” He had the date, and I said yes. And he said, “Oh, really?” Everyone else must have been saying no because they came and went fast. So I said, “Yes something has changed.” He said, “Oh, what was that?” I said, “Well, at that physical I didn’t have all this medical documentation and the doctor just didn’t understand how serious my back problem was.” I showed him the x-rays. The x-rays and letters were in a big, brown envelope. He said, “Oh, let me see that.” So I gave it to him. He opened it up, took everything out and put it on the desk. It was chilly in that cavernous room and you were standing there in your underwear, which is an odd feeling anyway, lined up with all these total strangers in their underwear.
He started reading the letters. He read every word of every letter. It seemed to take forever because I was just standing there. He read and read and put that one aside and read the next letter. He read maybe three letters including the Dr. Dine letter. He took the x-rays and he held them up to this bare light bulb and looked at the x-rays. Three x-rays. He put them down, very deliberately and slowly. He then looked up at me and said, “I agree with your doctors 100%.” I didn’t sigh out loud, but I had this really intense sigh feeling inside. After a really pregnant pause he said, “But we could use you at a typewriter.” And he said, “Move on soldier.” Just like that and he kept my stuff. I remember him clearly because it was such a stunning moment. When he was reading my letter he just looked like he was taking it all so seriously and that was it
There were sergeants lined up and you would walk in a certain direction, because you could see someone there who would wave you on. They sent you in little groups of 12 into a small room, really small, surprisingly small. 12 or 14 people would go into the room and there was an officer in there, who I didn’t know was an officer at the time, who would say, “Okay, line up in 2 rows of 6 each.” And we lined up. We didn’t know what he was going to do. He said, “Raise your right hand,” and he would say some oath. I can’t remember what it was. “Repeat after me.” And you are in such a state of shock that you just did it. You didn’t say, “No, I’m not repeating your oath.” And at the end of the oath he said, “Now take one step forward and when your foot touches the ground you’re in the military of the United States of America.” When your foot touches the ground. Everybody took one step forward and then he said, “Congratulations” or something ridiculous like that.
We did that, and immediately some other guy came in and they took us out the back down some stairs. We were in Pittsburgh. We were in some area of the city where there were stores and restaurants. Oddly enough, they took this group that I had just been sworn in with across the street to this little restaurant and bought us a steak dinner. It must have been dinnertime or something. They knew what was going on. We didn’t. They didn’t tell you anything. We sat at this table, the food came, and nobody spoke. I didn’t say one word to any of these other people I was with.
Then we came out of there and got right on a bus. A military bus was waiting for us. They took us to Allegheny County Airport, not the Pittsburgh International Airport. The Allegheny County Airport is out in the boonies somewhere. They put us in a little twin-engine propeller airplane, still not saying anything and you still only had the clothes on your back. Finally someone asked somebody as we were getting on the plane, “Where the hell are we going?” The guy said, “Fort Benning, GA.” All I can remember of that night is sitting on the plane for hours, because this little thing took forever to go to Georgia, and I didn’t even know where Georgia was. I was trying to remember, “Georgia. Is that down on the Caribbean coast where Alabama is? Or is that over here on the Atlantic?” I had no idea where I was going. They didn’t let us go near a phone to call. I hadn’t called my mother and I’m on this plane to Georgia. And all my stuff is back in Boston. I was just stunned.
I actually had an amazing set of things happen from this point on. They illustrate the wild flukes of luck that landed some people in wheelchairs or body bags and other people not. By then, it was November of ’66. Already the army was 80% draftees. I mean people in the army today have no idea what that means. 80% and this was the Vietnam War. That year, in 1966 we went from 200,000 to almost 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam. They were drafting anyone who could breathe practically. That’s why I was taken. They were taking anybody. There were people in my basic training company who had permanent limps, who we would today call handicapped. In World War II, they didn’t want to take my dad because he had flat feet. They tried to tell him, “No, we won’t take you.” He just insisted on volunteering and going in. I had flat feet and more! It was an astonishing time to be in the army.
The first week at Fort Benning they put us in this induction camp. Basic training didn’t start for about maybe 7 or 8 days. It was like summer camp. There was nothing to it. You had no other reality except I was really worried about my belongings back in Boston. The third day we were there they let us get to a pay phone. I called my mother and I called my landlord in Boston. He said he would put all my stuff in the basement. They repossessed my grand piano, but he said he would put everything else in the basement.
You spend a week in this induction camp basically taking lots of tests. It’s kind of astonishing how many tests they do, personality inventories, psychological tests, aptitude tests and career possibility tests. They were trying to figure out what skills you had aptitude for and should receive training to perform. We were all just sitting at little desks taking tests, and then just hanging around the barracks. We hung around for hours on end, and then someone would knock and we’d go take another test. It was weird, but for somebody who had been a student his whole life it was perfectly normal. I fit right in, but I was so naive. I was taking these tests and trying to do my best, because that was the way I had been trained to be, that’s how I was. In one of them they gave us this Morse Code test, where they made all these beeping sounds and then little marks went on the page and you had to identify which one they had made. I did incredibly great on that because I had done tons of ear training being a musician. I could recognize those rhythms really well, and I really tried hard to do my best on the tests.
Meanwhile you were starting to make friends with the kids you were sleeping with in your barracks. Not friends, I guess, but you talked and interacted. In between taking all these tests they would feed you, cut your hair all off and then fit you for boots and give you more uniform parts. By the end of this week you had this huge duffle bag, almost as tall as you were, full of clothing. You had two pairs of boots and all the army gear and you were wearing it all by then. They got rid of your civilian clothes. You were wearing all these army clothes. You’d taken all these tests. There was no physical fitness part of it at all. We were all just sitting at little desks taking tests, and then just hanging around the barracks. We hung around for hours on end, and then someone would knock and we’d go take another test. Very light duty. It was like a vacation. I was so naïve.
At the end of the week they said, “Tomorrow you’re leaving for basic training right after breakfast.” They put us on buses again—a company is about 160 soldiers, 40 in a platoon, and each platoon is 4 squads of 10. So it must have been 160 of us. It must have been 4 buses. Fort Benning is huge. It’s almost the size of the state of Rhode Island. The population of Fort Benning is about 180,000. It’s like a city almost the size of Springfield, Massachusetts, but dispersed all over the base. It was a long, long bus ride. We pulled into this barracks area and you looked out the windows and it was dust everywhere and you just saw old World War II, funky army barracks and nothing else. We were sitting quietly for a moment on the bus when out from behind this building leaped this horde of drill sergeants screaming like maniacs into these speakers, just yelling at the top of their lungs in the most horrifically nasty voices. You’d never heard people address other people like this before if you’d lived a kind of normal, middle-class life. Calling you every name in the book, “You slimebag, you piece of shit. Get out of those buses!” They were mashing on the buses with these big, long sticks making an incredible racket. Everybody panicked! All the kids on the bus went from calmly sitting there wondering what was going on to utter panic, which is of course what they wanted.
People grabbed these huge duffle bags. My duffle bag must have weighed more than me. I weighed 118 at the time. I weigh 150 now and I’m considered thin. I weighed 118 pounds. I grabbed this huge duffle bag. Everybody was falling over each other. It was absolute chaos on the bus. I was way in the back. Finally we got off the bus and somebody was right in my ear with this thing screaming at me, “All the A through G line up over there. H through L over there.” They were trying to line us up into four platoons within this company, only they were purposefully making it chaotic. As soon as you started running where you thought they wanted you to go, they would change the instructions and say, “It’s not over here, you idiot, over there.” They were making us run around. Kids were falling down. They started beating on those who fell with these sticks when they were on the ground. They just kept heightening and heightening the sense of panic.
Finally, I was running along past this building to where they told me to go, dragging this heavy duffle bag and I tripped and fell face down into the dirt. There must not have been a drill sergeant around because nobody started haranguing me, and as I was rolling over to get up I saw these two Army guys standing in the door of this building, which later I found out to be company stores. That’s where they kept the rifles and the equipment. They were laughing and really relaxed watching this great hilarious show going on. So I just went, “Ha.” I laughed. It just clicked. This whole thing is a game. It’s like the funniest game you’ve ever seen, and then I completely dropped out of the panic mode.
I don’t know how I did it, but I totally knew from that moment on that the Army was nothing but a game. There were these silly game rules and you could play them. You could play them sarcastically. You could toy with them. You could disobey the ones that you could get away with, and the game itself would let you stretch it and distort it because it was a game to everybody. The drill sergeants were playing a game. It was a big act. I suddenly realized that they weren’t really mad at us; they didn’t really think we were idiots. It was a big act; it was a big game they were playing. I got up and I calmly walked where I was supposed to go. Luckily by then it was the end and we all got into the right place.
My drill sergeant came forward and introduced himself. Each platoon had a drill sergeant. The guy came up and said, “My name is Sergeant Ash, and I’m your drill sergeant.” He was an older fellow, and it turned out that he was very close to retiring. He was leaving at the end of the year. Black guy. Really, really wonderful. I will never forget him as long as I live. The other drill sergeants were all these 20-somethings. Some of them were sadistic, mean bastards – one of them especially. He tortured the guys in his platoon. Sergeant Ash treated us with tough love, but not torture. They started asking questions like, “How many of you are from different places?” and then they said, “How many of you have ever been to college?” Sergeant Ash asked this, and I raised my hand again – the stupidest thing you could do. He said, “Oh, great. Come here.” You don’t ever want to be singled out in the Army. I went up to him and he said, “Put this on your arm. You’re a squad leader.” I put it on my arm and suddenly I was in charge of ten of these people. Anything they fuck up, I’m in trouble for. That was a big mistake.
Basic training started and it was pretty tough back then. I think it’s maybe gotten easier since then, but they were really brutal on the guys. First of all, you had to run everywhere you went. If you were caught walking you were in trouble. Every single thing was controlled in your life. You had to eat square meals, but at an unbelievably fast rate, because you had 4 minutes to eat. You had KP sometimes.
The first morning they came in and woke us up with these bullhorns screaming in our ears at 4 in the morning and we went out and ran. I smoked cigarettes at the time. I could hardly run at all and we had to do a 5-mile run in our whole army uniform and these big boots. People would start falling out and throwing up, and they would just beat on them with these sticks. They knew how to beat on the soft tissue, like your butt, so it wouldn’t show bruises. I was just determined to not have to stop running. I was first squad leader of the first platoon in the company, which meant there were people lined up like 8 across. If you play in a marching band you always line up to the person on the left. If you’re in this first row of 8 and you want to stay straight – you don’t want people getting behind each other – you watch to the left and line up with the guy next to you. The person at the far left is the person who sets the pace. If you’re the front person on the far left, you set the pace for the entire marching band. I had been marching for my whole life. I love marching actually. I marched in this fancy summer American Legion band where you get all kinds of fancy stuff. For me the marching part of it was cool. There was a lot of marching in basic training and I actually liked it. Since I was the first squad leader of the first platoon, I was the line up guy for the entire company. The drill sergeants were all over me. “Slow down!” “Speed up!” “You’re going too slow!” “You’re going too goddamn fast!” One of them came up with a bullhorn right in my ear.
The next day they came to wake us up at 4 in the morning. I turned one turn to get out of bed and every muscle – we had been doing push-ups – every muscle in my body hurt so much. I thought I’d never run again. I somehow got out of bed, struggled out there. Every morning we ran this huge run. People were always falling out and if you screwed up badly enough you would get, they called it, recycled. It meant like in week 3 or week 4 – there were 8 weeks of basic training – you’d get yanked out of your basic training company and sent back to week 1 in another one. You’d have to start all over again. At least that’s what they threatened you with. If you fucked up enough, you’d get sent to trial for dereliction of duty.
In the first couple of weeks, quite a few people got in serious trouble and had to start over. We were down to 140 by the end of 2 weeks. There were tall pine trees everywhere. This was Georgia. They made this one guy who screwed up climb up and down this pine tree all day until his muscle ached so badly he could hardly move. He fell out of the pine tree. They made another guy take a spoon from the dining hall and dig a foxhole. He dug all day in the sand, and the spoon, which started out this big, was worn down to this just from the sand wearing it down. We came back from being gone all day and the guy was still digging.
By the fourth week in, if you’ve made it that far, you’re pretty adapted to this. You’ve realized you can do it. One of my knees had gone bad and I was limping. My back was fine, but I was limping. I actually asked to go for treatment for it. Sergeant Ash said, “Look, if you go for medical treatment for that, they’re gonna think you’re shirking your duty and you’re trying to get out, and they’re gonna treat you like hell and you’re gonna get recycled. I’m just telling you as a person. Don’t do it. If you can keep going—“ So I was limping as I ran the last four weeks, and we ran a lot.
During the fourth week you got up in the morning and you didn’t do all this physical exercise. You got taken in a bus to this place where you basically had a one-on-one meeting with a personnel guy, like a Human Resources person. By then it was astonishing – my military records were that thick – like 8 inches. This man was sitting in front of me. He plunked down in front of himself this big stack of records and he started leafing through them. “What we’re going to do today is interview you to make sure we’re getting you into the right kind of job.” He next said, “Oh, you’ve been to college.” And I said, “Yeah, I have.” “And you’re a music major.” And I said, “Yeah, I was.” “Well you probably want to be in the band then don’t you?” “Yes, I do. I would like nothing better than being in the band.” He said, “Great. I’ll get you an audition. There are two bands right here in Fort Benning. We’ll get you an audition while you’re here and don’t worry about it. You’ll get in the band.” And he takes out literally what would be a one inch post-it note today, 1” by 1” and he writes on there, “Band Audition” in little tiny scribbles and paperclips it to the top of this 8” stack of records, puts it aside and says, “Okay, you can go. They’ll be coming to get you for your audition.” I thought, great. My hopes had gotten high, yet when I saw what he did I thought there was no way that was going to work, and I left.
I went back and continued doing basic training. It must have been a week and a half later. We were hanging around after lunch. This jeep comes screeching into the common area of all the barracks where we slept, and this guy yells out, “Where’s this Caruso guy?” I said, “Right here.” He said, “Come here. You’re coming down to audition for the band.” I got in his jeep and he whisked me off all the way back to the main post area where the band lived and had their headquarters. I walked in and it was just like a music world there. There were musicians, music stands, everything I had been around since I was nine years old. I met this guy who was the sergeant of the band, who happened to be a trumpet player, too. He said, “Come in here. Let’s play. You haven’t played in a while. We really need trumpet players right here in this band, the 283rd US Army Band, Fort Benning, GA. You will get orders at the end of basic training to be in this band.” He was a really nice guy and I just couldn’t wait. He was a musician and I could relate to him. I happily went back.
For the next three weeks of basic training, I was on Cloud 9. I didn’t care what happened. Meanwhile I had gotten fired from being squad leader about three weeks in because I screwed something up, which was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was no longer the object of everyone’s attention. That was good. I was just happy. I graduated from basic training. They did this big graduation ceremony. Some people’s parents came. It was amazing. No one else in my entire company of 160 guys had been to college at all. Most of them were southern kids, mostly from rural small towns, white and black, working class or very low-income. I had to help my squad. The leaders would tell us, “When your guys show up to run tomorrow morning, they all have to have their belts on with these things on it. Your canteen goes here, your first aid kit goes here, your bayonet goes here”. It all had to be in the right place. They said, “Okay guys, go teach your squads.” I had these ten kids. I told them, “Here’s how you do it, you put it out like this.” I would lay it out on the desk. “Put all these things like this (bang, bang, bang), put it on it; it snaps like this.” I walked away and came back later and they couldn’t do it. They were very low-functioning, low intelligence guys. It was amazing – just to teach them to do anything. Everybody had to learn how to tuck your bed right because they would come in and inspect. They couldn’t learn that. Every time they’d screw up we’d all get in trouble.
When it was over and I had graduated, the very next day almost everyone except for three or four of us got orders. You got a little envelope and it said “Advanced Infantry Training School” or “Radio School” or something. I didn’t get any orders and a couple of other guys didn’t either. We stayed in the barracks another night. The next day the other three guys got their orders and I still didn’t. I was still there. By the third day the new troop of trainees hadn’t come yet and it was just me and these four drill sergeants. Sergeant Ash I liked and he was sleeping in his little room and I was sleeping out in my bunk. He would talk to me once in a while. The others I hated because they were really sadistic bastards.
The next day my orders came and they said “Infantry Radio School”. I said, “Shit!” I just went to my locker. I don’t know what snapped in me, but I knew I wasn’t going there. I knew it meant running through the jungle with an 80 lb. radio on your back – a sure, straight path to a body bag. I went to my locker and I started packing my stuff into this duffle bag. You still had your civilian clothes in there. I was putting on my civilian clothes and Sergeant Ash who I didn’t know was there, came into the room and said, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “Go away. Just leave me alone. Just go.” I kept putting my stuff in the bag. I was very mad. He started yelling at me and finally I showed him my orders. Somehow he knew I was going to the band and he said, “Shit, come with me.” He grabbed me by the arm and took me up to the company commander’s office. The company commander, which is a captain in the Army, had actually taken a liking to me during this whole 8-week period because he had a masters degree. I was the only kid in the entire company who had been to college. Earlier during training I had been refusing to memorize the chain of command – the president down through the joint-chiefs- of-staff, to the generals, the colonels, the captains to him. I was refusing to memorize it perfectly, and for a couple of days I had extra KP because of it. He had told me, “You’re the only kid in that whole goddamn platoon who could memorize that thing.” A few days later, he called me up and gave me a big lecture in his office.
So Sergeant Ash took me to see this Captain, and the sergeant explained what happened. The captain said, “Just sit there,” and he picked up the phone and called up the commander. He must’ve looked around his desk and found my paper work there. He had never sent it in. It was really the second time he had totally forgotten to send it in. If I hadn’t acted like I was going AWOL; if Sergeant Ash hadn’t come out and been who Sergeant Ash was and taken me to the captain, I would’ve either gone to infantry radio school or risked getting court-martialed for leaving. It was just the good luck of it being Sergeant Ash who intervened on my behalf vs. the bad luck of that idiot leaving my papers on his desk, which would’ve sent me to infantry radio school. Then, when I look back at everything that happened, there had been the fellow, the guy in the Human Resources office that day when I hadn’t been smart enough to say I was a musician and I wanted to be in the band. He said it to me! He looked at me and saw that I had been to college and noticed that I was a musician. Of course, it was this ridiculous ability of rhythms that almost got me sent to infantry radio school! Instead it was the captain and Sergeant Ash who did something that was called twixing back then, which was equivalent to faxing today and I got new orders. Later that day I had my orders and this jeep came roaring back out again and picked me up and took me away.
The band I played in was maybe 40 percent black, because a lot of black guys were jazz musicians and we had great jazz groups. I made really amazing musician friends in the Army. Talented, unbelievably talented musicians were drafted and they were there. There was a trombone player, a friend of mine, who played with the best bands in the world, with studio bands in L.A. He was playing gigs at 21 with 40 and 50 year old guys, because he could play, but he hated being in the Army. You would think you would spend these two years doing a lot of goofing around and just being a musician, but it was like a job in a lot of ways. You showed up for work at 7:30 in the morning and many days we were out till 5 or 5:30.
I got an apartment with some fellow musicians in town, which was illegal, but we did it anyway. We pretended like we slept at the base, but we really didn’t. We went to work and we came home to the apartment. We had evening gigs sometimes, and some weekend gigs where we had to play for dignitaries I played for Lyndon B. Johnson when he was president. He came to Fort Benning on Armed Forces Day. I played for General Westmoreland who was in charge of the entire war and the whole army at the time. Fort Benning was a big crossover place for dignitaries. Any time a dignitary came to the base, we paraded for them at the airport and played patriotic music, but it was hateful. It was two years of living with a lot of hate, and that’s not good for you.
A lot of my friends had left by the time I had come to my last six months. The bandleader was naming new people who I didn’t like or know that well, and I became a short timer. By that point the army was composed largely of draftees and it had lost discipline. Nobody saluted. You were supposed to salute officers. If we were walking across the post and we saw an officer coming toward us down the street, we would just stop, turn the other way and pretend like we were looking at something and refuse to salute them. They knew it and there was nothing they could do about it. We knew there was nothing they could do about it because the captain can’t go to the colonel and say, “Colonel, those little soldiers are refusing to salute me”. Then you’re admitting that you’ve lost discipline. Our band leader had lost discipline. We would march in parades and do ridiculous things, like we would decide among ourselves that when he gave the down beat you were going to play four different marches in four different keys. Chaos. We would march down the street playing just noise. There would never be any consequences, because you couldn’t go to your superior and say, “I cant get these guys in the band to play the right march.”
One time we were waiting in an airport for some dignitary to get off a plane and while his back was turned, we all switched instruments so when he turned around I was holding the clarinet, the drummers were holding tubas. The bandleader knows we can’t play these things. It was awful. You would watch TV and see all these demonstrators my age, people like me with long hair demonstrating against the war. It was very negative to be in the Army at that point, even though being in the band was easy. It was music, but it was kind of like musical torture. You played the “Star Spangled Banner“ like 400 times a day. We would put on concerts and practice serious concert music, but you were always torn between trying to do a good job and play well and not wanting the Army to look good.
Before the Vietnam War, to get in a band you had to be a volunteer. You had to sign up for a four-year term to get in any Army band. It was the premium thing to be able to do. During the war our band was 90 percent draftees. No musician in his right-mind would volunteer for the band. Musicians would be the last people to ever volunteer for the Army. So the band was 90 percent draftees, and almost all of them were young kids – 19 to 21. There were a few lifers in the band – guys who had reenlisted, who were in their 40’s maybe. There were about 60 to 70 band members and maybe 4 or 5 of them were lifers. We used to just rag on those guys. It took me several years after getting out to feel normal again, like I was myself.
Another amazingly lucky thing happened to me while I was still in the Army. My friend, Dave Degapino, and I were having a hard time sleeping in the band barracks because we were sharing the beds with some other infantry people and there was basically zero privacy and no space for our stuff. Dave and I discovered this little chapel on the base that had a piano so I could try to write music and he could practice fiddling. It was open so we could just go in. Some evenings we would go up there after dinner or after a movie. Several times while we were playing our instruments, a chaplain came in and saw us there. He said, “Oh, hi, yeah, it’s fine if you stay here.”
Soon we were there every single night. We would even sleep there a lot, because there were these flat cushions on the pews. We would put them on the floor and sleep on them. When the chaplain realized that we were there all the time, he came in and said, “Would you guys like to use my study?” He gave us a key to his personal office, his study. He was young. He was about 32, but he seemed older to a 21 year old. He never checked on us. For some reason he totally trusted us. He had the most amazing collection of books on world religion including every eastern religion – Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and then all kinds of books about radical religion, including Jewish Renewal. Dave and I were intellectual, so we started reading and that’s when I first got into yoga and eastern religions. My friend and I started practicing yoga because we got these yoga books from his office and we were teaching each other these yoga postures. I tried teaching myself mediation for the first time, all totally on my own.
When I moved to California in the summer of ‘69 I was on this trajectory to get even more into Buddhism. Buddhism saved me from the insanity of the day in a lot of ways, the insanity of the crazy culture of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s especially the real serious drug infusion of the culture. I was still trying to be a musician, and that was very challenging. Soon after our arrival, Dave and I found this little Zen garden near Stanford. We got to sit in it. We sat for two hours in the mornings until 7:00 a.m. and then we sat every night from 8 to 9. Getting up to return to the garden at 5:00 a.m. is not conducive with staying up half the night playing jam sessions and getting stoned, but going all the way back to that chaplain, it gave my life a nudge in a more spiritual and centered direction. Over time in fact, Buddhism became the center of my life and I was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1973. From about 1969 to 1981, 12 or 13 years I was very, very deeply involved in daily Zen practice as well as lots of intensive week-long meditation retreats. Having been drafted, I had never finished my undergraduate degree, so I fiddled around to finish that little by little, and I did it on the G.I Bll, which is basically how I lived. I lived off the G.I Bill. They just sent me a check every month and it was enough to live on. I met this woman and got married. She had two little kids. I adopted those kids, so by the time I was 25 I was with this women and raising a 3 and 4 year old.
While it could have been just the opposite, I truly believe that being in the Army and what happened in the Army led me into the development of my spiritual side. It certainly could have led me in another direction. I had very negative experiences with the Christian Church I had grown up in. I hated Christianity. My Dad had died and the legacy of Christianity for me was that I must have done something really bad. I must have sinned and therefore my Dad died. I took on this incredible blame and guilt from the church. Over the next three or four years I began to realize what had happened to me. I was very negative. I also remember reacting very negatively as a soldier to the lottery when it arrived. I remember looking at those with high numbers and thinking, “Fucking bastards, you have no idea how lucky you are!” In my era, back in the “old days” of the draft, none of us got out. If you did it was just blind luck, or your dad knew someone on the draft board in your little town. I remember watching the lottery drawing and seeing the high number that was assigned to my birthday. It felt odd realizing the opportunity I would have gotten had I been younger and eligible for it. I reacted negatively to it given I didn’t have the advantage of it.
As for protesting against the war when I got out, one of the books that I read in the chaplain’s study in 1967, was very famous internationally. It was by a very young man who wrote this book called Lotus In a Sea Of Fire and it was about Vietnam. It was about the monks who were immolating themselves, and about how the monks in Vietnam had become so anti-war, totally opposed to both sides. They hated what the Vietcong were doing. They were completely against the South Vietnamese and the Americans. They clearly felt that the war was just a geo-political disaster. It was an amazing little book, a little thin book. It contributed to my being turned on to Buddhism. Lotus in a Sea of Fire was what he called Vietnam – the country itself – and its people were being burned up in the sea of fire and then, too, it was a metaphor for the monks who were burning themselves. This book affected my view and experience of the war enormously and pushed me further into the study of Buddhism to which I devoted tremendous energy.
I’ve told this story about the draft and my service a lot of times, unlike my dad who wouldn’t talk about his military experience. I like talking about it, because most of the people that I tell don’t know men or women who ended up in the military. Many found a way out and others, now that the draft has ended, just don’t know anyone in the service. It informs people. I think about it often. It’s a part of my life that has totally integrated into who I am. It changed who I am dramatically and I completely accept that.