We pre-20-year-olds were just getting into enjoying the summer scene in Madison Park in 1957 — the singles haven of Seattle. However, the knowledge that the draft was imminent severely dampened our joy.
One evening, while occupying the big round table at the old Red Onion, a friend mentioned he had just had his pre-draft physical. Joining the masses at the recruitment center, he stood at attention, was told to spread ‘em and move on! The next stop was the eye exam where he was told to remove his glasses and read the chart. He squinted and replied, “What chart?” This annoyed the doctor, who then called another doctor in to witness this attempt to beat the draft. After further examination, they conferred, handed him his glasses and told him to go home.
There was no getting around it — within days we were notified of our draft status. The moment we would walk into that stark building on East Marginal Way we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Exams, hand on my heart, the pledge of allegiance — I was going in. “Welcome to the Army!”
Returning home, I packed an “AWOL bag” and took the number 11 bus downtown to the Greyhound bus station (currently in the process of becoming a hotel). First stop was Charlie Puzzo’s Playboy Tavern a block east of the station. Forget any kind of partying as moments later I was at Bow Lake Airport (now Sea-Tac) on the plane to San Francisco, then a smaller plane to Monterey and finally Fort Ord.
Once seated, I perked up a bit when I found two celebrities sitting in front of me — Leo Carrillo from “The Cisco Kid” TV series and Phil Harris, a comic actor featured on “The Jack Benny Show.” I wanted to say something but was a bit verklempt about my future. Phil Harris said, “I wanted to get Dean Martin a Christmas gift but how do you wrap a cocktail lounge?” I laughed and they turned around and winked.
After landing in Monterey, a bus took us south to the pearly gates of Fort Ord. There I found myself drowning in a sea of AG44 (That’s army green, to you civvies) uniforms. There were guys from all walks of life: farmers, Beverly Hills residents, schlubs who owed alimony or child support — the latter of whom were given a choice of two years in the Army or a year in jail. It seemed every type of man in America was represented.
As I checked in I must have said something funny as laughter ensued but the curt sergeant ordered me to KP — Kitchen Patrol. Peeling a seemingly endless stock of spuds, carrots and onions, I realized I was a better civilian than a soldier.
Of course, I hadn’t even undergone basic training yet. That’s where the Army shakes the civilian out of you and lets you be all you can be, every day from 4 a.m. until we crawled back into bed at 9 p.m.
Two weeks into the receiving company we saw a movie made in 1953: “From Here to Eternity” with Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine and Deborah Kerr, who portrayed military folk in Hawaii months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the best flick for an audience of brand new troops.
Barely into basic training, I was reprimanded for apparent misbehavior — for, er, hitting a sergeant — and I was escorted to the stockade by two MPs. Later I found out there were four others from basic who took the same ride. In the staff quarters as I awaited a cell, I asked for pen and paper. I felt compelled to sketch the guard with his feet on a desk reading a Playboy magazine.
I kept thinking of Ernest Borgnine, who played the bad guy in the movie. While in the stockade, his character beat the hell out of a private with a rubber hose until he met his demise.
A guard looked over my shoulder and was amused enough to grab my portrayal of the guard and show the Playboy enthusiast. They both laughed and gave me coffee and a doughnut! I drew cartoons all night long.
Next morning, I was released with assurance by the guards that my infraction was only an Article 15, meaning it wouldn’t go on my record. Leaving the area, one of the guards remarked, “Make us look good!” Back at barracks, everyone was curious if I used the rubber hose.
The following weekend, passes were out of the question for the five of us naughty boys, but there was no loss of pay. Which was alright by me. I needed that $78 to get by.
The eight weeks of basic came to an end. Soldiers we were, and damn proud of it. The sergeant I took issue with shook my hand and said, “Now Lehman, you are one of us!”
Off to Ft. Leonard Wood Combat Engineering for ten weeks, where my reputation caught up with me. Something about combat engineering and land mine warfare compelled me to release my inner cartoonist — no one was safe from sarcastic treatment under my pen. S-1 headquarters had a sense of humor about it and even saw some opportunity to put my hobby to good use. They asked me to draft teaching aids, site locations and schematics of every duty station, as well as lighter illustrations for a morale-boosting cartoon strip. Because of the time I needed to put into that gig, I wasn’t obliged to join formations and enjoyed a little bit of freedom.
After returning to Fort Ord, I was transferred to Hunter Liggit for special assignment with the 84th Engineers. We ran COMO (communications) in the back of a five-ton truck concerning materials to be used building Hearst Castle. Our equipment, specifically an ANGRC19-26 radio, would fit in a pocket these days.
We lived in a 10-man tent where our neighbors were sidewinders, rattlesnakes, scorpions and black widow spiders. All those creepy-crawlies had been there thousands of years before the 84th Engineers arrived, so it was wise not to be complacent about shaking our boots out each morning. It was all fodder for cartoon ideas. The Dear John letter recipients I knew of were characterized with a snake cartoon. It later developed into a cartoon strip called “Jake the Snake” and ran in the Fort Ord Panorama newspaper.
The end of my army career ended with being in the reserves for 2 active years but because of military clearance as a draftsman/writer/illustrator on the Atlas Missile Program I was excused from all reserve meetings.
My service time — 22 weeks in all — was an invaluable learning experience allowing for a future of illustrating, drafting and being a pen and pencil artist. Of course, now computers have replaced me and my kind. But at least I’m left with the knowledge that I can still make a bed and peel spuds, carrots and onions.