The draft could be a good thing


Life in the early ‘50s was thriving but come 1957 the rumor of a draft made it difficult to maintain a certain persona. My mother called saying a fat letter had come addressed to me. It started out with, “Your friends and neighbors have chosen you… Report to the draft board!”

Off to East Marginal Way to the recruiting center where I ran into a couple of guys from the neighborhood. Standing in a long line with nothing on but our shorts a doctor stood with his clipboard in hand and said, “Drop em’ – spread em’!” After a brief inspection we followed a gentleman into another room and with our hands over our hearts stating a few solemn words, we were in the Army. 

Some conversations at the recruiting center were interesting. One guy said he’d been through the Navy physical and was rejected due to bad knees from football. “This interview won’t take long, I have plans this afternoon.” Later I noticed he stood about three guys ahead of me during the “swearing in.” Maybe if he would have laid flat and moaned, they would have rejected him.

About a week later we took a flight to San Francisco and then a short flight to Monterey and then Fort Ord, California. Upon landing the first thing I did was ditch the almost empty pint of gin that I had shared with fellow draftees. Chick O’Brien was part of this draftee group; he owned a gas station on Eastlake and his wife was about to have her fifth child. As she did so, he was discharged. 

We were brand new to army life and were surprised to see ancient wooden barracks probably used during World War II. The floors creaked, the doors were old and resisted opening and closing. The restrooms had wall to wall toilets. What normally would be a private event was a social room with some reading magazines and writing letters, others had conversations and yet some were quiet doing what had to be done. The bunks were all the same 3-inch mattresses over springs, two sheets, pillow and case, and two blankets – that is comfort! 

One guy was much to our senior who walked with a limp and looked like he could be a career soldier and was in both German and Japanese conflicts. His name was “Pop.” The ruling force cadre heard of him and shook his hand. Pop had been wounded in both conflicts and when we hit the showers many of his wounds went clear through – battlefield surgery at its best. 

The way Pop explained things we got a sense that he had been a very professional soldier. “Get him before he gets you!” he said. His group chased the Germans out of a stronghold, went through the casualties looking for maps and other information and found family photos and keepsakes in their wallets. He said you never get used to that. We asked why he reenlisted, and he said that since his teens he had considered the Army his home. We were proud that for the four to six weeks in the receiving company Pop had made us soldier up.

Lights out at 9 p.m. and then at 4 a.m. the barracks sergeant flipped the lights on and off and blew his whistle over and over. We had 10 minutes to make our bunks, wash our faces and shave then run down the stairs. It was quiet as we stood at attention while the captain referred to us as ladies running for a garment sale. “Too damn slow…AGAIN!” Finally, we were dismissed for chow – that was Army etiquette. 

We arrived at new concrete barracks and marched up three floors to make our bunks and store our gear. Over the loudspeakers the evening meal was announced. We ran down as fast as we could, but the sergeant said, “Not fast enough!” and so we ran back up and back down. This was not a casual sit down with a two-martini type meal, but the food was good. Eating was never a problem since I grew up during the Depression.

Each day we did calisthenics including deep knee bends with field packs, arms clasped behind the head. Many endured blown out knees later. At the rifle range one trooper fired an M-1 while another was inches from his eyes making sure he did not blink – that sucker was loud! Not to be outdone, the 30-50-caliber machine gun field canon thundered. Nowadays ear protection is a necessity or end up with hearing aids. 

We marched in heavy rain into an area of soft earth mud and hard pan. Each pair of troops had a ½ shelter they shaped together with tent pegs creating a room for two. Zipping the sleeping bags kept the rainwater out. Soaking wet, the sleep came easy after a two-hour march. At 4 a.m. the captain blew his whistle, and we drank the best canteen cup of coffee known to man. We had to wipe the mud off the cups with our shirt sleeves. It honestly rivaled Starbucks. 

The next 14 days of bivouac and intense training ended with a march back on a warm night. We sang in cadence when we got close to the garrison. Dirty and tired as we marched by the new recruits and at that moment felt proud as hell. The recruits stared and knew they would have their day, too.

A friend in S-1 Headquarters saw my name tag and yelled “Lehman! Want a M.O.S. job commission?” (Military Occupational Specialty) “Hell, yes!” I responded. It was an assignment to the 84th Commo (Communications) Division headquarters for the battalion at Fort Ord. I was given a manual on an ANGRC19-26 radio that filled the bed of a 5-ton truck with barely enough room for three operators. I read all about it under covers past bed check and learned all the functions. I really lucked out as those who secured that job previously were four-year listers, not draftees. That radio would fit in my shirt pocket today.

Two years in the Army on active status offered me the opportunity to perfect cartooning and art in general as it took up some slack time which wasn’t much. I was asked to survey for basic training areas and filled a vacancy for drafting and drawing, developing large format photography studying Voigtlander cameras. I eventually became the assistant photographer. A cartoon strip called “Ace’s Corner” for the Fort Ord Panorama newspaper was my name to fame. The ANG-RC 19-26 radio taught me the basics for my video business I had later in life. A major asked me to design and draft a valet in the shape of a woman with outstretched arms which was a hit. I managed to avoid heavy duty due to my artistry. 

The Army gave me a great start and if you ask me, there are a multitude of possibilities for those looking for not only jobs but education. Of course, I didn’t join the Army, the Army joined me.