by PO3 Will Gottlieb
Coastal Journal staff
It is time, said Odysseus, that I tell you of the disastrous voyage Zeus sent me. Crack open a Geary’s and I'll tell you all about it.
People join the military for a lot of reasons. Some people are just looking for work, others are genuinely interested in serving their country while having exciting adventures involving firearms and exotic locations (try to imagine) – and some are even padding their presidential portfolios. (Actually met such a man a few years back. He is not president yet, if you're curious.)
Me? I just needed to get out of school.
It was like this: I was a student at Thomas Jefferson College at Grand Valley State University in Michigan in the mid ‘70s. TJC was an alternative college, run by hippies for hippies. I can’t exactly tell you why I was there; I guess I just figured that maybe my own lack of focus would be complemented by the fuzziness of the people, policies and politics thereof.
And, boy, were those policies fuzzy. The students hired (and frequently fired) the faculty, and established the curriculum, which included such gems as “Frisbee Freely” (three credits, learn to play Ultimate Frisbee, and whatever happened to that?) and “Anti-Psychiatry” (four credits, the stated goal of which was to go crazy and “attain super sanity”. Drugs were involved, distributed with all decorum by the professor – do you really need to hear more?). No grades, no tests, no kidding. Quite a racket, TJC, for some people.
But not for me. We were all supposed to be geniuses or something, and I'm sure some of those people were. My particular genius has already been described on these pages, to wit: The kifing of beer left to cool on dorm room windowsills. (And I could have gotten college credit for that, if I'd really wanted to. It was that kind of place.)
But instead of doing my homework, I spent most of my time reading science fiction, and in particular the works of Robert Heinlein, author of Starship Troopers, Space Cadet and Between Planets, among other works. Heinlein makes an excellent case in those books for the existence and desirability of martial virtue: The idealism of the freedom-loving, selfless patriot who would put his body between his family and the war's desolation.
I had swallowed this stuff hook, line and laser pistol. So at some point I told myself that I was in the wrong place, pursuing some very odd squirrels up some very strange trees, and that I desperately needed Another Gig.
I had come to this conclusion one chilly morning in the spring of 1976 as I drank coffee on the front steps of the TJC main building. Students and instructors were observing various breakfast rites around me – throwing their grains to the four winds, thanking the cornflake spirits for giving their lives, barking at the rising sun, etc. – and I thought, There's just gotta be somewhere else to go.
And all at once I realized there was somewhere else to go, an entirely different place, with an entirely different set of inhabitants, and that it wouldn't be all that hard to get there.
So I left campus, walked out onto M-45 and hitchhiked to the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in East Grand Rapids. On the way to the recruiting station, I discovered that I was a patriot. I felt a great, buoyant rush of identification with the American past – a glorious, martial past personified by people like John Wayne and James Cagny, a grainy, black-and-white past filled with deeds of sacrificial heroism and misty cinematography. I felt like one of those heroes, like a man's man about to go off and do a man's job.
It was a great feeling. It would last all the way to boot camp.
But I was there, and I was no longer the odd man out in a school for advanced hippies, and that was okay with me. You might even say I was on the Front Lines, serving my country. Or at least I was in the VA-128 line shack there on Whidbey Island, which was pretty good duty. I took little trips on great big ships occasionally, but mostly I stayed in Puget Sound.
It was not the best time to be in the military, the '70s, just after the close of the Vietnam War. We were always understaffed, did more with less every year, and did not enjoy the support of our community the way service members do now. But we did our jobs, buddy boy. Did we ever. We kept the world safe for Democracy, and we had a hell of a good time, sometimes. And sometimes we suffered and went without sleep and food and such. And sometimes people were even hurt or killed, though there were no declared wars back then.
And as much as I could wax ironic about my hitch and recount all that was not stellar or uplifting about military service, I will tell you that it turned out to be a good experience for me, and that I have the greatest respect for the people who make that choice, for whatever reason, to put on the uniform, and head off to “put their bodies between their loved ones and the war's desolation.”
And you should too.