It was a typical Upstate New York day in early spring for most people getting out of bed that March morning, . The sun poked through my bedroom window on the second floor of my parents cozy little cape out on Spring Avenue. I stumbled my way downstairs to the familiar smell of bacon frying as my dad was cooking his usual breakfast for him and me. Dad did not take sick-days during his career at Behr Manning in Watervliet. Nor, did he take “personal time”. In fact, he did not take any time off, other than his scheduled vacations. Two weeks during the shutdown in July and August and another week or two over Thanksgiving to hunt deer. That day would be the only exception, during his long career at the Plant.
I managed to get through breakfast, grabbed my small gym bag that was packed with a few personal items, and descended the short flight of concrete stairs that led to the driveway. Dad drove as we headed for downtown Albany. I don’t remember much about our conversation and I’d have to guess there wasn’t much to say. I was 19, engaged to be married to a girl who I had met only a few months earlier and was head-over-heels in love. To say that I had mixed emotions with my decision to enlist, was a substantial understatement. We arrived at the old Post Office on Broadway in Albany that served as the induction station during those years. Dad stopped a block away and I started to get out. My father was a typical man’s man of that generation. Not a lot of emotion about anything. It struck me, even then as a kid, when I looked back as I stepped to the curb and saw a huge smile and what appeared to be his eyes welling up. As for the smile, I’m sure some of it was about me getting out of the house. The stormy teenage years had taken their toll on us both. But, as I considered it years later, there was pride in the fact that I was off to serve the country he loved and fought for on the beaches and in the fields of France and Germany.
I and my fellow recruits, flooded into the Recruiting Center to begin our induction. The following hours would consist of a written test that supposedly would determine your strengths so Uncle Sam could assign you duties that fit your natural skill sets. Actually, I think it was to see if you could sit up straight in a chair for more than two minutes. Much like the physical exam that followed. They poked and prodded, then made you cough, all the time standing around in your underwear in a building that the Government hadn’t heated in years. The “doctors” listened to your chest to see if you were breathing. If you were, then you were fit for service. We proceeded to be humiliated some more, then shouted at, as we boarded the buses for the Albany Airport.
Olga met us there where we hugged, kissed and actually took a photograph of the young lovers preparing to separate for what we thought at the time would be six weeks. Turned out that I wouldn’t be back in NY until the day we married in May.
We were then divided up by destination and headed out to the flight line when I saw it. A Convair 440 would be my first ride in an aircraft. The old two-engine prop job was showing her age. As it attempted to get off the ground, I peered out the window as the left engine spewed smoke from the exhaust ports that were flowing with fresh motor oil. My confidence in civilian aircraft waned as we rattled along, banking to turn into Newark. The Statue of Liberty was so close I felt as if I could reach out and grab her torch. Quite a site for a teenager on his first flight. In Newark, we transferred to a Braniff International jet for the remaining flight to San Antonio, complete with real stewardesses and a meal. That would prove to be the most luxury that I would see for a long time.
We arrived in the San Antonio airport and herded onto buses to take us to Lackland. The bus was stopped at a light and I could see some guy in a pickup next to us, beer can on his lap and his girl squeezed next to him in the seat. I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?”.
The bus stopped and this big guy with a flat brimmed hat appeared in the aisle, shouting “Get off my bus”. We’ll, it emptied pretty quickly as we lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder. By the time we were ushered into the continually-running mess hall, lovingly referred to as Hell’s Kitchen, it was almost dawn and we had all been up for a full 24 hours.
I’ll spare you the details, at least for now. However, here’s one vivid memory. It was 25th day evaluation and we all formed up as a Flight to begin the 1.5 mile run as part of the testing. Failure in any of the physical tests meant a trip to PC (physical conditioning) Flight and the unfortunate soul would have to repeat all six weeks of training after losing or gaining the weight necessary to meet USAF standards.
We had one big guy who struggled during Basic and looked like he would not get through the run. We had two high-school track athletes who ran with him all the way, pushing and encouraging him to finish within the allotted time for the run. The three of them barely made it. As they crossed the finish line, there were cheers from the rest of us. That bit of selfless teamwork impresses me even after all the time that has passed.
To me, it appeared that the four-year enlistment that I had begun was to be a very, very long tour.
I really don’t think of my family as being a Military Family but this summer a few of my cousins and their families gathered at my cousin Bonnie’s house and we reminisced about our fathers. On the Gile side, my dad had seven brothers and two sisters. All his brothers (save two that died as children) served their country. Dad, Dick and Henry in WWII, Fred in Korea and Paul during peacetime (Cold War). Both of his sisters, Ada and Betty (find Aunt Ada’s story of my uncle Wayne on the Blog here: http://www.rjgile.com/v-mail/) married WWII combat-wounded veterans. On my mother’s side, she and her sisters, Ruth and Jeanne, married veterans. Her brother Jim, was career military and served in both the Air Force and the Seabees, earning the Purple Heart in Viet Nam. I mean no disrespect to draftees but they all enlisted voluntarily. To me and my cousins, they are heroes, every one.
Olga often refers to those days as “when we were in the service”. She was there with me for almost all of my enlistment. We really did serve together. So, on Veterans Day as you remember those who served, take a minute to think of those family members who stayed behind. Thank them too. They all worried and prayed for their friends and spouses, then cried with relief when they returned home. The support from family and neighbors is appreciated more than you can possibly imagine.