It was a message that few people younger than 60 would understand – a T-shirt with a map of Viet-Nam printed on the back with an inscription on the front that said, “Southeast Asia War Games: Second Place”. I couldn’t help but marvel at the change in society’s attitude towards the military over the last fifty years. While the vote on who-beat-who will be out for years to come, at the time there was no question about a young man’s choice to participate. If you were called up in the draft it was your duty to go, unless you obtained a deferment, failed the physical or took an extended vacation in Canada1.
Evading service never occurred to me. While it was true that our family had a long tradition of military service I also had a healthy dose of transpersonal commitment and a desire to serve my country. Experience as a military dependent convinced me that becoming an officer was the best route to take and while he never let on, my father was pleased to see me pursue a commission. He even attempted to stack the deck for me and through his connections arranged a way for me to obtain an appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland…and he never got the credit he deserved for not throttling me when I turned the opportunity down because I didn’t want to cut my hair.
Truth be told it wasn’t the length of my hair that sunk my prospects of a naval career. I had thoroughly enjoyed spending Armed Forces Day of 1963 & 1964 at FT Richardson riding on tanks, firing blanks from M60 machine guns and making practice jump exits from the C-130 mock-up. There was also my marathon viewing of The Longest Day at the Fourth Avenue theater; three consecutive showings of that star-studded epic film about D-Day and the Normandy Invasion insured that my choice of the army over the navy was a slam-dunk affair.
As I was only going to be attending the University of Alaska for two semesters I didn’t sign up as a cadet, but I did occasionally talk to the recruiters downtown and the ROTC cadre on campus. During my application for transfer to Ricks College I noticed that the Army was starting a brand-new cadet program there, so I made sure to include Military Science 101 when registering for my fall classes.
I was totally blindsided by the anti-military attitude prevalent at the school and the surrounding area. Putting on a uniform was an invitation to harassment and we were:
- Mocked by room-mates.
- Viewed with suspicion by town merchants.
- Ridiculed in class by instructors.
- Intentionally splashed with mud by passing cars.
Even my Best Friend made alarmingly sarcastic comments about my involvement in the “Rusty Old Tin Cans”2 and I soon found that I was not alone. Unfortunately, the harassment got to some of the other cadets who ended up dropping out – or seriously considering that option but just as prospects for an ROTC program seemed most dire we were assigned a new Regular Army instructor who turned the entire situation around.
Gary Tomlinson was a military police major and to everyone’s delight a “southeast Idaho boy” having grown up near Pocatello. He was taciturn but warm, professional, practical and wasted no time in quietly making friends and forging a good working relationship with the school. This soft-spoken diplomacy helped him to develop a solid professional program with the use of very limited resources.3
At the same time, he worked at developing a relationship with the Idaho National Guard and was successful in getting their support for the extracurricular activities that had proved to be the best way to recruit and retain cadets. He put together a regular schedule of alternating recreational and military activities: One time we’d go rappelling, the next time we’d practice patrol fundamentals, and the third-time orienteering – and so on throughout the year.
One of the first adventures happened on a Saturday early in September and consisted of a float trip down the Snake River starting at the bridge at Swan Valley and ending near our favorite rappelling spot at Heise Hot springs. While we’d be using army issue rafts and life preservers, it wasn’t a tactical exercise but rather just adventure training, a trip casual enough for Major Tomlinson to bring along his elderly father. We were teamed two to a raft and I would be making the trip with Randy Hamblen, a friend of mine from church and one of the very few married students I knew at Ricks College.
It was a warm day when we started out and the moderate current made for a trip that was not over-tiring – the biggest challenge we had was avoiding the deadfall willows that projected into the water along the bank. However, as we got close to noon the sky began to cloud up and a cold wind kicked in – and as we rounded a bend it became a headwind for us and we stopped making good time. As we beached the rafts to rest at noon a check of the map revealed that we were less than halfway to our pick-up point. Most of the participants had anticipated a quick morning trip and didn’t bring any food or water but in my never-ending state of paranoia I had brought along a small field pack, which in addition to spare socks, held several packages of Lipton’s Instant Soup and some Trioxane solid-fuel tablets which I used to warm up as many of my fellow cadets as possible.
Grey skies got darker and began to spit intermittent raindrops at just about the same time the current picked up and we encountered modest rapids. Most of the cadets were not experienced rafters and the rough water separated/spread out the rafts until the bends in the river limited our sight to just a couple of rafts at a time – and vocal communication was dicey as well.
“THE MAJOR HAS FALLEN IN!”
…. or at least that’s what the distant half-muffled voice seemed to be saying. Randy and I looked at each other and without a word started turning around, a task much easier in the talking than in the doing. Despite our most vigorous paddling we didn’t seem to move backward very quickly, and we decided that it might be best to beach the raft and cross the distance to the overturned raft overland. After looking in vain for a break in the downed willows lining the bank we tried moving close and grabbing at the branches, but then through a combination of such factors as:
- Direction of travel
- Orientation of the raft
- Height of the branches above the water
…. Randy and I were swept off the raft and into the river as cleanly as a spatula scrapes off leftover hash browns off a greasy spoon’s grill.
My thinking immediately shifted into Tardis-time where thought happens much faster than exterior events. My first thought was that partially deflating my life preserver for a more comfortable fit had not been a good idea. Then as I bounced along the bottom of the river my second, third and fourth thoughts came to mind:
- What I would tell Randy’s wife Maxine if I brought back a drowned husband for her?
- There were an awful lot of empty beer cans along the bottom of the Snake River, more than I had ever seen in any river back home in Alaska.
- I really didn’t want to drown and miss the New Seekers concert that evening.
The fifth thought that came to mind was that the cold water was making me fuzzy-headed and I needed to get out of the river as soon as possible. I managed to kick back up to the surface, take a lungful of air and splash over to the side of the river where I found a just-as-wet-as-me Randy hanging on to the lead rope from our raft.
As we dumped the water out of the raft and tried to shake ourselves dry we could see that we weren’t the only rafters to end up in the water. Three other teams were also up on the banks battling wet clothes and gear, a sight that turned from grim to farcical when the Major and his father finally drifted slowly past us, dry as the moment they got in the raft. It turned out that it had only been the major’s thermos that fell in the river, but the background noise of the river and dispersion of the rafts had distorted the shouted message.
It also turned out that during all the drama we had ended up a lot closer to Heise Hot Springs than we previously thought and it wasn’t long until all the cadets had arrived, the rafts were all deflated and packed and we started our bus-ride back to Rexburg; some of use shivering even though the heaters were running full blast.
Later that evening
“Ils ont change ma chanson, ma / Look what they done to my song, ma”
No wonder it never made sense. The fifth verse in “Look What They Done to My Song” was sung in French – and I’d have never figured out the reason for my three-year long befuddlement had I missed the New Seekers concert that evening. Not that getting to the show had been easy – my hour-long shower had warmed my body but my toes still felt as icy as they did when we got out of the river …which made the simple act of walking a challenge.
Maxine’s glare had been equally icy when I brought Randy home looking more like a wet rat than the husband she’d sent off that morning. She vainly attempted a disapproving glare, but she was glad to have us both back safely – and that we’d had a good time.
…but for now, the New Seekers were starting up with a set of slower songs and I started to nod off a bit. “I’d like to teach the world to sing…” Who cares it started out as a jingle for Coca-Cola – it was a nice song just like today had been a good day. Not exactly what I’d expected but any day you beat the Reaper was a day to put in the win column.
- There were even fewer options when the regular draft was replaced by the draft lottery. There were no deferments with the lottery – you finished the current semester then went in the army – and if you didn’t show up they sent people to retrieve you. I had a company commander on active duty whose career started with being “escorted to the entry station.
- Probably the least derogatory explanation for the initials R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officer Training Corps)
- Another one of my “board of directors” (see blog post Board of Directors Part One: Richard Bird)