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Last Days in the Army, Fort Lewis Washington 1961

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Last Days in the Army, Fort Lewis Washington 1961

My two year tour in Germany was over and I was grateful for the commercial flight back to the United States. With thirty days leave to spend with my family, now living in Florida, I was ready to relax. Dad was commercial fishing now and hunting Alligators. Mom was happy with her beach house on the lake and her painting. And my little sister was in highschool. Dad took me out running the trout lines in the day time and at night we would load up the boat and go alligator hunting.

In 1961 it was still legal to hunt alligators and we would use a boat or wade through the swamp shining a light around looking for red eyes. If the eyes were high off the ground then it would be a cow, and you had better not shoot any cows. Dad shot a 5-foot alligator one night and I was dragging it back to the boat when it came back to life. The tail is the strongest part and I could not hold on. Dad finished him off with the 22 mag. pistol he carried and we had alligator tail for dinner the next day. The trout lines were for cat fish, and he would usually bring in a tub full each day and skin them on a nail board next to the Canal that ran along side the house.

The trailer that we had lived in for two years before I left home, was parked behind the house. Dad kept bait in the freezer, maggots he collected and froze for bait. Visitors who stayed in the trailer were warned to not open the freezer! Dad also used Camay Soap, the cat fish liked the smell I guess. Only a year before fish traps were used on the lakes by the commercial fishermen and had just been outlawed due to feared over fishing. Trout lines were all that were allowed and it was a lot more work. My sister had the job of baiting the lines that were set in box frames with the hooks hanging from groves around the outside. Dad would set the stack of frames on a turn table mounted on the edge of the boat. The boat would then be driven fast across the lake with dad picking off the empty frames as they turned feeding the line out into the lake. He would attach a milk jug every once in a while to hold the line off the bottom. That afternoon we would bring the lines and cat fish back in with a few turtles to create a little excitement. We usually ate the turtles and alligators, and dad sold the fish.

After about a week of this I was ready to get on the road. The old family car was a 1956 Chev. station wagon. Dad had moved up to a Volkswagen and he gave me the Chev. Wagon. It ran good, but the tires needed balancing so I could only drive about 55 miles an hour. I drove up to west Kentucky to see my Aunt and Uncle before heading across the country for the second time. But this time I was traveling in style. My Aunt packed a sack of sandwiches for me and I would drive, eat sandwiches and sleep in the back of the wagon when I got tired.

Three days later as I was crossing Idaho, it started snowing hard and it was dark. I pulled off the express way and down the ramp to what looked like a safe place and crawled into the back. When I awoke the next morning, I was parked in the middle of an intersection, the snow had no tracks and the intersection had not been used all night. I eased back upon the express way through the fresh snow and continued to Washington.

Arriving at Fort Lewis a week early, with little money and not wanting to check in until my leave was up, I drove through the post and would pick up solders looking for a ride into Tocoma. A few bucks extra helped with the gas, now all I needed was a place to stay. I found out about the officer’s hotel nearby and talked my way in. They had empty rooms and said that if I did not tell anyone I could stay for the week.

During the week I continued my taxi runs and found an ice-skating rink to spend the afternoons. I had never ice skated before and it was quite an experience. After building up a little strength in my ankles I decided too never roller skate again, ice skating is so smooth and quiet compared to roller skating. By the end of the week I could skate backwards and stay on my feet for several hours at a time.

My assignment at Fort Lewis was easy, I was assigned to driving a jeep for officers on duty at Headquarters. I enjoyed the heavy wet snows that are typical along the coast of Washington. On the weekends we would drive down to Portland. A friend I met lived there and knew where all the parties were. We would party all night Saturday and then go to Mass early on Sunday morning. Being Baptist I did not quite understand the logic. I would not drink as I was driving and did not like drinking that much anyway. We would again party Sunday night and drive back to Fort Lewis early Monday morning to arrive before roll call. When the fog rolled in on those early morning drives from Portland along the coast, we would sometimes have to hang our heads out the window to see the center line of the highway.

During one weekend I drove over to Mount Rainier to try out snow skiing. The snow was so deep that the road looked like a tunnel with the snow piled so high along the side of the road. The parking lot had a tunnel entrance to the ski lodge and only the roofs of some of the buildings were visible above the snow. I had never been in snow that deep. I started out on the beginners slope and never made it any higher. On the second day I ended up with one ski pointed up and the other ski pointing down, both stuck in the snow. This was before they had the quick release shoes, so my feet were still attached to the skis. My knee was sore for two years after that experience.

Our unit was on standby for trouble spots around the world and each time trouble broke out we had a new round of shots. I have never been stuck with so many needles. We would load up our equipment and board the train, then wait for orders. Although we never had to leave, when trouble broke out in Lebanon that year, we were all sure that we would be sent. Vietnam was heating up at this time and we had advisors there, but at the time we were not aware of the problems and it was not until after I was discharged that I learned about Vietnam.

Due to cutbacks in the budget I was discharged a few months early on April 12, 1961. On the day I was processing out one of the solder’s working in the discharge area swore that I had a twin bother there. I never met the fellow and it remained a mystery never to be solved, they say that we all have a look-alike somewhere and I guess that I came close to seeing mine.

The drive back to Florida was a little faster after I had the tires balanced on the Chev. I had to keep all my uniforms for three more years to complete my six-year obligation to the Army, but I was never called back. I did have to register for the draft because of my age, but would not be called as I was in the reserve.

Getting my military experience over at an early age was a great advantage as I started looking for work. With Vietnam and the draft, the fist question asked when I applied for a job was if I had already been in the service. Once they found out that I would not be drafted, there was not problem getting a job. After a short visit with family in Sebring, I moved to Bradenton, Florida to work and attend the Junior college there. The college was new and they would take students with no high school diploma, the GED test results were all that I needed.

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