I never thought of myself as a veteran, though I served in the US Army for three years from 1962-65. I assumed that “veterans” were those who had fought in wars. I enlisted in 1962, at age 24, right after college. We had the “draft” in those days, so since I was single and unmarried and I was ripe for the picking. I chose to enlist contrary to the wishes of family and friends. Some of my friends chose to get married and have kids, just to avoid the draft. That seemed pretty extreme to me. This was just after the “Berlin Crisis” but before Vietnam erupted. A good, safe time to serve my country, I thought.
With a Master’s Degree in hand, I had hoped to land some soft MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) but true to form, the Army, after basic training at Ford Ord, California, sent me to where I was deemed most useful to my country, firing 105mm cannons in the mid-western plains, in some god-forsaken place in Oklahoma, called Fort Sill. It was 10 degrees above zero that winter. A far cry from the weather in the Bay Area.
I had enlisted under one condition: I won’t sign unless the Army promises to send me to Europe. It had been my dream since college when we studied great European art. I knew the exactly where the great art and museums were and the fine churches. I signed, and they kept their promise. When I got my orders for duty in Germany, I was ecstatic.
I was stationed at a small village called Wachernheim (couldn’t even find it on a map) smack in the heart of the Rhine Valley, about 30 miles from beautiful Mainz, Germany right on the Rhine. It turned out to be an “Honest John” (missile) battalion. What I would do here was beyond me. I settled into the routines of Army life: mopping and polishing floors, cleaning latrines, maintainning trucks and jeeps in the motor pool, pulling guard-duty, and KP.
In time, I became a battalion clerk, though I could barely type, hunt-and-peck, but I could write, spell and knew English grammar. But the plan was to travel and that I did: Italy, France, Spain, Holland, Denmark and beautiful Germany. And I saw the art, museums and churches I had only seen in art books and in slides in my art history courses! Since Europe is so small, I could travel to other countries on a three day pass! Let alone the 30-day leaves we were given each year. And I got to stand before the Vermeers, the Rembrandts, the Michaelangelos, the Sistine chapel, inside the Louvre, the Prado: me the young Mexican boy from a poor barrio in Southside Modesto!
In all, this experience turned out to be one of my great adventures in life, fulfilling my my dream to see Europe and allowing me to fulifill my “duty to my country” (as we spoke of it then.) Moreover, I met great friends in the Army, one Rick Banker – has become a life-long friend.
My mother prayed to La Virgen de Guadalupe for me to return safely, and that she did. Perhaps it was her prayers the kept me from being sent to Vietnam, as the ship I was to return to the US on, was suddenly recalled in order to transport American soldiers there.
She had made a “Manda” that we would go to the Basilca of Guadalupe in Mexico City to give thanks on my safe return. Though I fought with her, nearly refusing to go, it was on this very trip that I would meet that I would meet and marry my lifelong partner, Graciela, of 49 years. Its a story still in progress.
Anyway, I think about all of this on this Veterans Day 2015, over a copy my DD 214 (Honorable Discharge) sitting on my printer, as I prepare to go to Hometown Buffet for a free lunch to Veterans today. I, unlike other Vets, and because of them, have lived to tell this story.