My pre-Christmas story for 2012.
It was the third week of December, 1962, and I had finished eight weeks of Combat Medic training at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas. There had been about 120 men in the training company, and most had received orders and shipped out days earlier. Since it was near Christmas, no one at their new postings would have any idea what to do with them, so almost everyone who got orders also got “indefinite” travel orders and a report date of January 2 or 3. Those headed overseas were given dates to report to Replacement Depots (“repple depples” in GI parlance). I, along with about a dozen other men, received… nothing; no orders, no travel allowance, no military travel priority, no anything. My brother’s training had finished the day before mine, and his orders assigned him to the Tank Command at Fort Hood at Killeen, Texas, where he had been training. He had decided not to go home for Christmas leave. He had little money, and was looking to save his money for the next few months and get married the next summer.
I was worried. My parents had built their hospital for Developmentally Disabled children in the snowbelt of northeast Ohio. Whatever was happening in Cleveland was happening at the hospital… in spades. And I was morally sure there were no tanks plowing the country roads of Portage County, Ohio. One thing I knew for sure was that phone service was out… had been for the past thirty-six hours or more. Fifty children and their caregivers were freezing in the dark for all I knew… and there was nothing I could do about it.
“Lar-ham?” A voice I didn’t recognize, loud and rasping with the last effects of the rhino virus that had afflicted about a third of the training company, mispronounced my name. “Lar-ham? If you’re in here, get over here.”
I looked up. A Major I’d never seen stood in the day-room door. I stood up and walked toward him.
“Move y’r tail if you want that ride home, Soldier.” He didn’t straighten from the door jamb as I stopped in front of him. My right hand automatically headed for my eyebrow.
“Don’t bother with th’ salute, just get your butt in here,” he growled and turned toward the office on the other side of the door. “I’ve got your orders, and it’s time to go.”
Then I placed the voice. I’d grabbed a posted request for a co-driver to northeast Ohio and called the number three days ago. This was the voice, less strangled and plugged than when he’d answered the phone, but this was the voice. The Major was my ride home. “How did you get my orders… um – Sir?” I was a bit past confused.
“Called your CO (Commanding Officer), and asked him to tell me before he told you.”
Of course… my CO being a First Lieutenant, that would have worked just fine. Requests from Majors to Lieutenants were orders.
“You ready to go?”
“What? Now? It’s after noon. Shouldn’t we wait ‘til tomorrow morning?” I was still catching up.
“Think we’ll get there sooner if we start eighteen hours later?” The Major was laughing at me. I shook my head. “Got a couple of kids goin’ with us, but you and I’ll drive. They’re eighteen year-old kids.”
From my great age above them of two years (I had turned twenty just two weeks before my brother Giles and I joined the Army), I nodded sagely. I went over to the duty desk and signed out for the last time, signed another acknowledging that I’d received the orders I’d yet to see as they were clutched in the Major’s left hand, stood and turned to the Major. “Ready,” I said, “just gotta grab my duffel from the barracks.”
“Let’s go!” The Major ducked out the door and headed for a blue ’61 Cadillac. I sprinted for the barracks, ducking through the door just as the Caddy pulled up. I grabbed the big green canvas bag with my serial number and name on it and head for the rear of the car. The Major opened the trunk lid to reveal a cavernous space containing three other duffel bags and two suitcases… his, I assumed. I tossed in my duffel, leaving barely enough space for a high school marching band’s full set of instruments; the Major slammed the trunk lid and we scrambled into the front seat.
“Boys, this is Private Lar-ham.” He never did get the name right.
“Hullo,” came two surly replies.
“Bill and Ben just learned they won’t be driving. They’re not happy, but we’re their only way home to Cincinnati.” He put the big car in gear. “Now, once we’re on the road you’ll take first shift. I bought this car for this drive. My home is in a town called Pepper Pike, and I go home three or four times a year. I don’t like trains, planes or buses, so I drive. The Caddy cruises at a hundred, and unless I tell you differently, once we start north that will be our speed. You just set this,” he tapped a button on the dash marked “Throttle,” “and steer.”
I recognized the throttle from the same device on our 1950 Studebaker. Throttles weren’t “live” as today’s speed controls are. They worked best on flat land, and there was a fair amount of that as we headed north out of San Antonio. Small hills caused the car to slow a bit, and downhill runs let her accelerate, but all-in-all it worked well enough as long as we drove the flatlands of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.
An hour north of San Antonio the rain stopped, and the Major pulled over. We traded seats, and he laid his seatback at a sixty degree angle. “Bill… Ben, one of you guys hand me a pillow,” he said. As he settled into it he pulled my orders out of his uniform blouse pocket. He flipped through the three sheets of paper.
“Camp Page, Korea… never heard of it,” he muttered. “Well, you’ll have thirteen months to figure it out. You report to the repple-depple in Oakland on January 3.” He looked up, “You won’t get this month’s pay until you get to Camp Page, and it’ll probably take a couple of months to catch up to you, so you won’t see any money until February. You’d better try to borrow some from your Old Man.”
“Yeah.” But I had my doubts. The Old Man was hardly rich.
“You got my twenty-five bucks?” He wanted my share of the cost of the ride. It was strictly gas money. He said it cost a hundred dollars to buy gas for the Caddy for fifteen hundred miles. We each kicked in twenty-five, and he provided the car.
“Remind me at the next stop.” I wasn’t about to wrestle my wallet out of my dress greens at a hundred miles an hour while I tried to control the huge land-yacht as she pitched, rolled and yawed down the highway. I had never driven a car that moved around so much under me.
Eventually, well off to the right I saw a red light pacing us and pointed it out to the Major. “Take it up,” he said, “he’s gonna try to get to a cross-road and beat us to the interchange.”
I pressed the accelerator, settling the speedometer needle on 120. “Cops have a saying,” I began.
“Yeah,” the Major was laughing. ““You can outrun my motor, but you can’t outrun my Motorola.” But this is the hick South. There’s nobody on the other end of that Motorola who’s close enough to help him.”
From the back seat, “What’s a Motorola?”
“Police radio,” the Major and I said together. The Major looked to the right and chuckled. “He’s giving up.” Sure enough, the Black-and-White was falling back. Before I turned back to the road, he’d shut down the red light. I backed off the gas until the throttle took over again.
We stopped for diner burgers late and the Major took over driving when we came out. Bill and Ben fell asleep soon after we started, but I tried to keep the Major company. Sometime after midnight, I woke up as the Major pulled into a rest area. “My turn?”
“Nope,” the Major was firm, “we all sleep ‘til six or seven, then you can drive.” He climbed out of the car and went to the trunk. He came back with two wool trade blankets and another pillow. Tossing me the pillow and one of the blankets, he climbed back into the car, dropped his seatback and pulled his blanket around him. I did the same.
I awoke to one of the twins griping at the other to get off him. Then they both started complaining about how cold it was. I pulled off my blanket and tossed it in the back. They were right… it was cold. I straightened up my seat-back and got out of the car, pulling the keys out of the ignition as I did so. The Major was obviously in the facilities. And I was confident the facilities did not include running water. I put a stick of Doublemint in my mouth and headed for the bathroom. The twins squabbled their way out of the car behind me. I went back and locked it.
As I entered the Major came out. I handed him the keys. “No water in there,” he said.
“I figured.” I kept walking into the noisome multi-stall privy, the twins behind me.
Back at the car we tossed the blankets into the trunk and headed northeast again. Still in Arkansas, We got breakfast at the first little diner we came to. The Major filled two thermos bottles with coffee. Like the Old Man, he liked his with cream and he didn’t ask what we liked in ours. We drank it with cream.
By lunch we had crossed the southwest corner of Tennessee and we were in the foothills of the mountains of Kentucky. We had to cross about half the length of the State, crossing mountains all the way.
After dark we pulled into a truck stop part way up a mountain. It was beginning to snow, and I was worried about the twisting road down the mountain if the snow became heavy and started refracting the headlights. I would be driving.
In the truck stop four soldiers were a nine-day wonder. Truckers bought our dinner, refilled our thermos bottles and generally treated us like heroes. We could have filled the Caddy’s trunk with souvenirs at their expense. In fact, it was hard to talk them out of buying “trucker stuff” for us. The Viet Nam debacle was still two years away, and the American public’s turn against its own soldiers, further away still.
Walking outside, I said a silent, “Nutz!” The air was filled with white flakes… big soft ones falling rapidly but windlessly. This was going to be a scary ride once we made it over the crest. We putzed around for a couple of minutes getting into the car and getting settled. I heard a diesel rev as I closed the car door. As I pulled onto the highway, a car-hauler blared its horns, flared its brights and cut me off, swinging onto the two-lane ahead of me.
Chanting every curse and swear-word I knew I swung in behind him. This was going to be a long, slow ride. The road was a curving two-lane blacktop with no place to pass in weather like this, unless the truck drivin’ SOB who’d just cut me off developed a sense of common courtesy and pulled to the side.
After an hour at thirty miles an hour or less, we topped the mountain and started down. I was already developing a hunch, when the truck’s left turn signal came on and the horn fired up. Then I saw the driver’s arm come out the window and show an “assemble” circle of his hand. My hunch turned into a happy certainty.
With powerful fog lights cutting through the falling snow, that massive Aoogah horn warning of every curve, and the turn signals telling me which way the curve would go, that trucker led the way. I rode his tracks through the ever deepening snow all the way down that mountain. At the bottom, six hours after we’d left the truck stop, and nearing midnight, he pulled into another truck stop parking lot. I followed.
I pulled up beside him and got out of the Caddy. He eased out of the cab of his semi. “I didn’t mean for you to follow me in here,” he laughed, “but I guess it got to be a habit, eh?”
“Just wanted to thank you.” I stuck out my hand. “We never would have made it without you.”
He nodded. “Yeah… I was just comin’ out to get my shavin’ kit. But when I saw what you were drivin’ I was sure you wouldn’t. I almost didn’t get in front of you. Bet it pissed you off when I did.” He was laughing again.
I was dumbfounded. “You were going to stay the night?”
“Yeah… nobody drives this road in weather like this. ‘T’ain’t safe. Well, nobody but crazy truckers and fool soldiers, I reckon.”
“But… but…” I couldn’t think what came after “But.”
“Let it be, Private.” It was the Major. “He knows.” He turned to the trucker. “You likely saved us all.”
The trucker nodded. “Proud to do it, Major... got a son in Germany.” He changed subjects. “Motels charge six bucks a room. Truck stop charges six bits for a bed in the dormitory. They’ll let you stay there if I ask.” He looked at the four of us. “Beats sleepin’ in y’r car in th’ winter.”
Ten minutes later we had our shaving kits and were collecting clean sheets for dormitory bunks.
Truckers are not silent upon awakening. We were up and ready to eat by five-thirty. At about ten that morning we dropped the twins in Cincinnati, and the Major decided we’d earned a treat. For the first, last and only time in my life, I was treated to a hot towel facial and a barber’s shave. Unfortunately, I had been shaving with an electric razor for five years. I developed a shaving rash that lasted more than a week. That stropped straight razor was just too sharp and shaved too close.
Late that afternoon, after another eight hours of driving, we pulled into the Larlham farmstead driveway. The Major was offered dinner, dessert and a bed, but he was only an hour and a half from home, and he wanted to be there. While we were driving from Texas, roads had been plowed, ice had been salted and the National Guard had been sent home. He stayed just long enough to use the bathroom and drink a glass of water. I never saw him again.
I spent the next few days helping decorate for Christmas, running errands, and visiting places I wouldn’t see again for at least a year. Came Christmas, and I had very little money. I had brought a couple of souvenirs from my training command, and those were my gifts to the Old Man and Mother. We made the obligatory trek to Aunt Edna’s, but most of the cousins were not there. Most of the traditions that made those Christmases a joy for children were gone. We, the children who did show, were adults looking for the children. It may have been the last great Gadd Christmas get-together.
Although Christmas was a little bittersweet, it was neither sad nor boring. Ultimately, it was the last farmhouse Christmas for me, and as an adult I think I had more joy of that than I’d had of Christmas in several years.
I did ask, and the Old Man gave me fifty bucks to last the month, and it was a good thing he did. On January 3, early in the morning I boarded a 707 for San Francisco. We finally took off about noon, having deplaned within minutes of boarding the plane. Then we waited for hours while they fixed something on one of the wheels. Whatever they fixed broke again as we were landing. There was a great puddle of something on the ground in the glare of the lights.
I arrived at the repple-depple at about thirty minutes after midnight, and found that I was AWOL… for being 30 minutes late. Turned out it hardly mattered. Took the Army most of January to get me on a transport ship to Korea. Most of the troops who showed up around the first were given flights, and were gone by the end of the first week. I got a ship… both ways.
Copyright 12/07/2012, R C Larlham, all rights reserved to author.