Days after I received my master's degree from the Yale School of Drama in June of 1963. I got my draft notice. report for duty. Damn. One of the reasons I had stayed at the Yale School of Drama was to avoid being drafted in to the United States Army for two years as was the custom back then. Damn. Nothing big time was going on in the world in June 1963.Okay, rumblings in Viet Nam. Damn. They got me. I was 25 years old.
Days before Uncle Sam snatched me up, I found a space in the Air Force Reserve which only required 6 months of active service with 7 years of monthly servitude. Better that than 2 years. I had a life to live. I was a playwright. I had a piece of paper to prove it.
I reported to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas for basic training in October, 1963. I went along with the endless calisthenics, aimless marching, learning to fire a rifle, kitchen duty, learning to take orders. Nothing to do with my life. My life was on hold. I was becoming a part of a unit. An Airman Basic. But I did it all begrudgingly. Hey, me and my Masters. I was a playwright. I had a piece of Ivy League paper to prove it. My rank was only Airman Basic for now. I was pretty snooty. Why not? Of all the airmen in my unit, I was the only guy from the East and one of the few who had graduated from high school much less college and grad school.
My sergeant said you spent 19 years in school? What did you do for 19 years in school? What had I done? I had never thought of that before. It was a question I couldn't answer.
One bright spot in the brain-numbing basic training of our unit [one of hundreds] came on the twenty-first of November 1963 when our schedule had its first interruption.
President John F. Kennedy was making a tour of Texas and would fly into Lackland Air Force Base to review his troops.
Hey, that was me. I was a troop!
We watched Air Force One land on a strip far away from us. Thousands of us soldiers marched in formation near it. We saw figures who must've been Jack and Jackie step out of the plane and greet figures who we were told were Vice President Johnson and Texas Governor John Connolly.
Marching bands played.
Our sergeant called out Platoon, Ten-shut!
Platoon. At rest.
We rested. We smoked.
While dignitaries garbled speeches in the distance, the talking began among my fellow airmen basics.
We got to stand in this hot sun for a nigger lover?
What the fuck is he doing here?
He don't belong in Texas.
He ain't my president.
I'd like to show that wife of his what a man is.
She's too skinny.
I'd fatten her up.
Kennedy flew onto Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas.
Hup two three four
Hup two three
We drilled back into our routine.
The next day twenty-two November at 12.30 p.m., our sergeant led the fifty of his men in formation to get our heads shaved yet again.
Hup two three four
A lieutenant pulled his car in front of us, got out and called us to attention.
Gentlemen, the president of the United States has been shot.
I stepped forward.
The sergeant snarled, Back in line, soldier. What is he? A personal friend of yours?
Yes, I said. I don't know him but he is my friend.
We were allowed to disband and smoke and gather around the Lieutenant's car to listen to the first reports of Kennedy's condition from Parkland Hospital.
Come on you fucker die.
What time you bet he die?
Not soon enough,
$5 dollars 1 p.m.
$15 1.52 p.m.
$25 he pulls through.
It was like being in Las Vegas at a craps table, no -- watching the Kentucky Derby.
Come on die die, you fucker.
He's our Commander in Chief.
Yours. Not mine.
At 1 p.m. the radio announced the president was dead.
A cheer went up.
1 p.m.! I win! I win!
We did not get haircuts that day.
We had the day off.
It was a day of celebration.
That shows what we do to nigger lovers!
Him and that skinny wife of his.
Guns fired into the sky.
Whoops of laughter.
I have never felt so isolated in my life as I did that day. These men, my fellow Americans, in the United States Air Force, my fellow Airmen Basics pulled back a curtain to show me an America I never knew existed. Not a curtain. They lifted a rock.
By the end of basic training, I realized that my 19 years of education, my Yale degree, had taught me a lot of things but had not taught me anything about life.
A Masters. A Master of what?
And I knew I must never, could never pull that curtain shut, never put down that rock, never forget what I saw that day no never again.
On that day my real education began.
Platoon. At Ease.