THE YOUNG WARIORS
by Steve Slavin
The day before I left for basic training, I sat in Katz’s, a massive family style delicatessen on the Lower Eastside. Widely known for its delicious pastrami, corned beef, and roast beef sandwiches, Katz’s fare was considered “kosher style.”
What’s the difference between kosher and kosher style? While the food is identical, truly religious Jews – strict Shabbos observers – do not patronize restaurants that stay open on Friday evening and Saturday. Those restaurants are labeled unkosher no matter how many rabbis supervise the preparation of their food.
All of this is to explain how I happened to be eating an overstuffed pastrami sandwich with sides of cole slaw and potato salad at Katz’s. Henry’s, located just down the block, had a flashing window sign – the only kosher deli in the vicinity.
Henry’s was kosher; Katz’s was just kosher style. Well, kosher style was good enough for me and for my friends, who had thrown me a little going-away party. There was a sign on the back wall, which led me to believe that mine was not the first such party. The sign read: “Send a salami to your boy in the army.”
It was drizzling when I got off the bus at Fort Dix, which served as the basic training post for those of us from New York City and most of the surrounding area. It’s about an hour and a half down the Jersey Turnpike, not far from Trenton.
The year was 1961, there were no serious wars going on, and I had signed up for what was known as “the six-month deal,” which consisted of six months active duty and five and a half years in the active reserve. That seemed a lot better than waiting to get drafted and having to serve on active duty for two years plus two more years of the reserves. Of course, you needed to be able to do the math to make the comparison.
Within days we were provided with uniforms, assigned to basic training companies, and taught how to march in formation. The sergeant running our company might have had a successful career as a stand-up comic, except that he was actually quite serious, like when he addressed us as “Mens!” When he felt the need to take us down a peg, he called us “college boys.”
My favorite term – and perhaps his – was “young warriors.” Most of the sergeants had combat infantryman badges – a rifle and a wreath – sewn on their uniforms. Because we were in the peacetime army, they often reminded us that we had it way too easy. None ever told any war stories, but the sarcastic term, young warrior, pretty much said it all.
Sergeant Sudyc, who led our platoon, looked like GI Joe. A tall stocky bald-headed man in his mid-forties, he loved climbing up on a footlocker and addressing us once or twice a week after dinner.
He meant to scare us, but his warnings often had the opposite effect. Another of his themes was that while we were suffering through basic training, he could at least get away on weekends.
“While you’re stuck on base all weekend, I’m getting’ on that bus tuh the Port Authority terminal, and then I’m getting’ on the subway tuh Brooklyn. And when youse guys ull be sittin’ in the barracks dreamin of yuh girlfriends, my beautiful wife ull be drawing a nice warm bath for me. She’ll pull off my boots, unbutton my shirt, help me outta my pants… And then she’ll whisper, ‘Get your big Russian ass into that bathtub!’”
We looked at each other and burst out laughing. And Sergeant Sudyc was soon laughing the loudest. We truly loved the man!
Another time he got on the footlocker and yelled, “Listen up!” He was ready to scare us. Up until now, we had had it much too easy. But this coming Monday morning it would all change. We’d be getting up an hour earlier because we’d be riding out to the rifle range to practice shooting at targets with our M1 rifles.
In theory, we would get eight hours sleep every night, with lights out at 9:30 pm. But often we had to stay up somewhat later, whether to clean our rifles, polish our shoes, or take care of some other mundane business. But beginning Monday morning, we’d have to get up at 4:30 a.m.!
Well, as promised, that dreaded Monday morning did arrive. The lights went on, and our sergeant was happily screaming, “Hit it! Hit it!”
We had learned that this was short for, “Hit the floor!”
But he was just getting warmed up. “I warned youse guys that things were going to get tough around here.”
Indeed, he had. “It’s 4:30! It’s Monday morning.” He paused a few seconds for dramatic effect. “And it’s raining!”
There was a big smile on his face. In his entire life, the man had probably never been happier. He had warned us! But the weather gods had made it worse than even he had predicted.
We saw how happy he was. And that made us happy. If all it took was our misery to make him happy, then we’d gladly be miserable. Wasn’t that the way of the young warrior?
We happily got dressed, stood in formation in the pouring rain, grabbed some “shit on a shingle” (chipped beef on toast) – reputedly the worse meal the Army had to offer – and then clambered onto the open “cattle trucks” for the hour-long ride out to the rifle range. Our sergeant was smiling for the entire ride.
A day or two before Passover we received some great news. Those of us whose religious affiliation was “Hebrew” would be getting two days off. We could go home to celebrate this great holiday which, after all, did commemorate the freeing of the Jews.
But everything had to be done by the book. We couldn’t just stroll over to the orderly room to pick up our passes. No, this was the Army. We had to march there in formation.
About a quarter of the members of our company were, as we identified ourselves, “Hebes.”
So we formed ranks and marched to the orderly room calling out our cadence in Yiddish: “Eins, zwei, drei, fier… Eins, zwei, drei, fier.
The absurdity of basic training, the Army, and perhaps life itself, seemed to come into sharp focus. How could any of this be taken seriously?
Some of us imagined the next-to-last week of basic training like the “hell week” of a high school or college fraternity, when the brothers tested us to make absolutely certain that we would make worthy associates. That week we bivouacked in a remote area of Fort Dix, and then marched back to the barracks just after dinner on Friday evening.
For us, this was twilight walk through the Jersey pines. We had our gas masks at the ready, because we had heard a rumor that there would be a gas attack. Canisters of tear gas would be shot into the air, and we would need to quickly remove our helmets and correctly place the masks on our faces. We had practiced this operation dozens of times and were confident that we had it down right.
After having walked four or five miles, we saw the canisters being shot into the air as the call went out, “Gas attack!” Within thirty seconds, we all had our masks on. We resumed our march, and then, after a few minutes someone yelled, “All clear!”
As I took off my mask, I could smell something just a bit off. But that was it! Our last test had been passed. For the rest of the way back to the barracks, we just enjoyed that beautiful evening. It would remain my fondest memory of the Army.
After nine weeks of basic training, we would go home for two weeks, and then head off to some other military post for another three and a half months of specialized training. And that would be it, more or less.
We’d still have five and a half years of reserves ahead of us, and there was always the risk that we might get called up to active duty. Still, that was sure a hell of a lot better than spending two years in the Army, and maybe even having to fight in a “shooting war.”
Suddenly, everything changed. President John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev got into a pissing contest that would go on for another year, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Perhaps to demonstrate his toughness, Kennedy called up hundreds of reserve units to active duty. Now being in the reserves did not seem like such a wonderful deal. At first, we thought to ourselves, we already are on active duty. So what did it matter if our reserve unit was called up?
But then we realized that when our six months of active duty was up, we would rejoin our reserve units. And if they were on active duty, that’s where we would end up.
Thankfully, my unit had not been activated. So as long as we didn’t get into a shooting war, when my six months were up, I’d be a free man.
As things turned out, I would be able to serve out my remaining five and a half years in the reserves, just going to weekly meetings and summer camp. After President Kennedy’s assassination and President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of our involvement in the Vietnam War, there was again some concern that there would be a massive reserve call-up. But it didn’t happen. Johnson demonstrated his macho by fighting a full-scale war without having to call up the reserves. What a hero!
Overall, I enjoyed my days on active duty, but by the end of my six months, I had had quite enough of it. And as our involvement in the Vietnam War expanded, like most of my friends I railed against the war, marched for peace, and joined a couple of anti-war organizations.
But until national sentiment began to turn against the war in 1968, there seemed little we could do to stop it. Some young men fled to Canada, got student deferments, and went underground while many more just resigned themselves to being drafted, hoping they would not be sent to Vietnam.
Like almost everyone else, I was enjoying my life without thinking too much about the war. One Friday evening, as I was putting the moves on a nice young woman, my phone rang. It was my friend Josh, whom I had met in the Army Reserve.
Could I talk? Instead of answering, I just put the woman on the phone. I figured that if she were really interested in me, she would just blow him off. I remember her stating her full name, which somehow struck me very funny. To this day, I can’t remember her actual name, but it definitely was not “Barbara Schleperman.”
They chatted for a few minutes and then I got back on the phone with Josh. He told me that our friend Zach’s nephew Ben was going into the army, and they were taking him out to enjoy his last night of freedom. I explained that I’d love to come, but I was otherwise occupied. He understood and hung up.
Five minutes later, my downstairs bell rang. It was Josh, Zach and Ben. They came upstairs. The woman seemed glad to see them. She and Josh resumed their conversation. Oh well: easy come, easy go.
We decided to drive out to Bensonhurst where the woman lived. It was close to midnight when we entered Famous Cafeteria, just around the corner from her house. They served dairy dishes, and like Katz’s Delicatessen, it was kosher style. Although it was Shabbos, the place was packed.
We sat there for hours. Ben’s mom had grown up in New York, but she married a Jewish guy from Iowa, and that’s where they raised a family. Ben had dropped out of college and received his draft notice two weeks later.
“Yeah,” observed Zach, “the college registrar and the draft board must maintain a direct line.”
Ben had an eight a.m. flight out of Kennedy. He would spend Saturday with his family and report for basic training on Sunday.
At five a.m. we were on the Belt Parkway on the way to Kennedy. The woman came with us. She sat in the front with Josh.
Ben seemed OK about going into the Army. They promised him that after basic training, he would be trained in computers, and that he would remain in the United States during his entire two-year tour. They even put their guarantee in writing. Josh, Zach, and I didn’t believe it.
I checked in with Zach every few months. Apparently, the Army actually did keep its word. Not only had Ben never left the country, but he was one of the few people being trained on some kind of top secret Defense Department project that might have civilian applications.
Two years after our going-away get-together, Ben was back in New York. He had been hired by a computer start-up company and would stay with Zach until he found his own apartment. He was working on some kind of hush-hush project called an internet. I just hoped all that training would not go to waste in another lame-brain government boondoggle.
Ben’s timing was excellent in at least one respect. He would arrive just in time to attend a wedding. In fact, it would be a reunion of sorts since the last time we saw Ben. He, Josh, Zach, and I would all be in the wedding party. Josh and “Barbara Schleperman” were getting married.
A few years later I was driving across Staten Island on the way to my teaching job in New Jersey. I had to leave my house very early to beat the traffic, but on the plus side I had just a two-day week teaching economics in a community college. Although I had to get up at 5 a.m., I worked just sixty days a year.
The traffic was all going the other way – towards the Verrazano Bridge; It was still dark, and I could see the headlights of backed-up cars extending for miles. This put me in a great mood. In fact, I began to laugh so hard, I feared that I might lose control of the car.
If a traffic cop saw me now, he’d probably throw the book at me. He’d make me get out of the car and try to walk in a straight line. I might not be able to because I’d be laughing too hard. If he asked me what was so funny, how could I explain it to him?
“You see, officer. It’s still dark outside. It’s Monday morning. And it’s raining!”
About the Author:
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books. The third volume of his short stories, “To the City with Love,” will be published in September by Fat Dog Books.