Last Moments

The Chambers Brothers were playing the Civic Theater in Philadelphia and it was a sure bet we were going. The fact that I was in the army and stationed at Frankford Arsenal at the time was, I felt merely an inconvenience. The army and I hadn’t been getting along particularly well, having gotten off on the wrong foot from the get go. I’d been transferred from Fort Bragg, NC to the Arsenal via some mysterious but appreciated nod of the gods. It was a strange time all in all, I learned of my transfer after getting back from temporary duty in Washington DC as part of the martial law forces sent to quell the rioting. Martin Luther King’s assassination had the country ablaze with emotion. I was barely back in country from the Vietnam war and found myself again carrying a loaded weapon, except this time in my own country and in the nation’s capital no less. It was a very surreal time.

The Frankford Arsenal was a leg outfit. That means the soldiers stationed there weren’t paratroopers. I stood out in my first formation like a pig in a restaurant; my pants were bloused in my boots, I had a chest full of merit patches, a combat path from the 101st Airborne on my left shoulder and the All American patch of the 82nd Airborne on my right. Atop my head was the bright red riggers cap I wore, a designation of my occupational specialty. The cap, like my chest, bore both rigger and jump wings. Actually my chest bore a Combat Infantryman Badge, Riggers Wings, and Paratrooper Jump Wings over my name tag. The unit CO, a man I thought of as a dipstick, wore only captain’s bars on his collar and ingratiated himself to me by ordering me at first sight, in front of the company formation, to remove my hard earned and regulation awards and decorations because “no damn NCO was going to have a uniform that made his look bad.” I, of course, refused the order. This got me an Article 15, a commanders punishment and cost me a stripe. I stopped being a sergeant and became a corporal. I was outraged and took it to the Inspector General’s Office and they reprimanded the CO but held up his demotion of me. By rights I should have complied with the order and then complained to the IG to have my honors restored. Thing is, I wasn’t about to be humiliated in front of the company because of this jerk’s ego. While it cost me a stripe, the majority of the company grinned when I showed up at the following morning formation still in full regalia. So yeah, we got off on the wrong foot and we stayed on the wrong feet from May, 1968 until January of 1969 when I was discharged 9 days after New Years.

I knew my discharge was coming up, and frankly, duty at the Arsenal was pretty much a daytime gig. I would ferry officers around that had business at the Philly Naval Yard, do gopher stuff for the various techs and scientists that worked at the facility, or sit around. For the most part I had to be there from 8 to five every weekday and other than that, I was on my own. As a result, I was spending a lot of time out in Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr, hanging with the students and doing my best to catch the last of the days of peace, love and music enveloped in clouds of pot smoke. So here it was December and the Chambers Brothers were coming to pay with Spirit, and I was you damn betcha going to see that. I had a girlfriend named Chrissy. Her dad was the Editor of the Philadelphia Evening and Sunday Bulletin, one of the heavy players of the news media. I’d met Chrissy during the 30 day leave I got when I came back from the war and we’d done the long distance relation thing until I’d been transferred. While he denied it, I had the feeling that her dad had something to do with my magic transfer. Anyway, Chrissy’s dad let her (and me) drive a cute little Renault Caravelle convertible. It was a four seater, assuming the people in back were double amputees. It was white with red interior and a pretty sexy little thing, although a little lacking in power.

Andi and Steve were also friends, brother and sister, and had managed to cram themselves into the back of the Caravelle after Chrissy had picked me up at the Arsenal main gate. The MPs guarding the gate were not amused by my attire; I was wearing wellington boots, flare legged jeans, and a tee short that proclaimed war was dangerous for children and other living things. They actually took my picture to get a record of it. I, of course, posed for the shot with a large grin on my face. We were chatting and laughing as I drove us to the Civic and everything was going fine until Andi dropped her cigarette into her lap and it got caught up in the folds of her skirt. There were a lot of flailing arms and attempts to help that came to an abrupt end when I, looking back and trying to help Andi, drove into the back of a parked 1959 Buick. It was amazing how badly the front of the Caravelle was crushed considering that I’d merely wiped some road dirt from the rear bumper of the Buick. It was appalling the I didn’t even scratch the tank of a car I’d hit.

“What should we do here?” I asked the group as we stood around the car looking at the pugged front of the Caravelle and the haughty undamaged Buick.

“I suggest that we get out of here.” said Chrissy. “We don’t have collision insurance.”

“Steve said “We should call the cops after the show and report that someone crashed into the car while we were at the concert.” His sister asked if Chrissy had uninsured motorist insurance. Chrissy didn’t know.

“I’ll call my dad and ask him.” she said, starting off towards a phone booth on a corner.

“That’s gonna look pretty fishy if you ask him that now and then tell him someone ran into his car later.” said Andi. We all nodded and decided to go see the show and take it from there.

The Chambers Brothers were pretty good, but we all decided we liked Spirit’s gig the best even though they didn’t get the radio airplay that the Chambers Brothers did. For three hours we managed to forget about the crunched Caravelle as we listened to the music and generally enjoyed the people and the environment of the show. There was a chill in the air when we got out of the concert and we all crammed ourselves into a phone booth as Chrissy called her dad. He told her that yes, insurance did cover damage while parked and told her to make a police report. It would be needed for the claim. Another dime went into the phone and Chrissy phoned the accident into the cops, who told her to stay with the car after making sure no one was hurt. We hung around freezing for a half hour and a police car double parked next to the Caravelle.

“Someone bashed into you while parked, eh?” said a hefty and tall leather jacketed policeman. There was a German Shepherd in the back of his car that stared at us with suspicious eyes. The cop took some noted and filled out a card that he gave to Chrissy. As he climbed into the car to leave he commented that the offender was at least nice enough to sweep up the glass, paint chips and dirt that usually got spread around at accident sites. He shook his head and drove off, leaving all of us standing there with our ears and cheeks feeling hot in spite of the cold. We watched the cop disappear around a corner, and being young and stupid, we all started laughing and packed ourselves into the car for the trip home.  After dropping off Steve and Andi, it was two o’clock in the morning when I parked in Chrissy’s driveway. Her dad was still up, no doubt waiting for us. He appraised the car and said it wasn’t as bad as he thought and then told me I should spend the night rather than driving the car back into the city to the arsenal, considering it only had one headlight and it pointed at the ground right in front of the car.

I took the train into Philly with Chrissy’s dad the next morning and then caught a bus to the Arsenal. I strolled through the gate around 9:45 to find out there was an alert on. Alerts were just drills to practice what do do in the event we were attacked, something as likely as me becoming a general. The CO was thrilled that I’d missed roll call for the alert and gave me another Article 15 and took another stripe from me, making me a Private First Class. I changed the strips on my dress uniform and went to complain to the IG’s office. They made my CO revoke the Article 15 because I had been on authorized pass because it was the weekend, had left a number I could be reached at and so was blameless. I’d left the house number at Chrissy’s and no one chose to call it I guess. Anyway, the CO went postal because he couldn’t make the grade reduction stick. When I left the service three weeks later, I made it a point after clearing post and had possession of my papers to tell my CO that I thought he was an ass and explained why in very colorful terms. I managed to do it just before morning formation was dismissed and so the whole company heard it. He screamed that he would have me arrested and stomped off to his office, but I was out the gate and beyond his jurisdiction before he could call. I was standing outside the gate when the call came to the MP post. The MR who answered the phone was looking right at me when he told the CO that I’d caught a bus already. I smiled widely at him and he came to attention and saluted. I returned it and then did get on a bus.