Archive for Thursday, November 13, 2008

2 years in ‘a green and pleasant land’

November 13, 2008

I see that Rotary International is having its annual convention next year in Birmingham, England.

When I think of England, I always think of an old Roger Miller song.

“England swings like a pendulum do…”

“England Swings” was popular in the spring of 1966. I remember the song because when I first heard it, I was in England, at a place the locals called Menwith Hill, a lonely outpost on the windswept Yorkshire moors about halfway between London and Edinburgh.

It had another name for us Yanks, it was the 13th U.S. Army Security Agency Field Station, one link in a chain of listening posts maintained by the services in the Cold War.

I was there as a consequence of events set in motion when I was called to take my draft physical in early November 1963. I had left school at the time; told that it usually took two to three months after the physical before one was inducted, I reasoned that I had time to get back in school. A few days later, however, I got a postcard from the Army recruiter.Because of my test scores, it said, “you may be eligible for a special assignment in the United States Army.”

I was dismissive of the overture, but my stepfather insisted that I check it out. So, I went to visit the recruiter in downtown Kansas City on Nov. 22, 1963.

I settled into the chair opposite a young staff sergeant and asked him what the deal was.

“Well, Beal,” he answered. “We think you could be eligible for the Army Security Agency.”

“What’s that?”

“I can’t tell you,” he answered. Then he paused just a little and added, “But you won’t be wearing civilian clothes.”

He also presented as an almost-lead-pipe-cinch the idea that I could get assigned to the Army Language School at the Presidio of Monterey, Calif., and learn Russian or some other exotic language.

Sometime after lunch the sergeant got a phone call. He spoke briefly, then replaced the receiver with a stunned expression.

“That was my wife,” he said. “President Kennedy’s been shot in Dallas.”

I don’t believe they had a television set or a radio in the recruiting office. After a few minutes, the sergeant’s wife called back to say that the president had died.

I still don’t know what part the young president’s assassination played in my decision. I guess it had to have some impact. Anyway, I’d agreed to serve for four years instead of the two that I’d have been obligated for if I’d been drafted. I took the oath on Dec. 9, 1963.

Some of the sergeant’s blandishments proved to be correct, but others didn’t. I was accepted into the Army Security Agency. Instead of sending me to Monterey to learn Russian, however, the Army sent me to Fort Devens, Mass., to learn Morse code — not quite as salable a skill.

And so I landed on England’s shores in August 1964. I would stay there until August 1966. In some respects they were the best two years of my life. Oh, I detested the Army (I had entered with the idea that I might make it a career; that notion lasted about as long as the bus ride from Kansas City to Fort Leonard Wood.) but I loved the opportunity to travel, and I loved England. It helped, of course, that we were virtually the only Army in England, so we got Air Force rations and logistics (beds, especially), and the brass pretty much left us alone.

Mostly I loved England’s green and pleasant land (to borrow an apt phrase from William Blake) and its people, who always seemed to me to be genuinely friendly and interested in us brash Americans.

I don’t think I’ll be able to go to Birmingham next summer, more’s the pity. The wife and I are planning a trip to England, France and Italy the next year, so that’ll have to do. I’m sure some of my Rotary friends will go. I’ll have to content myself with being with them in spirit.


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