The Difference Between a Tank and a Cadillac

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I went back to Fort Stewart after basic training and began A.I.T. (advanced individualized training) in armor, while awaiting orders for officer candidate school.
Armor means tanks, and since I had finally been permitted to learn to drive my mother’s 1959 Cadillac, just a year before, I felt perfectly comfortable behind the wheel of a M48A1 Patton tank.
Technically, a tank doesn’t actually have a steering wheel but is operated by means of two pedals about a foot tall and ten inches wide and two big levers, one for each hand. The right pedal, if it can be called that, for it is more of a large metal plate akin to a skillet, is for the diesel fuel and the left pedal is for the brake.
It takes two hands and two feet to drive a tank.
The two levers operate the treads. When you pull back on the left lever with your left arm, it locks the left tread, but not the right tread, so the tank moves toward the left. When you pull back on the right lever with your right hand, it locks the right tread and the tank starts to move to the right.
Both levers are spring-loaded and the tank moves straight ahead if one or the other of the levers is not engaged.
The driver of a tank is seated in a metal seat with some padding, fortunately, way down in front and off center to the right of the tank as you are facing it. When the hatch is open, the top of the driver’s head clears enough of the body of the tank to have an unobstructed view of the road– or path– the tank takes. Small trees, scrub brush, boulders, ditches, small ponds, military vehicles and buildings of various sizes do not qualify as obstructions to a tank. Top speed is about 50 miles per hour and the tank weighs about 40 tons. Tanks do not stop on a dime. Or a quarter.

If I remember correctly, a 4-man tank crew consists of a tank commander, an assistant commander to operate the .50 caliber machine gun and to help load the ammunition, a gunner to fire the cannon, and a driver to keep the tank moving. It’s important to keep a tank moving because a tank is a big target— and it’s harder to hit a moving target. You don’t want to get hit by hostile enemy fire, even if you’re in a tank–and especially if you’re in a tank– because of what’s called “spalling”—that’s when an enemy projectile of one sort or another strikes the outside of the tank causing the metal parts inside the tank to break off and ricochet around inside the tank killing the crew.
Also, you are subject to being burned alive inside the tank by “Cherry-Juice”, or hydraulic fluid that could spew out were the tank to be hit in certain vulnerable places by enemy fire.

When I heard this, any sense of security I had regarding tanks quickly evaporated.

If the hatch is closed, the driver “sees” through a series of periscopes and has the added “advantage” of having a radio headset built into his helmet, so that the tank commander, who presumably has a better view of things, can issue orders. Having a TC yelling at you, over the rumble of the treads, as you hurtle through space at 40 miles an hour, at night, while peering at the road ahead through a periscope is the ultimate “backseat driver” experience.

I know, because it happened to me.

We were doing night-exercises. My only instructions were to follow the tank in front of me. Seemed simple enough. But I have never been especially good at following simple instructions.

I was to keep my eye on the dual tail lights of the leading tank.
As long as I could see the two tail lights as distinct, separate lights, I was the right distance from him.

If on the other hand, I fell too far behind when following, then the tail lights would appear as a single red light and I was to speed up. This was important, because there would be other tanks following me. You want to stay together, especially at night. It gets dark out there and, besides, there are no rear-view mirrors on a tank.

We rumbled off into the darkness– and for a while anyway, things seemed fine.

I peered through my periscope with my feet on the pedals and my hands on the levers. I could see the two lights of the tank in front of me quite distinctly. I have always been prone to daydreaming. I’m easily distracted and I confess, I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking about as we lumbered down the road that night at 40 miles an hour, but I do remember that suddenly the two little red lights in front of me seemed as one.
The next thing I knew, I was receiving orders from the TC over my headset. I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, due to all the noise of the treads and the static of the radio, but somehow, I knew he was talking to me. It sounded like, “….ERWAA-DIZZGUT-AHHREAAA!”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, so I eased up on the gas pedal thinking that with less engine noise and tread noise I would be able to understand him better. I also spoke to him over my headset.
“Say again….?”
To which he repeated whatever it was that he had said before: ““….ERWAA-DIZZGUT-AHHREAAA!!!!”—but in an even louder and more urgent tone this time.
I still didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me.
While I was trying to figure out what to do next, I became acutely aware of someone approaching from behind. It was the TC. He had left his position up in the turret and climbed down to where I was in the front of the tank. He grabbed me by the right shoulder and said in plain English,

“You’re too far away from the other tank”. Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but you get the idea.

Shortly after that, I was transferred out of the tank corps and sent back to Fort Jackson where I started over again in Advanced Infantry Training. I didn’t really mind, though, as I thought I would be a smaller target as an infantryman than I had been as a tanker. I did miss driving that tank, though.

You can’t mow down trees in a Cadillac.

Lt. Donald J. Russin, Jr., Rest In Peace

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We were all granted a well-earned and much-needed week’s leave in between our eight weeks of basic and our eight weeks of advanced training.

Since my parents lived in Savannah, a mere 39 miles as the buzzard flies, I went straight home and invited three or four of my young army buddies to accompany me—for the first couple of days, anyway. I think after that, they probably continued on their separate ways. My mother and father were good sports about it all, although the sleeping accommodations, were, no doubt, less than ideal. I seem to remember seeing at least one set of feet sticking out from under the piano in the living room. But after eight weeks on an army cot, sleeping in a real bed felt like heaven.

There was Thomas Eades, “Tom”, from North Carolina, a tall, thin country boy with a cheerful friendly manner, Richard P. Dacey “Dick”, from Watertown, New York, a few years older than the rest, with a bossy, but endearing way about him. Dick had slimmed down by about 25 pounds during the eight weeks of basic–I’m sure his family and friends were shocked to see the transformation. I found out about 20 years later, Dick had actually stayed in the army rising to the rank of brigadier general in the quartermaster corps.

And then there was PFC Donald J. Russin, Jr.
“Don”, of Youngstown, Ohio. Don, was a well-mannered, confident young man, somewhat dashing, even—who, unlike myself, claimed to have experience with women. With his dark eyes and dark hair, he reminded me a bit of Sean Connery.
I remember that when we all changed into our civilian clothes, Don’s shiny black Wellington boots attracted all of our attention and we all admired them and everyone commented on what a sharp dresser Don was.
It was easy to see why women would have been attracted to a guy like Don. Don stayed at Fort Stewart for advanced training in armor. Then he went on to Fort Knox, in Kentucky, for officer candidate school and eventually became a first lieutenant: MOS (Military Occupational Specialty 1203: Tank Unit Commander at 21.
He served with the 4th Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division in Gia Dinh Province in South Vietnam.
If you’re ever in Washington, D.C., stop by the Vietnam War Memorial.
You’ll find Don’s name on the shiny black wall, Panel 37E, Line 68.

The Nightcrawler

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 3.14.33 PMAfter nearly sixty straight days of getting up before dawn, seemingly endless repetitions of physical exercise consisting of jumping and thrusting, running everywhere, long marches in full field gear down dusty roads, pulling myself up and over vertical walls with a knotted rope, firing thousands of rounds of ammunition from all kinds of weapons, doing hundreds of pushups every day, and yelling and screaming everything at everybody at the top of my lungs– there was still one last major obstacle to be overcome:

The Nightcrawler:

Crawling 100 yards in the dark, through the Georgia mud, in full field gear, while cradling one’s rifle in one’s elbows. 


We formed up into columns at one end of the obstacle course– and at the appropriate time, we were to drop to our knees, then flop onto our bellies. Our M-14 rifles would ride on the tops of our elbows. In this way, we would crawl steadily along, following the boots of the man in front of us– all the way to the other end.

Seemed simple enough, except that we would be crawling under a barbed wire canopy suspended thirty inches off the ground, while a machine gun fired live ammunition—tracers– over our heads.


I was in the last group to go.

On the order from our sergeant, my row dropped down and we all began to crawl.

All went well at first.

It was light enough that I could almost see the two guys on either side of me.

Almost.

I could hear the grunting of the guy in front of me and once or twice my hands accidentally bumped into his boots. 

After three or four intense minutes of crawling, I thought I could still make out someone off to my left, although it was hard to hear the grunting and slopping sounds of the others through the mud over the machine gun fire, which was now somewhat louder as we had progressed perhaps thirty of forty yards.

One couldn’t help notice the orange flare of the tracers streaking overhead.

Each machine gun bullet made a distinct cracking sound as it broke the sound barrier.

Determined not to die after all the training I had already been through, I gritted my teeth, adjusted the chin strap of my steel pot and resting my M-14 on the tops of my elbows, tried very hard to get “lower than whaleshit.” 

After another couple of minutes, all I could think about was those tracers overhead and all I could hear was the increasingly loud rat-tat-tatting of the machine gun as I inched closer and closer toward it. I felt like I was in one of those war movies I had seen as a kid.

At this point, I was doing more looking up and listening than I was crawling.

It had been a long time since I was aware of anyone else still crawling next to me. The firing seemed to diminish somewhat and then stopped abruptly.

A searchlight switched on and began combing back and forth across the mud.

I made a few more yards in the mud and tried to avoid being seen. Then a voice on a loudspeaker asked if there was “ANYONE STILL OUT THERE….

I knew they were talking about me.

I didn’t exactly feel like shouting, “YES!—I am still out here. I am the last one! Please don’t shoot!” and so I made a concerted effort to quickly crawl the remaining fifteen or twenty yards– and to my great relief the barbed wire canopy ended, and I was able to struggle to my feet and rejoin the others. 

Mercifully, it was so dark that no one could see the look of embarrassment and humiliation on my face.

Watch This

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I think my base salary as a private E-1, was $17.50 a month, always paid in cash, plus, of course, complimentary room, board, clothing and medical.
 
And burial insurance.
 
One of the first things we had been told after being inducted, was that each soldier is entitled to a free military funeral with full military honors.
 
You can’t imagine what a relief that was to hear. 

One fine Spring day, probably a Saturday, as a kind of reward, and after we’d been in the army long enough to earn our first paycheck, we were marched to the PX. In civilian language, that stands for Post Exchange. The army store. While some guys stocked up on cigarettes (19 cents a pack/$1.50 a carton), I, myself, not being a smoker, looked around for something a little more substantial to spend my money on.

 
I came to a glass case, and inside I saw a watch. Not just any watch.
 
The body of this particular watch was cut from dark grey metal and it had an olive drab wristband. The face of the watch–or dial, was black with phosphorescent-coated minute and hour hands and numerals, and a sweep second hand with a phosphorescent tip that you could actually see in the dark.
 
I wanted that watch very much, because I knew, months later, when I was on patrol in the jungles of Vietnam at night , and I got shot and mortally wounded, I would be able to glance down at my useless arm and ascertain precisely what time the unfortunate incident occurred. The one in the glass case turned out to be a display model, but I placed my order, paid $33.00, the equivalent of two months salary and was assured it would be mailed to me. 

Fort Stewart is located in a large, sprawling wilderness area comprising thousands of square miles in South Georgia. Two weeks later, toward the end of our basic training we were on a field exercise, miles from the base, in the middle of nowhere, when I was unexpectedly called out of training by one of the sergeants. It seems there was an important telegram waiting for me back at headquarters.

 
A jeep and driver had even been dispatched to fetch me back to get it. Getting a telegram in those days was a pretty big deal and the kind of thing that only happened when some awful event had occurred.
 
As the driver sped down the two lane road with me sitting in the Jeep, I wondered what awful calamity had taken place. I was an only child, and all four of my grandparents had long since passed away, so the only possible explanation was that something terrible had happened to my parents. Perhaps our house had burned down or maybe they had been killed in a car accident.
 
They did seem to go to a lot of places by car.
 
That seemed to be the most likely explanation. It didn’t help that the jeep driver didn’t say a single word to me during the entire hour it took to drive back to the army base. He probably knew I was in mourning and didn’t want to intrude on my solitude.
 
The prospect of losing my parents in a fire or a car accident, filled me with a deep anxiety and I’m sure the driver of the jeep would have been worried about me, had he bothered to glance over at me. But he just inhaled deeply on his cigarette and kept his thoughts to himself as he drove. Each smoky exhalation seemed to reinforce the hopeless of the situation.  I thought, he has probably had done this many times before, he knows something bad had happened, so he just drives on silently down the road toward headquarters. Thousands of tall pine trees stood silently and respectfully along the side of the road as our little vehicle sped by. They somehow knew what was in that telegram.
 
A hour or so later, I arrived at headquarters and was handed the telegram by the CQ (Clerk in Charge of Quarters).
 
With a heavy heart, I opened it.
 
My watch had arrived at the PX.
 
 

 

Inducted

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It was late February, and the sky, a cold grey, matched my mood.
The barracks was heated by burning big lumps of black anthracite coal and the burned cinders and ash drifted down like ugly black germs, covering each shaved head, as well as row upon row of dull wooden buildings.
As I plodded along, amid all the other joyless inductees, I kept reminding myself that I was just in the army, and not in some prison or concentration camp. I spent the first week learning how to keep my mouth shut, stand up straight, make my own bed, and march places with others, as a unit.
We took a series of written tests, which, I imagine, were designed to help somebody, somewhere, decide what to do with us once we finished basic training.
I was 19 years old, six feet tall and weighed 143 pounds. All my life, I had been what was known as a “picky eater”, but because the United States was now involved in a war in Southeast Asia, and because I assumed I was going to go and help fight it, I decided that I’d better eat whatever food the army placed in front of me, whether I liked it or not.
Mostly I didn’t like it, but what really strengthened my resolve was that one of the first things I learned was that the Vietnamese were very skilled in hand-to-hand combat. And from a very early age!
I knew I would have no chance against an enemy like that.
I figured I might as well try to become as big and strong as I possibly could, as that might make me a little harder to kill. I assumed I would be killed.
Having always been on the losing side of every childhood fight, I had no reason to doubt that this pattern would not continue. Only this time, it would be worse–much worse—my opponent wouldn’t stop, just because I started crying. 
After a week at the induction station, we got our orders for basic training. Spiffy in our dress greens, we boarded the Greyhound to Fort Stewart, Georgia, near Hinesville. I was cheered by the prospect of being stationed only 39 miles from my hometown–and as the bus rolled past Savannah, my spirits began to lift as I caught fleeting glimpses of familiar sights along Highway 17, places I had passed many times on trips, with my Dad, on the road to Florida, to visit my grandmother. The Plantation Inn, The Horn of Plenty, Charlie’s Rendevoux Lounge, even the little one-pump Comet gas station, where my Dad always bought gas before the trip, were all still there, just as they had been before my ass belonged to Uncle Sam.
We arrived at Fort Stewart shortly before noon, and as our bus rolled to a stop, we stood up, grabbed our hats and our big duffel bags by their canvas straps, and shuffled to the door.
Then one, by one each, we stepped out into the crisp, clear Georgia air to the rousing sounds of tubas, trombones, trumpets, drums and piccolos. We were met by a brass band!

My enjoyment was diminished somewhat when I overheard someone in the band say the reason they were playing was that they thought that Cassius Clay was supposed to be on our bus. But, still, compared to what I had experienced at the induction station at Fort Jackson, it was a glorious welcome. 

We drew sheets and blankets and were marched to our billets. Our platoon leader was Sergeant Allen, a fine specimen of a man, always in a steel helmet with the sides of his head shaven. He wore a red silk ascot around his neck. He reminded me of the actor, Paul Newman, and always responded to everything we said in a sing-song voice. He began by informing us that we were now in “this man’s army”. HIS army.

For the next eight weeks whenever he asked us, “Do I make myself perfectly clear….?” Even if we had no idea what he said or meant, which was a good deal of the time, we always responded, “Yes, Sergeant!”, to which he would invariably reply, in a slightly elevated tone this time, “I can’t HEAR you….”, to which, in unison, we would also reply in a somewhat louder voice, “YES, Sergeant!!” To which he would always reply in a loud commanding voice, “I STILL can’t hear you!” To which we would then all reply in a loud synchronized chorus, “YES, SAR-JUNT!! Then Sergeant Allen would extend his arms straight down by his sides, clench his fists and shout back, “My GRAND-mother can yell louder than that— and she ain’t got but one BALL!”. 

We only saw Sergeant Allen when we were in formation.

Back in the barracks and all the rest of the time, we were overseen by Sergeant Maddy, a little short beady-eyed fellow, who, in looking back, bore a strong resemblance in appearance and personality to Charles Manson. 

Yes, I was beginning to think that I actually might like being in Sergeant Allen’s army.

I had always wanted to have friends, and here were a bunch of guys my age— and a few a couple of years older, who, whether they liked it or not– were now stuck with me.

Private Parts

Because I had taken R.O.T.C. for two years in high school, Sgt. Maddy made me a squad leader.
 
Looking back on it, I don’t think I actually did any leading, there were no perks–and no one, including Sgt. Maddy, ever treated me any differently from any of the other new recruits, but it did give my ego a little much-needed boost. I still felt like a loser for flunking out of college. Maybe I could redeem myself somehow.
 
Things went well for the first couple of weeks of basic. Unlike some of my fellow recruits, I was in pretty good shape physically, and had no trouble with any of the marching, double-timing, pushups, squat-thrusts, or side straddle hops they made us do every day.
 
About halfway through basic, we were in formation one afternoon when my name and several others were read out from a list. It seemed that based on written tests administered at the induction station, some of us had scored well enough to go to officer candidate school. Some who qualified, preferred to remain enlisted men and just get out of the army when their two-year obligation was complete.
 
I, on the other hand, saw becoming an officer as an opportunity to redeem myself for flunking out of college and humiliating myself in my own eyes, and perhaps being somewhat of an embarrassment to my parents. I also thought that perhaps as an officer, I might have a slightly better chance of not getting killed, if I was sent to Vietnam. I found out later that becoming an officer would have had precisely the opposite effect as fresh new second lieutenants from officer candidate school were in great demand to replace those who had been killed in combat as squad leaders in the infantry or as forward observers in the artillery. But I didn’t know that at the time, so I volunteered to go to OCS.
 
Potential candidates for officer candidate school were required to be screened by a panel of real army officers and in due time I was summoned from waxing the floor in the barracks to my interview. I was led into a room in a small building nearby with a table and chairs and five junior officers, whose rank ranged from second lieutenants to a captain. The five of them were seated on one side of the table and there was an empty chair for me opposite the captain. As I entered the room I tried to stand up a little straighter and stopped just inside the room and saluted.
 
“Private Parker reporting as ordered, sir.”

“Be seated, Private Parker.”
 
Starting with the officer across the table from me, on my extreme left, and then proceeding with the next officer and so on, down the table, I was asked a few simple questions, the specifics of which now escape me. I do recall that I was able to answer all the questions to my own satisfaction and I was feeling pretty good about the interview. There were no follow-up questions and no questions about math

Just before releasing me and bringing in the next candidate, the captain had one final question for me.

 
“Private Parker—if you were to remain in the army, how high up the chain of command do you think you could go?”
 
I looked him square in the face and without any hesitation whatsoever, answered very sincerely,
 
“Five-star general.”

For a brief second, he looked somewhat taken aback. Quickly regaining his composure, he glanced over his shoulder to gauge the reaction of the others present. There was an awkward silence. Then he released me,

 
“That will be all, Private Parker.”
 
I stood up, saluted, did an about-face, and marched proudly out of the room and went back to the barracks.
 
I was immediately put to work cleaning the latrine.
 
 

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Pulling The Trigger

Screen shot 2014-08-30 at 7.03.58 AMWhen I was a boy growing up, there is little doubt that my mother had been overly protective of me. No doubt my mother knew me better than I knew myself, or at least well enough to know that it was probably not a good idea to let me have some of the things I wanted really badly, like a BB gun– and later on, when I turned 16, a car. I didn’t even get driving lessons until I was 18 and had graduated from high school. Other kids I knew started learning to drive at 14 or 15 and had their own cars by 16. Other kids I knew had guns. And they weren’t afraid to use them. 

“Manson” lived two houses down. He was a few years older than I. One day, Harry, (a kid Manson’s age who lived between us) Manson and I went for a “hike” in the woods to the Casey Canal. The Casey Canal was a drainage ditch in a wooded area of town that snaked through Savannah and was one of the “wild places” kids could go unsupervised. I relished the invitation. It sounded like fun. I liked playing with the big boys. Manson took along his .410 shotgun for protection. Arriving in the woods near the canal, we paused beside a large mud puddle. Manson suddenly leveled the shotgun at me. Then he lowered it and pulled the trigger, splattering me from head to toe with mud. Then Manson laughed a laugh like only Manson could. Manson’s mother had died when he was only three. Clearly her death had been no laughing matter and had left Manson terribly wounded. 

Frank, the “bad” kid who lived behind us, was five or six years older than me, and by age nine, had shot out every window on the south side of our house. Well, actually, he really only left a circular “hole” in the screen and glass windows of my parents’ and grandma’s bedrooms, a typical BB gun not really being powerful enough to completely shatter the glass. Frank’s father had died when Frank was just a young boy and his baby sister, Ann, his primary and most convenient victim, was even younger. When my mother spoke to his mother about the windows, her response was, “Oh, my Frank would never do a thing like that.” It was common knowledge that in fact, Frank was indeed spending much of the time doing things like that– and a lot worse. I was afraid to go out into my back yard if Frank was in his. I don’t think he ever actually spoke to me. But if Frank saw you, he became the hunter and you were his prey. 

Harry, the boy who lived next door had both a BB gun and a .22 caliber rifle by the time he was ten. Although he never pointed either of them at me or actually shot me, like Hank, the boy who lived on the other side of me, did, Harry did use his BB gun–and later his .22 rifle– to shoot every bird and squirrel that was foolish enough to come within range of his bedroom window. Frequently, when I would go out the back door and into our back yard, I’d hear the crack of his .22, and look over in the direction of his house just in time to see the barrel of the rifle being slowly withdrawn back through his bedroom window. 

In fairness to my father, I will say, that one day when I was nine or ten, and probably after much pleading and whining on my part, he did take me out into the back yard just once– and together we shot several BBs at a glass milk bottle which he set up on the back fence. Just once. That incident only served to whet my appetite for the forbidden thrill of destructive firepower.

Thus, within a few short years of being denied a BB gun and the keys to the family car, I found myself in the United States Army, firing an M-14 rifle, an M-60 machine gun, a 50 caliber machine gun, an M-79 grenade launcher, a Browning automatic rifle, a rocket launcher, a .45 caliber automatic–in fact, every light weapon in the infantry’s vast arsenal and driving everything they had– on wheels or tracks– from a jeep to a M48A1 tank.

Inducted

id72We moved quickly single file into the small wooden building where three middle-aged “barbers”, all civilians, from the looks of them, were administering “haircuts” to the new Defenders of The Constitution. 

There were no soft green or red leather chairs with chrome armrests to sit in, no newspapers, or men’s magazines, or comic books to read while waiting. Absent were the little metallic snipping sounds of scissors, and the soft electric hum of clippers being applied gently to the back of someone’s neck. No friendly hello or polite conversation, no hot soapy lather applied with two fingers. No careful shaving with a straight razor around one’s ears, or on the back of one’s neck. No one applied talcum powder or after shave lotion, and no one dusted anyone off afterward with a soft brush. There was no sweeping flourish of any white sheet through the air as one dismounted the barber chair and no dramatic whip-like popping of said sheet, afterward, to remove the freshly-trimmed hair and summon the next king or prince to his manly throne….”

What there was, was a rough 30-second shearing-off of whatever hair was on one’s head– which started in the front– and proceeded very deliberately, straight to the back of one’s neck– and in six or seven passes you were done.

While I stood there waiting my turn, I watched in fascination, as the guy in front of me– a young man with long, curly “hippie-style” red hair was rudely shorn like a sheep– and his beautiful auburn locks dropped to the floor and were promptly stepped on by the “barber”, as he moved around the chair doing his awful work. Suddenly, it was my turn. I had followed a friend’s advice and gotten a haircut the previous day, so in my case, mercifully, it was over soon. I stood back up and went outside into the cool air. My scalp was bleeding in a couple of places. I thought,

“Great! I’ve been in the army for less than an hour and I’ve already shed blood for my country.”

St. Vincent’s in the Closet— and The Art of Lettering

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Many years ago, in the days before computers took over, and made The Art of Lettering and the profession of “Letterer” obsolete, I was employed full time by Marvel Comics as a “letterer”.

As hard as it might be for some to believe, in the days before computers, and the people who operate them, all the dialogue, balloons, pointers, borders, sound effects, titles and signage in every single comic book ever printed were done by lettering “artists” using a variety of steel pens (A-5, B-5 and one half, B-6, Rapidograph Pens, Hunt’s#107, and flicker points) and this black liquidy-stuff called “India” ink, as well as a variety of other strange tools, like mechanical “pencils,” sharpeners, T-Squares, Ames® Guides and Snow-Paque® to fix any typos.

One of my regular monthly assignments in those bygone days of yore was to letter IRON MAN Comic Book, which was then written by the legendary comics writer, Denny O’Neil of Batman fame.

Here’s how it worked: Basically, the writer would discuss the story arc and the plot line for the series with the editor, who in this case was the late, great, much-loved and greatly-missed Mark Gruenwald. Ideally, the penciller, in this case the talented young artist, Luke McDonnell, would be called into the office to sit in on the editorial discussion, since it would be his responsibility to break the plot down into a series of pages, each page comprised of a number of panels, sequentially delineating the 22-page story. The rest of the book would be made up of advertising, a letters page and perhaps an editorial page hyping the next issue.

In those days, it was not unusual for there to be a printrun of several hundred thousand copies.

Then, after the story had been “penciled“, a full-size photocopy was generally made and that was given to the writer, who would then examine the “artwork” and using a “typewriter” produce a “script” consisting of all the dialogueand captions (Suddenly, Meanwhile, Later, Soon, etc.), (the “dialogue” is what each character was actually saying) in the “balloons”. Then the pages of art, or the “boards,” as we called them– and a photocopy of the pages with a numbered guide or “balloon placement” for each page were given to the letterer, along with a typewritten “script” from the writer, in this case, the aforementioned Denny O’Neil.

Next, the letterer would transfer the “balloon placement” to the pages themselves, attach the pages to his drawing table with pushpins, rule in all the guidelines in hard lead pencil, rule the borders of the pages in ink using a Rapidograph® pen, letter in all the titles, dialogue, sound effects, and signage (if any) and perhaps the next issue blurb. Then the letterer would draw “balloons” around all the dialogue by hand which he or she had “lettered in”, add thought bubbles or pointers going toward whoever was speaking, rule in the borders, proofread all the work, fix any mistakes and then hand the job in to the editor who would then send the pages out to an inker or “finisher” to be inked. At Marvel, in those days, the inker and the penciler were rarely the same person.

That’s how it was supposed to work.

Naturally, because of the monthly schedule, it was incumbent on the creative team to find ways to save time in the interests of keeping things moving along and getting the books to the printer like clockwork, getting them on the trucks and getting them distributed to the readers. And, oh yeah, keeping the Men in Suits from jumping on our backs.

Comic book readers do like to get their books on time. Trust me on that one.

One way I saved time on my end, was by employing an assistant to transfer the balloons, rule the guidelines for the lettering and draw the borders on all the pages. That left me free to devote my skill to lettering the dialogue directly on the artwork and to save more time, I skipped the step of penciling in all the dialogue before lettering it. I got to be pretty good at estimating how many words would fit on each line in a balloon so that when I was done, I could draw a nice symmetrical oval-shaped balloon around the dialogue. This method saved an enormous amount of time and worked very well for me, most of the time and I produced over 30,000 pages over a fifteen year “career”, working day and night.

If I made a mistake, and mistakes do happen, the editor or assistant editor and sometimes, the editor in chief would usually catch it. Usually, but not always. Then, someone in the production department whose job it was to fix lettering mistakes would fix it. (it was my job for six years before I went under contract).

In the Iron Man comic book, it seems the main character, the hero of the book, Tony Stark, had developed a drinking problem and was not behaving very….well, very heroically. In fact, he was found by an ordinary citizen lying in the gutter! After some frantic discussion among the comic book characters in the story about what do do, where to take him, it was determined that IRON MAN, a.k.a., Tony Stark, be rushed to the nearest hospital for treatment and possible rehabilitation.

The script looked like this:

CHARACTER:       St. Vincent’s is the closest.

(But that’s not what I saw….)

I saw….

CHARACTER:         St. Vincent’s in the closet.

And, yep, you guessed it!  Nobody caught the mistake. Not the assistant editor, not the editor, nor even the editor in chief.

St. Vincent’s in the closet” got lettered and then printed in about 375,876 comics books.

So, as fate would have it, a new hip term entered the American vernacular.

“St. Vincent’s in the closet”.

Did it refer to homosexuality in the clergy? Was it some kind of comment about Catholicism?

Or was it just a stupid mistake?

My friends, only you, the comic book readers, can ever truly know the answer to that question.

….B-But I Doan Wanna Be a Marine….

“Thus, in short order, having now been stripped of our side arms and various and sundry concealed weapons, we were led, like convicted criminals to the building, where we, as draftees, would be sworn into the military. We were formed into a long line and each of us was handed a single sheet of white paper, and one of those stubby little yellow pencils golfers use. It was a simple questionnaire. There was not much written on it. At the top it said: 

(CHECK ONE)

I WANT TO BE IN THE:

1. ARMY
2. MARINE CORPS
3. DOESN’T MATTER

I thought to myself, “I’m no John Wayne, I’m checking ARMY.” 

After a few minutes, a very fit-looking United States Marine Corps sergeant, dressed in a starched khaki shirt with a chest full of medals, olive colored pants, with a sharp crease in the legs, and very shiny black dress shoes came by to collect everyone’s forms. He wore a Smokey-the-Bear hat pulled down straight and tight to just above his eyebrows on his freshly-shaven head. I handed him my form. 

If you checked “ARMY”, you got army. If you checked “MARINE CORPS”, you got the Marine Corps. If you checked, “DOESN’T MATTER”, you got the Marine Corps. Apparently, there were still not enough recruits for the Marine Corps. The sergeant paced up and down the line, carefully studying the motley assemblage of young men waiting in line. It was 1966, the “hippie era” and many of the others had long hair. I wasn’t one of them, and anyway, I generally wore my hair short. “Mac”, a 47-year old friend of my parents, a veteran, who had been a navigator on a B-24 in World War II and had been shot down over the Pacific, pulled from the ocean with a large cut across his cheek, and who had spent three delirious days in a rubber raft drifting in and out of consciousness from loss of blood before being rescued, had advised me to “get a haircut” before being inducted. I did so. You don’t ignore advice from a guy like that.

The Marine sergeant stopped next to me. I could hear him slowly breathing like a wild animal. I looked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, trying my best to look invisible, but I could feel his eyes burning the skin on the side of my pimply 19 year-old face. “You’re gonna be a Marine…..” said the sergeant to the side of the my head. I momentarily panicked. I thought my knees might buckle and I thought of how embarrassed I would be, as I lay there on the floor in a semi-conscious state, a large crowd of strangers staring at me and laughing derisively. I wondered if I’d wet my pants again, like I had done when I was nearly choked to death by my friend’s brother five years before. Then, to my great relief, I realized the Marine sergeant was addressing the guy in line in FRONT of me, a tall country-boy, probably from Pooler or Garden City, two little country towns just outside of Savannah. The poor fellow had long reddish-blonde curly hair down to his shoulders. 

“But…. I doan wanna be a marine,” he protested meekly in his slow Southern drawl. The sergeant took one step forward and moved closer to him, raising his manly voice exactly one octave– and repeated: “You’re gonna be a MARINE!” 

The country-boy protested once again, in a slightly louder voice, this time: “But, I doan WANNA be a Marine!!” The sergeant took him by the upper arm and led him away from the rest of us. “But, I doan wanna be a Marine”, he said again as the two of them disappeared somewhere behind me.

I have often thought of that tall, lanky Georgia boy– and wondered what happened to him. I wondered if he made it back home alive after his service. It was 1966, after all, the Vietnam War was ramping up. And I had heard from my older cousin, who was in the navy, that “Ricky, Marines are CRAZY! When they’re not shooting at the enemy, they shoot at each OTHER just to keep each other from getting bored.” I really hope he made it home.Screen shot 2014-08-28 at 12.04.42 PM