I could hear her crying on the end of the phone. I had asked for my birth certificate. I had not told my mother why I wanted it. But she knew. Word was getting around. I was just one short step from homelessness again. My life was in shambles.
It was near the end of 1973. I was 23 and had drunk myself into a deep abyss.
The Vietnam war seemed to be finally winding down and I kept walking by this Army recruitment office. I was not going to survive much longer. I had just been fired from a security officer job working the midnight to morning shift at the then-downtown Los Angeles headquarters of a large gas company. One day, I went into the recruitment office and decided to enlist.
Mom knew why I wanted my birth certificate. The Army needed it. I didn’t tell her. Dad had thought it was a great idea because “I had decided something on my own.” Is how he put it. Mom was frightened. She knew me. How frightened I was; cowardly in fact. Not tough. Vulnerable. Drunk all the time. She stilled loved me.
Dad had served in the Marines during World War II as a second lieutenant. Enlisting seemed like a good idea because it would get me off the streets. The draft had been eliminated. The Army was desperate for recruits. I was an ideal candidate, or so they thought until they ran a security check. Much to their dismay, my arrest record by this time was pretty extensive. Dozens of arrests for DUI, reckless driving, drunk in public, so-on and so-forth.
They rejected me with a caveat: If I could get people to write letters of recommendation to the Army testifying to my good character, they would reconsider.
Immediately, as word went out, I had dignitaries of all sorts willing to put in a good word so I could enlist in the Army as a private.
The Army did reconsider and in December of 1973 I was inducted into the United States Army as an E1, private of the lowest class, and was sent off to basic training at Ford Ord in Monterey, California.
There was a visit from the public relations arm of the Army asking if I would be willing to be featured in a story about the new Army because of my dad. James Whitmore’s son was a big deal, they thought. This was a time when morale was low and the Army was looking for any way to boost it.
I mentioned it to my mother and she quickly shot down the idea with “what if you don’t make it out of basic training? That’s not going to look too good.” Or words to that affect. I didn’t do the story.
Basic training began to right this broken ship. First off, the Army doesn’t coddle. They break down egos, build them back up with a commitment to the unit, the team, the country. Things alien to me.
I was still drinking. Still getting into incredible scrapes, escaping by just inches from sure imprisonment or injury. I would get drunk and sound off. Obnoxious, embarrassing statements to commanding officers questioning their manhood and methods. Their response were threats of court martial, punishment, extra duty; Shut up or get out! Keep it up and you’re going to jail. Scared the bee-Jesus out of me.
I was sent to Germany as a crew member on an anti-aircraft weapon. I was assigned to Headquarters of the 8th Infantry Division. The Army was trying to keep me out of the field. Give me a desk job. I requested back with a line unit because I had some friends from basic training. Nobody turns down headquarters in those days for a job that may result in combat duty. I wasn’t thinking this through. I just wanted to be with my friends.
To say the least, I didn’t do real well. Almost instantly my drinking got me in trouble with the Captain, who mentioned I may be brought up on charges of insubordination. I had told one of my superiors to “go f#*k himself.” Not a bright move.
Then, something bizarre happened. I was transferred to the main headquarters of the 8th Infantry assigned to an attorney as his legal assistant. Just before, I may have been court-martialed, I was now working for the Judge Advocate Generals Corp. or Office, known as the JAG office. All discussion of court martial ended because I now was working for those that did the court-martialing.
I was promptly sent off to be trained as an Army paralegal and investigator before being assigned to my permanent attorney. Intensive training on all aspects of the Military Code of Justice followed.
I went from living in a room of 20 or more men constantly at each other’s throats to a room of two with a living room. What a gift. I then went to work for an attorney rooted in the Mormon religion that took great care of me. He encouraged me, supported me and directed me to re-enter college after the Army. I was not as dedicated as his support but it did get me to apply to San Diego State University, which accepted me.
Callison College was willing to release what transcripts did exist but there was an outstanding bill. My dad was unaware of such a bill because I had availed myself of his account without his knowledge. Still, he paid the bill. Congratulated me on my return home safe and going back to college. Problem was, I was still bringing myself along. I was to drink for a couple more years before a man decided enough was enough and pulled me from the streets of East San Diego and thrust me into a new world sans alcohol. But before that, I was to endure a few more moments of pure insanity with a group of misfits living in a place called, Mission Beach, California. Or as we used to call it: The Ghetto Riviera.
The people in Mission Beach rivaled any group of misfits out of such novels as Cannery Row by John Steinbeck with names like Grub, his common-law wife Jeffrey – yes, a woman, Charlie Tuna and others like the small group of young kids, surfers and skateboarders. Here I was now 26 and started living the life of a drunken beach bum.
It was the last grinding down of the alcoholic. I lived in that beach town for just 16 months and had to borrow $300 from my dad to leave it. He gave it to me and for the first time expressed his disappointment. He’d hoped I was doing better. I did too.
Take Nineteen: Plucked off the streets of East San Diego at the age of 27 and thrown into a new world of sobriety. Much was about to happen.