107. “Into the Wild Blue Yonder”

After graduating “with Distinction” from the University of Michigan, the next period of my life was spent serving in the military. At this time the national draft was still in force and all healthy young men who were not married or not full-time students were subject to being drafted into military service. One could avoid the draft by joining, in which case you had more control over how and where these years were spent but in return for this choice one had to serve an additional two years. In my case this allowed me to continue my education at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and earning a Ph.D all while serving in the military.

For all young men, myself included, suddenly being in the military was an extraordinary change in lifestyle. To begin with, now there would be someone else in charge of your daily life – where you lived, where and when you ate and slept, together with a general loss of freedom of choice. The new life was certainly represented by the words from the official Air Force Song, quoted in the title above, words which have been defined as “a journey to a faraway place which is unfamiliar or mysterious.”

But in return for the loss of choice in one’s life, there were distinct benefits. A great deal of one’s time was saved by not having to shop and prepare food. And one did not have to worry about paying for medical and dental expenses. With respect to the latter, on one occasion I was having a dental checkup and the dentist remarked, “Sargeant, while you are in the military you should have your wisdom teeth removed!” Help, No Way, I thought! But then I discovered that there was an automatic policy of three weeks release from all military duties while one was recovering from dental surgery! Therefore, when the time came for my French Oral Exam at Catholic University, I went in had one wisdom tooth pulled, which gave me a three-week period to cram for the French exam! Another wisdom tooth later was used to prepare for the German Exam and the remaining two for other occasions when I needed extra time for my doctoral study.

For some people this is a welcome lifestyle where so much is provided for you and so many decisions made for you. It is kind of habit forming and even I must admit that on my final day in the military, when I had to sign a document confirming my exit, I had a brief thought that all I had to do was not sign this paper and I could live the rest of my life and never worry about a thing!

There is one final comment I should like to make about military life in general. I believe the military is the last remaining vestige of aristocracy in a democracy. Career people in the miliary feel superior to ordinary citizens, something represented in a sign seen when one drove out of my military base, “Be Careful! You are entering the Civilian Zone!” There is also something relaxing about the fact that responsibility and authority and respect is all immediately and automatically represented by rank, things that in the civilian world one has to work for and constantly be influenced by.

One interesting thing about the lower levels of military population is that they represent a genuine cross section of the American public. I was surprised to find for the first time young men who had never learned to brush teeth or to wash clothes! My first introduction to this was in taking a general aptitude test of 100 questions given to a room full of potential soldiers and sailors. It was a test which had only pictures and no vocabulary. There would be, for example, a picture of a hammer, followed by pictures of four possible objects which might be identified with a hammer: a nail, a screw, a washer and some other unidentified object. One had to mark the correct answer, in this case the nail. This exam was so obvious and stupid that when I finished, I asked the person in charge what score out of 100 was passing: 35! One main purpose of this exam was to help the military officials to determine where the applicant should be assigned if he passed the test. I was informed that my high score indicated a great potential for my being assigned to the Motor Pool!

Military life begins with Basic Training, which for me at this time was 13 weeks under the hot summer sun of San Antoinio, Texas. While at this time the military introduced much about military tradition and expectations, the real purpose of basic training was brain washing. The purpose was to remove all sense of self identity, so that when an officer ordered one to charge forward into fatal fire of the enemy one would not hesitate for a second! And this was amazingly effective. Even in my case, I found that after thirteen weeks I felt like a Private and had lost almost all memory of my previous life, including the immediately passed four years spent at Michigan. Indeed, when I finished basic training and drove to Washington, D.C., I made a detour to Ann Arbor and just walked around looking at buildings, etc.. for several days in order to restore my memory of my previous life!

For lack of having nearly enough material for classes, most of the day was spent in physical training and in particular endless marching in the hot Texas sun. The most important advice I had received from friends before I entered the military was never to volunteer for anything! I forgot this one day when, sitting in my unairconditioned barracks I could hear the air conditioning motors next door in a clerical building, a sergeant entered and asked everyone who had a college degree to stand up. Two of us did, thinking, on the basis of the question, that we might be assigned to the air-conditioned building next door. We exited the barracks and were handed a shovel and ordered to dig up and pour new cement for fifty clothesline poles.

One final story from basic training, a day on the rifle range. A hundred of us lying side by side on the ground with a rifle, looking at a target about fifty yards away (the officer in charge running to hide in safety behind 100 men with no experience in live fire). A perfect score was 100 holes in one’s target. When we finished and lined up to have our targets checked by a sergeant, my target score was 150! The person who had laid on the ground beside me had a target with no holes at all, scoring zero! The sergeant could not figure it out!

My regular military life began with my arrival in Washington, D.C., where each Service had a military band. The Marine Band was very busy. My friend, Karl Glenn, a horn player in the Marine Band, told me that at the Marine Barracks, where they rehearsed, he had a locker with five different kinds of uniforms available. They might begin the day in a concert rehearsal, then change for a funeral ceremony at Arlington, then to a job at the White House, etc., all in different dress. Those fellows had no time for outside activities.

It was very fortunate for me that the Air Force Band existed mainly to give concerts (1,100 during my membership!), with a separate second band which did all the ceremonial jobs. Therefore, my regular schedule was to have band and orchestra rehearsals in the morning and then I was free at noon. This was what made possible my obtaining a Ph.D. while a member of the band. Many of the other members of the band had second jobs in the afternoon and evening. One clarinet player had a very successful insurance company he founded and a euphonium player ran a shoe store, etc.

When I joined, in 1959, shortly after the end of WWII, the band consisted mostly of older men, many of whom had been in professional orchestras and had transferred to the band to avoid military service in war time. Thus many of them had invested ten years or more in the band and elected to remain until they could obtain retirement monies. Only a small number of young college graduates like myself were in the band. It was a significant part of my education that I learned a great deal from these older professionals, especially from Joe Freni, the principal first horn player. Another remarkable player was Art Will, principal trumpet. He hated being trapped in this job and maintained that he hated the trumpet, so he sat in his chair with the instrument in his lap, never played a single note to warm-up before the first down beat, but then played flawlessly. After about three years while I was in the band he made a slight error in an attack and the entire band erupted in amazement.

The Air Force Band gave regular public concerts at the capitol and at the Watergate, a site on the river. One regular part of the schedule was nine week tours in the Fall and Spring. A nine-week tour is an interesting experience. Every day’s schedule is the same: bus ride in the morning, afternoon concert and every evening concert consisting of the same repertoire, day after day. With this unchanging daily schedule one soon lost all awareness of the name of the day of the week and in the case of a tour beginning in September and ending in November the entire month of October disappeared from memory. One paid no attention to the name of the town on a particular day and so was embarrassed when someone asks, “How do you like our town?”

One exception to the normal touring routine was a long tour of the Far East in 1960. Just 15 years after the devastation of WWII we found Japan still quite without modern architecture. Due to the currency exchange with Japan’s destroyed economy, the dollar purchased many Yen. As a result one could find in a music store full orchestral scores for 25 cents. I returned home with an entire library of scores!

When in Washington we rarely had guest conductors, apart from some congressman who fancied himself a conductor. One summer the conductors of the four Washington military bands decided it would be fun to rotate and guest conduct each other’s band. So to us came one of these other conductors, one of local tyrannical reputation, who wanted to conduct Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, in an arrangement by his staff. On Monday morning he stood on the podium and opened his score, appearing to see it for the first time. After about three minutes of looking at the score, he closed the score and dismissed us for the day without our playing a single note. On Tuesday he returned with a five-lined reduced score, again prepared by his staff. He gave a down beat and we played perhaps five minutes before he again closed the score and dismissed us. On Wednesday he appeared with a three-lined manuscript score. We began but were unable to make it through a reading of the score. Thursday morning, before the rehearsal, I received a phone call from the chief arranger, an old friend of mine, suggesting I take a glance at the score before rehearsal. It was the Firebird Suite reduced to one line, with cues indicated above the staff!

Our own conductor, Col. George Howard, had been a choral conductor in a small Pennsylvania college before joining the military and so he had at least a basic background in conducting. He had little effect on the performance, however, but did perform an important service in selecting and training conductors for the other base bands around the world. After I left the band in 1963, we maintained a friendly correspondence for a number of years.