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News Story
Updated: 07/29/2012 08:02:04AM

Reflections, 50 years later

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S.L. Frisbie

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Ask any man who has served in the armed forces and he can tell you two dates: the day he entered the service and the day he got out.

It is considered good form to remember your wife’s birthday and your wedding anniversary, but dates of entry on and completion of active military service are emblazoned in the memory.

Incidentally, I began this declaration with the words “Ask any man” because I know better than try to speak on behalf of women.

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Thursday of this week marked the 50th anniversary of my entry into the active Army. I had graduated from FSU and been commissioned seven weeks earlier, and spent those intervening days working at The Polk County Democrat.

On July 26, 1962, I reported to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., for a week of being processed into the Army and eight weeks of schooling in my basic branch, the Adjutant General Corps. I would spend my two years as an Army bureaucrat.

Fort Ben was trying to cast off its image as Old Ben’s Rest Home, and ours was the second class of officers to be introduced to its newly-created cinder track, chin-up bars, and combat confidence course.

As a second lieutenant, I made $222.30 a month, or about $50 a week. Minimum wage was $1.25 an hour, or about $50 a week. Enlisted soldiers were paid less than half that amount.

I was standing on the second floor of the two-story frame bachelor officers quarters when I heard that Marilyn Monroe had died.

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The balance of my two-year hitch was spent in personnel and administrative duties at an Army intelligence unit in Washington, D.C. Yeah, go ahead with the Army intelligence/oxymoron humor. I was not a spook, as most of my fellow officers were.

By 1962, the Army was racially integrated, though our unit had only one female member.

Not long after my arrival, the lieutenants in the unit decided to gather for happy hour at a neighborhood bar after work the next Friday. As the day approached, one of the white officers realized that none of the minority officers had signed up for the party, and asked one of them why.

“Colored aren’t welcome there,” his friend quietly replied.

That was the end of the party, and probably marked the end to patronage of that watering hole by any officers from the unit.

Integration might have been new to most of us of both races, but the camaraderie among members of a military unit is built quickly.

———

I could not have been in the Army in Washington at a more fascinating time.

One afternoon, unit members were summoned to the orderly room and told that President Kennedy wanted every member of the armed forces to listen to his speech that night.

It was the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis.

The defense readiness condition, or Defcon, was raised the next day. Emergency relocation plans were reviewed.

Not many days later, the headquarters section gathered around the red phone in the adjutant’s office, waiting for a report from the confrontation between American ships blockading Cuba and Russian ships steaming toward that island nation.

We knew that one notch up in the Defcon would mean we were at war.

The phone rang, and a simple order was given: stand down to a lower Defcon.

———

When plans for a civil rights march on Washington were announced, the Army prepared contingency plans to react to the chaos that most of Washington believed to be unavoidable.

Washington reacts to crisis by telling federal employees to stay home. In our nation’s capital, that’s just about everybody.

The exception was the military, for whom the order was all hands and the ship’s cat on deck.

My usual 30-minute commute to my office in bumper-to-bumper traffic was a 15-minute sprint that morning. I saw only one other vehicle, a city bus carrying one passenger.

The greatness of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech went unnoticed.

All attention was focused on the potential for violence.

Up in Arlington, a group of skinheads (I choke at the term “American Nazis”) attempted to mount a counter-protest. In an instant, the cops were all over them like fleas on a stray dog.

When the day ended, Washington, which had held its collective breath all day long, let out a sigh of relief.

Relief, and disbelief.

No punches thrown, no shots fired, no fires started. The nightmare had not happened.

———

On the night of Nov. 22, 1963, our unit had planned a party at the Fort Belvoir, Va., officers club. Mary and I would use the event to celebrate our five-month wedding anniversary.

Instead, we watched on television that night as Air Force One flew into Andrews Air Force Base from Dallas, bearing the body of President Kennedy, his grieving widow, and newly sworn in President Johnson.

We watched on television as two helicopters carrying the casket and the presidential party lifted off the tarmac, then looked out the window of our second floor apartment on Barnaby Terrace in southeast Washington a few minutes later as they flew toward the White House.

———

It has been 50 years since Second Lieutenant Frisbie entered the active Army for two years.

The memories remain strong.

———

(S. L. Frisbie is retired, both from newspaper management and from a 30-year career in the Florida National Guard. Nobody was more surprised than he was that he chose to remain in the Guard for three decades and eventually achieved the rank of colonel. Nobody, that is, except his father, who years later told his son he was surprised that he had even remained in ROTC to earn a commission.)




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