When I walked off the tarmac in Charleston, South Carolina in 1973, I told myself, "I'll never wear green again." Two years in the Army was enough for me. Just after Uncle Sam drafted me, the …
When I walked off the tarmac in Charleston, South Carolina in 1973, I told myself, "I'll never wear green again." Two years in the Army was enough for me. Just after Uncle Sam drafted me, the military went all volunteer. It took a few years for the idea to take hold. The draft remained in place, but they didn’t draft as many people as they did in the late 60s and early 70s.
There were only a few items of clothing I held on to when I left. I kept my fatigues, my Army-green baseball cap, my combat boots, a field jacket and my Signal Corps school unit crest. I tossed the pin, along with a few other souvenirs into a cedar box that I'd brought home from Panama as a keepsake. I like the smell of that box. It took some poor soul hours of their life to carve it. I paid $3 for it in an import/export shop in Colon. That’s the city on the Bay of Colon on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal.
Every now and then, I'll go back through my keepsake box. I’ve spent hours looking through my Army souvenirs and the photographs from that time in my life.
Today, I flipped open the carved cedar box to look for an old pocketknife my dad had given me. The knife wasn't in the box but under the cufflinks, broken watches, and old keys to locks I no longer have, I found my Signal Corps pin.
Picking it up, I shined it on the pant leg before stepping over to the window to get a better look at the pin. The morning light coming through the opened blinds shined on the Latin Motto on the bottom of the pin. Pro Patria Vigilans. It translates to "Watchful for Country." The moment triggered a thread of memory about my time in the Army.
On the day my letter from Uncle Sam told me to report to duty, I waited on the MissAla Bus at Woolworths in Jasper. I had two eggs over medium, grits, sausage, biscuits and three cups of coffee. Woolworths was buzzing that morning, and it took a while to get my food. I ate quickly and was heading to the bathroom when one of the guys waiting for the Montgomery-bound bus shouted down the counter -"The Army bus is here." I figured, Oh well. I hit the bathroom on the bus. Wrong decision. There was no bathroom on the bus. When I told the driver I needed to go to the bathroom, he glanced in a mirror that was as wide as his seat and shook his head. That was the longest three hours of my life.
The Army was an interesting experience and helped my body get into excellent condition. I could run forever then.
I spent almost six months at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, which is not far from New York City. I loved New York City, though I've never felt more alone.
The 18 months I spent in the tropics in Panama was like an extended beach vacation. We had 25 cent beers in the Coke machine in our barracks. I could pick fresh mangos through a torn screen beside a window by my bunk.
I made some of the best friends I've ever had there. Even though I haven't heard from some of them in many years, I know that if I called them for help, they would come.
Many of the opportunities I've had in my life were afforded me because of my military service.
I'm glad I kept the pin. When viewed through the lens of history, the time I spent in green wasn't that bad.
Rick Watson is a columnist and author. His latest book Life Goes On is available on Amazon.com. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.