Leaving For Korea

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We sat over beer on rough-hewn cedar benches at a big old table in the shade of trees that only California grows, young men talking away the hot November afternoon, a November such as we rarely had in the East, all of us in proper uniform, the forest green, and we were pared lean and very fit by the hills and the forced marches and the heat, burned cordovan by the California sun.

It was my birthday, November 15, and tomorrow we were going to the war.

A dozen Marine officers, lieutenants like me, and about ninety master sergeants and gunnery sergeants and other NCOs, men of enormous dignity who made me uneasy when they saluted, had flown north at dawn from Camp Pendleton to the Navy airfield outside San Francisco to take a plane across the Pacific. We were replacements for men dead or wounded in Korea.

“Fresh meat,” one of the sergeants remarked pleasantly.

The division was short of sergeants and platoon leaders—young lieutenants—after the September and October fighting on the ridges. They were in a hurry to get us, and that’s why we were being flown over. The rest of the replacement draft, maybe two thousand officers and men, including most of our friends, would cross the Pacific in troopships. In the plane flying north to San Francisco I wrote to Sheila Collins, who was going to marry somebody else, wishing her well and telling her what a great girl she was and what fun we’d had. And meaning it. That letter accomplished, I mentioned to the man sitting alongside that today was my birthday, that I was twenty-three. He wished me well.

“You know,” he said then, “George Custer was a major general at twenty-three.”

That rather put me in my place. The other man sensed it and tried to make it up.

“Well, brevet general. Not permanent rank. He was really only a colonel, and after Appomattox they reduced him back.”

“I’d take colonel,” I said. “I’d take major.”

“Different kind of war. Promotion came quick.”

“He had another advantage over me, Custer,” I said.

“Our last day,” Mack Allen said abruptly, which was odd because Mack talked less than any of us. But it was what we all were thinking.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I can’t ride a horse.”

At Moffett Field outside San Francisco they discovered something wrong with the plane that was to take us to Korea, and they were going to have to find another. That would take until tomorrow morning, so we were free until then. 6:00 A.M. That was luck: a day to kill in San Francisco. And on my birthday. Bob Phelps said we ought to drive down to PaIo Alto, where he’d played football the year before at Stanford.

“You’ve never seen such a place,” Phelps said.

Bob Doran and Lou Faust had friends to visit or errands to run, but Mack Allen and a few of us piled into a borrowed car with Phelps and drove down. He was right about Stanford. Even Mack said so, and he was a Virginian, and you know how they are, restraining enthusiasm, but you could see pleasure in Mack’s grin.

Stanford happened that week to be the top football team in the country in the wire polls, and when Phelps took us to practice, the coach, Chuck Taylor, whose photo was in Life magazine, came over to shake hands. He made a fuss over Phelps and the rest of us. Bob Mathias came over too, the big ail-American end who was the decathlon champion from the 1948 Olympics and who would, like us, be in the Marines in another year. Then all the others came over, seeing it was okay to break from practice, and we met most of them, including a couple of those unpronounceable Armenians who ran so well in the backfield, Hugasian and one other.

After watching the football for a while, we went back to the car and drove over under the trees to this beer garden where students went.

“There might be some girls coming by,” Phelps said, “you know, after class.”

There were no girls, but that was okay. When men of the Round Table set off seeking the Holy Grail, they always prayed the night away before an altar. I felt some of that about going to Korea, about joining the division. Besides, remembering New York Novembers, raw and cold and dank, I realized that after just six weeks in California Fd fallen in love. Not with a girl but with a state. And I suspected privately this was precisely what the 1950s were meant to be, maybe the best time there ever was in America.

By 1950 the Big War had been over for five years, and people again had cars and jobs, and all the soldiers were home and going to college on the GI Bill or apprenticing at their trades and buying those neat little seven-thousanddollar houses that Mr. Levitt was putting up spanking bright with carpeting and washers and dryers anywhere there was a bit of green lawn. The Germans and the Japanese were finished, and unless the Russians did something stupid, there would never again be a Big War, and in the meantime the United States would pretty much run the world.

That was how it had been in 1950. I was twenty-one that year and graduated from college and got my first job as a professional writer, doing advertising copy for Macy’s, my specialty being household appliances and unpainted furniture and area rugs.