CJM: A Dime Store Epic (1993)

CJM: A Dime Store Epic

Ma io, perché venirvi? o chi ‘l concede?
Io non Enëa, io non Paulo sono…
–Dante Alighieri

A Jailer’s Imploratory Lament

Now that you’re strapped down good and tight,
Listen to what I have to say.
No fair singing Mary Had a Little Lamb
At the top of your lungs.
No, I won’t loosen the straps. Now listen,
O Wedding Guest, to this,
That the Muse of Blunt Instruments and Blunter Words
Bestowed upon my throbbing head
As she beat me senseless with a tire iron.
Listen, because I am hoarse.
I am your mark-down Aeneas on the clearance table,
Your bargain-basement Paul,
And you will hear for the ninth time, or the ninetieth,
Of a tourist’s Underworld jaunt.
Do not look for rhyme or reason in these words
hanging in fumes of formaldehyde;
They have been omitted.
There is a chance they would make the telling enjoyable
And the listening bearable.
And I am weak.
Now listen:

1. Promenade the First: To the Oracle

Christmas Eve!
The stores are full of shoppers and bad feelings.
I’m privileged to be joining them
In an hour and a half.

Christmas Eve!
Coldest day yet; people watch their breath fall
And shatter on the sidewalk.
I have ninety minutes.

I suit up:
No armor but an old army jacket.
My father’s gloves (too big) instead of gauntlets.
No gleaming sword, no trusty steed—
This is not a fairy tale.
I have a Kodak camera and a skateboard
And reality can be fun.
In my pocket, a present for a forgotten sister.
I bareface my way out
Past the incredulous living.
(Going to go skate, fer chrissakes,
Coldest day yet, he’s going to break his neck)
ha ha This is quite serious.
I hit the ground rolling, leaving the living behind.
Cold chews the flesh from my skull.
I push hard.
I have ninety minutes.

Very soon:
The Gate is intimidating in its plainness.
There is no inscription of despair.
There is no inscription at all.
It is imposing even in the sunlight, even open invitingly.
It whispers like scattered ashes through my naked earholes
—Come on in and rest those bones
But I ignore it, knowing in my soul I’m only half dead.

A greeting card on stilts reads Office Ahead— first stop.
I pick up my board—
To be forcibly ejected
Would be disastrous—
Slide through gaping iron jaws spiked black teeth
The icicle wind snaps them shut with a hollow clang

I’m inside.
In the Necropolis there are many visitors.
I walk fast nerves crying it’s cold
Past a burial in progress.
These tourists would complain, surely,
At the sound of rusted bearings spinning.
I walk faster.

It is further from the Gate to the office
Than from my family to the Gate.
I stand in the foyer, a skeleton of blue ice
Waiting for my vision to clear
For my flesh to undissolve
So I can speak with lips and tongue.
I claw through invisible spumes of Catholic incense
Into Dead Central.

2. Directions at Death’s Service Station

It looks exactly like the post office.
I imagine them cancelling stamps
Bearing pictures of flowers and departed souls.
Like magic, a mailman enters.
Even the Dead get letters.
He smiles, sees the board:
—Been riding that thing out there?
With lips still blue still numb but there:
—No, didn’t want to make anyone mad.
He smiles again, chuckles like a brook in spring.
I find myself wishing I could do that.
He picks up the mail and floats out the door.

The incense is catching in my throat.
The plasticine woman finally hangs up the phone.
She has been eyeing me distastefully while
Solemnly reciting the works of Edward Lear
Over fiberoptic line to an unamused party.
Now she won’t say a word, just looks
And waits for her cue.

I begin the hateful dance:
—I’m looking for a relative.
In a Wizard of Oz voice:
—Charlene Miller.

I think that’s right I hope so
Last glimpsed the name on a
Death Certificate
Parents had it buried away
Not well enough
I only glimpsed the name
Two tiny footprints
Heard footsteps
That was it
Never saw it again
And never saw her at all

I have more fingers crossed than I have fingers.
Superstition seems compulsory here.
She’s checking files in the side office.
Fingers crossed not sure if this is the place
Heard a whisper seven years ago
(My father)
That my sister was here
Fingers crossed in my father’s gloves
Plasticine Pickford of the Emerald City returns,
Grand entrance stage right. Sour.
She delivers the immortal line beautifully:
—Was she like three hours old when she died?
(the crowd roars approval)
Three hours.
I didn’t know.
I nod…
What could I have said to that?

She is writing on a slip of paper
Nice paper heavy cream Catholic paper
Charlene J. Miller
Grave 11 Lot 35 Block 7 Section 2
There is a map on the back—
Section 2 is back by the Gate.
I admit it’s funny though my toes do not.
I dodge the woman’s disapproving glances
At my undramatic exit
And start plodding back.
I carry my board like a rifle.

Halfway to the grave:
A mail truck passes.
Mailman honks and waves,
Smiling for all the world
Like a fifties sitcom dad.
I wave back.
I smile back.
She’s here.

3. Promenade the Second: Find the Lady

Section 2 is enormous.
There are no visible markings delineating Lots and Blocks.
The terms are like latitude and longitude
Pinpointing a location on an unruled globe.
There are no headstones, no monuments,
Just flat rectangular markers flush with the ground
No larger than a shirt cardboard
I am running out of time.
Somewhere in this earth is a tiny skeleton.
She would have been my sister had our lifetimes overlapped.
I feel like an archaeologist
Looking for a tooth
In a gravel pit

Hoping against Hope—
First marker: Husband Joseph.
Good Catholic name.
Next marker: Wife Mary.

I’m walking over hundreds of dead bodies peaceful citizens
There are no alleyways there is no space between graves
I feel extraordinarily guilty
I’m apologizing
Sorry Joe
Sorry Mary
More—Professor Son Daughter
Private First Class
Sorry to all of them for disturbing their peace.
Tiptoeing through remains I make sweeping apologies
Out loud
Stepping on grave markers moving faster
Asking if anyone knows where Charlene J. Miller is
(I don’t know what the J. stands for)
Out loud
Admitting that I haven’t a clue as to what I am doing
Out loud
Complaining about the cold, the pain in my toes
Almost numb not yet
Feeling stupid for complaining
Ground’s colder when you lie in it
Out loud
And I’m the only one who can hear…

Running out of time.
Spending an hour and a half on the Dead,
The forgotten.
She lived twice that long.
What can you do in three hours?
Situation: Everyone finds out they have three hours to live.
Most people would complain it away.
Many would cry.
I wonder if she even had the strength

Three hours
I waste more time than that
Staring at the wall
No not wasted it’s well spent

I am tired of tripping through the Dead.
By chance I notice a small round stone:
I brush the dirt off and feel the indentations
Through my father’s gloves.
Read like Braille:
Lot 35 Block 7

I’m standing on it.
She’s near.
I search the names
I isolate Lot 35 Block 7
To a square
Ten feet on a side—
None of these names belongs to her.

4. The Thunder Was Just Clearing Its Throat

Unmarked grave.
Perhaps they couldn’t afford a marker.
Perhaps they figured
Why spend money on the dead?
Perhaps they were trying to forget
Perhaps they didn’t care

I have fought my way to the Chapel Perilous
And it is a ten foot square room
With invisible walls to the sky
And the Grail is here somewhere
But imperceptible, untouchable
Impossible to pinpoint
…I really just want to sleep.

Why spend money on the dead?
I pull an infant’s toy from my coat:
Red and yellow terrycloth giraffe,
With a rattle inside.
It cost five and change at the mall
And damn the salesperson was rude.
I’ll go back there today
Too soon

Unmarked grave.
It would be nice if she is nearer the tree.
The giraffe poses on the yellowing grass,
Surveying its ten-foot kingdom.
It looks ridiculously out of place.
I think she’d like it.
If she were twenty-six like she should be,
She’d probably appreciate the irony.

You do not need to hear the one-sided conversation,
The introductions and apologies,
The explanations and Christmas sentiment.
The one question I ask:
—What does the J. stand for?
The wind picks up a little.

We are out of time.
I take some pictures to remember.
I don’t know if I will ever return.
I don’t know if I will ever develop the film.
I make my goodbyes.

5. Happy Trails

I am ten minutes late.
I remember Odysseus and shrug it off.
Back to the land of the Living,
And bad feelings are better than none at all.
My feet are numb.
I stumble through more graves, ever apologizing.

The mourners have driven home to their families.
My friend learned to drive on these paths.
I’m finished here.
My board hits the ground, bearings spin
I push hard
Rolling faster I pop over a purple plastic bag
Kick me out
I’m finished here

Half a lifetime in the City of the Dead.
I don’t feel any different.
I’m still breathing
In and out.
Feels good.
The Gate just pouts.
I’d like…
…I’d like to buy a mailman a drink.

I read the guidelines for grave decorations
Toys are unacceptable
The giraffe will be removed
But there was a wreath
Fallen over
Looks like for a long long time
So the icicle wind may beat the groundskeepers
And steal her toy first—
Her first toy—
I’d prefer it that way.
One way or another, it will vanish
But now, looking back,
I’ll bet it was there
Longer than
Three hours


A Birthday Memory and More


July 25, 1980 – I sat in my office at Melbourne University, surrounded by books and papers, in the middle of the academic year. It was mid- winter in Melbourne.

Six months earlier I had noticed the young woman I came to know as Sarah. She was intriguing, with her enigmatic smile. I struck up a conversation with her one day during the morning tea/coffee break in the Commons.

I was drawn to her for some unknown reason—there seemed to be some sort of “connection” for us. Fascination. Attraction. No words seem adequate to describe what was happening.

At some point, I discovered where she lived and the route she used traveling between her flat and the campus. I used to drive that way each day on the chance that I would see her and offer her a ride. Was she in my Chinese politics course at this time? Possibly. I cannot recall.

All I knew for sure was that I wanted to be close to her. Why?

And now, as I sat at my desk on this 25th of July in 1980, I had her phone number – how did I get that? Did she give it to me? Was it from student records? Why can’t I remember the EXACT details, after all these years?
I dialed the number. Why? What was I going to say? Was this some sort of “official” call as an excuse?

Her tiny voice answered. Did I surprise her? Did I “shock” her? [No. That was to come a couple of years later.] I cannot remember at all what I called about or what I said.

All that sticks in my mind, after all this time, is that she told me it was her 21st birthday and her friends were having a party for her. From that moment on, July 25th has had special meaning for me.

25 July 2015

Crazy worries when she is “gone”…

Sarah was on an international trip all last week, and I had no way to contact her or hear from her. Whenever this happens, I worry and get crazy with silly thoughts and fears.

What if something happens to her on the trip? Will her flights go smoothly? What if there is a crash or some other incident and I would have no way of knowing what flight she is on or where she is at any given moment?

What if she gets ill and there is no one to take care of her? She will contact her sisters for sure, but I would never know anything. They would not call me—they know nothing about me.

And, perhaps she meets someone she falls for in that way she always described to me — hopelessly, deeply in love — the ONLY way she could ever truly love someone? That has not been me, so far. Then what? Do I gracefully walk away from more than thirty years of love and desire? Can I accept just being “friends”?

But, all this crazy worrying washed away this morning when she called and we chatted for a while. It was as if we had been talking every day she was gone. In my heart, I ALWAYS talk with her, whether she hears me or not. And, we meet in my dreams….not always in a good way. Life is like that for us; life so very far away from each other.

From “20” to “55”, and she is beautiful!

Today, July 25th, is Sarah’s birthday. I am here to celebrate it with her…my second trip this year to make up for no visits at all in 2013.
We have known each other since early 1980, just after I began to teach at the University of Melbourne in Australia. While I was fascinated by her from the start, it took until February 14, 1982, for me to finally feel the confidence and determination to express my passion and growing love for her. I wrote all this in a card and handed it to her on that day. It was NOT welcomed; in fact, she threw the card away and claimed I was drunk.
I was never so sober in my life, and for the past 32 years, I have maintained and intensified my love for her. We really have no possible future together. So, why continue?
Because the simple fact of my life is: I love her, no matter what!

How I Met Your Mother [To Lisa and Jack]

How I Met Your Mother [To Lisa and Jack]
A beginning of a rough draft………of something
[June 12 to 26th, 1963, Two Weeks in a Life]

I wasn’t sure I was ready to write this down, but I figured it was time to get some of this out there while I still had fairly clear memories about the period. This is from my perspective, and I am sure your mother has a different take on the events.

Fifty years ago, on June 12, 1963, I arrived on Taiwan after my year and a half study of Chinese at the Army Language School in Monterey, California. I checked in at Shulinkou Air Station, the NSA listening post about fifteen miles outside of Taipei. I was not allowed to begin work right away, as my final Top Secret Crypto clearance had not yet come through.

So, for a couple of days (as I recall), I spent my time getting to know or reconnecting with the other Navy guys in our barracks and letting them show me around the base and the downtown Taipei scene. A couple of them had been at Monterey while I was there, but they took a shorter course in Chinese. One guy, in particular, stands out: Vincent Joseph Maciejewski, or “Joe”, as he preferred. [His Chinese nickname was “Ma Daifu”]

We knew each other at the language school, and he was already an E-5 (CT2), while I was only an E-4 (CT3). He decided to show me around town. The main spot for a lot of the Linkou types was the enlisted men’s club, the Linkou Open Mess (or, just Linkou Club), on Chungshan North Road in Taipei. One could take an Air Force bus downtown, or jump in a taxi (they were always waiting at the base gate for fares) to get there.

The club had slot machines in one area and a large dining area with a dance floor. There was a great Filipino band that played there most nights; they played popular tunes of the day and some old standards. They also had a female singer (can’t recall her name). Once in a while acts traveling to military bases in the Far East would perform. During those first few days on Taiwan, Joe introduced me to this club. It was a great place to go for dinner after the work day.

The waitresses in the club were both Taiwanese and Chinese, and Joe took great pains to point out to me which of the waitresses were friendly to the US servicemen. He pointed out one woman named Linda [Hui-fang] who would joke around with everyone, but refused to go out with any of the guys. All the waitresses were generally friendly and had to learn to deal with obnoxious GIs, especially those who got drunk every night. I noted early that Linda was particularly adept at this, fending off advances with sharp retorts in Chinese or English or Chinglish.

Another spot that Joe introduced me to was a bar called “Playboy” (clever name, eh?). This was down the street some distance from the Linkou Club, and it was to be my first (and last) experience with the local bar girls. It turns out that Joe’s girlfriend worked here, and so I was brought there to help drum up some business for the other girls.

As we walked in, the “Mamasan” greeted Joe warmly; he was obviously a favorite customer. While Joe and his girlfriend got together, I was introduced to another of the girls. Her “name” was Xiaolang (or “Little Wolf”). She looked to be a teenager, and she was very quiet and shy, unlike Joe’s girlfriend who was loud and free. Could it be that she was new to all this — like me?

Xiaolang and I were seated at a small table off in a corner. I did not drink at that time, so we both sat there nursing glasses of tea. She did not speak any English it seemed, so we attempted to converse in Chinese (I was not quite used to Taiwanese-accented Chinese). I was uncomfortable with the situation. I felt that I had been set up. I was not angry at Xiaolang; I actually felt sorry for her. I wanted to know her story.

I asked her where she was from and why she was working in the bar. She told me she was from the countryside and that she was working in the bar to get money to send home to her family. Her formal education was limited and this was the only sort of work available to her. I asked if it was not still possible for her to go back to school to complete her education. She might then be able to get a better job to help her family. As we talked, I noticed tears running down her face. I was obviously upsetting her. The “Mamasan” noticed, too.

She began yelling at Joe for bringing me into the bar. She told him that if I did not leave immediately, he would not be welcome back at all. So, that’s how I got kicked out of the one and only bar I ever visited while stationed on Taiwan. Joe was a little miffed, and he proceeded to lecture me on “proper” bar etiquette. I told him I was not interested in that sort of entertainment. [I have often wondered what happened to Xiaolang.]

So, from then on, during those first two weeks on Taiwan, my time after work was spent at the Linkou Club, enjoying the band and singer. I would have a steak dinner or a burger and a few cups of coffee and chat with the waitresses, while hanging out with some of the guys from the base. I soon became known as that sailor who could speak Chinese fairly well and did not drink or smoke.

Apparently, as I learned later, this was a main topic of conversation among the waitresses. [Of course, the not drinking part was also an issue between me and many of my workmates.]

While many of the waitresses were pretty, I found myself paying special attention to Linda. There was something about her — she had the greatest laugh, she was not trying to impress anyone. If customers gave her a hard time, she gave it right back. If the customers complained and went to her supervisor, she would also take him on. She was fearless. I wanted to get to know her; I wanted to spend time with her. I remembered Joe’s warning about her, so I just watched and waited. I took every opportunity to chat with her while she was working, hoping she would eventually feel comfortable enough to spend time with me.

For some reason, on June 26, 1963, [why do I remember these dates?] I got up the nerve to ask her out after she finished work. At that time she was working a day shift, so I asked if she would show me a good bookstore where I might buy some Chinese books. I had been buying some pirated books in the shops right near the club and the military hangouts, but I really wanted to get some relatively easy Chinese books to develop my reading skills. I did not want this to sound like a date, but merely a friendly time together. [I still have the image of her wiping tables as I asked for this time together.] She hesitated a little and then said ok. I should wait for her outside the club, and she would meet me at quitting time.

So, when it was time for her shift to end, I went outside to wait for her to change clothes. I waited and I waited. I waited some more. When Linda finally emerged from the club with one of the other waitresses, she seemed shocked to find that I was waiting. She later admitted that she thought if she made me wait long enough, I would just leave. So, what to do now?

I still wanted to know where the good bookshops were, so we began to walk South on Chungshan N. Road, passing by all the touristy shops set up for US military customers. We just walked and talked, getting to know one another.

As we were walking, we came upon a little boy about seven or eight years old who was trying to pick up some loose cardboard from the curb to bring inside his family’s shop. He was having a rough time of it, so I just stopped to help him out. Linda thought that was strange, that an American (an ah-dok-ah, or “big nose”) would take the trouble to help a little kid. Then, she suggested that we get a taxi to take us to one of her favorite bookstores.

This bookstore was just what I was looking for. I found dictionaries of all kinds, especially one of Buddhist terms that I was very interested in at that time. I think I bought three or four books that evening, as Linda and I walked around the shop learning more about each other.

The evening ended with a taxi ride back to a street near the Linkou Club. Linda did not feel comfortable letting me know exactly where she lived, so we parted there. We did agree that sometime we would go see a Chinese film together. And so, it began, two weeks into my assignment on Taiwan, neither of us expecting how things would turn out.

This, too, shall pass (9/12/01) — by My Son Jack

a scene from As the Apple Turns! (AtAT) — My son’s (Jack) former Mac-related blog) Scene 3296 follows: (September 12, 2001)

This, Too, Shall Pass? (9/12/01)

I don’t know how many times I’ve started to write this, given up, and started over again.

Frankly, everything I try to say comes out trite, or ineffectual, or just plain wrong. I’ve spent four years writing about little things, and suddenly I want to talk about something so big I can’t even see it. It doesn’t fit in my head, yet at the same time I can’t get it _out_ of there. And trust me– I _do_ want it out of there. But it’s not likely to leave. Ever.

So let me try a different angle; let me write about a little thing.

Yesterday morning I woke up and quickly formed the opinion that I was having a bad day. I spilled my coffee. Katie missed her bus and needed a ride to the train station, which tacked an extra twenty minutes onto my commute. Then I missed my exit and had to drive three miles out of my way just to turn around. I arrived at work late, at about twenty past nine, and as I sat down in front of my Macs, I thought to myself, “this is going to be one of _those_ days.”

That’s when the phone rang.

It was my aunt back in Chicago, just calling to make sure that neither Katie nor I had been on a plane out of Boston that morning. “Why,” I asked, “what happened?”

Of course, I don’t need to tell any of _you_ what happened. But that was the point at which my bad day started looking a whole lot better than it could have been, while simultaneously getting a whole lot worse.

Since all news sites were completely clogged and I had no access to a TV or radio (at least until our company switched our phone system’s hold music over to a news station), most of my data came via AOL Instant Messenger updates– from Nico in her dorm room at Tufts, Brian at work in Louisville, and Paula way over in Scotland. Without seeing any pictures, none of it seemed real.

The words that kept appearing in front of me refused to form images in my head; the enormity of what they described was unimaginable.

I called Katie at work. While we were talking, she suddenly said she had to leave because they were closing her building as a precautionary measure. Despite the fact that Boston is miles from New York or D.C., two of those planes originated at Logan Airport, which means the people responsible had been here just hours before– and given the arrests made today, I was probably right to worry that they had left behind some friends. I was even more on edge for two hours until Katie called to say she had finally arrived home safely.

But, of course, Boston wasn’t hit with anything other than the shock and horror of the events that unfolded. And I rode out the rest of the day as best I could, absorbing the news as it rolled in, trying to swallow these facts and occasionally choking.

Eventually everything got too big and I left early. On the way out the door, I found the fortune cookie I had brought with lunch and forgotten to eat. I cracked it open and read my fate: “LOOK! GOOD FORTUNE IS AROUND YOU.” And given that I was still alive to eat a fortune cookie on the way home from work, I’d have to say, damn straight.

As I told a faithful viewer who wrote in asking how we were doing, mostly I’m just sad. Not angry, though there’s plenty of anger in there as well. But far greater is an overwhelming sadness that we could do something like this to ourselves. And yes, we did it to _ourselves._ I don’t mean that in a political sense, i.e. U.S. foreign policy brought us to this sorry fate– I’m not talking about Arabs killing Americans, or Muslims killing Christians, or anything like that: I mean it in the most inclusive and basic sense possible. I’m talking about _people killing people._

This isn’t about borders, nationalities, flags, or religions. Or rather, if it _is_ about borders, nationalities, flags, or religions, it shouldn’t be, because that would be cheap. The bottom line is that this is about thousands of people who woke up yesterday morning and maybe missed their exits or spilled their coffee or gave their fiancées rides to the subway station and now will never do anything that trivial– or anything at all—ever again.

For what it’s worth, I don’t want vengeance, though I’m not downplaying the feelings of those who do. What _I_ want is for all those thousands of people who perished to cram into my front yard, ring the doorbell, and yell “April Fool!” so I can rub my eyes in disbelief and then take everyone out for popsicles. I want this all to be a bad practical joke. And barring that, I want to understand how anyone, let alone several people, could intentionally end their own lives and those of thousands of fellow human beings by steering multiple jetliners into heavily occupied structures.

On second thought, I _don’t_ want to understand that. I don’t want to understand that _at all._ For sanity’s sake, some things need to stay in the realm of the incomprehensible.

So it’s the day after. What’s different? Well, this morning I didn’t spill my coffee, because I didn’t bother making any. Katie caught her bus. I managed to catch the right exit between highways. I even got to work before nine. So this should have been a good day. But to say that things are back to normal would be ludicrous. After this, what are the odds that we’ll ever be “back to normal”? The whole concept of “normal” just changed forever.

As far as our little drama is concerned, right now I think we all have more drama than we can handle. What’s an appropriate length of time before AtAT’s usual content becomes worthwhile again? Or at least less offensive? I haven’t the foggiest idea. At this point it feels like nothing so trivial could possibly matter ever again. I understand the stance that we shouldn’t let terrorism interfere with our day-to-day lives, but for those of you urging us to get AtAT back on track, let me ask you a question: do _you_ feel like making wisecracks about black turtlenecks and Evian water right about now? Exactly. So you can understand our position.

That said, tomorrow we’re going to try to get back on a regular broadcast schedule. We really hope that no one takes that as a sign of disrespect, or feels that we’re trivializing what happened. Basically, here’s my rationale: last night I decided that I’d had enough horror for one day and went channel-surfing to find anything _not_ related to slo-mo video footage of a plane flying into a building, and believe me when I tell you that I wasn’t finding much. Eventually I settled for episodes of The Brady Brides on the Family Channel– but even that had text about the crashes scrolling across the bottom of the screen. There was no escaping it.

While I understand that my usual rerun of The Simpsons was preempted due to a tragedy of immense proportions, I really could have used my customary thirty minutes of familiarity and laughter right about then– just as a brief respite from the nightmare.

We wouldn’t presume that continuing AtAT production will make any of this any better, but if anyone out there is going to find even the _tiniest_ bit of comfort and mirth in the sort of stuff we churn out, heck, we’re game if you are.

One last thing: faithful viewer MARK A. GANGI reminds us that a call has gone out for people in the New York area to donate blood, bottled water, dust masks, and food, so please help out if you can. (Presumably blood donations will help no matter where you are.) Thanks for letting me get tremendously off-topic here, and please take care of yourselves and each other. At the end of the day, none of us has much else.


To see this scene as it was meant to be seen, complete with links to articles and formatted as originally broadcast, visit:

To see the complete, unadulterated episode in which this scene was originally broadcast, visit:
As the Apple Turns:
This Scene:
This Episode:

Copyright (c)1997-2001 J. Miller; please don’t forward without this attribution and the URLs above. Other reproduction requires J. Miller’s explicit consent; please contact him at the site. Thanks.

50th Anniversary of Army Language School Graduation

50th Anniversary of Army Language School Graduation
[CM 12-82 then CM 18-14]
22 May 1963

[Revised ALS Section From “Citizen-Soldier: Genesis and Exodus” (Miller, 1970)]

The quest for prestige which motivated us to become Communications Technicians also caused us to try for the language program. While in “A” School at Bainbridge, we were informed that CTs were eligible to take the Foreign Language Aptitude Test (now given to all recruits to ensure a steady influx of linguists) in order to qualify for the new branch of CTI, the Interpretive branch. The prestige associated with a new thing led some of us to volunteer for the test.

On the day of the test, we were asked to fill out a “dream sheet” as to our choices for language and place of study. This being my first experience with “dream sheets,” I filled in the form, fully expecting to receive what I asked for. After all, I was “special,” wasn’t I? We were then informed that we would know whether or not we “passed” the test when we received our orders to a new duty station.

Finally, during the last week of school, our orders were read to us. I then found out what was meant by a “dream sheet.” I had asked to study Russian, Polish, or German; I was assigned to study Chinese-Mandarin. I had asked to study in Washington, DC; I was assigned to Monterey, California.

A nervous chuckle was my first reaction; I had barely passed high school German. How was I to learn Chinese? Orders were orders; “ours is not to reason why,” etc. All the stock phrases fit here.

Well, I always did want to see California.

Following two weeks’ leave at home, I was on my way. I was ordered to report in at the Naval Postgraduate School, which was the site of an old hotel. The main hotel building was used as the Administration Building, and its old Spanish architecture certainly made it look “unmilitary.” As a matter of fact, this was my introduction to the “relaxed” Navy. Military presence was minimal, and civilian clothes were everywhere. At first, I was disappointed to find out that this was not my duty station; rather, I was to go up on “the hill” where the Army Language School (ALS) was located at the Presidio of Monterey.

When I arrived on the “post,” I was faced with even more relaxation in military presence than at the PG school. The only people in uniform in the barracks were those on duty that night. Actually, the term “barracks” doesn’t fit here, at least in its usual connotation. Students were assigned to two-man rooms, each with two desks, two fairly comfortable army bunks, and two six-foot lockers per man, one for uniforms and one for civilian gear. This was certainly another step up from boot camp, and only four months ago I was just another recruit. It could be described as a form of cultural shock, for after everything one has learned in basic training, assignment to one school such as this can blow it all to pieces. After all, this was an Army post, and Navy personnel were in the minority. Even the Army did not have to put up with most of the crap that is usually handed out in the field.

Naturally, we were there on orders, and it was our duty to learn the assigned language. Therefore, the idea was apparently to lessen as much as possible the usual military pressures. Even the inspections were a farce; weekly uniform inspections by officers who were possibly in your class at school. Also, not many Army officers knew what to look for when inspecting Navy or Marine Corps personnel and vice versa. And so, I was assigned to class CM 12-82.

The class day looked like this: up at 5:30am; muster outside the barracks at 6:00am; breakfast and room clean-up from 6 to 8:00am; class at 8:00am; lunch break from 11:00am to 1:00pm; class at 1:00pm ending at 4:00pm. From 4:00pm to 6:00am the next morning we were on our own. There was no such thing as bed check or liberty passes; when you wanted to leave the post, you just left. There were no gates, no guards, none of the stock military post paraphernalia.

The classroom situation also reflected a loosened military presence. Each room had no more than nine pupils; enlisted men, officers, officers’ wives, and some mysterious civilians made up an average class. The instructors were all civilians, native to the land from which the language originated. All in all, it made for a pretty friendly atmosphere, and opportunities for close relationships with other classmates were many. The question of rank and privilege hardly ever entered into the situation.

However, the situation did lend itself to some heated competition: officer vs. enlisted man, officer vs. civilian, wife vs. husband, enlisted man vs. enlisted man. Who had the better pronunciation? Who had the greater vocabulary? Who could write most like a native? A professional sociologist would have had a ball in one of those classes.
Invariably, an enlisted man would be the top man in his class, which made for interesting confrontations when an officer could find some reason to “pull rank.”

It was also at this school that I learned a bit more about the Communications Technicians (CTs). The Naval Security Group (NSG), the naval communications arm of the National Security Agency (NSA), had a liaison office at the school. When time came for advancement examinations, we were allowed to study in this office; materials were not to be removed from the study area. The windows were covered over and barred, and the study materials were place in a back room with a heavy vault-type door.

Here we learned by heart a cover job description which was to be the answer when anyone questioned us about the CTs. It didn’t say much more than the original description I heard from the classification counselor back in boot camp. It was just what I was looking for, something that when asked about could be met with a “knowing wink, a benign smile.” We were cautioned that everyone in Monterey knew that “special” people were being trained at the language school, and any persistent questioners were to be reported to the Group office for investigation.

The situation had just the right amount of mystery and prestige to make for a good novel. We were also told not to get too friendly with the instructors, for not all of them had been thoroughly checked out by the Defense Department. Stories of “Agency” informants being planted in each class also served to heighten a sense of mistrust and paranoia.

Another factor which added to the insecurity was the fact that every so often someone would be called out of class and told that his security clearance did not come through. He was then transferred to another duty station with regular duties, never really knowing why he could not get a clearance. We never knew who would be next.

Altogether, I spent eighteen months at the school, the last six months (class CM 18-14) being the reason for a two-year extension of active duty in the Navy. The opportunity for advanced study in Chinese presented itself, and after a year of study behind me, I learned to love the language so much that I jumped at the opportunity. [There were other reasons as well that may be written about at some future time.]

I believe a word or two should be said about the effect of Monterey upon my developing values and attitudes. This was an artists’ community, and although Fort Ord was just across the bay, military life just did not seem to belong. This atmosphere, mixed with the study of an abstract language like Chinese, made for the development of an existential viewpoint. Former Green Beret Don Duncan had also been stationed in the area, at Fort Ord, and he gives a graphic description of its effect on him:

“…..The area has an atmosphere (despite the number of retired colonels, generals, and admirals) quite different from that surrounding Southern military posts—the result, I think, of the natural beauty, the traditions of the permanent citizens, and the lack of Southern tradition, chauvinism, and prejudice. Whatever it is, the newcomer has an almost irresistible urge to create and give of himself—a very unmilitary trait—and people who stay for any length of time want to paint, write, play an instrument, or at least engage in philosophical dialogue. I found myself eventually spending more time in discussion and in reading books not connected with the Military.”(Duncan, The New Legions, 1967, p. 196)

By reason of my extended study in Chinese, I was able to obtain orders for duty with the Naval Security Group Detachment (NSGD) in Taipei, Taiwan. I guess the Navy figured that since they had spent so much money and time to train me, it would be a waste to send me to Japan or Okinawa, which is where many of my classmates went.

I graduated from the Army Language School on 22 May 1963, had a couple of weeks leave at home, and then flew to San Francisco. I was posted to the US Naval Base at Treasure Island while awaiting my military flight to Taiwan. Eventually, I arrived in Taipei on 12 June 1963 to begin the next adventure.


Defense Language Institute Monterey

[1961-63, I was barracked in green building at lower right]