I had been in college for about a year and a half before the roof fell in. Because I had made a number of stupid, poorly-informed decisions during high school, and because my family was in an awkward financial position stemming from my father's retirement from the Air Force, instead of going to a four-year college on an ROTC scholarship, I wound up paying my way through community college with short-term loans from the milk producers co-op I was working for at the time. Community college seemed like an extension of high school to me. The classes had a sprinkling of older people in them, especially the night classes, but most of my fellow students were teenagers like me, and the coursework wasn't any harder than it had been in high school. Which is to say if the course involved reading and writing, it was pretty much a solid B for me.
My problems started when I left the co-op for what looked like a better job as a machine operator with the Census Bureau, changing tapes on tape drives, feeding paper in ginormous line printers, and trying to stay awake between 11 PM and 7 AM. The latter was made more difficult in the print room by the supervisors' insistence that we not have any distractions such as books, radios, cards, or anything else that might keep us from seeing the hoods on the printers open when they ran out of paper. Annoying, but tolerable...until mandatory overtime started and we were all working first 48, then 56 hours a week. I lasted about a month trying to do that and carry 18 credits, four of which were my COBOL class. "COBOL? That's easy!" you say, and maybe it is these days. Back then, when you had to enter your program with a deck of punch cards you'd typed yourself and wait a day for the batch processing mainframe to barf back your printed results, it was damned difficult. Between COBOL and the overtime, I began to have trouble sleeping, and then I started having lateness problems at work, and finally I just quit before they could fire me, which they were on the verge of doing because of my "performance issues".
I'd picked a bad time to quit my government job. It was 1978, two years into the Carter Administration, and the economy was collapsing all over the country. Nobody was sure whether the Japanese would buy us all out or the Soviets would move in and foreclose. One thing was sure: there wasn't much in the way of job opportunities for a fat, sullen teenager who'd quit his job. It's worth noting here that my social life was sucking pretty hard, too. I thought I had a steady girl, but she was off at college in Ohio and judging from her letters, she was sleeping with other guys and I was pretty solidly in the friend zone. Not that any of the other local women were showing any interest either, mind you. There was also some (fairly stupid, in retrospect) drama going on in my circle of friends that made me feel like an outsider even in my circle of friends/fellow D&D players, and somewhere along the line, sometime that morning the day I was fired, I just said fuck it. A shrink probably would have said I was suffering from depression and given me pills, but I didn't (and still don't) hold much with the headshrinkers.
I drove over to the recruiting station at Iverson Mall and missed the Marine recruiter by half an hour; the Army recruiters opened at 7:30, and that's who I wound up signing with. I never even considered the Navy; one of my uncles had been in it during Vietnam, and had been none too enthusiastic about it; as for the Air Force, I didn't want people doing me favors or -more likely- overloading my ass with work on account of my father's reputation.* They agreed to sign me up for four years of active duty and two years in the Reserves after that, which was fairly standard.
That was in September. I spent the next three months commuting between the Baltimore MEPS and Walter Reed, because the physicians at the MEPS were worried about my eyes. On the last cycle, I ran into the Chief of Optometry at Walter Reed, who was tired of seeing me in his area; after a cursory look at my eye exam results (which were right on the edge of what was acceptable) he took out a pen, scrawled "FULLY QUALIFIED FOR ENLISTMENT" and his signature across the paperwork with a fine disregard for the blocks on the form, and told me to get out. I got. On returning to Baltimore, I was greeted by a master sergeant in a depressing, tile-floored room lit with bare fluorescent lights and crammed full of GI-issue steel desks. He informed me that computer programmer training wasn't available to people on their first enlistment, and did I want something else? Stupidly, I asked what else he had in mind, and he handed me a foot-thick computer printout full of cryptic alphanumerics. He might as well have handed me a copy of the Koran. I shrugged and said "Well, how about combat engineer? They get to blow stuff up, right?"
He nodded, then took a look at my test scores and blanched. "I don't think you'd be happy as an engineer," he replied.** "Why don't you go around the corner and see the ASA rep?"
The ASA rep turned out to have an office to himself, the same size that the master sergeant and his five office mates were crowded into. With carpeting. And paneling. And covers over the fluorescent. And a huge-ass wooden desk with a hand-carved nameplate. While I was contemplating what kind of senior officer rated this kind of plush furnishings, the occupant came in and sat down at the desk.
He was a buck sergeant. I began to think that this ASA thing might be worth looking into. After a few more tests and a mostly-unnecessary sales pitch, I signed up to become a Russian linguist (for a bonus of $2000, woo woo) because ever since reading the GULAG Archipelago in high school, I'd been dying to read it in the original. Also, if the shit was going to go down, the best place to get it all over with was going to be in Central Europe, fucking up the plans of several hundred thousand heavily-armed Soviets and Warsaw Pact types headed for the English Channel via Frankfurt, Bonn, Luxembourg (change for Brussels) and Paris.
I spent most of my next year in Monterey at the Defense Language Institute agitating for a slot with the 11th Armored Cavalry in the Fulda Gap. Preferably as a jammer operator, but I'd settle for intercept and DF work; it was obvious to me that an ASA company was going to put out a fair amount of radio noise, and we'd been told the Soviets had DF units attached to rocket launcher units for the express purpose of taking out people like us and the rest of the grid square we occupied for good measure.
Imagine my disappointment when, at the end of tech school, my orders were cut for Field Station Berlin, which occupied the highest point in what would be the world's largest POW camp when World War III kicked off. Fortunately, one of my classmates got orders the next day for the 340th ASA Company/11th Armored Cav Regiment. You couldn't have gotten the grins off our faces with a backpack nuke.
And so it was that I joined the Army in order to die, and they sent me where I could die.
*Despite having been exiled to the Pentagon at a time when such assignments meant the end of one's career, Dad retired as a master sergeant with four Air Force Commendation Medals, two Joint Service Commendation Medals, and a Legion of Merit, the latter of which was not commonly awarded to enlisted men at the time. He may have had a bad attitude, but he worked like a dog. An extremely intelligent, hard-drinking dog.
**Later I learned just how close I'd come to landing the worst job in the Cold War Army: atomic demolitions specialist. This unhappy subcaste of the Corps of Engineers was supposed to emplace nuclear mines in tactically important locations and detonate them, preferably with a lot of Soviet troops around. In practice, they never got to practice with even simulated weapons, and wound up pulling every crappy detail in the Corps headquarters.
This is part of a series of nodes tentatively titled Sixteen Years Before The (Antenna) Mast: My Life In The Bush With SIGINT. The next node in the series is no death for you. Your understanding of what the heck is going on in here will be increased if you read Army Security Agency.