You’re in the Army Now

by Jerry Prater

I was raised in Garland, Texas by a very religious, very conservative family. I was not allowed to attend my high school proms or sock hops because people would be dancing, and my parents didn’t want me to be exposed to such sinful activities. I didn’t smoke, drink, dance, and use curse words, and I wasn’t allowed to associate with those who did. During my junior and senior years at Garland High School, I had no idea what I was going to do after my graduation.  I hadn’t given it much thought, and I never really considered going to college because we were very poor and my father barely made enough money to support the family, so there was no way he could pay my way through college.  Also, no member of my family had even graduated from high school, my father dropped out in the 6th grade, and my mother and older brother quit school during the 10th grade.  For this reason, I had no example to follow regarding how to study and do my homework so I could make good grades.  My grades weren’t very good, my cumulative average in high school was 79.4, which put me in the middle of my class of 358 students.  However, my mother did something in the fall of 1960 that really surprised me, she enrolled in a class at Oak Cliff Business College in south Dallas.  She successfully completed a comptometer course in January 1961, and went to work with Kraft Foods in Garland shortly after that.

After graduating from Garland High School in June 1961, I took the ACT exam and barely qualified for enrollment in college.  I attended Abilene Christian College for two years because my parents wanted me to be in a Church of Christ environment while getting my education. While at Abilene Christian, I began smoking, drinking, and cussing because that’s what my college friends taught me and, for the first time in my life, I was away from the very strict discipline of my parents. My grades were not good because I didn’t understand how to study for college courses and for the exams.  I played on the varsity baseball team my freshman year, but had to quit the team just as the season started in my sophomore season.  I was having some health issues because I was tired and fatigued all the time, I was sleeping through some of my morning classes because I just couldn’t wake up, and could not concentrate while in class and when I was trying to study.  I went home to Garland and went to see our family doctor.  After doing some tests, he advised me that I had a very high cholesterol level, and he put me on a strict low fat and no fried food diet.  Apparently, all the fatty and fried food that was being served in the cafeteria at Abilene Christian had caused this issue.

Since my grades were bad, I saw no reason to pay the exorbitant cost, $17.50 per semester hour plus $265.00 for a dorm room and meal tickets per semester, of an unsatisfactory education at a private school. So, I decided to transfer to North Texas State University beginning with the fall semester 1963 where my tuition was $75.50 for the entire semester.  I commuted and worked nights at Kraft Foods on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays my first semester, and I moved to an apartment on campus my second semester.  My grades improved because I no longer felt the pressure of the high cost of an education at a private school.  My grades improved even more when I began taking my business classes, and I had developed very good relationships with my professors. I was very confident I would find a job with little to no difficulty because of all the hard work I had put into my education. Also, the Dean of the School of Business had developed excellent relationships with many corporate executives who would send representatives to interview senior students on campus, and hire them a few months before they graduated.

I was on course to graduate on June 1, 1966, but I was having tremendous difficulty getting a job offer.  Almost all the students in the School of Business had accepted a job offer at least two months before graduation.  Not only did I receive no offers, I had difficulty getting the company representatives to spend the entire 30 minutes allotted for the interviews with me. The interviewing process was about the same each time. The first five to ten minutes would be the normal niceties regarding where I was from, what my family did for a living, my hobbies, the courses I took, my GPA, etc. Then they would ask the question that would end the interview, and any interest they may have had in me. The question and my answers basically were:

“How is your health?” “I’m in excellent health.”

“Do you have any disabilities?” “No, none whatsoever”

“Are you married, do you have any children?” “I’m single and have no children”

“So, that means you will be classified 1-A in the draft?” “Yes, I probably will”

“Well, thank you for your time and interest in our company, and good luck in your career”

All the abbreviated interviews got to be very discouraging, but I finally had a full interview with Foley’s Department Store, which was located in Houston. And, to my surprise and extreme gratification, they offered me a job as a Merchandising (Buyer) Trainee about one week before my graduation, and I was to begin work for them on June 5, 1966. On my first day at work with Foley’s I discovered why they offered me a job when other companies wouldn’t even give me a serious interview. Foley’s had a practice of hiring approximately 30 Merchandising Trainees every spring semester, and I was one of the 30 for the spring of 1966.

I basically enjoyed my work, but my work schedule was the pits, and I had to drive to and park in downtown Houston.  I had to work from 11:20 a.m. until 9:05 p.m. on Monday and from 9:05 a.m. until 5:35 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Foley’s was closed on Sunday because of the Texas Blue Law, and my day off was Tuesday, so I didn’t get off two days in a row. I was transferred from one department to another and was never assigned to work with one buyer individually like most all the other trainees. I had been dating my girlfriend from Garland, Texas for almost three years and now I didn’t get to see her but for a day or two every other month. Also, we didn’t talk on the phone but once every other week because long distance calls were expensive in those days. Since we felt we were in love and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, we started making wedding plans for the 1966 Thanksgiving weekend.

Then I received a letter from the Selective Service System in Dallas instructing me to report for a physical examination on September 27, 1966. I was about to panic, but one of my coworkers told me to write to the Dallas draft board and tell them that I couldn’t report because I was living and working in Houston. He also gave me some encouragement when he said that my name would probably just get lost in the shuffle and I would never be contacted again to take the physical. Wrong! I received a Transfer for Armed Forces Physical Examination or Induction form from the Houston Selective Service office dated September 26, 1966 advising me that my request for transfer had been approved and I would be notified by this local board of the date and place to report.  They didn’t waste any time because I received an Order to Report for Armed Forces Physical Examination dated October 14, 1966 instructing me to report for a physical at 7:30 a.m. on October 26, 1966. I reported as directed and, of course, passed the physical. Since everybody who reported passed the exam, I was of the impression that if you were able to locate the place to take the physical, you just passed the mental test. Then, if you could walk up the 20 or so steps to get into the building, you just passed the physical portion of the examination! I received my Statement of Acceptability, which was dated November 1, 1966.

With the assistance of her mother and my mother, my fiancé completed our wedding plans, and we were married on Saturday, November 26, 1966 at the Broadway Church of Christ in Garland. The wedding and reception went very well, and my new bride and I headed out to Beavers Bend National Park near Broken Bow, Oklahoma.  We had a very abbreviated honeymoon, we arrived late Saturday night and had to leave for Houston shortly after noon on Monday, November 28.  The Christmas shopping season had just begun and I had to get back to Foley’s so I could sell all those Christmas toys.

When we arrived at the apartment in Houston Monday evening, I called my mother to tell her that we made the trip back safely. Then, my mother said “Jerry, you got a letter from President Johnson today and I opened and read it. He started his letter with ‘Greetings’ and told you to report for induction in Dallas on December 12.” Isn’t that a terrific way for a marriage to begin? You get a letter while you’re on your honeymoon telling you that you get to spend 15 days with your new bride, then you’re required to spend the next two years in the army stationed at who knows where doing who knows what!

As required, I reported to the Dallas Selective service Office located at 912 Commerce Street for induction at 8:00 a.m. on Monday, December 12. I didn’t know what to expect, so my mother and my new bride accompanied me, and I took a container with the basic toiletries with me. I didn’t know if we would be sworn in, sent back home and ordered to report to the army after the New Year’s Day holiday, or if we would be transported to the army base immediately after the swearing in process. After I learned that we would go straight from the induction center to basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, I was allowed to see my bride and mother very briefly so I could tell then goodbye, and for them not to wait for me because I would not be able to see them again for the foreseeable future. All 37 of us inductees completed a series of forms and the Officer in Charge (OIC) gave us some verbal information and instruction. After he swore us in, the OIC told us that, since we were reporting for basic training so close to the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, we would be given a special leave that would not count against the leave we accumulate and could take during our first year of service.

Just before boarding the Continental Trailways bus, the selective service NCO gave me a packet that contained all the forms and documents that had just been prepared and executed. He told me very firmly that I had better take good care of the documents because, if they were lost, it would take about a month to reproduce them, and all 37 of us would have to stay at the induction center until they were reproduced. Of course, that time would not count towards our 24 month commitment! I believe he chose me to carry the documents because I was one of the oldest, and presumably one of the most dependable inductees.  I had turned 23 years old less than two months previously.  Needless to say, I held the packet very tightly in my arms during the entire bus ride to Fort Polk.

After I sat down in one of the seats, Jack Gray, another of the older and presumably most dependable inductees, sat in the seat next to me.  I was very glad that he sat next to me because I believed he would take good care of the documents if I fell asleep on the long bus ride to Fort Polk.  Approximately two hours after we left Dallas, everyone had settled down and there was little noise on the bus, and Jack was one of many of the inductees who had fallen asleep.  I stayed awake and spent a lot of time thinking about all the events that had happened during the past month and a half, and I looked toward my future with a lot of anxiety and fear of the unknown.  This was the first time in my life that I had absolutely no control or influence over anything that was going to happen in my life during the next two years.  I was going to be at the mercy of the officers and non-commissioned officers in charge of the units to which I would be assigned.  And, I had a very bad opinion of army life because of some movies I had seen, such as The Young Lions, From Here to Eternity, and Take the High Ground.  These movies portrayed the life of enlisted men as always being bullied, beaten up and robbed by the bigger enlisted men, and harassed and persecuted unmercifully by officers and non-commissioned officers.  I knew that my naive and sheltered life was coming to an abrupt end, and I became fearful of things that may happen to me during my two years in the army because my entire world was about to be turned upside down.