Fifty years ago this month I joined Uncle Sam's Army.
In December of 1963, weeks shy of my 19th birthday, I came to the decision that it was time to take a bold step. I needed to grow up.
I figured the best way to do that was to join the military. My father, my two uncles and my grandfather had all served. If the military was good enough for them, well, surely it would be good for me.
But which branch? I visited the Santa Ana recruiting offices of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and had long chats with the recruiters.
The Navy, Air Force and Marines required that I serve four years of active duty and two years inactive. They weren't able to guarantee me an MOS (military occupational specialty). The Army required that I serve three years of active service and three years inactive. Based upon my test scores, the Army recruiter guaranteed my technical school and job specialty.
I went Army green!
My folks were less than enthusiastic. I was immature and still tied to mom's apron strings, but I knew this was something I had to do.
On Thursday afternoon, Feb. 13, 1964, I boarded a bus at the Santa Ana Greyhound station bound for the Army induction center in Los Angeles. My mom and dad and a dozen friends were on hand to see me off.
I spent Thursday night in a fleabag hotel — courtesy of the Army — across the street from the induction center. I ate dinner in a cluttered diner down the street. "You a GI, hon?" the waitress asked. It was the first time I'd ever been labeled a GI. I nodded. "Dinner's on us, sweetie. Have some pie."
I called home that night to let everyone know I'd arrived safely. My brother told me that mom had cried all afternoon. I felt lousy. That's the last thing I wanted to do to my dear mother.
Yet, I was determined to see this thing through.
I spent Friday, Feb. 14, filling out paperwork, taking my Army physical and answering psychologists' questions. That afternoon, with a couple of hundred other guys, I raised my right hand and took the oath of enlistment. We swore to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
No turning back now.
The Army bused us from the induction center to Union Station. We took an evening train from L.A. to Salinas, arriving at about 3:30 a.m. The Army bused us for an hour through the coastal foothills to Fort Ord, in Monterey.
It was not yet sunrise on Saturday, Feb. 15, when we arrived at Ord's reception center. We were assigned temporary bunks in a World War II barracks and issued mattresses. Since we'd gotten almost no sleep on the train, we were granted 30 minutes to lie down before reveille.
We were ravenous, and our first mess hall breakfast hit the spot.
There were probably 1,000 of us buck privates hanging out in the reception center. Most were draftees; I was one of the few enlistees.
I recall our first orientation in the post theater.
"Now, you boys no longer got your mamas to hang onto," said one crusty old drill sergeant. He'd probably been frostbitten at Bastogne. "You belong to Uncle Sam now."
We spent the week getting haircuts, collecting our boots and uniforms, pulling KP duty, and carrying out mundane chores around the reception area. We had plenty of time to get homesick.
Finally, after seven days of mostly purposeless activity, I was moved to my basic training outfit: Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade. Now, finally, the basic training clock was ticking and we were engaged in eight weeks of intense training.
Loaded down with heavy duffle bags, we were transported in the back of Army trucks from the reception center to our company. Waiting for us in front of new concrete barracks were our drill sergeants, screaming commands as we tumbled out of the trucks.
Welcome to the United States Army! You boys will never be the same again.
JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.