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By E. C. Streeter
Deprivation was clearly the thinking behind the way we were treated during my time in boot camp at Fort Bragg in the summer of 1969. The goal was to force us to live without the pleasures our civilian lives had accustomed us to so that we might become at least somewhat hardened to the rigors of warfare. Thus, there was no communication with loved ones except for one brief telephone call a week from a pay phone that we had to wait in line for, no clothing options—"fatigues" was certainly the right word for the uniforms we had to wear because I remember being exhausted just about all of the time—and no hairstyle options—shaving off our hair was one of the first things they subjected us to.
We were able to socialize a little, though. One evening I found myself drawn to the bunk of Terry Sponaugle who was regaling his listeners with tales of his amorous adventures. Like all good raconteurs, he knew just when to encourage his audience to enter the discussion, and a fellow named Smith volunteered his saga of getting his girlfriend pregnant. "Only did it once!" he bemoaned. We all nodded in sympathy, our youthful view being that he deserved at least a few more moments of ecstasy before the consequences of his actions set in.
Eventually the dreaded spotlight fell on me when another barrack mate, gleefully open to the pleasure of putting someone else on the spot, said, "So Streeter, ya ever done it?" Un-light on my feet as usual, all I could think of to say was the truth, which, of course, then prompted multiple sneers of "Streeter's a cherry..." Fortunately, another guy came to my rescue by quickly adding, "Me too. But it ain't 'cause I can't get it or nothin'. I mean, I had'em waitin' in line, waiting—in—line, I tell ya, but, uh, what can I say? Unlike some people here, I happen to have standards!" Among the ensuing hoots of laughter, Sponaugle was the loudest.
Needless to say, we had no access whatsoever to televisions, but we were allowed to have transistor radios. I remember the much-needed solace that came from listening to some of the pop songs that summer, for example, Working on a Groovy Thing by The Fifth Dimension and Sugar by The Archies. Music historians might be inclined to give short shrift to those songs, but they loom large in my particular history.
Thanks to the radios, we knew a little about the goings on in the outside world. For instance, the Woodstock music festival that took place that August was something we talked about at length because it epitomized so many of those civilian pleasures we missed. We also knew that the Apollo 11 Moon landing was going to be telecast, but we tried not to think about it too much because we all assumed that the television rule would not be waived even for such a special event. On the night of July 20th at around 8:30 pm, though, we were amazed to see the drill sergeants, without any fanfare, set up a card table in the alley between the barracks and place a small black and white television on it with an extension cord running to an indoor electric outlet through an open window. All of us in the company sat cross-legged on the pavement in front of it.
For me, the video images of the surface of the Moon as the lander approached it and the eerie view of the horizon after the landing were amazing enough on their own, even apart from the subsequent sight of Neil Armstrong's first steps; the fact that these images were coming to us from a distance of a quarter of a million miles was something that I still cannot quite get my head around. At the same time, though, I wasn't giving any thought to how terrifying it must have been for the two astronauts as they tried to avoid crashing until I heard Buzz Aldrin say, "Tranquility Base, here, the Eagle has landed" and the supervisor of the support team in Houston replied, "Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again!"
Their journey was, of course, only half over; they still had to make it back to the command module orbiting the Moon before traveling for another four days back to Earth. But most viewers weren't thinking about that as they excitedly watched the astronauts walk around picking up Moon rocks. We too marveled at it all, but I'm sure I wasn't alone, there in that alley, in also thinking about the precariousness of the astronauts' return journey, and then wondering about whether we would be as lucky as everyone hoped they would be when it came to our journeys to the war in Vietnam.
E. C. "Middy" Streeter teaches English at Hudson County Community College and is the author of "Solving the Solar Enigma" (2005). He served as an infantry medic in Vietnam from June 1970 until May 1971.