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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Self Evaluation - Military Years

On my 21st birthday I gave myself a present of joining the Army for three years with the an assignment in the Army Security Agency. A friend of mine had assured me that this would be better service than just being in the infantry and he was correct in more ways than one; being at a juncture where I was not sure of what I wanted to do, joining up in a branch of the service that would afford me the best learning experience seemed a good thing to do.
After finishing my basic training learning to handle the M1 rifle, dodging bullets overhead and learning how to properly handle hand grenades, Next to Fort Devens Massachusetts to find out what the Army security agency had to offer. Learning a foreign language! This intrigued me. After taking a sort of Esperanto exam I scored high enough to be included among those who were given choices of languages to take. At that time they offered Polish, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian and Russian; all these languages but Russian were one-year courses in Monterey, California at the Army Language School. So Russian was out as a choice for me; they called out names in some sort of order which gave me an opportunity to see what others were choosing 1st. I would’ve liked to take Polish but that was a favorite for everybody; 2nd was Czechoslovakian, so that left me Hungarian to make as a 1st choice. I got my 1st choice and thinking that Hungarian would be somewhat like German since I knew about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Boy, was I wrong! Hungarian is not related to any of the other languages in Europe (except experts think there is perhaps some connection with finish or Estonian).

We shipped out to Monterey looking forward to my 1st class in Hungarian. The technique used in teaching this language was full immersion.  The teacher would point at an object and say: Mi ez; then he would say: pohar.   He repeated this formula for a number of objects around the room. There were a dozen of us and it took us a full hour to figure out he was asking a question: What is this?  Coming back to the first object with response: pohar − we learned this meant meant: This is a glass.  Notice Hungarian uses fewer words.

We finally got the idea that the grammatical structure of Hungarian is quite different from English.  I learned the grammar with ease but found that speaking the language was difficult.  It was a challenge to be sure for the rest of the year.  During the weekends a friend of mine and I went to my home in S.F. and learned from a plumber how to replace all the old plumbing with copper − that turned out to be a useful talent later.  At an early point in Monterey I received sad news that a woman committed suicide by jumping out of an Aeronca I had bought after I soloed and sold before basic training. 

We all did well enough to pass the course and found ourselves eventually shipped to Germany the following year.  Before being shipped to Germany, however, an event occurred during the Fall of that first year in Monterey which was to completely change the course of my life − The 1956 Hungarian Revolution against Soviet domination!  After the Soviets crushed the rebellion more than 100,000 Hungarian refugees came to the United States; many came to San Francisco.  Through connections with the Hungarian teachers at Monterey I was introduced to a number of refugees whom I now tried to teach English. Some of them became friends with whom I was able to communicate for a number of years, even after I was discharged from the Army.

At the end of the Hungarian course at Monterey, we students were sent to Frankfurt am Main in Germany.  We were housed in a former German barracks, or Kaserne, in the center of the city. We were given the duty of translating intercepted telexes between Communist Hungary and Germany.  Our duty station was a huge building taken over from the I.G. Farben Company which, during the war, produced poison gases used to exterminate the Jews, Christians and other “useless eaters” in the Nazi death camps.

Traveling to many countries in Europe was possible which were not behind the Iron Curtain.  In France I was shocked when communicating in German in the flea-market of Paris was easier than English.  In Italy I visited Venice (where I remember listening to a World Series game between New York and Minnesota?) and Rome with many beautiful and interesting sites. I even got an opportunity to visit West Berlin, behind the Iron Curtain, when I was given the task of carrying military documents as an armed military messenger. I remember exchanging glances with Soviet soldiers behind the damaged Reichstag which was a bit scary. 

Visiting England and Scotland was the most enjoyable visiting relatives of my father,  Going to Mass back in Frankfurt one Sunday  I was shocked to hear the priest condemn American soldiers who, being far from home, engaged in debauchery they would never do at home; I kept thinking that he would’ve done great service to us soldiers by giving positive encouragement to do things that did not dishonor themselves and others. Instead he said he would rather be back home in a nice parish where people didn’t do such things. I wish I had gone to him to try to advise him to be helpful for those of us who were in trouble but I didn’t.  I never missed Sunday Mass while stationed in Europe and I wanted to encourage him to advise all of us soldiers never to miss mass and to give encouragement to always do the right thing.

On my return home to the States, the experience of crossing the North Atlantic in a troopship during a raging storm was an experience I will never forget; just think of huge mountains surrounding you as those mountains wax and wane in size and shape as if ready to swallow the ship at any moment.  A few days after being discharged in New York I met my brother and we went cross country stopping at the Grand Canyon to hike down to the Colorado River and back up and recuperate at the top for 3 days, such was the tiredness that we felt. When we got back to San Francisco I started the spring semester of my sophomore year at the University of San Francisco. This marked the ending of my military days in January of 1959.

I had learned a lot. German and Hungarian languages. Travel experiences. An opportunity to read a lot. Finding out that not practicing mathematics during this time put me in a position where I had forgotten so much that my brother had to help me with math whereas before I’d always helped him. No regrets though, it didn’t take too long to get my math abilities back. Most of all being able to retain my faith in God against many odds presented to a soldier far away from home was to me the most important gain in my life.

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