Picking Up Trash

Blog 1233 – 01.11.2019

Picking Up Trash

I am not a big one for memorializing days but some days stick in our memory easily and we are quick to recall. Yesterday, marked the forty-ninth anniversary of the day that I arrived in South Vietnam back in 1970 as a nineteen year old Specialist Fourth Class in the U.S. Army. My six-month signal school training technical graduating class had been levied into the Army Security Agency in mid-August of 1969 because they needed more people with our MOS (Military Occupational Skill 31J20 – teletype repair, one of those outdated and obsolete things I mentioned yesterday. Anyway, you had to enlist for four years to be in the Army Security Agency and I got in on a free pass. They held us over in our training company and used us as clerks till our top secret security clearances were conducted and completed by the FBI.

Just before Christmas of 1969 we were given orders to report to Arlington Hall, Virginia, headquarters of the Army Security Agency where we would work as “casuals” till our clearances came in. Before we could make that move we were told our clearances had come in and we were given orders to take a two week leave at home before reporting to Oakland Army Depot, just outside San Francisco for processing to South Vietnam.

January 10th, was my first day, “in country”, and that meant January 10th, 1971 would be my DEROS date. I do not recall what the acronym stood for but it meant I got to go home. I have always been lucky in addition to being “guided, guarded, and protected” and so in my three years in the military I never missed a Christmas at home with family and friends. Because the Vietnam War was winding down I got a one month drop off my combat zone tour and after a brief mix up in orders, saying I was being sent on a back to back hardship assignment (hardship assignments were usually to combat zone or others places where one was not permitted to take a wife or get separate quarters and rations for living off post) to Asmara, Ethiopia where the ASA had a small communication center, (I did not have the one year left on my enlistment to qualify for the assignment anyway and I I wanted to go home. I finally got orders to go home on leave from Vietnam and then to spend my last months at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As the end of my enlistment neared I even qualified for a three month early release to attend college.

If you are wondering about the “picking up trash” title here goes. My security clearance was not in when I arrived at my new duty station on Tan Son Nhut Airbase just outside Saigon so for my first two months in Vietnam I cut grass, filled sand bags, and picked up trash. That is what I would have done in Arlington Hall, Virginia as a “casual” hold over soldier with not clear assignment. It was not as bad as it might sound. I was teamed with another Spec Four from Nashville, Tennessee who had re-upped for a second tour in Vietnam but because he had gotten married they had to update his security clearance and investigate his new wife’s background which took time.

My partners nickname was The Phantom, after the comic strip hero. He was wise in the ways of survival in the Army and showed me the ropes. We policed, picked up trash outside the Company First Sergeant’s office first thing each morning so he could see us. Then we spent most of our morning before a long lunch break sitting on the other guys bunks reading their books and staying one step ahead of the First Sergeant who walked through all the barracks. They were called hooches in Vietnam. He never caught us laying down. Last thing every day we fired up two lawn mowers and cut the grass outside the First Sergeant’s Office. He loved us because we caused him no problems and stayed out of sight.

That “police call” was a long standing Army tradition after morning formations where all the troops lined up abreast and walked the area picking up cigarette butts, gum wrappers, and any other trash in sight. I have never smoked a cigarette in all my sixty-eight years but it is no exaggeration that I have picked up over a million cigarette butts. Would I prefer others to pick up their own trash – Yes, but I have never thought myself too good, nor of too high on any picking order to prevent me from bending over to pick up my own trash and a little of that others might have left behind.

The Christopher Hour theme I often heard as a boy said, “If everyone lit just one little candle what a bright world this would be.” It is also true that if everyone picked up just a little trash what a much cleaner space this would be.

Pitch in.

Your friend and fellow traveler,

David White

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