Schulenberg’s Page: New York, Part CLXXXII

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1956. I got a surprise! A visit from an old army buddy! Jim Dwyer.

Yes. I was in the army. Drafted!

I used to wonder why I had no memory of a graduation from UCLA! I knew I had graduated. Finally I put it together. I’d been drafted and sent to Fort Ord just before the graduation ceremony!

From Fort Ord I was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington just outside of Tacoma for basic training. There, a group us — most of us — realized that we were all college graduates and that might have made our training somehow a little different!

Before the army while still at UCLA I’d been freelancing as a costume designer out of the Western Costume Company in Hollywood. They did the costuming for all of the movies and Las Vegas shows! I’d been introduced to Albert Nickel who ran the place; he became a true mentor to me.

One day he invited me to meet on a Saturday at his house in Westwood close to where I was living at my fraternity. I drove over in my red MG-TF and saw a black one exactly like mine (except for color) in the driveway.

It belonged to Susan, one of his twin daughters.

I parked my car and rang the doorbell and she answered and let me in. She looked just like Audrey Hepburn with a short gamine haircut. After the meeting with her father she came outside with me to see my car.

We spent the rest of the afternoon talking and when I mentioned Hepburn, she told me that she had met her and that Hepburn had even remarked on the resemblance!

She was a graduating senior in high school and soon she became my girlfriend! I mention all of this as background.

While at Fort Lewis it was announced that we were going to have a very important inspection by a very important officer! It was near the end of our training and I was quite worried as regular inspections were always complicated and never easy and now there’d be an important one!

The day came and we were called to formation. The inspection went smoothly and quickly and after the officer, a Major had made his rounds the Staff Sergeant, up until this point the highest person of authority that we’d ever encountered called my name!

What? Why?

I was told to report to a field office and wait there.

The Major arrived and introducing himself, explained that he was a friend of the Nickel family and that Al had told him I was at Fort Lewis. He wanted to request that I be posted at Fort Lewis in Special Services which meant that I’d be teaching art classes to officers’ wives and working on entertainment events. What could be bad?

But he said that I’d been previously requested by a Congressional pipeline! After I’d spent three months at the congressional assignment he told me I could request reassignment back to Fort Lewis! He didn’t know where I’d been assigned!I was told to report to a field office and wait there.

The Major arrived and introducing himself, explained that he was a friend of the Nickel family and that Al had told him I was at Fort Lewis. He wanted to request that I be posted at Fort Lewis in Special Services which meant that I’d be teaching art classes to officers’ wives and working on entertainment events. What could be bad?

But he said that I’d been previously requested by a Congressional pipeline! After I’d spent three months at the congressional assignment he told me I could request reassignment back to Fort Lewis! He didn’t know where I’d been assigned!

I quickly realized that the Army was not democratic but was more like a class system! While I was in my first week at Fort Ord my father wrote the base asking if he and my mother could come and spend a weekend with me in nearby Carmel!

Since he wrote it on his business stationery (he was a lawyer) by the time it went down the line through bureaucratic channels they must have thought he was politically important and I was given a weekend pass!

We went to Carmel where we’d frequently spent summers!

I was the first person in my family to be in the army since the Civil War — thank heaven no one in my family understood how the army works!

The end of basic training came and all of the battalions met in formation to receive their individual assignments. Large groups were assigned to the infantry in places like Fort Benning, Georgia. Serious soldier assignments!

My name was called. Just mine — no others.

And I learned that I was assigned to Ordinance in an arsenal in the Deep South! Alabama!

I couldn’t identify one gun – er – weapon from another let alone take one apart and I was going to be at an arsenal?

In Alabama?

My parents did some research and found that the town, Huntsville, had a population of 30,000 and I imagined myself sitting in a chair in a pre-Civil War arsenal swatting flies and waving at an occasional resident who happened to be walking by.

So it came time to leave for Alabama.

My father had had his secretary type out a lot of self-addressed stamped envelopes to make it easier for me to keep writing home! I could no longer use the Fort Lewis address.

Flying to Alabama in 1956 entailed a lot of changing of planes and the last one was only large enough for six people. It was like a local transport making individual stops for each passenger. I was the last one and my first view of Huntsville, Alabama was as I put down the vomit bag and looked out of the tiny plane window to see an army car and a man in uniform.

He turned out to be my driver and we drove to the arsenal that looked more like a sprawling college campus than anything military! I was assigned to a barracks and shown to the office where I’d be working! It was Training AIDS!

There were three other draftees there, Tak(TakashiMurakami, an illustrator from Chicago, Don Aylard, a graphic designer from Washington State, and Tom Flynn, who’d designed details for Studebaker cars in Detroit!  There were also two civilians, a man and an older woman named Marie Lawson, whose brother Robert Lawson was the famous children’s book writer/illustrator.

I was thrilled to know as one of my favorite books growing up was one he’d illustrated, Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, that Disney later made into a popular film, Ferdinand the Bull!

Disney had also made his book, Ben and Me into a film.

I loved his illustrations for Ferdinand!

Marie Lawson immediately became our house mother!

Our commanding officer was Captain Charles Mosgrove and many mornings were spent in a classroom atmosphere as each of us, the draftees, spoke about our civilian professions! Captain Mosgrove joined us. For the army we were given the job of illustrating charts for the rocket classes. This was, in fact, Redstone Arsenal, thesomewhat anonymous location where the German scientists who’d worked for Hitler were now working for the US to develop rocket weaponry!

We didn’t come face to face with the scientists professionally but it was impossible to not meet them in town! There were so many Germans and it was amusing to hear children named Ludwig, Heinrich and other common German names speaking with a strong Alabama accent!

I learned there was a theater group in town and I went to a meeting and that changed everything!

Before then there wasn’t much to do and the guys from the office and I spent time in town having coffee.

From a letter to my family a short time after my arrival.

I met Jim Dwyer and a guy named Ben Marguglio from Brooklyn at the theater meeting. We became friends and spent a lot of time complaining about living in a barracks dorm on the base and we decided to find a place we could rent in town.

We found a picturesque Victorian guest house across the street from the antebellum cemetery.

It was a great place to be. The cemetery was like a park with families being able to plant roses and little gardens in their plots. I used to spend time there looking at the tombstones and memorials with the reality that the Civil War didn’t seem that long ago.

Some of the dead who’d been killed in that war were younger than I was.

There was such a different feeling about the South. During the summer it was warm and humid and all around there was the sweet smell of honeysuckle hanging in the heavy air. Frequently there would be a distant soft sound of thunder but no rain. It didn’t feel oppressive or ominous but there was something unique that reminded me that so many of our greatest writers were southerners. There was the continual reminder that I was living in the heart of the confederacy and even though Huntsville wasn’t in the midst of carnage there was still the lingering memory of “The War” as it was called by the longtime residents, the real southerners!

On my first leave home I had returned to Alabama with my MG. Driving cross country in an English sports car in the mid-’50s was quite an event and caused a lot of attention as I drove through small towns that were more accustomed to pickup trucks. Stopping for gas could frequently attract a small group of curious locals.

Driving through Huntsville one day I noticed a new shop had opened, a design boutique called Martin Interiors. I parked the car and went in and was greeted by a beautiful woman who introduced herself as Jean Martin.

She was a decorator and had beautiful things in her store. It was unlike anything I’d seen in Huntsville.

I started going there on a regular basis after leaving “work” at the Arsenal.

We were finished there at four in the afternoon and I had plenty of time to sightsee. Jean had become a friend and I asked her if I could come on the weekend and arrange her front windows which up until then had not really displayed her things. She agreed and I found that between the Huntsville Little Theater in the evening and Martin Interiors in the afternoon, life was looking up. I had decided to not apply for Special Services at Fort Lewis, Washington.

Working with Captain Mosgrove, the guys and Marie Lawson would be something I’d miss if I left Alabama and now, spending time with Jean at her store I was having a civilian social life.

Jean’s husband Robert was something else however and gave me a glimpse of what the real South was like — not Huntsville, the northernized vaguely Germanic growing-more-well-known and soon-to-be Rocket City!

U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge.

Desegregation was in the national news. Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia said in 1956 that integration would destroy the South and that God created different races for a reason! He brought up the Communists too saying that integration was exactly what they wanted!

I was at dinner at Jean and Robert’s home and Robert said if Alabama got integrated he’d take a sheet and ride with the Klan!

Jean quietly said, “Robert — you ride with the Klan and I ride with the children (young Melanie and Robert Jr.) to New York!”

I didn’t see much of Robert!

My parents and brother came to Huntsville the next year and by then I was pretty comfortably a part of the scene.

My mother reading on my front porch on Eustis Street.

The highlight of my time with Jean and Martin’s Interiors was when Jean made a bid on decorating the Huntsville Electric Company and I designed an interior lobby using Herman Miller Furniture designs and beating a Birmingham firm.

Herman Miller designs.

Captain Mosgrove had realized that he had an asset with us and one night as we were having dinner with him he told us he had an idea. He invited us to join him starting an advertising agency! At this point we were on a first name basis and were calling him “Chuck!”

One of the illustrations I did for a client was a hotel on the moon! When Sputnik beat America into space, there were demonstrations in Huntsville which was, after all a company town! The Secretary of the Army was burned in effigy. Huntsville was beginning to be in the news and my moon illustration was picked up as a curious article by Newsweek, my first appearance in a national publication!

I decided to go back to UCLA for a Master’s Degree as it would enable me to leave the army six months earlier! Even though I was having a wonderful time in Huntsville I felt that I wasn’t getting any younger and was in fact losing chances to have a lasting profession! I’d acted in a play, designed sets for others, directed a play, and designed the city’s electric company! Now, with the Newsweek illustration I was thinking about a bigger world! Many of the people that I knew in Huntsville didn’t even know that I was in the army! So I left Alabama and stepped into the next chapter of my life!

I reminisced about all of this at lunch with Jim Dwyer and tried to fill him in with what the following twelve years had been like!

I told Jim that my Army career made Phil Silvers’ Sergeant Bilko look like John Wayne!

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