Went AWOL while a private in the US Army in 1968.
Had finished Basic Training at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and remained there an additional three long months, serving as a glorified “gofer” in a battalion commander’s office, while awaiting a “secret clearance” to be completed. Had been away from home for no more than a few days prior to that. And when, at 19, I found myself transfered from the deep South back North to New Jersey, I skipped out of Ft. Dix by going AWOL to my home in Philadelphia.
I didn’t see it as “Away Without Official Leave.” I arrived on a Friday and did not have to report for Advanced Individual Taining (AIT) until that Monday, and using my in-born initiative, I left the barracks and made my way to a bus station and then home.
My father had been mugged while I was away those past five months. Ended up in the hospital and probably caused his health to decline, forcing him to stop working at the age of 69 (or was it 71? Couldn’t tell with Pop. Achilles Contoveros lied about his age. Federal records show two different dates of birth for him. One was probably offered by him under an alias when incarcerated for bootlegging in New York City.)
My family was in the process of moving from Brewerytown to Wayne, PA, a section of Philly’s “Main Line” called Little Chicago. I liked their new digs and saw it briefly afer finishing AIT and serving as an acting Corporal at a training camp later. But, I had but one stripe on my arm when I visited in late November. Had sewed the stripe on myself. With needle and thread in a barracks where I lived without a radio, televison or another soul for what seemed forever. Went cold turkey when I was drafted in June. Life as I knew it came to an end, as I got word of an outside World only by way of mouth. Didn’t matter the first two months. A mean and nasty drill sergeant had given me no time for anything but Army Life, and he took pleasure on ordering additional push-ups for privates like me planning to attend Officer’s Candidate School (OCS). That’s why I needed the secret clearance. Couldn’t have an enemy of the state upholding the Constitution while at war.
Going to OCS was my older brother’s idea. George Stanley Contos was what we called a “Lifer,” one who’d spend at least 20 years in the military, thereby insuring a pension the rest of his life, plus PX priveleges and other benefits. As a sergeant, he learned I scored well on leadership tests (don’t know how; I barely made it through high school where I majored in “lunch.”) He insisted I become an officer, believing military life would be better as a lieutenant than a non-commissioned officer. Ended up leading a combat infantry platoon in Vietnam. Got PTSD later. Thanks a lot, brother!
Got into a fight at 30th and Poplar streets in North Philadelphia during my visit home. Wore my uniform and some street toughs wanted a piece of the “soldier boy.” One of them threw something at me outside of Merschen’s Bar, and I retaliated by grabbing a metal trash can lid and charged them gladiator style. We exchanged words, not blows, and went our separate ways with me upholding the reputation as one of our country’s soon-to-be blossoming killing machines.
Returned to Ft. Dix and remember hearing the Beatles “Hey Jude” played over the radio for the first time. Wanted to cry. It was being introduced as an “Oldie,” I thought, and I wanted to know where my Life as a child had gone, how I found myself on the threshold of becoming a man. I missed my home, my friends, my old girlfriend. I’d lose all of them over three years I’d serve in the Army. Be forced to grow up quicker on becoming an officer and leading boys only slightly younger than myself in combat less than two years later.
Got off with just a warning when the Company commander, a captain, called me into his office on my return. I explained my story in detail to him. He appreciated my candor, and declined to issue an Article 15, a non-judicial punishment, which would have prevented me from entering OCS. Learned there came a time when a person had to put away his childish ways and see the world as an adult. I did back then. But kept the memory of that child to let him loose now and then to tell a story or two. I gotta make sure, however, he doesn’t go AWOL on me.