When the Guard Was the Guard



2366 5th Ave, New York, NY

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

It didn’t matter that I had been awarded scholarships to three universities – my parents needed money to send to their families in war-torn West Germany and Austria. The last day of high school coincided with the start of work in the mailroom at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, the next day.

“You’re a smart kid. You can go to City College, free, at night,” was my Dad’s sage advice. But I also wanted to ensure that the draft and military service wouldn’t interfere with the nine years of night school on the horizon.

The New York National Guard provided that insurance. At the time – in the spring of 1956 – the deal offered was enlisting at age 17 and serving a nine-year commitment, with no active duty required.

One night a week for 48 weeks; two weekends a year – one in the spring and one in the fall; and two weeks of summer duty. The nights and weekends were armory based. Summer duties were either at Camp Smith in Peekskill, New York or at Camp Drum in Watertown, New York.

On my 17th birthday, while a Rice High School senior, I signed up.

71st Infantry Regiment The Rainbow Division Park Ave. & 33rd Street Murray Hill

Because I decided to do my Mon./Wed./Fri. college courses first, I joined a 71st Infantry Company guard unit that met on Tuesday evenings. The Armory – a stone, garrison-like building – stood on prime property at 33rd and Park Ave. It was a historical showplace. The halls were decorated with military bric-a-brac – from regimental flags to shoulder patches, trophies to autographed photos, battle maps to citations.

Infantry duty consisted of drilling, maintenance of gear, and the continual assembly/disassembly of the M-1 rifle – our World War II relics. The uniforms were heavy wool ones in winter and in summer, starched-like-cardboard khakis.

I had the misfortune of entering the unit at the time it was decided that all brown combat boots would be colored black. Hours and hours went into transforming gleaming brown into gleaming black (Spit Shine 101).

Like the uniforms and boots, the bivouac tents and blankets were of Korean War vintage. Heavy canvas and wool – smelly, itchy, uncomfortable and offering only minimal protection against rain. Ponchos were used as sleeping bag covers. And two man tents meant restless nights with snorers and farters.

The NCOs and officers were mostly Korean War vets, and some WW II servers. No nonsense–no excuse men, but understanding of so many of us, in service, during college years or doing it for the extra money. Absenteeism was taken seriously, and required doctor’s notes and exams.

There were two major parades a year – Saint Patrick’s Day and Memorial Day. The drilling was intense, as you had to march in step and look smart. Depending on the weather – degrees of dryness and temperature – the parade would provide us either fun or discomfort.

The two weeks at summer camp focused on marksmanship and rudimentary military maneuvers at the company level. It included forward observing for light artillery units (at last, an application of high school geometry – azimuths and triangles) and getting our M-1 dirty and cleaning it, again and again, and again.

By the time I had my Mon./Wed./Fri. classes behind me (4 years), I also had decided that I had quite enough of the monotony of the infantry. So along with my Tues./Thurs. and occasional Saturday class load, I switched to the Army Engineers and a company that met on Monday evenings.

102nd Army Engineers 42nd Division 168th St. & Broadway Washington Heights

The first thing I noticed was how different the 102nd Engineer Armory was from the 71st Infantry. Here you were assaulted by the smell of diesel fuel, grease and oil, engine exhaust fumes and a lot of equipment, the basic unit being two and a half ton dump trucks. Unlike the lustrous, polished floors at the 71st, these showed the years of heavy use, clean but well worn. And of course, there was the noise, more activity, more work than the orderly sounds of marching feet.

At the same time I transferred, I decided it would help my wallet to attain a rank higher than corporal. (And besides, I had gotten used to studying around work hours.) With a First Sergeant’s help and encouragement, I began engineering correspondence courses from Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Learning to drive a dump truck, or operate a road grader by printed correspondence proved somewhat challenging. But distance learning to prepare and use explosives (TNT, and plastic C-4) required a lot of faith – especially the first time you used it in reality.

One piece of advice I distinctly remember learning was to crimp the detonator that you placed in a stick of TNT behind your back. Losing your ass would be preferable to losing frontal parts of your body.

The first time I used it was while we were rebuilding a road at Camp Drum. The dynamite was quite advanced in age and a bit oily (like most of what we used or worked with). The crimping, and then placing the charge in a hoe we had drilled in bedrock, and then connecting the electrical charge was “nervous time”. “Fire in the hole”, shouted three times; turn the crank, listen for the thump, and watching shale whistle through the air brought a sigh of relief. The motivation for doing it right the first time was that if it didn’t detonate, the setter had to fetch the charge and rewire it.

In a year, I had my sergeant stripes and was finally able to ride in the cab of the deuce and a half. One of the more excruciating aspects of riding on the wooden benches in the bed of the dump truck, was that after four to five hours of kidney jarring rides, it took quite awhile to pass urine. Riding in the cab thus had one distinct benefit. And now I was in charge of a nine to eleven man squad of engineers.

As Engineers, we spent our two-week summer tours, working on roads and parking lots, or building tank traps during practice military maneuvers. My squad – as most of our New York City Engineer units – contained predominantly Irishmen –laborers, construction workers. As a sergeant you described what had to be done, made sure the appropriate equipment was in reasonable working order, and then left them alone to do the job.

Oh yes, you also had to provide them fuel. I always made a point of requisitioning a Jeep mounted howitzer- with the rationale to provide more realism for our little convoy of dump trucks. But there was also a more practical aspect. The howitzer barrel served as a perfect cooler and convenient transport for beer. Every day I filled the barrel with beer bottles and cans, lots of ice, packed it close and drove it to our construction site for the squad’s discreet and delighted consumption.

And so it went until graduation from CCNY in 1965, and formal discharge a couple of months before.

During the time, the only national crisis that the Guard faced was the Kennedy Cuban Missile crisis. At that time, our unit was “frozen”. Guard members could not leave the state and had to be within a half-day travel time to their Armory. We were all relieved when the Russians and the Cubans backed down.

Armory Aftermaths

The 102nd Regiment Armory has undergone a number of radical transformations. Built as a National Guard training center in1909, over the years it served as a site for major indoor track and field events, while continuing to house National Guard engineering units. In the early 1980’s, it was turned into a homeless shelter, at one time housing over 1,800 beds.

In 1992, the court ruled it was inhumane and unhealthy to house individuals in this fashion. This led to the revival of an effort to transform the building into a major indoor track and field facility.

By 2001, the Armory became the home of the fastest track in the Northeast, and in 2003, the first national Track & Field Hall of Fame, a national landmark and once again a point of pride for Washington Heights.

The 71st Regiment Armory wasn’t transformed – it simply disappeared. Clinton & Russell had designed it in 1905 and had a great tower modeled on a tower in Siena, Italy. The Armory was demolished in the nineteen-sixties, and today is a mixed-use tower (school, shops, etc), simply known as 3 Park Avenue.

N.B.: Keep your military discharge papers in a handy spot. As I recently learned, the Social Security Administration asks to see them as part of the vetting process of applying for a Social Security pension.

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