Congress is closing Ft. Dix. Turning it into a prison or an amusement park for those who missed the Vietnam War. Or maybe a Bill Bennett Camp for Youthful Offenders. This is hardly a new idea. In the winter of 1968, I spent some time at Ft. Dix as a guest of the government. Several of my fellow soldiers were there at a judge's suggestion.
Basic-training bases are now quite modern. The troops live in nice brick barracks and eat in modern facilities, and I'm glad they do. But Ft. Dix in 1968 was still pretty much a relic of World War II. The barracks were drafty, made of wood and heated by coal. The mess halls were rat- and roach-infested. The training facilities were a wreck. The transport vehicles, when they were available, were Korean War vintage. In the summer Dix was a swamp. In the winter it was Stalingrad.
The boot camp companies were made up of the unlucky and the uncomprehending. A good percentage were there because the judge said it was either that or jail. Among those was Domingo Vega (not quite his true name), who eventually became my buddy.
Domingo was a huge kid from Hingham, Mass. He had arms as big around as my leg and a clever and mean sense of humor, which I came to like. He evidently had cleaned out a bar somewhere on the South Shore. At the resulting trial the judge suggested that he'd get more fresh air in the army than in the alternative, not unlike what Bennett suggests for wayward youth today.
Thus Domingo wound up, in the service of his country, on a lower bunk in the rotting wooden barracks we shared with 48 other pre-pneumonic draftees, coughing the night away before another day of training in the frozen wastes of New Jersey. Our feet were cold all the time. I pointed out that talcum powder helped keep your feet a bit dryer and thus warmer. Domingo was so grateful he became my bosom friend. It's hardly material for a Remarque novel, but that's what brought us together.
Ft. Dix is the largest training base in the whole horrible system, and we marched its length and breadth. One day it was 5 miles to the rifle range in 10-degree weather. The next day it was 6 miles to throw grenades in the freezing rain. We practiced low crawling in the frozen dirt. We thrust our bayonets at ice-stiffened dummies. All this was in preparation for combat in Vietnam where the temperature was never below 80.
There was then an aura of hopelessness at Ft. Dix. Paint peeled from every building. The water was rusty and didn't taste very good. The prevailing mood, especially in winter, was mean and vindictive coercion. The training cadre didn't want to be there any more than the draftees did. In the memory of foggy misery that I have of the place, one incident stands out.
One day Domingo and I had KP. We had been helping in the foul-smelling kitchen since five in the morning and were washing out garbage cans with hand brushes and GI soap. It was viciously cold and we were soaked. Our boots were wet through. The mess sergeant was insistent that everything be scrubbed; he was also drunk. At about two in the afternoon we snuck away back to the barracks.
The only pleasure for the men at the end of the day was a hot shower. But this depended on the successful functioning of an antique coal-fired water heater. The cast iron guts of the thing had to be brim-packed with coal and left to cook all day to get the huge tank heated. There were 50 men to be gotten through a narrow shower stall with six shower heads. If anything went wrong--if, for example, the fire went out in the middle of the day--the choice was between a cold shower and sleeping filthy.
Two Spec. 4 cooks lived with us, skinny, unhealthy-looking poor kids from Philadelphia whose only claim to fame was that they outranked us. When we got back to the barracks we found that they were wasting our precious hot water. They had stolen a gallon of frozen strawberries from the mess hall and were thawing it in the shower.
What followed was a complete breakdown of command. Pvt. (E-1) Domingo Vega, in a rage, threw them both into the shower. He beat them against the walls and against the pipes. He yelled all sorts of disrespectful things at them and attempted to jam the frozen strawberries down their throats. He held them by their necks and bashed their faces together until the blood spouted from the usual places. All the while the showers were still on.
I watched until I thought he might actually kill them, and I made him stop somehow. He finally turned the faucets off and left his superiors almost unconscious on the floor amid the blood and the strawberries and the steaming water.
At the end of basic, Pvt. (E-2) Domingo Vega went to a MASH unit as an operating room technician and I went on to the Army language school. I never saw him again. But I doubt that either one of us has ever set foot in Ft. Dix since. Of all the places I unwillingly spent time in while in uniform, in the states and Vietnam, the place I remember with the greatest loathing is Ft. Dix.
Bennett's idea may have some merit. Boot camp may indeed be a better deterrent than prison. But only if they've upgraded the water heaters.