Monday, September 27, 2010

Costumed in Carmel-by-the-Sea

It was a typical foggy morning as we lined up outside the mess-hall door waiting our turn for breakfast. A newsboy hawking San Jose papers moved along the line but got few takers, as usual.

I'm normally a news junkie, but the rigors of Basic Training seem to have killed most of my interest; the Army kept me too occupied to spare the time and effort. But I did scan the headlines if they were large enough. Not long ago there were huge ones about Russia testing a 50-megaton H-bomb.

But today was going to be special. We were more than halfway through the eight-week training cycle, it was Sunday, and this afternoon we were to get our first pass. We could do as we pleased, provided it was legal, from noon till 10 that evening.

Many guys planned to head for the Soldiers' Club, a large, wooden structure near the beach where one might order a real hamburger and down some beer. Others, me included, opted to go off-post for the afternoon. Of course we had to wear uniforms -- our green "bus-driver" style Class-A kit complete with no rank or unit indicators, we being of the lowest class of Private and too temporary to bother having a Sixth Army shoulder patch sewn on.

Where to go? Perhaps to Seaside or Marina, in those days off-post purveyors of booze and other imagined necessities for those who found Fort Ord's Soldiers' or NCO clubs too tame. But we might have been told to keep away from Seaside and Marina; I don't remember, perhaps because they didn't appeal to me in the first place. Otherwise, given that we had to take a bus, the only real possibilities were Monterey and Carmel. I went with the Carmel-bound group, which was a pretty small share of our training company: let's say six of us.

Since then, I've visited Carmel quite a few times and have a rough feel for the place. It's a former art colony that remained pretty arty. Immediately to the northwest is the famous Seventeen-Mile Drive part of the peninsula. It has a number a well-known golf courses including Pebble Beach, Spanish Bay, Spyglass and Cypress Point. Some housing near the north part of the Drive was originally modest, middle-class, but near the west and, especially, the south there are plenty of ritzy digs. To put it another way, the area in and near Carmel is crawling with money. And it probably was when our bus finally dropped us off near Ocean Avenue.

The "downtown" (business district) part of Carmel is small now and about the same size when we set off to explore it. Even the buildings are pretty much the same. Nowadays, there's a small, three-floor open mall at the top end of the Ocean Avenue commercial strip and here and there are other buildings that were added since that Sunday when the Army invaded. One thing that definitely has changed is that Fort Ord is now essentially closed. There are no more young men going through Basic and I haven't seen anyone wearing an army uniform in Carmel in years. The closest I came was when I was chatting with a retired Navy Rear Admiral at my wife's college sorority alumnae club Christmas party in a house near the number two green at Spyglass, and that's not close at all.

Anyway, since we had little money and virtually no place to store any purchases, we simply wandered around, gazing at the storefronts, Spanish-style buildings and the occasional odd Storybook Style structures that can still be found there.

Perhaps we had something to eat and maybe drank a Coke or Pepsi someplace. But after two or three hours, we'd wrung the place dry several times over and caught the bus back to Ord. Once there, we checked out the Soldiers' Club. It featured a big, smokey hall where beer was served, but I'm not sure if I bothered to wait in line to buy a glass. The next day we'd be back to training, so we hiked back to the barracks to get our gear in shape and have some sleep.

Besides the lack of money and storage places, our visit to Carmel was limited psychologically. Yes, were were on pass and off-post, but we weren't really free from the Army thanks to the pass' deadline and the possibility that Military Police might flag us down and offer some hassle (one reason I passed up seeing Monterey, a less classy place than Carmel). We were guys about 20 years old wearing "Army Green" -- not a bit like the older, much richer and better-dressed locals. We eyed them and they eyed us, quite likely gazing down their mental noses in the process.

In a nutshell, I felt out of place and distinctly uncomfortable. I had pretty much the same reactions two years later by the beach at Waikiki on a short pass while our troop ship paused in Pearl Harbor on its way to the Far East.

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