With all the joyous frenzy over the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing going on a couple of weeks ago, I was compelled to call my old Army buddy, Fran Slocum, and say, “Hey! Do you remember where we were 50 years ago?”
“Yeah,” he replied immediately. “We were out in the field at Fort Carson, and you were bashing your ankle with your steel pot so you wouldn’t have to rappel off Cheyenne Mountain.”
Perhaps a little background is in order.
TRAINING THE BASICS
I’d been idling along in my college endeavors, when suddenly my draft board deemed me more suited to be a soldier than a student and ordered me to report for two years in the Army, where I could go teach the North Vietnamese a lesson or two.
Fran and I met in basic training in Fort Dix, N.J. A fast friendship was about to unfold.
We finished eight weeks of basic, followed by nine more weeks of advanced infantry training. The Viet Cong were in for it.
ON A DIFFERENT PLANE
We were given our orders to take two weeks of leave and then it was off to keep the Vietnamese so busy there’d be no thoughts of invading the USA.
The day before we were to go on leave, though, Fran and I were handed new orders: We were to go to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, to learn a new, secret weapon called the Redeye missile, which could shoot airplanes out of the sky as if they were standing still.
The only trouble was, the only planes in Vietnam were ours, and who’d want to shoot them down, except the enemy? Was this the best place for a Redeye? The pieces just didn't seem to fit. Like, if you worked for a moving company and they issued you a Fiat.
UP, UP AND AWAY
While the Pentagon scratched its dome, or whatever it had, over that one, we’d be sent to Fort Carson, outside Colorado Springs, for a couple of months until the generals could figure it out.
It was just then, as we were zigzagging all over America, that Cape Canaveral had some news of its own. The astronauts were on their way to the moon.
No sooner had we arrived at Fort Carson than we were sent on maneuvers in the Rocky Mountains for two weeks, where the elevation was almost 10,000 feet.
Not exactly getting prepared for the jungles of Vietnam. The Pentagon was still pondering.
Franny and I were driving our assigned Jeep and trailer, hauling our Redeyes, joining a battalion piloting tanks, trucks and assorted other vehicles for some intense training.
The first order of business was to rappel off Cheyenne Mountain, for some reason. Rappelling is a tricky stunt, whereby you have a rope firmly attached (you hope) to something above you and wrapping firmly (you hope) around you so it can allow you to slip safely (you hope) down a cliff at a speed completely under your control (you hope).
I looked over the cliff, and all I could see were clouds. Where was the Pentagon invading next – Nepal? Machu Pichu? North Dakota?
I'd come to terms with the idea of fighting my way through Vietnam, but jumping off a cliff? At least the jungle didn't give you vertigo.
SWEETENING THE POT
We were reminded to have our steel pots securely attached. A steel pot is headwear that covers a less-sturdy helmet. It has a camouflage cover so, in case any Vietnamese spies are skulking around the Rockies, they won’t see you.
The idea of a steel pot is, if anything goes wrong with your string — or rope, as the Pentagon optimistically calls it — and you fall headfirst thousands of feet onto the streets of Colorado Springs, you won’t get hurt.
I had another idea: I smacked my steel pot on my ankle several times hoping to induce some swelling so I could make a case in the medic tent for sending me back to the fort for some well-deserved KP.
Franny obligingly gave me a few raps, too, but, like mine, his heart wasn't in it. My limp wasn’t convincing, the medics were unmoved, and off to the cliff I trudged.
ONE SMALL STEP
The only good news was that just then we were all told: “The Eagle has landed!”
As for me, I followed my instructions on the edge of the cliff, didn't look down except for a few unavailing peeks, drifted down through the clouds and, like Neil Armstrong, my feet wound up on the ground.
So, as Franny told me on the phone the other day, “Guys were walking on the moon, but you could barely walk on Earth.”
No thanks to me or Franny, America eventually achieved “peace with honor,” Armstrong left footprints on the moon, and I left handprints on the rappelling rope.
The astronauts defied gravity. Me? I was forced to surrender to it.
But at least I had an announcement of my own: “The chicken has landed!”
Bob Grady worked for the Press-Republican newsroom in a variety of positions for almost 40 years, retiring as editor in 2011. For 20 of those years, he wrote a weekly column, often based on his maladroit acquaintances, including his wife’s cats and his friend Ted. He still lives in Plattsburgh.