19 September 2004

Good Soldier Outlier: Language School Idyll

For two weeks after Basic Training, I visited my family at the Foreign Mission Board in Richmond as they were getting ready to return to Japan, then I flew military stand-by across the continent on July Fourth and reported for duty the next day at the Defense Language Institute, West Coast (DLIWC, "dillywick") at the beautiful Presidio of Monterey, CA.

I'll never forget what the sergeant who greeted us said after he formed the new students in ranks and marched us off to our barracks: "Not bad for school troops." What a world of difference from our initial reception at boot camp!

Our barracks were cinderblock dormitories, with two or three students to a room, a mix of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. My first two roommates were sailors studying Spanish. (Spanish took 6 months, Romanian 9 months.) The Romanian class ahead of me consisted of a half dozen airmen, headed for listening stations in Turkey, and one sergeant in military intelligence. My class consisted of only three students: on my left, a soldier in military intelligence fresh out of Yale; on my right, an FBI agent from Chicago; and right between them, me, a 20-year-old college dropout. Most students at DLI seemed to be college graduates.

We spent 6 hours a day in class, 5 days a week, and were expected to spend a few hours afterward studying. But I found the classwork easy enough that I hardly spent more than 15 minutes after breakfast memorizing the daily dialog. We had few other duties, just keeping our rooms shipshape and regularly mopping and buffing the hallways. The TV lounge in the far wing of the barracks was where I watched the first moon landing, just 2 weeks after I arrived.

Somebody in the barracks, maybe it was the company clerk, kept a small boa constrictor in his room, and he would gather a crowd of spectators whenever he put a live lab mouse in the terrarium for the snake's weekly feast. The Marines who took the crash course in Vietnamese at DLI had a far better chance of surviving than those poor mice.

I had a lot of time to read. Before getting to know the area, I spent a few long weekend afternoons at the snackbar on post, sipping a beer while wading through Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, deciphering Mme Chauchat's French on the basis of my high-school French. But once I had ventured out the back gate of the Presidio and walked straight downhill to Cannery Row, I read everything I could find by Steinbeck, nonfiction as well as fiction. This was before Cannery Row had been completely made over as a tourist attraction.

Romanian classes were known to take an excessive number of fieldtrips. One long weekend in August, our combined classes went to LA to attend a Romania Day picnic. When we tried out a few phrases of our new language, matronly ladies would praise us for maintaining the language--unlike their own kids. One evening on that trip, a group of us attended a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

Perhaps the most memorable weekend trip, however, was not a class excursion. A group of us drove up to San Francisco in November to participate in a huge peace march, where I remember being a bit bothered by the number of North Vietnamese flags on display. That evening, we went to see the risqué rock musical Hair. We wore civilian clothes, but our short hair made it obvious we were military.

In some ways, DLIWC was the best school experience I've had: getting free room, board, and pay to study nothing but language for 9 months straight, and all in a beautiful setting like the Monterey Peninsula. Despite being in the military, it was a far more Athenian than Spartan existence.

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