From 1956 to 1965,s Ft. Slocum housed the U.S. Army Information School, teaching military personnel public relations strategies, photography, public speaking techniques and more. It also provided instruction in citizenship, history and government. The curriculum was challenging.
I was at Slocum from May through July of 1964. I had been there only a few days when our commanding officer informed us that we'd be marching Saturday morning in an Armed Forces Day parade.
Marching? We were P.R. and media geeks!
My 50 classmates and I had Friday afternoon to check out our M-14 rifles, pistol belts and helmets, and practice close-order drills on the fort's parade ground. Fresh from the civilian world, we were a poor substitute for a military drill team.
We were a motley group of guys from America's mean streets and vast hinterlands.
One of my classmates, a brainy New York University grad, seemed always to confuse his left foot with his right. We were Citizen Soldiers.
Friday evening was devoted to spit-polishing our boots. Early Saturday morning we took the Davids' Island ferry to the mainland, and were bused to the parade assembly area.
For the vast majority of us, it was our first — and last — military parade. We were nervous. The sidewalks of New Rochelle were teeming with people, and we didn't want to be an embarrassment to our country. This 19-year-old Costa Mesan had butterflies.
It was a breathtaking spring morning. At 8:30 a.m., we lined up and re-checked our equipment. At 9 a.m., we were off. The route snaked a mile and a half through the streets of New Rochelle.
We were bedecked in freshly pressed khaki uniforms with bloused boots and helmets. We carried rifles on our shoulders. Many other units participated, including a platoon from the U.S. Air Force.
A band from a local school preceded us, and we marched proudly to their beat.
The crowds cheered enthusiastically. We remained poker-faced, staring straight ahead, maintaining our cadence. Hup two, three, four.
I re-ran newsreels in my head of American troops marching into Paris in 1944, and down Fifth Avenue in '45. For maybe the first time, I felt genuinely a part of the great fabric of this nation.
Pretty girls waved and called out to us, and World War II vets saluted.
Though I was 3,000 miles from home on the shores of an ocean where I saw sunrises instead of sunsets, I'd never felt more at home — or more American — in my life.