It seems hard to fathom that I joined the U.S. Army 25 years ago this month (my "active" date was 15 June, 1977).
It is, of course, a very different world now. Back then, the threat was the Soviet Union and the symbol of that threat was the Berlin Wall. As my mother came from behind the "Iron Curtain" I had a somewhat greater appreciation for the complete and utter lack of freedom enjoyed by the folks unfortunate enough to be stuck behind that curtain, such as my mother's family, and was committed to doing something about it. I decided to be all I could be.
I had a very unusual job in the U.S. Army. I was an Interrogator/Translator, which meant that I was trained to debrief prisoners of war in a foreign language, in my case, German. As a result, after Basic Combat Training (in the Army, everyone is a soldier first and a specialist second), I attended the Basic Interrogation course at the United States Army Intelligence Center and Schools in Fort Huachuca, Arizona followed by an eight-month course in Basic German at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey, California, which is THE best assignment in the Armed Forces. Monterey, California is a place of almost indescribable physical beauty. Situated about 80 miles South of San Francisco, near Carmel, the Presidio of Monterey is perched high on a hill, giving it a nearly perfect view of the Pacific Ocean. On most days, one could not see much of anything until about 10:00 a.m. or so, when the fog burned off and one could actually see whales migrating off the coast. DLI, as the school is called, is the oldest and most prestigious language institute in the world. It is also the place where I met Chuck Yurko, who was my classmate there and who became my best friend in the Army and one of very few persons with whom I maintained contact after I got out. Chuck was also an Interrogator/Translator in the Army. He was three years older than me, and was a seasoned veteran, a person of respect. He was already an E-5 (Specialist Five) when I met him. I was an idiot teenager. It is important to note that, when Chuck and I were in the Army, back in the late 1970's and early 1980's, the U.S. Army was much larger than it is today. At that time, about 300 people in the world did what we did in the Army. Military Intelligence people, they say, serve in silence. You cannot really go around bragging about what you do for a living when you are expected to keep a low profile. It is a very small fraternity, the intelligence community, and in it, I met some of the best and brightest people of my generation. People like Chuck.
Just after I arrived at my first duty station, which was in the city of Munich, in the Federal Republic of Germany ( I had amazing luck getting that assignment), I was at the Octoberfest, which is the largest beer bash in the world, held annually in Munich to commemorate the royal wedding of King Leopold and Therese. It is an amazing site when you first see it. It takes place on a large meadow ("Theresienwiese") which is normally just a huge field with an enormous marble building on one end (the German Hall of the Greats), but at the end of September (It's called the "Oktoberfest," but it takes place mainly in September and ends early in October), the meadow is transformed into a field containing enormous semi-permanent buildings (tents were originally used, hence they are referred to as "Beer Tents") which are filled with Bavarian food (sausages, baked chickens, smoked fish, big, soft pretzels, spiral-cut radishes with salt and some of the strongest beer brewed on earth), oompah bands and more drunk people than you could possibly ever imagine. People from all over the world, from every walk of life are completely and utterly inebriated. Otherwise-respectable German housewives hike up their skirts, exposing themselves and roaring with laughter. People sitting at huge wooden tables surrounded by people with whom they could not normally communicate (too many different languages), lock arms with their neighbors, quaffing copious amounts of beer and singing songs phonetically and trying desperately to learns the strange dances everyone seems to do. It is a lot of fun.
I firmly believe that beer is not so much processed by your body as it is rejected by it. On one of many trips to the appropriately- but shockingly-named "Pissort" ("piss place"), I noticed a strange creature in the crowd. Tall, over six feet, it had dark hair, a full beard and penetrating eyes and was wearing a lumberjack shirt, jeans and clogs. As I approached, I realized that it was Chuck Yurko, my classmate from DLI., who was in Munich on leave, attending the O-Fest. It was great to see a friendly face. We decided that, to celebrate our chance encounter, we would go to each of the seven main beer tents and drink a liter of beer there. That's almost two gallons of the strongest beer on earth. Just before we got to the third tent, Chuck said: "Steve, when we go into this tent, a strange, beautiful German woman will clean my tonsils with her tongue and it will take less than 20 minutes." In fact, it took about six minutes. A strikingly beautiful, somewhat older blond German woman was indeed cleaning his tonsils with her tongue.
Chuck Yurko was God's Gift to Women. He was tall, dark, handsome, amazingly intelligent, extremely witty and he exuded self confidence, which is the greatest aphrodisiac for women. Chuck was absolutely convinced that he was right and the attitude was infectious. I witnessed German women, after whom I had secretly lusted for years, turning to me immediately after meeting Chuck and telling me "I'm in love with him. I have never felt like this about a man before in my life. I want to bear his children." One of my female German friends, upon meeting him said: "You're the Devil. I do not want to know you." Women wanted him and men wanted to be like him.
Anyway, we're at the Oktoberfest and then I remember waking up in a strange apartment, minus my glasses, panicking because I had no idea where on Earth I was, could not see, and was still pretty much blind drunk. At the risk of appearing to be a thief, I frantically searched around this strange apartment for my beloved spectacles, finally found them and managed to make my way across the street to my apartment (once I was outside, I had regained my bearings) where I crashed and burned. Chuck came by later that day to inform me of the kind of night I had had the night before, information about which was, alas, completely erased from my buffer. I faded out around the end of the fourth tent but, according to Chuck, we just kept on keeping on. By the end of the seventh tent, I was so drunk that I could no longer stand and Chuck poured me into a cab, which we took from the Oktoberfest to the main nightclub district. We entered a nightclub and Chuck leaned me up against a wall and started picking up a young lady, which normally would have been no problem for Chuck, except that the young lady he was hitting on in this particular nightclub spotted me leaning against the wall and said to him: "I think you better tend to your friend there. He's turning green in the face." So, it was off to greener pastures. Chuck ended up holding me by my hips while I basically puked my guts up in the middle of the grandest boulevard in Munich. After I regained some composure but not full my sense of balance, Chuck helped me walk to a cab. During the walk, I started twirling my glasses around my finger, so Chuck took them away from me and put them in his pocket. He then poured both of us in a cab and we went to crash at the apartment of one of his friends.
Chuck told me that the friend at whose apartment we had crashed had been stationed in Munich for some time and really knew his way around. He said that the friend had invited him to come along to a jazz club not far from the post, called "Die Katakombe" ("The Catacombs"). Chuck invited me to go along as well. It took me a half second to decide between staying in the barracks alone that night, or going out with Chuck and another guy who really knew the city. One had to walk down some stairs to get in to the club, which was a very cool place. I don't believe that they had live jazz that night, but they were playing jazz records, loud enough to enjoy but not loud enough to destroy any hope of conversation. People who know me think I'm ridiculous when I say that I can be shy at times when I first meet people, but meeting people in a foreign language, when one's language skills are still rudimentary, can be very intimidating. While I would probably have been happier playing the wallflower, I was in the company of Chuck Yurko, who was responsible for my meeting my very first German friends that night, who are still friends to this day and one of whom died of a brain aneurism a few weeks before I got the call from Terry (the woman who made an honest man out of Chuck), informing me that Chuck had passed away in his sleep on Memorial Day. I had been thinking about Chuck a lot around Memorial Day and had wanted to call him, but his number was in my cell phone, which had been stolen from my bags by someone working for or on behalf of Delta Airlines when I returned from a trip to Europe.
Chuck was the older brother I always wanted and the father I never really had. He turned me on to Randy Newman, who is the greatest American musician and our best kept secret, with whom he had a wicked sense of humor in common. One time, after I had returned to Germany (re-joined the Army after eight months as a civilian because I missed Munich) in 1981, Chuck was visiting. He admired the portrait of John Lennon I had drawn, which I proudly displayed on the wall of my apartment. Chuck, being the most musical non-musician I ever met, was thumbing through my record collection, which was always my proudest possession. He opened The Beatles' White Album and looked at the four individual photographic portraits of The Beatles and, when he got to the picture of John Lennon, held it up, said "Well, he's dead." and flipped the picture nonchalantly over his shoulder. I was mortified.
Chuck gave me the best advice I ever received when I told him about being nervous before a big job interview a few years ago *. I did not call Chuck and Terry as often as I would have liked over the years, because my pride prevented me from calling when things weren't going so well, but I did make the effort (sometimes bordering on Herculean) to track them down and check in every once in a while. I called Chuck last year, sometime in September or October and let him know that our Alma Mater, DLI, was having it's 60th Anniversary Celebration in November and wanting to see if he would join me on a trip out there. Chuck told me that, under normal circumstances, he would love to, but had just lost his job of 18 years as a result of political wrangling and he could not justify the expense when he was looking for a new job. I ended up going alone and had a good time, but not as good a time as I would have had if Chuck had been able to go as well. While I was out there, I picked up some souvenirs for him, but never took the time to mail them to him.
Terry's call came out of the blue. I was so glad to hear from her. Although I had only met her once in person, when Chuck came down to Munich from Bremerhaven and introduced me to her, I immediately liked her. The woman who could tame Chuck Yurko had to be a special woman, indeed. We got to know each other over the phone and we would chat away. I always loved hearing Chuck on the phone calls say "Yes, my love." in a very sarcastic tone when Terry would tell him to tell me something. The news she had to give me was devastating. She said that she would understand if I could not make it up for the funeral. I told her that there was no way that I would miss it. Fortunately, I had enough Delta frequent flier points to arrange for a discounted last-minute flight and Terry graciously invited me to stay at her home. It was a very emotional weekend for me. I finally got to see Terry again and got to meet Stephanie, Terry and Chuck's daughter. Terry had described her perfectly when I asked her how I would recognize Stephanie when she came to pick me up at the Philadelphia airport. She said: "She is voluptuous, and has dark hair, but you will recognize her because she has her father's eyes." She is a chip off the old block. She's smart, funny, pretty and has a very good head on her shoulders and her father's eyes. Intelligent and penetrating. I was so happy to meet Chuck's family and friends, but so sad that it was under these circumstances.
People came from all over to attend the funeral and I was full of regret that I had not seen Chuck in almost 20 years. I had heard about Rich, Chuck and Terry's friend who had been stationed in Bremerhaven with them, and was very pleased to make his acquaintance. He invited me to drive with him to the services and we exchanged stories about Chuck. It was nice to meet someone else from the fraternity of the intelligence community, especially someone who was also a friend of Chuck's. I was doing ok until Rich and I were in the funeral chapel, where Chuck's body was on display. I could see Terry comforting everyone else there and Chuck's family maintaining brave faces as people extended their condolences and then I saw a picture of Chuck and Terry and Stephanie and I had to step outside. Rich and I went out on the porch and I started crying when I told Rich that I could not understand how God could take this great man at the age of 46, leaving such a void in the lives of those left behind. Rich said that the way he looked at it, God probably thought that it was getting awfully boring in Heaven and the solution was to have Chuck come on up and liven things up. Makes sense to me. I was still blubbering away when I met Chuck's family in the reception line and was trying to express how much he meant to me.
When we left the funeral chapel and headed over to the cemetery for the actual burial, I felt a little strange, because I mentioned to Terry that I would like to take some pictures of the ceremony. She said that she would like to have some pictures and that another friend would also be taking some. I felt very self-conscious walking through the cemetery, taking photos from different angles, observing the occasional disapproving stares from people who did not know me and wondered why I was doing it. I had to be somewhat removed from the ceremony to photograph it and was sad that I did not have an opportunity to hear what was being said or to place a rose on his coffin, but I knew that my endeavors were going to a good cause. If I could capture some of the beauty I saw that day, it would be the one thing I could do for his family and friends to try to ease their pain in some small way.
At the end of the ceremony, I finally took a couple of minutes alone by Chuck's coffin, to pay my final respects, to tell him that I love him, how much he means to me and how I will never forget him and how angry I was that he would not be coming to my wedding if and when that ever happens. I bent down to place a kiss on his coffin, when Rich, who had moved his jeep closer to where I was, honked his horn to let me know he was behind me and nearly caused me to jump out of my skin.
Back at Chuck and Terry's house, everyone met and talked about Chuck and ate and drank way too much good food and drink. That evening, a contingent went out to Dunleavey's, Chuck's favorite hang out, where we had dinner and reminisced. It was hard to say goodbye to everyone at the airport the next day.
Gone is one of the few people I knew who understood my answer to the inevitable civilian question:
"What did you do in the Army?"
"I fought in the Cold War."
And I am proud to have
done it with the likes of Chuck Yurko, my friend and mentor.
* The advice Chuck gave me for the interview is what I consider to be the "Tao of Chuck:"
"Go in there with quiet confidence."