When I arrived at Fort Dix in the winter of 1965 to start basic training, I probably did so with fewer apprehensions than many recruits. Even though the fighting in Vietnam was heating up and I had never fired a weapon before, my fortunate status as an Army reservist guaranteed me a return to civilian life after only six months of active duty.
I recall this now because my immersion in the military still wasn’t enough to prepare me for the ongoing carnage from gun violence. Army training helped galvanize my views on keeping firearms away from people who didn’t need them, or were unqualified to use them. It made me respect the destructive power of weaponry and worry about assault rifles falling into the hands of the unstable or of terrorists. Yet what has been happening domestically exceeds every norm to which I was accustomed.
More Orlandos may be in the offing as the gridlocked gun-control debate rages on. On Monday night, the Senate shot down four fairly reasonable competing proposals to prevent gun ownership by people on the no-fly list. Politics, posturing, and the specter of the NRA in the background preordained the outcome. It is in this volatile, depressing context that I offer up my own experiences and thoughts on our pre-eminent national nightmare.
Following graduation from Rutgers School of Journalism in May 1964, I began work as a reporter for a North Jersey daily. The only intangible in my life then was the draft. I wanted to pursue my new profession and felt distanced from Vietnam politically and culturally. But the real possibility of ending up there weighed heavily on my career-building mind.
One respectable route to avoid conscription was to join the National Guard or Army Reserve. But no units in the area seemed to have openings. Apparently most guys my age facing Vietnam service had the same idea. Reports surfaced daily about thousands of dollars exchanging hands between Guard and Reserve recruiters and young men desperate to buy into slots or be advanced on waiting lists. And relocating to Canada was definitely not an option.
In November 1964 I passed the Army physical and told my parents and my editors that I could be leaving for boot camp any day. Then, providentially, a friend called and said he had found an Army Reserve unit in Morris Plains, located midpoint between Greystone Park hospital and the Rabbinical College of America. The unit was discharging World War II, Korea, and Berlin crisis veterans who had either reached their pension requirements or wanted no part of the ferment in Southeast Asia.
My friend and I beelined to the reserve center. My sudden good fortune improved even more when the warrant officer in charge, amiably named Mr. Peach, informed me that I was to become company clerk because of my typing and word skills. Why, the colonel might even need me to polish his reports. And, in a final fillip, Mr. Peach said I was to be inducted one pay grade above the lowest private, because of my two years’ ROTC at Rutgers.
I quickly took the oath and practically floated out of the General Brehon Somervell USAR Center. No money had changed hands, a cushy clerk’s job awaited, the possibility of Vietnam assignment virtually vanished, and the prospect of monthly meetings and two-week summer camps until 1970 wouldn’t interfere with my journalism ambitions.
At 22, I was one of the oldest guys in my Fort Dix recruit company. My college years conditioned me to refer to the new red brick barracks as dorms, a fact First Sergeant Frank A. Bagnato failed to appreciate. My ROTC training, which I declined to continue past my sophomore year because of electives I wanted to take, stood me in good stead initially with drill, military courtesy, and the rudiments of Army life.
When I made the decision not to commit to the final two years of officer training and its attendant financial aid, Vietnam wasn’t even in my geographical awareness. Besides, my extended family was practically devoid of any military tradition. Dad had a brief fling in the New York National Guard in the 1920s before being separated for joining up underage. My uncles served long stints in World War II, one as a doctor stationed stateside, the second as a MASH unit technician in Italy, and the third as a quartermaster in Europe. With the exception of the latter, my Uncle Hesh, they definitely weren’t blood-and-guts types.
As we entered the third week of basic training, the tone and atmosphere changed as we began classroom instruction in the M-14, the infantry’s basic assault weapon. The Army took rifle training very seriously, and for the next three weeks the recruits would be immersed in every aspect of caring for and mastering our new best friend.
Developed as the successor to the renowned M-1 of the Second World War, the M-14 was considered by some experts as compromise hardware designed to accept the 7.62 mm cartridge used by all NATO nations. Others, however, saw its commonality as a virtue in the era of defense by alliance. Regardless, it could be fired in both automatic and semi-automatic modes, was lighter than the M-1, accepted its clip underneath the barrel as opposed to the top-down M-1 slot, and produced less recoil than its predecessor.
But it was manufactured for a European war against Soviet bloc troops, not jungle combat pitting U.S. draftees against guerrillas and North Vietnamese cadres fighting on their home turf with the superior Chinese-model Kalashnikov AK-47.
We trainees didn’t know it then, but the United States was developing the high-tech (for its time) M-16 to outgun the AK-47. It wouldn’t reach our troops in Vietnam until 1970 and immediately encountered teething problems because of its tendency to jam if not kept spotlessly clean. The Army solved the defect with a massive education campaign and issued new maintenance kits to all the troops.
The civilian model of this assault weapon was marketed as the AR-15. With its variants, add-ons, and European counterparts, all sold or available freely (often illegally) within our borders, these weapons of unrestrained firepower were used to withering effect in Newtown, Aurora, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Columbine, Orlando, and other places that have received less publicity.
This litany of heartbreaking events remained decades away as my company began M-14 training, huddled against the Fort Dix chill in huts with coal-fired stoves. I had heard rumors (and basic training was rife with all kinds) that the Army still tried to force lefties to learn right-side firing for uniformity’s sake, and to avoid the crossover bolt stringencies of the old M-1, but this proved unfounded. I was allowed to proceed southpaw.
The classes, presented by noncoms of varying teaching abilities, often proved numbing. Coal fumes permeated the hut, and being short on sleep didn’t help our alertness. But somehow during that week we managed to learn the complexities of firing positions, breathing control, sighting down the barrel, the contact point between hand and cheek, and the weapon’s component parts and maintenance. We soon were able to break down and reassemble the M-14 with confidence.
Sgt. Bagnato, a veteran of World War II and Korea, almost took my head off during an inspection when he found rust in my trigger-housing assembly. He tugged me into the latrine by the ear, muttering something along the way about “college boys.” Then he showed me, quite counterintuitively, how to run hot water over the part and wash away the rust. He barked out that I was to oil the mechanism as soon as I got back to the squad bay.
The following week we were trucked to the snow-covered rifle ranges of Fort Dix and spent the next five days zeroing in our weapons and honing marksmanship from various firing positions at varying distances, always expressed in meters. The M-14 began to feel comfortable as well as lethal. Although it was too cold to bivouac, the Army insisted on serving us complete hot meals in the field, resulting in the gravy congealing on the pot roast before the ice cream cup was dumped on top of it.
My closest brush with disaster came that Friday, when I suddenly broke out in fever and spots while on the range. Sgt. Bagnato hustled me off to the base hospital, still muttering about college boys. Much to my dismay, I was diagnosed with German measles. But two days later I sneaked out of Walson Army Hospital and stole back to my unit, wobbly but determined not to miss out on record firing. If I did, I would be recycled to “zero week,” and that would have been intolerable.
The bout with rubella left me groggy and bleary eyed. In the record-fire exercise, I did the best I could with a weapon I now respected but did not fear. My score qualified me as “sharpshooter,” the middle designation between “expert” and “marksman.” In morale-boosting Army nomenclature, those who fared poorest still graduated as marksman.
The M-14 held one more surprise for me. The first time I pulled the trigger in night firing, an angry yellow-blue flame flared out the sides of the barrel. I thought for sure the weapon imploded. Instead, a sergeant told me that the slotted flash suppressor had done its job brilliantly, in both literal and figurative terms. Until that moment, I never quite realized the explosive force and energy expended in just one squeeze of the trigger.
After Fort Dix, I was sent to clerk school at Fort Polk, Louisiana. The only weapon I used there was an old Remington — the typewriter, that is. Back at the reserve center, we drilled with carbines and then added bayonets for riot control formations. Mercifully, my unit was never activated for any of the disorders plaguing Jersey cities in the summer of 1967.
Five years passed, and as my enlistment neared its end, the unit received full-fledged M-1s as the result of some inexplicable Army equipment shuffle. We convoyed to Fort Dix and spent the day on those same frozen ranges where I trained originally. In the morning, we received the shorthand M-1 course and zeroed in the weapon. In the afternoon, unit members were issued unlimited clips of World-War II ammunition and told to pop off as many rounds as they wanted because the ordnance was getting unstable. An orgy of mindless firing ensued.
That was the last time I ever handled a firearm. In the ensuing 46 years, I have, thankfully, never experienced the urge to do so, or to own a gun or rifle for either home protection or hunting. I belong to the school that believes that we would inadvertently shoot ourselves in the foot when confronting an intruder at night. As far as hunting goes, I prefer meat from the supermarket and observing the beauty of wildlife with my eyes, not through the sights of a rifle. (This, though, is pushed to the limit when I spot deer nibbling my shrubs.)
I believe pretty much in any legislation that makes owning a weapon more difficult. I want the lapsed national law that banned assault rifles reinstated. I want loopholes closed for “straw buyers” at gun shows and online. I want the unevenness between state laws ironed out so that interstate trafficking is dealt with. I want better background checks, longer waiting periods, law enforcement computers that actually talk to each other and keep the worst of the worst from acquiring firearms.
I also want mental health screening ramped up and educational programs broadened. I want concealed-carrying gun laws overturned. And I want the latest safety technology and childproof smart guns fully developed and marketed. Mostly though, I want the gun culture in this country changed, and the National Rifle Association cut down to size.
In short, I want it all, but in this political climate I will take practically anything I can get. Actually, on the day the Senate faltered with the “no fly-no buy” bills, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Connecticut’s strict post-Newtown gun controls. So there may be glimmers.
As I watched the horror of Orlando unfold, with the cumulative distress of all the incidents that proceeded it, I reacted with both fury and sadness. President Obama has had to comfort the survivors of mass shootings and the victims’ families 15 times in his tenure. And Americans were wrenched through the collective grieving process once again.
We should be a nation of people, not of guns, but we are in danger of a deadly priorities reversal. The New Jersey legislature now is poised to try to override the governor’s veto of a measure to prohibit weapons sales to domestic abusers. If they succeed, it would be the first time lawmakers trumped Governor Christie.
The legislation is a modest, logical proposal. But since when did modest and logic intersect with gun control?
Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a proofreader for the Jewish Standard and a former news editor of the Star-Ledger.