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Some horrors even before reaching war

Tough transition to military life

Editor’s note: Former State University of New York at Fredonia professor and OBSERVER columnist George Sebouhian was preparing to write his life story when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013. He died three years later, having left behind hundreds of pages of research notes, poems and memoir vignettes. His son, Damian Sebouhian, has taken it upon himself to complete and share his writings through a series of theme-based articles, each of which represents a chapter in the life and times of George Sebouhian, in his own words. (Note: During childhood, his father was known as Roy).

By GEORGE SEBOUHIAN

Edited by Damian Sebouhian

I went into Air Force training expecting to be treated with the same courtesy displayed by the recruiting sergeants, but that didn’t happen. Instead, as we went from line to line to get our uniforms, equipment and bedding, we were met by barrages of insults yelled at each one of us as we moved up to the counter. They hurled material at us as ferociously as possible like a pair of boots laced together whirling at your head, or hitting you in the chest, knocking you off balance. I felt stabs of anger, but somehow knew we were being treated to a show, that the guys were probably just like us, and as we later learned, had been ordered to make us feel vulnerable and in need of protection — a tactic that would lead us to look for comradeship within our group and authority from our TIs (Training Instructors).

Unfortunately, the tactic produced the opposite feeling in me: I wanted to smash every one of those tormentors. I was the only one who could protect me. I felt like rebelling when I went through the line for my fatigues only to be the target like all those before and after me, of “you son of a bitch, you’re too small to fit into these,” with a derisive laugh that was a constant outpouring of the buck privates waiting on us. I wanted to jump over the counter and grab somebody, anybody, but something finally awakened in me that this was part of initiation, even though — or maybe because — there was a war on. No warm welcome for the outsider, orphan who had orphaned himself this time.

But that was the worst of it, the rest of Basic Training was simply a matter of agreeing to the routine, which in fact was good for the body and in some shaded way, for the mind, or so I had to think later. I could make friends only with those who shared my outsider feelings. To learn how to scream at the world, especially the one I was immersed in, at the planet, at the skies, at the blackness of night — the unfolding of creation. How can I dare, now that I know as fact and feeling, about the holocaust, tell myself that I was alone in the universe, like the “ack-ack” guns splitting the sky with their thunder? But I was alone, goddammit, I was.

Only eight weeks and then a weekend pass to Rochester and then the wait for orders determining our fate in the Air Force. I was shipped to Lowry AFB to train in munitions, which also meant on-the-job training in personnel discipline, for I had been made barracks chief, which meant keeping the kids in line. I mostly succeeded in my duties, except for one night of serious non-action one night when the GIs got friendly with some liquor. A brawl ensued with windows shattered, bedding torn, bodies bloodied, foot lockers overturned — all happening one night under the responsibility of the cold coal corporal (me) who joined the mayhem in mid-force by drinking to the point of punching out a symmetrical hole in the cheap plasterboard wall. But this time, when the lieutenant came on the scene as officer in charge there was no fault-finding; he seemed not to see the drunken state of the barracks chief corporal and calmly ordered the men back into sobriety, after which we all dutifully sacked out.

My next assignment was to Kirkland AFB, Albuquerque where we were taught how to load a-bombs on to planes. I was granted a “Q” clearance which mean that I could become knowledgeable in how the bomb worked. While at Kirkland, we were sent on temporary duty to the Mojave Desert to load fighter planes with small a-bombs to explore ways in which they could be used, like dive-bombing specific positions. We were not apprised of the results, but it seemed to us, from our vantage point of pure ignorance, not feasible.

Episodes of despairing loneliness that I first experienced at Lowry AFB continued through my stay at Kirkland, and I was taken by an entirely new idea, the idea of suicide. The devastation of loneliness transformed my psyche into a gradually intensifying view of suicide as an attractive choice, an act that would be entirely in my own hands, a way to treat the tearing conflicts of wanting close friendships, while denying friendship out of fear of getting too close and dependent on other people. While the idea was intriguing to me, it remained for the time being, in the realm of mental fantasy. I was not yet determined to act on it.

The voyage across the Pacific was in an old Liberty ship from World War II. Most of our bunks were at the bottom of the hold; I was closer to the bow where we could hear the boom of the ship hitting against the sea, almost like a gigantic clock counting out the time. It was pleasant after a while. On deck at night was a seamless blackness, no forms, just an infinite darkness that pushed up against the eyes. Except for the initial seasickness the days were somewhat enjoyable, just lounging around in the bright sun, reading, talking, playing cards, watching the dolphins and flying fish following us in the wake that abounded in leftover food cast overboard.

We went through the eye of a typhoon. Several of us sneaked up to one of the hatches and opened it wide enough to see the bow dive under the waves and come up again, the wind lashing the ropes that had been placed for the crew to use on deck. Entering Yokohama harbor was a wonder-filled experience. Ships everywhere in an immense lake of slow motion, busy in a way that made San Francisco bay abandoned by comparison. We were tugged to a berth, debarked, and led to a train for a base in Western Japan, one that had served as a Japanese military installation during World War II.

Going through Hiroshima, at the end of the station, piles of cargo, the train very slowly moving, a woman all in black, a flowing kimono, a cowl, sitting on one of the boxes, her head bent over her nursing baby, no one near.

After two weeks we were flown to Pusan, arriving in a night dark that was about as dense as on the ship, but which didn’t deter yelling kids from competing in offering their sisters, or demanding money, candy, and cigarettes.

Next month: The war without and the war within.

Damian Sebouhian, a former OBSERVER staff writer, is a Dunkirk resident.

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