Bob Cage came to us at Ft. Hood in May, 1971. We were an infrantry battalion made up of guys fresh back from Vietnam, there playing war games, mostly, against the National Guard and Reserves on their two-week summer camps: the 2/41st Mechanized Infantry, 2nd Armored Division–”Hell on Wheels”–bored stiff, waiting to get out of the Army.
One day after evening formation we filed into the day room for a game of pool and there he was, this guy in civilian hippy clothes but with Army-style short hair, an odd combination.
“Who are you–why aren’t you in uniform?” I asked him. He was so nervous he could hardly speak, didn’t want to tell me his name. I backed off a little, seeing he was so afraid–definitely not Army style where you could walk up to anybody and bum a cigarette, talk.
“What are you doing here? Are you in the Army?” I couldn’t let this guy just stand there mute wearing civilian clothes, the rest of us in fatigues. In a moment he loosened up a little and said yes, he was in the Army, but they hadn’t given him a uniform yet.
“What?” I asked, “you can’t do that; you can’t just suddenly be in the Army at a permanent post, no uniform. You have to go through Basic Training at least. Have you gone through Basic Training?”
“No,” he said, “they sent me here out of court.”
“What? What court” I asked. I was somewhat familiar with the military justice system.
“The federal court in Austin,” he said.
“Well why did you come here from there?”
“They brought me here–it was three years in the Army or federal prison,” he said.
“Good grief, man, are you some sort of criminal?”
“Well, ” he said, “they think so. They caught me at the border, at Laredo, with a van full of kilos. It’s a federal offense so they gave me a choice, the Army or prison.”
“Well where are you from?” I asked.
“Well man, you’ll be OK here. What’s your name?”
“Bob Cage,” he said, and got quiet again.
That evening they gave him a bunk in the barracks, eight-man rooms in a cement three-story building, and the next day he had a set of fatique uniforms with his name on them, “CAGE.” After we’d shown him the ropes, where to be, what to do, he started loosening up, talking to us.
“I thought you guys were all baby killers,” he said, “but you seem like normal people.”
I asked him why he thought we were baby killers. “That’s what they told us at UT; that’s what everyone thinks there. I guess they’re wrong.”
Well, yes they were. Just coming back from Vietnam, we were the opposite of baby killers. In fact, many of us liked good music, having fun, enjoying other people–and some of us enjoyed that same smoking habit Bob Cage did, that stuff he was trying to smuggle from Mexico.
It was only a matter of days before Bob Cage was showing us around Austin. He was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and took us through a little door and up a narrow staircase to their headquarters above a store on the “Drag” across from the UT campus. That was true anti-war, hippy-dippy Communist stuff and the kids there were shocked to see us, US soldiers, in their midst.
Bob told them not to worry, that we were decent people, but those students were too brain washed to be at ease with us. Bob was caught in between, two worlds and he lived in both.
Some of us GI’s had heard Jane Fonda earlier that year at a coffee house in Killeen called the Oleo Strut, wanted to hear if she truly hated war like we did, but had been disappointed to hear her little anti-American, self-centered, spoiled kid rant. She had no idea of the problem, just being cute and playing the radical while living a life of luxury. We were disgusted by her, how could she be so pretty and be such a rat?
We’d risked our freedom by going there, probably gotten our names on some list somewhere as anti-American agitators–a real danger for guys in the Army, just to see this ignorant little kid get all poochy-lipped.
And the SDS headquarters in Austin was the same. Bob could see his friends through our eyes at that moment, what a bunch of spoiled little kids they were, playing adult.
Bob also took us to secret hippy places on Lake Travis to dive and swim, and one weekend took us to his parents’ house in Blanco, Texas for an afternoon of swimming in his parent’s pool. What an outstandingly decent guy–I will never forget.
His home was too civilian for us though, too humane, it softened and relaxed us too much for that time in our lives. We needed to stay self-aware, not become used to anything nice as long as we were still in the Army so there would be nothing to take away from us that would cause pain. So we left Bob’s house, thanking his wonderful mother for the fun, and went back to the barracks routine where we were comfortable to pace out our time.
When I’d first met Bob we’d talked about the Army’s hold on him as an individual. This was the draftee Army that the modern, volunteer Army (VOLAR) used as the bad example, what to avoid if the nation expected anyone to volunteer. There was a constant, quiet battle between the authorities and the draftees.
We saw those immediately in charge of us as deficient, failures in life who “couldn’t make it on the outside,” as they so often admitted in confidence. The Army eliminated most of these types as it cleaned up its image but, at that time, the Army was run by alcoholics, drug addicts, the mentally ill and closet homosexuals, what William Faulkner called the “mean poor,” barn burners in positions of authority abusing that authority to take their emotional problems out on the draftees, normal people serving their two years out of duty and legal obligation. It was horrible.
I told Bob he was in for three years, no matter what, unless he took off for Canada.
“Nope,” he said, “I’ll be out of here in six weeks to two months.”
“Bob, if you desert and they catch you, you’ll be out of the Army in nine months to seven years, depending on your military judge, and live the rest of your life with a Dishonorable Discharge.”
“No,” he said, “I’ll be out of the Army in less than two months and have an Honorable Discharge.”
“You’re dreaming,” I told him. “You don’t know what power these people have over you; you don’t know the Army. They’ve got your ass for three years and you might as well get used to it.”
“Nope,” he said, “two months at the most, and all I need is this little spiral notebook and this pencil,” both of which he had in his shirt pocket.
The poor guy, I thought, he’s got a hard lesson to learn, such a decent guy, too.
A few days later, not long, we were on the second floor of the barracks when someone said “Hey, look at that.”
Looking out the south side windows into the company street, we saw two MP’s questioning some guy we didn’t know, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing abusive, but Bob Cage was there right in the middle of it with his little spiral notebook and pencil.
We couldn’t hear what was going on but we could see Bob sort of leaning in on the conversation, listening closely and taking notes in his notebook, scribbling away, writing down every word. The MP’s were obviously telling Bob to go away, that this was none of his business, but he stayed right there until the incident was over then came walking into the barracks.
“Are you nuts?” we asked him, “Don’t you know those MP’s can put you in the stockade, no questions asked?”
“No they can’t,” he said. “Under UCMJ code blah-blah-blah, every contact between the MP’s and a soldier can be observed and written down by…blah-blah-blah.” He seemed to know his UCMJ, even though we told him the rules didn’t matter. The Army would do what it wanted with him, no matter what.
“You guys wait,” he said, “they’ll get rid of me with an Honorable Discharge within the month, just so they don’t have to deal with me.”
We were quite skeptical, to put it nicely. But, sure enough, one day Bob came back to the barracks in the early evening and said “good bye, guys! I got my Honorable Discharge, good bye!” And he was gone.
How was it, then, that some of us had deserted then turned ourselves in, hoping to get assigned back to Vietnam to escape the stateside Army, and some had gone to Canada and come back, accepting our fate, and others had become hopelessly lost in hard drugs while waiting to get out, no way to shorten the time, yet Bob Cage was out in six weeks with an Honorable Discharge?
Bob Cage left us with that question: isn’t there always a better way?