Army surplus for pacifists

There was deliberate irony in anti-war demonstrators wearing clothing made for fighting wars. I’m not sure what the message was besides the fact that the clothing was well made and really cheap to purchase. I had a jacket and a parka that I wore through most of 1968 through 1970, in class and at demonstrations alike. I loved shopping at the surplus stores. My father – having served as a landing craft boatswain during invasions in World War II – had brought home a cache of war surplus gear, including American, Japanese and German helmets and a Japanese carbine. These had been fascinating objects to my brother and I growing up. I’d also been spellbound watching an endless selection of newsreels from the war on TV, and I’d fantasized their heroics for years, playing “guns” with my friends.

So opposing the war in Viet Nam was not a rejection of the troops for me. It was a reaction to being lied to my the government that was supposed to be serving us. And though I was committed to staying out of the war in Nam, I still felt some envy for those who got to wear the cool uniforms, use the cool gear and learn the cool skills of combat. Maybe that’s why I was so comfortable in a fatigue jacket.

As I’ve said, Stephen was a combat veteran and he had no problems with the military as a producer of tools and a model of organization. He taught pacifism, but we never felt opposition to the citizens who joined the military; it was the philosophical stance that killing would bring peace that we rejected. As it turned out, we were perfectly happy to make use of the gear that the military no longer needed. That gear, we discovered, was auctioned off regularly at a military depot in Memphis. We needed some stuff, so we sent our scammer with the Big Pickup and a pocketful of cash to see what he could score.

Our needs were many, but most critically, we needed weatherproof shelter and some way of improving our communications around the Farm. Sending couriers would simply not do for all the connections we needed to maintain. And so, on return from our first foray to Memphis, the bus-turned-into-flatbed brought heavy canvas tents and an Army Signal Corps phone system with plenty of handsets and transmission line.

The tents were of two sizes – the small General Purpose six-sided tent that was 17 and a half feet in diameter, and the medium general purpose tent that was 16-by-32 feet rectangular shaped. The tents had been well gpsmall2-660x416used; many of them had patches and unpatched tears. They featured small plastic windows and guylines. They smelled like paraffin and mildew, but they would keep out the rain and wind while providing enough room inside for bed platforms and kitchens. Each tent also had a special insert through which a metal stovepipe could fit, allowing us to use wood-burning heaters.

The phone system required only that we string the sheathed two-conductor copper cable through the trees and connect enough power to it so that the ringers would function. The handsets were like the simple home phones of the time, but instead of dials, they had a single button that, when pressed, sent a beep to all of the phones on the system. It was one big party line. We decided to identify each household with a Morse Code pattern that was distributed on a printed list as our “phone book.” As if we’d dropped back into the early years of the century, we were thrilled by this technological revolution.

“Hey, give me a call when you know when we’re going to meet. I’m long-short-short-long-long.”

“Cool. And if you wanna tell me when you know, I’m short-long-short-long. Or is it short-long-long-short?”

Your home phone would be constantly beeping and you were often unsure if the pattern that just beeped was yours or one similar to yours. Not everyone’s timing for sending the codes was the same. Some beeped stacatto, some in more lazy patterns that slurred shorts with longs. And anytime you picked up the phone, you could expect to be barging into a conversation in progress.

“How long you guys gonna be? Can I have the line in, say, 5 minutes?”

And since few of us wore watches or had time pieces in our dwellings, even those intervals became meaningless.

So interrupting calls served as just another excuse for checking in with people you might not run into in person.

After the first winter, when several of our Army tents were pitched on the cold, bare ground, the convention became to build flat, level wooden platforms of the dimension of the tent, and then including some simple framing to support the tent walls. Salvaged windows could be fit into these frames, providing more light and ventilation during hot months. Some tried installing skylights in the canvas roofs, but I don’t know of any that didn’t eventually leak in our downpours.

Soon, we were destined to have the tent-living experience. After over a year of living in buses, we were ready for a change.



  1. Don James said,

    January 23, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    I remember those tent-houses and busses. We lived in a bus with another couple, John Shneider and his wife (can’t remember her name). But it was part of a group that also had a large tent-house where we all ate (and some slept). Robert Glesser had a wooden A-frame for his family next-door. It was a big deal when Robert brought home a water heater and a bath tub for the back yard. We used 12 volt electricity provided by bringing in a truck battery at night. And kerosene lamps. A/C was provided by opening a window in the summer. We weren’t there long, a couple of months. I wasn’t fond of the “up in your thing” nightly encounters, especially when it was aimed in my direction. I tried avoiding it by us moving in with another couple in a different schoolbus (without a community) but the up in your thing deal was thruout the farm 😦 I never did adjust to it. I was gone by year’s end. My wife became my ex-wife and she stayed on for a couple more years.

  2. January 23, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Thanks for the idea for the next installment, Don. Up In Your Thing psycho-social life on the Farm.

  3. Karen said,

    February 13, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    I hope you keep writing these up until the change in 1983 or so. I’d like to follow it and read the evolution.I wrote a comment in a previous entry (We are Here) about visiting the Farm in 1979. Actually I was 23 at the time, not 19 (I’m not getting senile already, I hope!) I know what I was looking for and that was the experience of the concept that a person could get straight (or be healed) by the energy of the Farm and the people. I wanted/needed people who would not screw me over. I never did make a connection to anyone, though and felt like a visitor the whole time (only 2-3 days, probably not enough time, but I had my dog at home, too, calling me back). I had trouble looking people in the eye at the time, due to shyness and such. It was commented to me that I might not be strong enough to handle the Up in Your Thing part. I agreed but also thought if it was done with gentlenss, I might be able to come out of my shyness. Anyway, the Sunday morning service was powerful!
    I’ve read Voices from the Farm, also and it was my impression that the Farm ended as a free community because it gave too much and went broke. So many people in need went there hoping for respite and healing and it was a strain on the community, I think. When I was there, the Gatehouse was a madhouse and I only got to go into the rest of the Farm, because I convinced them that I was sane. I was sane, but still in need, but not likely to ask for help. I wanted to fit in.
    In reference to past entries, I now know why the Farm seemed to not be into the herbal, natural thing at the time I was there — the staph & hepatitis. Now, we know that milk thistle will cure hepatitis and most any liver problem, but as far as strong natural anti-biotics I think there are no herbal ones. I was disapointed by the presence of TVs also.
    I hope you keep on writing and eventually publish the whole! I’m enjoying it very much and it IS an important part of hipstory, as someone said earlier. Thanks!!

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