Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Steinbeck Connection

Basic Training, Ft. Ord, California, 1966. I had just turned 23, pretty old for a guy to get drafted. I'd managed to stay in art school long enough to get my BA in Film, but then they got me. After this I was assigned to the Signal Corps Training School at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey where I spent the next two years writing and directing short educational films about radar, electronics and other exciting stuff. Training classes were located all over the base and some training films were viewed via closed circuit TV. I worked in the TV station. The art department there consisted of four military artists: me, a fine artist named Dave Ligare (who went on to an incredible career as a fine artist, teaching in Italy and now residing in Salinas), Don Henry (who went on to a career in advertising in Houston, Texas), and Steve Stiles (who went on to a career in comics). There were a couple of civilian artists there, too. I don't recall their names, but one guy was a master sign painter. He would whip out posters, signs and anything that required hand lettering, and it was a true joy to watch him work. He used to paint signs on windows and his control and manipulation of a brush was amazing. A lost art.

Anyway, there are two arrows in this photo. The one on the left points to me. The one on the right points to Thom Steinbeck. Guess who his dad was. John Steinbeck came to visit Thom once, but I never got to meet him. After Basic Training, Thom and I went to visit his Aunt in Pacific Grove. Her name was Mrs. Ainsworth and we spent an incredible afternoon at her wonderful home as she talked about the early days in nearby Cannery Row and her brother John's books. I remember we had tea and cookies and I think afterwards Thom and I stopped on the way back to base for some burgers and beer.

Thom was in the bunk next to mine for the 12 weeks of training and we got along pretty well. After Basic Training he went to Viet Nam as a combat photographer, and made it back okay. After the army he wrote documentaries and screeplays, and has written a book entitled Down to the Soundless Sea (2002).

Our drill instructor was a bulldog of a sergeant named William Vibbard. If you met him you'd think of Frank Sutton, the tough sergeant from Gomer Pyle. He had served a couple of tours of duty in Viet Nam, broke the filters off his Camels, ran circles around our platoon as we ran the seven miles out to the firing range, kicked ass, and scared the hell out of everyone. He's retired now, living in Seaside last time I knew, and about 10 years ago I looked him up so I could let him know what I thought of him. When he met me at the door to his modest home above Monterey Bay, he looked exactly the same. We chatted for awhile, he remembered Steinbeck, we had a beer and then I began to leave. But before I left, I thanked him for being so tough, for kicking ass, for being such a mean S.O.B. because his training probably kept a lot of guys from getting killed in Viet Nam.

The last thing I said to him was, "You're a good man." I don't think anybody ever told him that.


At May 13, 2010 at 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

William Vibbard is my uncle Bill! My brother sent the exert from you blog today and I got a good laugh out of it. It's great to read something like this about someone in your family. He's still in the same house contemplating a second retirement and still has the "bulldog" look! Thanks for taking the time to tell him what you did, because he really is a good man.
Roy A Thweatt


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