That time my father spent twenty-nine days in the Navy

Yesterday was Veteran’s day. I loved seeing all the photos friends posted of family members who served.

Today is Thursday, or as it’s often known on social media, Throwback Thursday. So in honor of the day after Veteran’s Day, I wanted to share a story about my dad — a man who did not serve in the military, but who proudly answered the call to help entertain those serving in our military, whether in times of peace or war.

(Very long read ahead, guys).

Somewhere around 1964 or 1965, my father ran out of deferments. He was about 23. He had been busy in the years since high school, nearly finishing a degree in electrical engineering and co-founding Hollywood Sound. But the Army literally had his number, so he called them up and asked if they’d let him complete his engineering coursework, which he figured they’d be able to put to good use.

The answer was no.

My father hated hearing no, and proudly told everyone he ever knew that he “would not take no for an answer,” unless that was the answer he wanted.

So he called the Navy because, as he later told me, “I love boats, Michael!”

The Navy said he could finish his degree and that with his production sound background, they’d probably assign him to a unit that worked with the USO to entertain sailors.

“Sounds good to me,” he recalled.

Dad signed on the dotted line. Everything was all set. But then the Navy court-martialed my dad.

The trouble began on his first day.

“There were 500 guys in the room for induction,” dad told me. “They sent 499 guys through one door, and me through another door.”

“Shouldn’t that have been a sign that something was up, dad?”

“In retrospect, sure. But I figured I was special because I was supposed to be an officer candidate.”

Immediately after being singled out from the rest of the inductees, dad met his first Naval officer.

“The man yelled so much, I didn’t catch his name. But I knew two things: they were really pissed at me for lying on my application forms, and they were planning to court-martial me.”

Of course, they can’t just court-martial you right away, and as my dad said later, “they have to put you somewhere in the meantime.”

So they housed him in a “holding unit” and told him he was on “snow watch.”

“Whenever it snowed, someone was supposed to wake me up, then I was supposed to wake up the five or six other guys in the barracks, and we’d go shovel snow in front of the Admiral’s house.”

“There was snow?”

“Yeah, Michael. I was in Michigan in December, so it snowed a lot.”

“Michigan? Why were you in Michigan?”

“Because I told the Navy I wanted to go to San Diego.”

“So you shoveled snow?”

“No, Michael. I was an officer’s candidate. So even though they were going to court-martial me, I was, for the time being, in charge of these other guys. So they shoveled the snow.”

“What did you do?”

“I got pneumonia.”

“Really?”

“Yes! It was COLD! I froze my tokhes off. And since I hadn’t really been through induction, I hadn’t been issued any snow gear. And so all night long, I stood outside watching these guys shovel snow, and when an officer came by — which never happened because it was the middle of the night — I was supposed to salute on behalf of all us.”

While recovering from pneumonia in the hospital, my dad met his lawyer.

“Very nice guy,” dad recalled.

Turns out dad’s lawyer wasn’t a yeller. He explained that they were going to court-martial him because he had lied about taking a drug for his thyroid condition.

“I didn’t lie,” dad protested. “I put that right on the form.”

His lawyer looked at dad’s papers, but couldn’t see where dad had written that he had been taking prescription medication since he was 15. But, dad later explained, his lawyer believed him and decided to request his original paperwork, rather than go off the faded carbon copy.

The paperwork arrived the day of the court-martial. Dad’s lawyer was really smooth. Without assigning blame or making a big stink about it, he pointed out that dad had answered “yes” to the prescription drug question and written the name of his medication in the space provided.

The trouble, his lawyer said, was that someone had stamped that exact part of the paper with the word APPROVED.

Five minutes after the court-martial began, the officers running the trial agreed that my dad hadn’t lied and that he should be discharged. Then one of the officers spotted a problem.

“You’ve been with us for 29 days, Mr. Estrin.”

“Yes, sir.”

After a brief huddle, the officer in charge of the court-martial issued immediate travel orders for my dad. But before they could put him on a plane, they needed to put him in a uniform.

“Navy regulations,” his lawyer explained. “You need a dress uniform to travel.”

“But why the rush?” my dad asked.

“After 30 days, you could claim veteran’s benefits.”

The Navy moved with a speed my father hadn’t seen in all his 29 days. His bags were packed, his new uniformed tailored, and he was issued a plane ticket. He landed at LAX shortly before midnight.

Four weeks later, a letter arrived from the Defense Department informing his parents that their son was unfit for military service.

“I figured that was that,” dad recalled.

But a few years later, a producer asked if my dad would be willing to work with Bob Hope on a show in Vietnam. Dad said yes immediately.

For the next three decades, dad toured with Bob Hope and the USO in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Lebanon, West Germany, The USSR, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and a strange little island he wasn’t supposed to know or talk about at the time called Diego Garcia. (After the island was de-classified, he loved telling people he had done a show on an island that did not officially exist at the time).

Of all his shows, dad always told me he was most proud of his USO work.

“Those audiences were just so appreciative,” he’d say. “They just needed a little break so they could laugh and have a good time and remember home.”

As you can see from this picture, dad was no stranger to the military, even if he did his work in what the military folks refer to as “civvies.”

Larry USO

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