Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

In the Army with Ray

BY BRITT LEACH
(Ray Manzarek
1939-2013)

You know about Ray Manzarek and The Doors and what a fine musician Ray was. You can probably hear Ray’s organ intro to “Light My Fire” right now, if you’ll just listen. And we both know what a good man he was. But I want to tell you something about Ray that you might not know—at least not the way I do. Because I was on Okinawa with Ray, when he spelled his name “Manczarek” with “PFC” (Private First Class) in front of it, and both of us were in the army. And for both of us it was a mistake. I guess you could say that about almost anybody who enlisted in the peacetime army in 1961—a mistake or an avoidance of the county jail. But for Ray and me, it was just a really bad mistake.
 
Here’s why. I joined the army because I wanted to go to the Army Language School in Monterey, California and learn Russian, so that I could read Dostoyevsky in the original.Ray joined because he wanted to study film—the art of the cinema. One night  he found himself in Times Square in New York City and with a few drinks in him wandered into an Army Recruitment Centerwhere the nice recruiting sergeant told Ray that the Army would be a great place to study film.  He enlisted with a request for assignment to the Army Signal Corps where they would give him a camera and everything.
 
The nice sergeant didn’t tell Ray that if he actually ended up in the Signal Corps with a nice camera and everything he would spend most of his time filming parades and speeches by bald-headed generals and not some army Ingmar Bergman homage. The Signal Corps sounded good to Ray in his condition that evening in Times Square, twenty-two years old. That’s what he told me. So Ray joined the army so that he could study film.

 

*

 

Joining the army was a really bad mistake, for Ray and for me. And we found ourselves on Okinawa, which is in the Ryukyu Islands, which is part of Japan, on an army post, with a big antenna field, called Torii Station, which looks out on the East China Sea. Ray was not in the Signal Corps studying film, and I was not learning Russian so that I could read Dostoyevsky in the original. We were both in the Army Security Agency, later called the Army Intelligence Service for some reason.
 
I had to sign a security clearance that probably bound me to secrecy for life so I can’t tell you exactly what I did there, except to say that I was a spy who wore earphones and listened to an outsized radio for nine hours a day (that was probably too much information). And Ray wasn’t doing anything because he wouldn’t sign a security clearance that would allow him to analyze the material I might have given him by listening to an outsized radio for nine hours a day (that was definitely too much information).
 
Ray told me about his problem with the security clearance and the mistake he made that evening in Times Square while we were sitting at the bar of the NCO Club where conversation was easy and essential to what passed for sanity on the island of Okinawa, Torii Station, looking out on the East China Sea. I’m sure that’s where we met.
 
There’s no chance we could have met and talked anywhere else. Not in the mess hall where everybody ate, where the gag reflex would have interfered with the musculature needed for conversation and not in the giant Ops Building, a cinder block affair with razor wire and shoot-to-kill guards. Because Ray wasn’t allowed in there; he wouldn’t sign his security clearance. So it must have been at the bar of the NCO Club that Ray told me why he wouldn’t sign.
 
And here I have to speculate for just a moment as to why Ray and I found each other at the bar of the NCO Club and started talking. I think it was simply that Ray was a good man and took pity on a sad-looking, skinny, cipher of a soldier in the spy business who was just sitting at the bar shaking his head. That’s how I remember my early days at Torii Station in 1962. Johnny Walker Black was 25 cents a shot, and I took nightly and sometimes daily advantage of that solace. So Ray might have moved over a few stools and asked me how I was doing. That sounds like Ray, doesn’t it?
 
And just as I knew that I didn’t belong at Torii Station on Okinawa looking out on the East China Sea without my Dostoyevsky—not realizing that by living the absurdity of the army I was living Dostoyevsky—I also knew that Ray didn’t belong there either. Because Raymond Manczarek did not look military. Any military, anytime, with the possible exception of a rogue Cossack in pillage mode. He had very long blondish hair. Not rock ’n’ roll long yet, but long. And he had a mustache. I don’t mean a neat little pencil thing that would have worked as military in the RAF but a handlebar thing that didn’t speak of tandem bicycles or barber shop quartets but rather of Cossacks and criminal motorcycle gangs. PFC Raymond Manczarek wore a defiant mustache.
 
After I told my sad story at the bar—wife and baby back home, no Russian, no Dostoyevsky—Ray told me about Times Square and his problem with the security clearance and why he wouldn’t sign it. It was because he was of Polish descent and wanted to be able to visit the old country one day, after he got out of the army. And if he signed his security clearance and worked for the Army Security Agency, he wouldn’t be allowed to visit Poland, even after his final discharge from the army. Because Poland was communist and was the enemy, the enemy! The army had its reasons for thinking that way, but it just didn’t seem right to Ray. So he wouldn’t sign.
 
And here’s why the army was really mad at Ray. Ray was very bright and they wanted to use his analytical skills to do the work of the Cold War to defeat the enemies of the United States of America—Poland at the top of the list—and without his security clearance he couldn’t go into the Ops Building and do the work the army had trained him to do. But it was also because the army had spent tens-of-thousands of dollars in getting Ray that security clearance. The FBI, the CIA, the Army Security Agency later called the Army Intelligence Service for some reason—all of these agencies had been involved in making sure that Raymond Manczarek from Chicago would be a good little soldier and not give our secrets to the enemy, particularly Poland. And now Ray wouldn’t sign. It made the army very angry.
 
So they put PFC Raymond Manczarek in what was called the casual platoon at Torii Station and talked to him frequently, heart-to-heart, trying to get him to change his mind, and it was while he was in that casual platoon that Ray grew his hair long and his mustache full and Cossack.
 
That “casual” in “casual platoon” should probably be explained. It was a place of either transition or stagnation. Soldiers coming in or going out of Torii Station and soldiers, who, like Ray, had presented problems for the army and needed time to think it over. It did not mean casual in the sense of behave-any-old-way-and-do-whatever-you-want even though it seemed that Ray took it that way.
 
But not for long.
 
One day I was walking down the company street and saw a soldier approaching me, waving. What the hell? Who is that?  Who was this guy waving at? I turned and looked behind me. No one behind me. And when I turned back around I had walked even closer to…PFC Ray. No longer the long-hair, no longer the rogue Cossack, Ray had a military haircut and no mustache and was laughing and pointing at me, laughing because I hadn’t recognized him.
 
“What happened to you?” I said.
 
“It was the company commander.”
 
“Oh. So what happened?”
 
“Well, the company commander and I met on the company street and I saluted and everything, but then he asked me who the hell I was. And I told him who I was and told him that I was in the casual platoon. And he told me to get my goddamn hair cut and to shave that mustache. He said that I looked like a violin player. Or worse.”
 
“What?”
 
“His exact words. ‘You look like a violin player. Or worse.’”
 
Little did he know. Rock ’n’ roll.

 

*

 

Not long after, PFC Raymond Manczarek shipped out to Laos. The army wanted to help Ray change his mind on the matter of his security clearance and thought that the jungles of Laos would be helpful in that regard, would concentrate his mind nicely.
 
It was a sad day for both of us. Ray was my buddy on Okinawa; the army facilitates misery finding company. We would sit at that bar in the NCO Club and drink and talk about film and acting—something I ended up doing—and Chicago, my first big city after leaving a little town in Alabama. We also talked about astrology, which I didn’t believe in, and Alabama and race. I think we came close to an argument about that because at twenty-three I was still defending something I called “the southern way of life” and arguing that my parents and grandparents shouldn’t be faulted. Ray, rightly, didn’t agree.
 
And we went to films together at the base theater. West Side Story arrived in 1962, about a year after its release, and I remember seeing it with Ray. A big film of the day for the soldiers of Torii Station, and on the night that Ray and I saw it, just after the last notes of Bernstein’s score had faded, the projectionist simply turned off the projector, and the screen went dark and Ray stood up and yelled, “Thanks for showing the credits!”

 

*

 

PFC Ray was not a good soldier. The army is marching up and down and not breaking ranks. The army is just filing out of the theater and griping about the absence of credits. Griping some and griping some more. Left face and right face and about face. Left flank march and right flank march and to the rear march. Left shoulder arms and right shoulder arms and present arms and order arms. And you better by-God do what you’re told. That’s an order, soldier.
 
Can you imagine? An order and rock ’n’ roll? An order and the person who was part of The Doors? And can you imagine what it would be like to stand up to the man when the man is the goddamn army? And you walk in and salute. “PFC Raymond Manczarek reporting as ordered, sir.” And stand there at parade rest and this little tin fucker behind a desk screams at you about your security clearance and you still say no. “Manczarek, you sign this thing!” “No, sir. I’m sorry, sir.” To me, that’s rock ’n’ roll. That’s messing with the machine and is as much about sacred chaos against profane order as Morrison’s lyrics or his singing or doing whatever he did in Miami. And Ray was so very nice about it, always so very nice.
 
Rock ’n’ roll, Ray.

 

*

 
For months after Ray left Okinawa, he would write me from Laos, unhappy letters, about how the army was really working on him. But finally, after eight or nine months of his resistance, the army granted him a discharge; and I received that good news in a final letter from Laos, but with some other news that disturbed me—good little soldier that I was, wife and baby at home—about a packed duffel bag, of all things.
 
Because Ray had found—almost as soon as he arrived at his new post—that Laos had a good climate and soil and everything necessary for growing a particularly appealing herb. Excellent for flavoring and sweetening cookies and if some fell into a fire, well, damn, it smelled so good. And a person, even a soldier who wouldn’t sign his security clearance, could render it cylindrical, fire it up and inhale and make the army go away, for just a sweet little while. And Ray, because he was so very bright, became a botanist, a Laotian botanist, and began collecting specimens of this herb and storing them in a duffel bag. He told me about this in his letters to me, the good little soldier, still on Okinawa, wife and baby back home. And I would write him back and tell him to be careful because the army was not known for its interest in botany or an appreciation of this particular herb.
 
But by the time he got his discharge and was ready to go home, Ray, in that final letter, wrote that he had collected an entire duffel bag full of specimens. He wasn’t sure what he would do with them. Smoking some on a sunny California beach sounded good after the dark jungles of Laos, but he just might sell some, to other botanists, stateside, other collectors, and use the money to help finance film school at UCLA. And even though in my letters I warned him against it, Ray sent that duffel bag home anyway, smoked some of its contents on a sunny California beach I’m sure, and then somehow, I don’t know how, found the money to go to film school at UCLA, where he met Jim Morrison. And we know what happened after that.
 
Rock ’n’ roll, Ray. Rock ’n’ roll.



Britt Leach was an actor for thirty-odd years and at the end of that career started writing. He co-published, co-edited and wrote for Country Connections, a nationally distributed, award-winning magazine nurtured in the mountains north of Los Angeles. He also wrote and published two websites: Impertinent Information and VeritasAny Day Now, featuring his satire, poetry and essays toward memoir. He was recently published in River Teeth. That essay was chosen as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2015. He is currently working on either a memoir or an autobiography, depending on whichever it seems to be when he finishes the damn thing.