Perspectives: In Their Own Words – Jefferson Curnutte ‘Mostly Fun’

Jefferson recounts war stories, dipping his toe into the hippie lifestyle, and working at a medium security prison, among other things. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview & photo by Pema Baldwin

Photo by Pema Baldwin

Back in ’65, ’66, they had what they called the draft. You got drafted into the army or you would join something, and I joined the air force. I didn’t feel like crawling in the dirt.

At the time I went to bootcamp, or whatever you want to call it, they had spinal meningitis in Lackland Air Force base, which is the central bootcamp for Air Force, so I ended up training in Amarillo, Texas. From there I went to Denver to a trade school. I learned to be a special weapons mechanic, and then from Denver, that’s when I went to the Philippine Islands.

I was in the Philippines for basically 18 months, but out of that 18 months I spent probably three or four months — two different times — in Bien Hoa, Vietnam and in Udorn, Thailand.

When you live on a base you have whatever shifts you’re going to work like any other place. It’s just like life wherever you’re at. You have your three different shifts: swing, graveyard, whatever. You have your chow hall of course, and then you had your time off. You go to town, go pick up stuff, whatever. So it was pretty easy because there was no war — no conflict there in the Philippines.

Thailand was the same way, except it was temporary — what’s called temporary duty: TDY. Went over there and I worked 24 on, 24 off; 24 on, 24 off; 24 on, 24 off; as opposed to having three different shifts like the main base. Vietnam was pretty much the same way.

I was a special weapons mechanic. It entails top secret clearance and I can’t talk about it. 

Closest thing I saw to combat was in the Philippines. I was going out the gate one night to go to town for dinner or whatever, and this guy was extremely, extremely drunk. He was singing to himself, walking towards the gate to go back onto base. So I stopped to see what they were going to do to him since he was so polluted. He was so drunk that he had a knife in his back and blood down to his trousers and had no idea.

He was just out of it. He was drunk. That’s the closest I’ve seen to combat.

Well that and once in Vietnam we were sitting in a trailer — they brought in trailer houses. Three bedrooms and they take a dining room and put a couple more bunks in there. So, temporary housing. And we’d went in to replace some guys who experienced a mortar attack, and so we’re sitting there on the bunk beds. Everybody was talking about what they would do, what they would do, what they would do. That’s one good thing about grade school — you have fire drills and stuff. You know what to do. While you’re there you can talk all you want, but unless you practice, it doesn’t happen. 

We were sitting there when the sky lit up like a flash camera. The trailer rocked back and forth. All the cupboard doors came open. It was a 50 foot trailer. I went out the door across the full length of the trailer and went into a sand bunker. 

I don’t remember touching the ground one time. I was gone. And that’s about the closest I’ve come to combat. It was a Vietnamese bomb dump — South Vietnamese. It was a quarter mile away and had caught on fire.The stuff started exploding.

I was really scared for awhile. In fact, I was in that dark, dark bunker, shaking all over, feeling foolish for being so scared and as my blood pressure, or whatever, started slowing down I could hear other people in the dark. I heard guys actually crying and asking for their mother. I don’t know. Then I didn’t feel quite so bad.

But 90% of my life has been fun — clowning and going places.

That’s about it for overseas. Then I came back and became a hippie for awhile. Let my hair grow. Had me a van with a big peace sign on the front. Stars and stripes. 

Went to some live concerts — outdoor concerts. Went to one in Louisiana. 20,000 people got into the concert, and they closed it, or they tried to close it, and there were, like, 20,000 more people outside of it. People everywhere.

I went to one at a horse race and listened to a group, they called themselves Santana Blues, and at that concert they announced that they would drop the Blues and just call themselves Santana. It was all rainy and cold, and so people were talking about going up the road to New York to another one, and I decided not to go.

I was 70 miles away from the world famous Woodstock, and I didn’t go. I missed it.

Then I floated from the East Coast to California and back down to Colorado and decided to go back to college. Uncle Sam provided. 

I worked construction estimating, and then I became a vocational instructor for the state of Colorado at a prison. So I worked for 18 years at a prison. Medium security.

I had fun, so the inmates had fun. They told me they liked me. They said if there’s ever a riot, they wouldn’t hurt me as bad as some of the others. I asked him, ‘What? Why is that?’ They said, ‘Well, if there’s a riot and we’ve got 1,000 people here — inmates — most of them don’t know who you are and if you haven’t been dealt with, they might kill you, so we’ll fix you, so they leave you alone.’ I said, ‘Okay.’

But, like I said, it was fun. I just live everyday day by day, and it’s been mostly fun.  

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