Times Square, March 1942. A cold place when you are under the legal drinking age and are wearing a baggy sailor suit and have a very short boot-camp haircut, three bucks left out of your $21-a-month pay, and you're standing in a doorway watching light snow fall.
The sign on a side street in the 40s said "Stage Door Canteen -- USO." I walked down the flight of stairs, handed my pea coat and flat hat to actor Boris Karloff -- that's right, Boris Karloff -- who was a volunteer worker in the coat room. As I went to the dance floor, I somehow felt important.
The record playing was the music of Sgt. Glenn Miller's Air Force Band.
The Floor was crowded with couples, guys looking as bas as I did holding pretty, would-be starlets. Here and there could be seen a real Broadway star like Dorothy McGuire.
I wondered if anyone would dance with me. And sure enough, it seemed that everyone was taken. So I went back to talk to Boris Karloff. Small talk. Where you from, sailor? And talk about the war that was far away but that I would soon be in.
That was the USO for me -- a good place to be, even if I didn't get the girl.
The USO (United Service Organization) celebrated its 40th birthday yesterday, and the organization that has passed out millions of doughnuts, thousands of gallons of punch, soda and coffee to lonely service personnel has changed its name.
"Nowadays," said Phil Gaffin, world director of public information for the USO, "we have taken over all kinds of family problems: wife-abuse problems, child abuse, drug abuse.
"The serviceman doesn't come in anymore to meet girls on a Saturday night. They come when they have a problem."
The modern USO is currently raising funds for a worldwide center in Washington to be named for Bob Hope. It has 145 points of contact with service people -- 71 in the U.S., 74 overseas. A private organization, the USO has 550 employes worldwide and 40,000 volunteers.
"The best thing to help service people is to get them involved," Gaffin said. "When they are in some far-off place we get them involved to help in an orphanage, hospital or nursing home."
USO activities range from setting up cultural tours in foreign countries to helping in airports with lost baggage and lost family members. It still arranges entertainment for Veterans Hospitals and medical centers.
"The trend of the USO will be to help service families," Gaffin said. "There are no more dances, only one in San Diego on weekends, and it's really a dance for servicemen who want to learn to become disc jockeys."
USOs I have known (some very briefly):
The place was Baltimore in a big old house turned over to the USO. When the band left the stand, I sneaked up to try the drums. They threw me out the front door. A whole bunch of kids encouraged me to climb back in the window. I did, but they threw me out again.
A USO in Key West on a balmy night. The dark-haired girl said she wouldn't dance with a submarine sailor because she was in love with a sailor who was permanent on the base.
Honolulu. Singing, around a piano, the lyrics of a popular song. Then switching the lyrics in a risque way and . . . being asked to leave.
New York. Signals became crossed and a bunch of well-healed girls expecting officers got a bunch of raunchy seamen who found it was more fun pushing each other into a swimming pool and then . . . tossed out again, on a freezing winter day.
Honolulu again. Waiting in long lines for a whistle to blow every three minutes and then you could race across the floor to hold a girl for that long before the whistle blew again and you went back to the end of the line. It was the same night that Cesar Romero, wearing a Coast Guard sailor suit, took a girl in his arms and when she realized who it was she fainted. One less girl for the next go-round.
But as Bob Hope said a few years ago after the USO put on a show for his 75th birthday, "Can you imagine how I'm ever going to be able to pay these people back?"