MY SEPARATION from the Marine Corps in January 1946 should have been the occasion for a nonstop, beer- swilling, Good Ole Boy party that took me up to June or July. Instead, it was a beginning of the miseries. I had been in the Pacific for nearly three years and hadn't seen my heavy-duty high school sweetheart since I joined the Corps in 1942. Hot off the boat I called her up for $92 worth of sloppy conversation that ended with an invitation to be in her wedding -- as an usher. Scratch that one.

I headed into San Diego with some buddies to cry into a barrel of beer. It was our first liberty, and we expected bands and parades for the returning heroes, people lining up to buy you drinks, admire the ribbons and listen to war stories. Scratch that one, too. A serviceman in San Diego attracted about as much attention as a corncob in Iowa. And it seemed like every bar you hit, somebody wanted to fight and the Shore Patrol wanted to fill up the brigs.

A couple of days later I found out there was no room on any train or bus to Tennessee. No problem. A friendly fellow hanging around the gate kindly offered to drive me back East, for a fee. I signed on. So did some others. He packed five of us in his little car and we headed out for three days and nights of group living. It was awful. One of the Marines in the back seat was wild drunk the whole way and somewhere in Arizona or Texas he started telling a crazy war story about wiping out hordes of Japanese with a bayonet. I questioned that tale, and it provoked him so much he tried to demonstrate on me with a knife. He was finally quieted down and when we got to Arkansas I bailed out to visit a couple of the natives who had been in my outfit. I checked into a hotel in Little Rock, encountered a young lady in the bar. She was a telephone operator for the local power company. After a sufficiency of drink and broken-heart talk, I asked her if she wanted to get married. "Sure," she said. "I'll just go home and pack a bag." I called my friends with the good news and they told me to wait where I was. They arrived shortly, dragged me out of the hotel and drove me 100 miles up the road to await the dawn. That was the second bride I'd lost in barely a week.

When I got back to Tennessee, I bought a suit on the first day and wore it to a roadhouse that night. Returning home, I kicked at what looked like a chicken in the back yard. It was a skunk and it gave me a full blast. It was freezing cold but I stripped off the suit and went up to the house. All doors were locked. I got into the basement and passed the night in the coal bin.

I was a civilian at last and it seemed to me I'd made a damned big mistake.

-- RICHARD HARWOOD

I STARTED getting out the day I got in.

The Army recruiter didn't ask too many questions, although I probably had the look of a troubled teen. I was a crazy kid headed for a crazy place.

In Dallas at the induction station, I "volunteered for the draft" (my phrase; the Army called it enlisting) and took the two-year option. That was the shortest term of service, and the general drift indicated you'd spend it as a grunt.

Later, at basic training in El Paso, several of us were given the option to extend. Two to four more years would get us training in a special skill area. With an eye on the calendar, I passed.

And ended up in Vietnam.

Of course, 15 years ago, most soldiers did. I had it easier than many Vietnam vets -- a dry tent, clean clothes daily and hot meals. Every day was a work day, and I slept only 51/2 hours every night.

And I kept my eye on the calendar. When President Nixon decided to bring the 1st Infantry Division home in 1970, I sized up my schedule. The Army had announced a new policy: if troops left Vietnam with less than six months on their enlistment, the Army would give them an "early out" on arrival in the States. I needed to stay through May if I wanted to claim an 18- month Army career.

The Big Red One pulled out of Laikhe and south to Dian, near Saigon, the first stop on the way home. As my pals headed out, I switched over to the 11th Armored Cav, which agreed to take me in for the next 30 days. Then Nixon made his move on Cambodia, and the 11th Cav started to gear up for a trip to the Parrot's Beak.

For a short-timer marking the days off his calendar, this wasn't funny.

But tank units move slowly. As they headed toward Cambodia, a jetliner carried me toward the States. I was out -- out of Vietnam, out of the Army.

There was the rush of impressions: the marblelike floors at the San Francisco airport felt so clean. The women were so tall. The air so fresh.

Everything I owned was in one bag. The Army had fitted me in a new uniform and new shiny shoes for the trip home to Texas. On the plane, the stewardesses took me under their wing and the free drinks flowed. Since then, I've always thought them exceptionally patriotic.

The Army means more to me than this whimsy suggests, but still, I don't work on keeping those memories alive.

I also don't look at calendars much anymore.

-- STEPHEN BARR

MY FIRST SUNDAY in the service, sitting on my locker box in a boot camp Quonset hut at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego hemming up -- hemming, for God's sake! -- a trouser leg to the right length was my first youthful brush with despair. The bad news was that I had volunteered for that hell-hole; the worse news was that my enlistment was for three years or an eternity, whichever came first. I was betting on eternity.

So for four years -- my hitch was extended by a year when I was commissioned a second lieutenant -- I played the same game as everyone else: the short-timer's game, fantasizing about Xanadu, which in Marine Corps jargon was spelled Relfracdu (Release From Active Duty), and wondering what it would be like to only have six weeks, say, left to do.

But a funny thing happened to me about six months before the magic date. I had gone from the regimental staff (First Marines) back to a battalion -- a jolt of battalion or regimental staff duty was standard in those days -- and was a company commander. To say that I loved it was an understatement and I began to hope that time would somehow slow down.

This feeling was crystallized when the battalion commander and the adjutant, a captain who had been wounded as an enlisted man on Tarawa, gave me a "shipping over," or reenlistment talk. They recommended that I "integrate" -- apply for a regular commission.

I was flattered as I have seldom been before or since and my response, in essence, was: "If you can guarantee me that I can remain 25 years old and a first lieutenant in a rifle company in the FMF (Fleet Marine Force) for the rest of my life, I'll do it, because I don't expect I'll like anything as much ever again." I knew that most of a career man's time is spent basically as a bureaucrat.

A buddy from Quantico also had a company in the same battalion and he had a supply sergeant who was one of the great kumshaw artists (thieves) in a Corps whose gimcrack supply system made us dependent on men who could live by their wits, i.e., steal from the Army and Air Force -- much of the gear the First Marine Division brought back from Korea had faded stencils of the Eighth Army and Fifth Air Force.

"Lieutenant, what can I get for you?" he inquired a couple of days before my Relfracdu.

"How about a six-by (the standard six-wheel military truck) and a blade (bulldozer)?" I responded. A hurt look crossed his face. "Lieutenant, I'm serious," he responded plaintively.

"Okay, how about a typewriter, since I'm going into the newspaper business?" I said, still joking. He wasn't

On my last day, when I went to lift my locker box and carry it from the company office to my car, I almost broke my back. There was a typewriter, a sleeping bag, a K-Bar knife and some other stuff and a day's ration of C-rations, gift-wrapped with a card. "So you won't forget the real Corps," it read. I may have forgotten to leave the K-Bar and the C-rats.

I should have taken it all. I got out 20 days early, on Jan. 31 -- my enlistment date, coincidentally, was Feb. 19, the anniversary of the landing on Iwo Jima, and because of a provision in the 1955 military pay bill, anyone who was Relfracdued on Feb. 1 or after got $300 mustering-out pay. So my whole class got out almost three weeks early and I shook my head in rueful admiration -- Mother Green, the Killing Machine, had gotten her last bite out of my young jarhead fanny.

-- JAMES R. DICKENSON

IN THE LATE summer of 1960, when Vietnam was still Indochina in the minds of most Americans, service as an enlisted man in the peacetime Army was one of those rites of passage young men endured. Six months' compulsory military training was my generation's answer to Little League soccer, the compulsory service of today's young.

True, there had been threats of real shooting in the Suez and Berlin in the months surrounding my brief military service, but few of us in Signal Corps training at Fort Gordon, Ga., were worried much about war. The closest I ever came to combat was losing the Mr. Frostee soft ice cream truck on maneuvers during basic training at Fort Dix, N.J.

By the time my separation date neared late that summer, the prospect of leaving the Army was a bittersweet mixture of fear and joy.

For the most part, Fort Gordon was a dull place populated by thousands of young men putting in their time until they could get on with their lives.

Adding to the boredom for many of us serving six months' active duty that summer was the realization that the Army really didn't have much need for our services, making you wonder even more why you were there.

After finishing six weeks of training as a teletype operator, those in the training company with a month or two left on active duty were given one week to find a job on the post. If you failed to get a job, you were told, you would be sent to pole lineman's school. Pole lineman's school is where you to learn how to climb 90-foot telephone poles, presumably in combat. It was a powerful incentive to find other work.

Our company first sergeant, displaying the wisdom of first sergeants throughout the Army, offered the second best piece of advice I received during my brief military career: "When you're looking for a job, first walk around the back of the building. If you see an air-conditioning unit sticking out a window go around front and apply for work." Not bad advice in a place where summer temperatures routinely soar over 100 degrees.

The best advice? That too came from a first sergeant, when I was in basic training. In a rare moment of candor, he noted that "The airborne separates the men from the boys. The boys jump."

By the end of that summer, however, the prospect of being discharged was unsettling. The unbridled joy of a boy from northern New Jersey being freed from the sweltering flatlands of eastern Georgia in the pre-civil-rights days of 1960 was indescribable. But the end of my Army tour meant the start of a whole new phase of life: work.

A year earlier I had dropped out of college at the end of my junior year not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life. As the separation date that Labor Day weekend loomed closer, however, I still knew only what I didn't want to do. The prospect was unnerving.

In a last-minute blizzard of paperwork and rejected enticements to sign up for Officers Candidate School, I drifted out of the Army with thousands of my peers just as quietly as I had drifted in.

And eventually, I did find work.

-- FRANK SWOBODA

WE SAT in her car in the Frankfurt darkness, watching the planes take off. Tomorrow I would be on one of them, soon free of khaki and saluting. She, the prettiest sergeant in the Army, would be back in Heidelberg. My two years were up. Her second five-year hitch was just beginning. Our golden days in Heidelberg were over.

I had arrived there 18 months earlier. It was early 1955 and most of the GIs in my training battalion had gone to Korea, sweating out the uncertain truce. My prospect was only slightly better: combat engineer duty along the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War. But miraculously, the Army wac overstocked with combat engineers the day I arrived -- and within hours I was stepping off a train in Heidelberg, newly assigned as a reporter for Army headquarters in Europe.

Heidelberg! Castles and dueling students. Frauleins and dumplings. A 9-to-5 job. A car and off-duty civvies. Beer and bull sessions with the young GI lawyers and GI accountants. Assignments in Bonn, Garmisch and Monaco. Weekends in Berlin, Milan, Paris. A paradise among posts.

And then in June the prettiest sergeant in the Army arrived. She was bright and mysterious, and the Patton Lounge had never seen such jitterbugging. I was entranced. She was mine. I was hers. Heidelberg and Europe were ours. My father predicted I would bring her home in my duffle bag. But then suddenly a year had passed and we were sitting in the darkness in Frankurt.

Back home in Michigan, on my first night as a civilian, I played a recording again and again: "Ich hab' mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren . . . " I had, indeed, lost my heart in Heidelberg.

Two weeks later, at 3 a.m., the phone rang in the Wac billets in Heidelberg and the prettiest sergeant in the Army shuffled sleepily into the dayroom to take the call. "Do you really mean it? Well, then, yes, I'll marry you. But . . . how?" "Don't worry. I'll find a way."

The Army, until now so benign, turned heartless. Yes, she can be discharged if she marries -- but only if she marries first and only if she is in her assignment for a year. No, she cannot be discharged just because you promise to marry her. No, she cannot be reassigned to the States to marry you. No, she cannot have a compassionate leave to return and marry you. In short, come marry her here and take her home.

But I was a penniless young journalist. One hope remained: a proxy marriage. Through the Army? No. Through the German courts? No. In Michigan? No. Indiana? But of course -- a county seat called Angola, just south of the state line, was a weekend wedding wonderland. Late in September -- with one buddy as best man and another as maid of honor -- I was married to the prettiest nurse in Ann Arbor, standing in as proxy for the prettiest sergeant in the Army.

But now the Cold War conspired against us. The prettiest sergeant in the Army was not only my bride; she also was an intelligence specialist in the G2 section that dealt with defectors and refugees. In October, the Hungarians revolted and poured across the border by the tens of thousands. The Army postponed her discharge indefinitely and commandeered all air and sea transport for the fleeing Hungarians.

October passed, and November. I begged the head chaplain in Heidelberg to help, but a lovesick groom in Michigan was of small concern amid the tides of history.

And then inspiration: an anguished call to a young Heidelberg captain now an aide to President Eisenhower. A day later a perplexed two- star general hand-carried a freshly cut set of ship-out orders to the prettiest sergeant in the Army.

Three days before Christmas, I flew to New York . . . took a cab to Brooklyn and Fort Hamilton . . . stepped into the Wac dayroom . . . and there she was. But alas, the prettiest sergeant in the Army was also the sickest. Eight wintry days at sea had left her wan, wobbly and less than amorous. We weaved across the parade ground and checked into the post's transient quarters.

In the morning, we left our honeymoon hotel and began gathering her car and hold baggage. Finally, around noon, the prettiest new veteran and I drove through the Fort Hamilton gate, then paused to snap off a fond farewell salute to our unwitting and reluctant matchmaker, the United States Army.

-- ROBERT A. WEBB

I HAD SPENT three years, two months and 22 days in the U.S. Naval Reserve, having had the notion, throughout a boyhood that included watching young men go to and return from World War II, that the Navy would be my home and that I would somehow wind up like, say, Mister Roberts, beloved by my men and detested by my superior officers for having all the qualities they lacked. I would do all of this, of course, via some form of teleportation, or even sleep-learning, since the idea of officers' training school or book work or even knot-tying had never entered my mind. I would somehow, in the manner of Athena, be born full-blown from Lord Nelson's knee.

So it was that I joined the Naval Reserve in February 1950, at the age of 16, lying about my age, only to learn during that summer that a)there was, again, a war on, which had been far more fun to watch from the vantage point of boyhood, like admiring (and fearing) a rattler behind glass; and b)there were saloons to be attended on the Thursday nights I was supposed to be spending at the reserve training center on the Mississippi River. Over the next 39 months I was to attend half a dozen drills, make it through an abbreviated boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center and get so perplexingly involved with a young woman named Grace that I gratefully accepted the telephone report that yes, the draft board would move my name forward in the file for induction into the Army. (It only occurs to me now that I might have had the name of Jimmy C., the third party in the triangle/puzzle, moved forward instead of my own, but I didn't.)

As it happened, then, the month of May 1953, saw me standing in a battery street at Fort Bliss, Tex., duffel bag in one hand and U.S. Navy honorable discharge in the other (I came out at the rating of SR1, the lowest possible, although nearly everybody who ever entered the Navy was promoted from Seaman Recruit Grade 1 after two months).

And looking down that battery street I saw stretching out across sand and rocks and plain hard dirt what would undoubtedly be the two longest years of my life.

I then began to provide for my golden years, those years when I would be old, perhaps 22 or 23, and free. The trades I learned seemed all right: I could assemble and disble a .50-caliber machine gun, and operate four of them in a solenoid-fired turret at the rate of 2,000 rounds per minute; I could drill a 10- penny nail into a fence post at 100 yards with an M1 rifle; and my sole clerical job for the second and last year of military service only involved a)keeping myself off levies of troops bound for the Far East Command (Korea), b)mak names of unpopular or difficult officers got on such lists, and c)the official duty of keeping count of minority soldiers moving in and out and stationed at the Anti- Aircraft Artillery Reserve Training Center, with an eye toward seeing that Negroid troops never got above 10 percent of the post population. (The racial categories, I recall, were Negroid, Caucasian (me), Indian, Malayan and Other. I never figured out what an Other was, but we always had one or two of them among the 50,000 or so trainees at Fort Bliss.) I also read a paperback book every day for a year. Sometimes, with a fat one, I would take two days, and would close my desk drawer with the book in it every time an officer came in, which was several times a week.

I made a lot of friends, mostly with the older hustlers, and as I had more time in the Army (making first E2, then PFC and then, finally, corporal but never sergeant) they began to return to civilian life, one at a time, leaving me more and more alone, until finally there I sat, at the foot of that battery street, watching my life stretch before me the way that street had stretched out before me two years earlier.

I had no one to whom I could or should say goodbye, and that would be, I thought, the way life would end, alone, sitting on my footlocker in the dust, wondering where all the people who'd loved me had gone. And that was just fine.

I set out to control my own life, then, to the best of my ability, and quickly made a few arrangements: I changed my MOS category from automatic weapons cannoneer to personnel administration specialist. I changed my rating from corporal, a field grade, to Specialist 4, a ribbon-clerk's business. I changed from the antiaircraft artillery to whatever it is that the clerks belong to in the Army. And I changed my civilian occupation to musician. I would have changed my name, but they still owed me some mustering-out pay.

Several years later the records center at St. Louis burned to the ground, with all my military history in it. And I knew I was safe from ever being in a military organization again.

And I didn't know until one brilliantly lighted evening a few summers ago, with the clouds low and rolling, like buttermilk in a shallow bowl, that they probably wouldn't have had me back if I'd have asked.

-- ROBERT H. WILLIAMS