Mostly-true tales from my misspent youth

by Mike Humbert

(with a lot of help from my former classmates!)

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© 2003-2020 by Mike Humbert.

This rather stuffy-looking building is located on the lower edge of the Presidio of San Francisco, on the hill above 15th Avenue. With rents topping $6000 per month, it’s one of San Francisco’s most prestigious residences. It was, however, a very different place in the 1980s, when the “tenants” wore Army uniforms, learned to swear in Korean, engaged in casual sex, and gleefully consumed an alarming amount of alcohol. Prepare to time travel back to the weird, wonderful world that was Defense Language Institute, San Francisco.

Sally Thomas: “Yeah, there were a lot of shenanigans going on!”

Bruce Taylor: “Thank God the statute of limitations has passed!”

Sherlyn Burns: “I don’t remember it all. So many repressed memories!”

Scott Pepper: “One girl went to the clinic with what turned out to be a STD, and when they completed a ‘six degrees of separation’ list, half the school had to go the clinic the next day to get checked!”

Joel Summers: “They hop around from bed to bed like sex-crazed kangaroos!”

First, a little background: The main campus of the Defense Language Institute (DLI) has been based in Monterey since 1946. Its mission has always been to train members of the armed forces in one or another of over three dozen different languages. By 1982, however, DLI Monterey had become overcrowded to bursting. New buildings were already under construction, but relief was needed now.

The short-term solution was to create a temporary annex in San Francisco’s (mostly) vacant Public Health Service Hospital. The new DLI San Francisco would be a simplified version of the Monterey campus; only three languages (Korean, German and Spanish) would be taught, and only to unmarried Army personnel.

While technically located on the Presidio of San Francisco military base, DLI-SF was its own self-contained unit, with classrooms, sleeping quarters, and mess hall facilities all in the same six-story building. Having little day-to-day contact with the “regular Army” types on the Presidio, the school soon developed its own personality. Picture M*A*S*H crossed with Animal House, and you’ll start to get the idea.

Many of us came to DLI-SF directly from Basic Training, which had been all about strict military discipline. The culture shock upon arrival could be startling.

Tony Giles: “A large group of us showed up at DLI on a Friday night, the night of a toga party. As I was waiting in line to sign in at the C.Q. (Charge of Quarters) desk, a beer appeared in my hand. I just sort of stared at it. Someone said, ‘It's a beer. You drink it.’ So I did. I'm from San Jose, and I asked the C.Q. if it was okay to go home for the weekend. He said ‘As long as you’re back by Monday at 8:00 a.m., I don't care what you do.’”

Gretchen Russo: “I arrived from Monterey the morning after the Halloween party. I walked two different floors and there wasn't a soul moving. It seemed deserted. Around 2:00 p.m., hung-over people finally started stepping out of their rooms. I remember thinking ‘darn it, if the Army had shipped me straight to DLI-SF, I wouldn't have missed the party!’”

Fritz Meyers: “I remember my first day in San Francisco. We had originally gone to Monterey, and were disappointed to learn we were being moved to S.F. Upon arriving, there were bodies strewn everywhere. Some groaned incoherently as we moved past, some not so much. I knew at that moment this was going to be a great place, but my initiation had just begun. Out of a doorway popped, or more accurately lurched, a man in a kimono, eyes bloodshot, three day growth on his face, his speech barely intelligible, he mumbled ‘Party's at the end of the hall, see you there.’ And that was how I met J.R. Bauer.”

There was actually a perfectly good reason J.R. was dressed like that.

J.R. Bauer: “It was bowling night, and I was in uniform, thank you very much! Our team, the Yook-shil Hal-noms, wore kimonos, stretch athletic socks and rental bowling shoes. Bud Haines and I only joined the league because it provided another reason to act out and drink to excess. Serendipitously, we finished third in the standings, largely due to the nonchalance with which we approached the sport. Neither of us could bowl particularly well, but we did pressure the other teams into making dumb mistakes. The funniest moment of all, of course, occurred when the young female captain remarked how proud she was that Bud and I were ‘using our language skills outside the classroom!’ That is, until she asked me what a ‘yook-shil hal-nom’ was. She didn't quite know how to respond to the fact that (translated into English) our team was entitled ‘Descendants Of The Whore Who Was Raped By Japanese Soldiers, Cut Into A Thousand Pieces, And Eaten By Dogs!’”

As students of the Korean Language program, we lived on the fifth floor. In those days, there was no mistaking the fact that the building had once been a hospital—the Army had done little to make the place “homier.” The hallways were stark and utilitarian, with glaring fluorescent lights overhead and ugly linoleum below. Our rooms were the size of, well, hospital rooms, with two (or three, or even four) bunk beds, desks and wall lockers crammed into each. A few unlucky souls even had to live in former operating rooms, with sickly green tile on the walls, ceilings and floors! A handful had their own bathrooms, but most of us had to trek down the hall to the communal latrine/shower room.

Since old hospitals have never been known for their recreational facilities, we had to make do with what was available. Each floor had two nurse’s stations, which were little more than formica-covered wide spots in the hallway. People tended to congregate at the one closest to their own rooms; ours quickly became the hub of our social lives. Mercifully, the Army had installed vending machines, some chairs, and a television/VCR, on which cult movies like Repo Man played endlessly.

Certain areas of the building were off limits to us. The mysterious, still-in-use-at-the-time medical lab on the sixth floor (located behind a vault-like door with “Caution! Radiation Area!” on it) was one “forbidden zone.” The morgue was another.

Laudon Williams: “Someone figured out how to turn the morgue coolers back on, and we stashed beer in there for a bit, before we got caught.”

Many of us experienced the Morgan Hill Earthquake in April of 1984.

Scott Pepper: “It was the middle of class, and the building starts trembling, then rocking. The panic-stricken teacher and four students from the East or Midwest leap to the doorway, and are crammed in there, cheek-to-cheek, so to speak, terrified looks on each face. Brad Roberson (from L.A.) and me (from San Diego) are sitting at our desks, looking at each other quizzically. He says to me ‘5.1?’ and I reply, ‘No, 5.2 at least...’”

Koren Whipp: “I thought Brad was kicking my chair! I remember Brad and Scott both being so calm while I was freaked out. I looked out the window, and the building was swaying. That's just not right! ”

Paul McGraw: “Our teacher took our class outside. For the next three days, he'd start the class by asking if we wanted to go outside to study.”

Roger Boiven: “One night I woke up because my bed was shaking, so I put my hands and feet up to brace the top bunk, to keep it from crashing down on top of me. Good thing I did, because all of a sudden, the top bunk tumbled off, and there was my roommate and his fiancée on the floor, buck naked and laughing like crazy. Turns out it wasn’t an earthquake after all!”

The First Sergeant began to worry about our drinking—not so much the amount (which was considerable), but the fact that so many of us were staggering back from neighborhood bars at three in the morning (or later). The solution? Install a bar on premises! Located mere steps away in the building next door, it was officially called the “Pink Flamingo,” although it was more often referred to as the “Pink Dink!”

Even when we were sober, who could think about studying with the beach so nearby? Our commanding Officer, however, “suggested” that we stay away from Baker Beach, especially the nude end of it.

Huh? Excuse me? What was that last part?

Needless to say, we were climbing over each other to get out the front door, and go catch some rays (and scope out some sunbathers)! A lovely time was had by all—until we learned the hard way how a San Francisco sunburn can sneak up on you.

Then again, you didn’t have to go to Baker Beach to get sunburned. Lori Smith was sunbathing on the flat, graveled roof of the now-gone west wing. She burned so badly, she had to be hospitalized, and was almost charged with “destruction of government property” (namely, her skin).

One of the most enduring DLI legends involves the ocean almost swallowing up Todd Bony’s truck. There was a keg party at Baker Beach, and Rodney “Sal” Paradis was using Bony’s pickup to transport the kegs out onto the beach—and the truck got hopeless mired in the sand. And the tide was coming in…

Todd Bony: “We called for a tow truck. Before it was over, several of them got stuck trying to pull each other out! Meanwhile, water had reached the bottom of my seats. There was also several girls passed out in the back of my truck, and we had to wade into the surf, and carry them up the beach! Once I got my insurance company to settle with the tow company, Sal and I went and got the truck from storage. It started fine, and we took it to main post, and used the truck wash to clean out the sand and salt water. I then sold it to my brother!”

Todd’s version is how it really happened. When people retell the story, however, they tend to embellish a bit. I’ve heard versions where the tide carried the truck out beyond the Golden Gate, never to be seen again.

Sometimes general weirdness would set in, like when I showed up to class in scuba gear. Or the time Chris Olivas was eating live moths by the handful (he claimed they were high in fiber). Or the inflatable sex doll dressed in a camouflage uniform—what was that about?

Scott Pepper: “It reminded me of nothing so much as Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes shouting ‘It's a madhouse... A MADHOUSE!!!’”

Why all the bizarre behavior? Simply put, we were under a lot of pressure. Our Korean Language program was seven hours a day, five days a week, for an entire year. (The German course was a mere eight months, and the Spanish class, if I recall correctly, was offered on alternate Thursdays). If you failed to maintain an 85% grade point average, you washed out.

Douglas Tiffin: “I had a really good time at the school. But I also remember the hardship and heartache that many went through. I remember spending late nights helping students who were struggling; I remember having to do after-action reports on students that were on academic probation; I remember being asked for a recommendation when one student was sent to alcohol rehab. Then, I remember the pride and joy felt by someone who brought their grades back up; I remember the tears when friends had to say good-by when they graduated (or didn’t); I remember the smiles and tears watching students graduate. And I remember the feeling expressed by many (though not all) that they were doing something important. I think these things are important to remember too.”

At certain points, the ongoing party was interrupted by a “G.I. Party,” in which everybody would frantically clean, buff and polish the entire building, in anticipation of the First Sergeant’s inspection. On one of these occasions, Brad Roberson and Alex Voultepsis realized they wouldn’t have their room inspection-ready in time, so they tried a creative approach: they collected up all the clutter, threw it into their bathroom, then moved a large wall locker so that it covered the bathroom door. Everything would be fine (they told themselves) as long as the First Sergeant didn’t remember that this particular room was supposed to have a “hwa-jung shil.” And he didn’t!

Maggie Lukasevich: “Right before a room inspection, Nate Tripp distracted Joe Underhill while I threw this fake rubber dog poop into the middle of his room, onto his pristine, inspection-ready floor! When the First Sergeant walked in, he made this awful face and told Joe to ‘Clean up that nasty stuff!’ Joe turned a million shades of red, and ran to get a paper towel to wipe it up. He was so mad when he realized it was fake! Years later, I still feel terrible; however, I still own the fake poop.”

There were other practical jokes as well, like the time Carl Rafanelli stepped out of the shower, only to discover that someone had made off with his clothing. Thinking quickly, he fashioned a makeshift toga out of the white plastic shower curtain. Believing he’d had the last laugh, Carl proudly struck a pose in the hallway. While he was showing off, however, the breeze blew the door to his room shut, and he was locked out.

There were mundane moments, too.

Koren Whipp: “Of course, I will never forget stupid ‘Pine Cone Patrol.’ What an incredible use of our military skills!”

Scott Pepper: “All of us in uniform, picking up pine cones between DLI and the beach!”

Brad Roberson: “I just thought of this: that damn recorded bugle for reveille, retreat, and starting class, breaks, etc. It was the only time my life was governed by Army bugle calls, and it was all done indoors!”

Tony Giles: “I loved those bugle calls!”

Koren Whipp: “Does anyone have photos of us doing Tae Kwon Do—or, as we called it, ‘Time To Go?’”

Lax as things often were, there were still P.T. (Physical Training) tests, which involved doing as many push-ups and sit-ups as possible, then running two miles. A few students achieved a perfect score of 300, and were awarded a red “P.T. MAX 300” t-shirt. Not to be outdone, Rick “Bubba” Rose created (and proudly wore) his “P.T. MIN 180” shirt.

And, at least some of the time, love was in the air. We were a little taken aback when the colonel proclaimed to the assembled students that “DLI is for lovers,” but he was right. The school produced a lot of marriages, including some that have survived to this day.

After an unforgettable year, those of us who hadn’t washed out took the final “Proficiency Test,” designed to determine if we had actually learned to speak Korean. Every one in my class passed (including me, although just barely). After the graduation ceremony, we each packed our bags and headed off to our next duty stations. Most of us eventually served in South Korea, where speaking Korean really comes in handy.

Bruce Taylor: “I left here in 1984, but this special place never left me. Over the last thirty years, life has taken me all over the world, but every time I returned to San Francisco, I went straight to the old DLI-SF building. It made no sense to my wife and kids, but to me it was a pilgrimage.”

Eventually, those new buildings at DLI Monterey were ready to use. With no further need for a San Francisco annex, DLI-SF shut down in 1988. Not long after, the “mysterious medical lab” people moved out, as well. The building sat vacant for many years, during which it gained graffiti and broken windows. Finally, a multi-million dollar renovation turned the building into the hoity-toity dwelling it is today.

That should be the end of the story, but it isn’t. We still need to mention the “DLI-SF Drunk and Stupid Lovefest in the City by the Bay 30 Year Reunion.”

Bruce Taylor: “Last year, in 2012, I reconnected with some of my former DLI-SF classmates on Facebook, and we agreed that we should hold a reunion in San Francisco. In August of this year, more than twenty of us returned to San Francisco to see this place that is still so special to all of us. Some of us live in the Bay Area, but most traveled considerable distance for this event. DLIers journeyed from Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Florida and even Vienna, Austria to attend. We spent several days reconnecting, and retelling stories of our youth.”

It’s pretty simple, really. Three decades down the road, DLI remains a major high point in each of our lives.

Sherlyn Burns: “It definitely was a magical year.”

J.R. Bauer: “I wouldn't trade the experiences for anything in the world. What a trip! I saw, did, ate, drank, bowled, played, drank, saw, and learned. Anyone remember when I crutched Bay to Breakers with a ten pound cast on my right ankle? I had a blast 99% of the time!”

Bruce Taylor: “I don't believe in haunted houses, but I do believe this building has a soul, a spirit, or life. It is the only building about which I can make such a claim. No other building holds such a special place in my heart. I spent a year in that building forming friendships with the people who would become my dearest friends. It was a seminal year in my life, and set the path for my future.”

Tina Aultman: “We all had that same special experience that was DLI. How lucky we are!”


And now, here’s Joel Summers to play us out with his rendition of “The DLI Blues!” (click here to listen)