Astle finds he's still a Marine who wants to carry his share

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 10, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ANNAPOLIS -- In the morning, Delegate John Astle stood on a scale and saw that it was beautiful: 145 pounds, spread over a 5-foot-10-inch frame.

"I'm in shape," he declared later in the day, sitting in his office with the phone temporarily not ringing and the front door temporarily not being pounded upon. "I could pass any physical."

"How do you stay in such good condition?" he was asked.

"Running," he said. "I run regularly."

"That's it?"

"Plus," he said, "I stay stressed out at the legislature."

He chuckled for a moment at his own little joke. Astle has represented Anne Arundel County in the House of Delegates for the past nine years. Now he's about to go where almost no modern politician, in the whole sordid his

tory of modern politicians, has gone.

To war.

That's the distinct possibility, anyway. On Thursday, he'll report to the Marine Corps Mobilization Center in Aberdeen, the result of some intense lobbying on Astle's part to get himself called up to active duty.

The history of war is something completely different from this. Mostly, it involves the old men, the politicians, talking bravely in marble halls while sending young men off to combat in dangerous places. The politicians tend not to leave the marble halls, and therefore have no trouble talking bravely. The young men in combat tend to die ahead of schedule.

In the Persian Gulf, the war goes on. In America, the country holds its breath and listens to official assurances that this will not be another Vietnam. In Annapolis, the words take on a special meaning for Astle.

"I'm a Marine," he said simply. "I've been one for 29 years, one way or another. I was commissioned for 10 years, resigned, became a reserve, and I've been one ever since. This is kind of what my life is all about. I need to carry my fair share of the load."

He is 47 now, a veteran of the war in Vietnam whose helicopter was shot down twice.

"Oh, don't make too much of that," he says softly. "I mean, we've all seen the movies, the planes going down in flames. In Vietnam, there were lots of times you were exposed to ground fire. If your helicopter got damaged, you'd just get it down as fast as you could.

"The first time, a round hit our high pressure fuel line and started spraying fuel all around the cabin. We thought we'd be torched. We were taking ammo into a firefight. We landed in the midst of a bunch of Marines.

"You do what you have to do. You're not scared, not until it's over. Then your knees turn to water."

The second time, he was moving troops into a secure area when a guy climbed out of a hole with an AK-47 and shot the copter to pieces. The hydraulic control, crucial to stabilizing the plane, was lost. The handle on Astle's control stick was shot off. But they were close enough to the ground to land safely.

"I've known fear," Astle says. "I'm not afraid to admit that. And I think about going back, and it brings back some old anxieties. I wouldn't think, at my age, that they'd have me flying again, but if they send me over, I'm ready to do whatever they want."

He has a wife, Jayne, who teaches high school and college math, and two teen-age sons. He and Jayne watched the war on television one night a few weeks ago, when Astle suddenly said:

"I think I'd really like to get over there."

Jayne Astle said nothing at all, but her husband remembers her giving him a look that said: I know.

He went to his son David, 16, a high school junior, to ask how he'd feel about his father serving in the war.

"He's at that age," Astle said,"where he just said, 'Yeah, it's fine, just leave the car keys.' Then he talked about selling my car and buying a Mustang. I drive a 1976, and he wants to upgrade a little. But mine works, you know? And that was roughly the whole conversation about the war."

The older boy, Jay, 19, is a student at the Naval Academy Prep School.

"He's a quiet kind of kid," Astle said. "It's tough to read his mind. But I asked him what he thought, and he said, 'That's OK.' For him, that's all you get. But he chose this military route for himself, so I guess he thinks it's the right thing.

"In his position, I might not say much to my father, but I might go to my buddies and feel pretty good. You know, 'Hey, my dad's over there.' "

Since the news broke of Astle's impending departure, the phones have not stopped. The congratulations of other legislators have been endless and hearty. In Astle's outer office, secretary Marie Morrison seems slightly breathless at the whole thing.

"Millions of calls," she says. "Millions. Reporters, constituents, other legislators, people from other branches of government. Just everybody. There's not one minute of the day that somebody isn't trying to talk to him and wish him well."

Astle seems slightly bewildered by all the attention.

"I don't think I'm anything special," he says now. "Every time I look up, somebody wants to interview me, and I never imagined this. I don't see this as courage. I just see it as something I've trained for, and I want to do the job."

And his wife?

"This isn't the first time she's waved goodbye to me," Astle said.

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