A Memoir: Part Ten
"The Pragmatic Volunteer" has been a twice weekly series. Here are all the previous installments!
Part One -- Part Two -- Part Three
Part Four -- Part Five -- Part Six
Part Seven -- Part Eight -- Part Nine
Author's Note: What follows is the poorly thought-out and loosely examined history of the life of a guy who didn’t much matter in the grand scheme. But he mattered. We all matter. And I had a hell of a lot of… fun and such along the way. I intend to chronicle some of the experiences of a 23-year career in the United States Air Force
There was a ‘Special Duty Assignment’ open at RAF Molesworth, at the Joint Analysis Center (JAC, which is the USEUCOM JIC, but I’ll let you figure that out). This was not going to come up on the regular assignment listing; it wasn’t secret, but you mostly have to lobby for special duty. As I said, I wanted to stay in the U.K., so lobby I did. Convinced my career counselor in San Antonio that I should be the guy to take the job, and Bob’s your uncle. I was staying in England, and only an hour down the road from where I was.
I was again Superintendent of a section, this one of about 100 personnel. I did not directly supervise any of them, but was responsible for all manner of administrivia for all of them. My boss was a GS guy who was a retired Navy O-5 (Commander), and many of the people in the section were squids. A few of these were CPOs, which is the same pay grade as mine (E-7). Through these guys, I became a regular with the Chief’s Mess (affectionately known far and wide as ‘the Goatlocker’). I loved those guys. The Navy senior enlisted corps runs things very differently from the Air Force’s, and I learned much in my year at this position. Remember the CPO from Subic who put us up? That’s just how Chiefs do. Best people in the world. And in another throwback, one of my pals in the Goatlocker had been serving aboard CG-57 when it picked us up from Luzon. We hadn’t met back then. We refugees were given the crew berthings; they were staying in their duty spaces.
It is possible for some people to be inducted into the Goatlocker honorarily. Because I worked with a lot of Chiefs and was friends with them and many others, I asked if I could go through the initiation (they don’t call it hazing, but it isn’t an easy thing) that all newly selected CPOs must endure. To do this, one has to first sit for an ‘interview’ with the Goatlocker. These people were my friends, but they were CPOs first. This interview was a pretty intense grilling. They approved me and I got some recommendation letters. The final step for non-Navy personnel is getting the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON, an E-9+) to approve one’s application. It is serious business, as it should be. You get to wear a CPO rank insignia for the rest of your life. A new MCPON had just been selected, and after I had written my own request and sent it to him along with the recommendations from the Goatlocker, he issued a blanket disapproval for any non-Navy personnel for that year. So that didn’t happen. It was probably something I said. This happens a lot.
One day, a young Marine in my section asked me where Ghana is on the ‘horse’s head.’ I know where Ghana is, but the horse’s head thing was completely new to me. If you look at Africa on a map, it resembles a horse’s head, nose down as if it is drinking water. All those years and it never occurred to me. So thanks for that one, Marine. Oorah.
One of my Chiefs got promoted to E-8 (Senior Chief), and they pin on right away. It’s called frocking. They have to wait until their number comes up to get the pay grade, but are immediately wearing the new rank. I couldn’t have responsibility for an enlisted guy who outranked me, so I needed a new job. The enlisted leader of a few sections (including mine) didn’t have a lot of choices for me. He didn’t want to put me in a lower position in the same section I’d been leading for a year. I didn’t want that either. It would have awkward to say the least.
There was a new activity on base I had heard murmurs of but didn’t really know much about. It was called the Intelligence Fusion Centre (in Support of NATO) or “IFC.” Someone mentioned to me that I might want to give it a look. I cleared it with my boss and my enlisted leader, and scheduled an interview with the CO of the IFC. The unit had not reached initial operational capability (IOC) yet and was still manning up and doing all sorts of other things to prepare. They were already supporting ‘boots on the ground,’ which was the mission of the IFC. My interview with the CO went well and he hired me to work in the counter-terrorism section. The year was 2006. So if anyone tells you NATO doesn’t work terrorism problems, they are definitively incorrect.
After years of teaching and leading people and doing administrative work, I was to be an intelligence analyst again. I was in the twilight of my career and couldn’t believe my luck at getting to just be an analyst again. It was a fantastic feeling. I worked with some outstanding people from all over Europe in addition to the Americans who worked there. In all cases, we were a mix of civilian employees and military members. The last two years of my career are my favorite time time on active duty.
The IFC was initially (and temporarily) set up in an old B-17 hangar left over from WWII. One of our guys, a Navy LTJG, (O-2) used to ride an old Vespa to work on nice days. There were very few parking spaces, and he insisted on using a car space to park that silly little scooter. It was irritating, even though I rode my Harley often and it didn’t interfere with me (I parked next to the hangar out of the way). One day, me and another American guy were outside and saw his Vespa taking up a spot. The lot was full. We decided to move his little machine and lifted it and set it near my real bike. That little dude was absolutely furious. It was so cute.
In military circles, “NATO” is often said to mean ‘Nothing After Two O’Clock.’ The IFC did not resemble this remark. We put in whatever hours were required to support our customers. They were often getting shot at, and we were dedicated professionals who were there to make sure they had as much information as possible so they could stay safe out there. I don’t Facebook much, but I created an account during this time. Most of my ‘FB friends’ are still guys I worked with at the IFC. And mostly European. Very cosmopolitan.
So I married this girl.
We chose a Saturday afternoon in summer, and it turned out to be an actual warm day. This is not a certainty in East Anglia, as any day might be cool and / or rainy. We got a beautiful day. Is there a God? I’d have to say yes, I believe there must be.
The ceremony was held in the county council office in a city near The Girl’s long-time home village, where her parents still lived. The place was over an hour from my PDS, but I invited the Goatlocker and a lot of them accepted and turned up. This included the JAC’s Senior Enlisted Leader, the Master Chief. We had to walk quite a way to get to the place, and she was on crutches at the time. I loved those guys. There was only one person there in a military uniform. Me. I wore my service dress uniform because The Girl asked me to, and there is nothing I wouldn’t do for her. Nothing.
This was my favorite moment in uniform. Ever.
There was also a Scottish guy in a kilt, but I don’t want to talk about that (or the ‘upskirt’ photo someone took of him).
We had put together a CD filled with music we wanted to have played at the Council venue (and at the the reception in a pub later). After we were done with the formalities and as we crossed the threshold to the veranda outside, hand-in-hand (I know, I know: PDA. Bqhatevwr), Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” started playing. The Girl had secretly worked with the people at the office to make sure that song started immediately after I kissed the bride. Just brilliant. She is my favorite human.
We honeymooned in Brighton, but that’s a different memoir. And a different Brighton.
During our 5 years together in the U.K., The Girl and I traveled quite a lot. When one lives next door to Europe, one has easy access to a lot of fantastic places. We took great advantage of this. We went to Venice many times (and a few other Italian cities), Barcelona, Prague, etcetera. And of course, we traveled the British Isles quite a lot.
We spent Saint Patrick’s day in Dublin one year. If you get the chance, I cannot recommend this experience enough. Dublin is a wonderful city, and St. Paddy’s Day is an incredible experience there. The Confession Box is a tiny pub that was packed, had a live 3-piece folk ‘band’ hanging out, and really know how to pour the black stuff.
We went to Edinburgh where I had haggis every morning at the breakfast the B&B provided. While there, we went down to Stirling where William Wallace was involved in a battle at a bridge you might recall from some movie or other. We also visited (and climbed up) The National Wallace Monument. Another thing I highly recommend. Aside: Did you know the tartan worn by Clan Wallace in Braveheart isn’t a real Scottish clan tartan pattern? It was created specifically for the movie. Also, at the gift shop at the foot of the crag on which the monument is situated, there was a large statue of William Wallace. He apparently looked exactly like Mel Gibson. Because that statue was Mel Gibson.
We went to Padstow in Cornwall, which is a beautiful coastal place located on the southwestern edge of England, and which has the best oysters I’ve ever tasted. Well, tied for best with Apalachicola oysters. In Padstow, we also met a celebrity chef called Rick Stein, who was one of my favorite TV chefs at the time. We didn’t know beforehand, but we went to one of his many places in town and found out he’d be there for a book signing soon. So we bought his book and stood in the queue to get him to sign it. There was a Jaguar parked outside with a vanity plate meaning “Padstow,” and after he signed the book, as we turned I said “Nice car.” He smiled wryly. Made my day.
Of course, we also spent a lot of time in London. Living an hour by train from there was a pure joy. If I had never been to Venice, London would be my favorite city in the world. We did most of the tourist things (because The Girl is very tolerant of my Yankee exuberance), and we went to quite a few shows in the Theatre District, the West End.
Tim Curry was playing the lead in Spamalot at the Palace Theatre, and his run was ending at the end of the year. So we set a date to get down there and see it before he quit. As I said, we went to quite a few shows (not only in London), and we saw a lot of Shakespeare’s plays among others. But for me, Spamalot was the most fun I ever had at a stage production. It was hilarious throughout, but the finale was glorious. Curry is there on the cross, and the cast started singing “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.” The entire audience sang along. It was a marvelous moment, and one I shall never forget.
And on that particularly high note, I end this telling of that part of my life. I hope that you, dear reader, enjoyed it. And more than that, I hope you take away that though life will throw challenges at every one of us, keep at it. Everyone has bad days. Or bad weeks or… whatever amount of time. And sometimes it is really, really bad. But if you survived it, you won. Get up and get back out there. There’s stuff to do!
A Memoir: Part Three
"The Pragmatic Volunteer" will be a twice weekly series. Check back every Wednesday and Friday for the latest installments!
Author's Note: What follows is the poorly thought-out and loosely examined history of the life of a guy who didn’t much matter in the grand scheme. But he mattered. We all matter. And I had a hell of a lot of… fun and such along the way. I intend to chronicle some of the experiences of a 23-year career in the United States Air Force.
My assignment was to Clark Air Base in Angeles City on the northern island of Luzon, the largest single island in the archipelago. Angeles is about an hour north of Manila on the one major (read: paved) road between the two. In a hint of irony, Bergstrom Air Force Base was named for an Army Air Forces captain killed in the Japanese attack at Clark Field on 8 December 1941. Same day as the Pearl Harbor attack you remember from that movie that sucked, but on the other side of the International Dateline. He was the first Austinite fatality of WWII. RIP Captain Bergstrom.
There were no RF-4C stationed at Clark AB, at least not when I arrived there in June 1989. And as things happened, there were never to be any stationed there after that either. There were F-4E multi-role (air superiority and ground attack) and F-4G Wild Weasel variants. F-4E was the first (and only) variant that carried an internal gun, the standard 20mm Vulcan cannon. F-4G was… look up YGBSM on your favorite search engine. Weasels fly into missiles designed to target them. It’s a fascinating history. If you think you’re brave eating that slightly dodgy smoked ham cold cut, think of those guys and add another slice. You know you want to anyway.
The G model only had one system in my purview. It carried the standard gun camera most contemporary fighters mounted as standard. The F-4G Wild Weasel platform didn’t sport a gun; the gun camera is just a small 8mm optical device situated to film whatever happens in front of the airplane. Like a police cruiser’s dash camera, but for fighter pilots.
One evening I had dropped a dude off on a gun camera job on a G model. Did I mention I was expediting sometimes by now? I was learning to lead people, and I didn’t even understand that was happening, really. Anyway, the gun camera had somehow gotten shorted with the IFF (Information, Friend or Foe) on that jet such that the aerodrome was alerted to a potential threat to the security of the equipment and of the facility. The jet was “interrogating” as I understand it. Thing is, the weight-on-wheels (WoW) switch was not depressed (this is a “dead-man’s switch” which is depressed when the landing gear are retracted), so the jet shouldn’t have been squawking anything at all.
When I arrived at the parking spot, my guy was stepping off the crew ladder while being questioned quite vigorously by the sky cops, who were confused as hell. We all were. A brief moment of terror. No one got shot, and the rogue jet plotting a coup was subdued. It took a couple days, but we finally figured it out. F-4s are legendary among maintainers for the ghosts in that particular machine. WoW.
The Republic of the Philippines was (and is) a pretty impoverished country. As with every third-world country I ever visited, corruption was a part of everyday life. We rented a house in a neighborhood off base for the first 8 months or so, and we never had a telephone because I was unwilling to pay the local utility official to get a line installed in less than the normal 4 – 8 months (or whatever was deemed proper by the local guys in uniforms). It was a pretty nice stone place, plenty of space and two baths. It also had an 8’ tall cinder block wall surrounding it with broken glass buried in the mortar atop it all around the perimeter to deter boys in shorts and flip flops from breaching and stealing whatever they could find. Not evil people by and large, but very poor. It was a way of life for them, and ‘American’ invariably translates to ‘rich’ in such places. I harbored no particular ill will toward those kids, but I wasn’t going to risk my family on the idea they might just want the television set. Personal firearms were illegal, so only the bad guys had guns. And they didn’t even live next door to Indiana! No idea where they got those guns.
There was a live-fire training range on Luzon called Crow Valley. This was the biggest U.S.-operated live-ordnance-capable aerial bombardment range in the western Pacific, and units from around the Basin flew down to ‘train like we fight.’
One night, a couple of our F-4E went out to Crow Valley on a live-fire training mission. The targets set up out there were mostly made up of steel that had originally had other uses, but had been recycled to facilitate the continued proficiency of our aircrews at breaking people’s things. Installed aboard the F-4E was another of my systems, the Airborne Video Tape Recorder (AVTR). Think of this as a blacked-out, cockpit-mounted version of the machine you watched Top Gun on at home. The format of the media was a bit larger than both VHS and Betamax. Even Air Force people can’t be trusted not to pilfer.
The job of this device was to record the results of ground-attack missions. Sometimes, these AVTRs would get stuck and refuse to release the cassette inside. OK, what usually happened was the WSO (Weapons System Operator, aka the back seater in an F-4E) forgot to eject the media before the engines powered down, so they’d write it up as a malfunction and we’d go put power on the jet and retrieve the tape. This happened a lot.
On the night in question, the crew returned, we recovered the jet, and the WSO had written up the standard ‘blame the machine’ thing for his error. So we dragged the Dash 60, powered the jet up, and retrieved the cassette. Understand: We did all this to correct some young college graduate’s rookie error. The machine was not defective, the operator was. This happened a lot.
The flying squadron guys had gone home for the night, so we took the tape back to the shop and watched it. What was on that tape was one of the funniest things I have ever witnessed outside of some ‘crazy humans doing stupid shit’ thing on television. F-4E used a belly-mounted pod system called PAVE TACK to help acquire and define targets with infrared (IR) and then to paint them with laser light to deliver the ordnance to its doomed receivers. AVTR filmed this IR imagery. When the lead jet was on its target run, two warm bodies suddenly dispersed from beneath a target in the frame. They had been attempting to steal the target in order to re-purpose the steel from which it was made. The back seater (WSO) was heard on the intercom saying ‘Oh shit! Abort!’ The driver, cool as the other side of the pillow, replied: ‘Negative. They knew we were coming.’ Then he pickled his ordnance.
Note: The ordnance those planes dropped that night were all ‘concrete bombs’ (blue bands). These are training munitions that weigh the same and have the same aerodynamic characteristics as the real thing (yellow bands), but contain no warhead or explosives. But those thieves didn’t know that. We turned the tape in as required when the flying squadron opened next A.M. I don’t know what happened to that tape, but I can guess.
Another time, a USAF unit out of the Republic of Korea had come to use the Crow Valley range. Several units from other places also turned up. It was some sort of competition, I suppose. I wasn’t taking notes. I was keeping the TISEO (a wing-mounted video camera on some F-4E, slaved to the radar to help the driver ID other aircraft) and PAVE TACK working. And this took effort: Remember, this is 1989 and the planes we worked on were last built in 1972 (I think).
During this competition (and all my time in the P.I.), the main group opposing the United States conducting activities designed to save their country was a communist outfit who called themselves the New Peoples Army. NPA was mostly a raggedy gang of punks who had acquired some BDUs and boots back in the day. But they were ruthless. One night as two American GIs stepped out of their hotel to catch a passing jeepney on MacArthur Boulevard (the main drag through the center of the city, as you might imagine), two NPA maniacs stepped up and shot those guys in the backs of their heads. Stars and Stripes published the image of those two victims lying dead on the street on their front page. That caused a ruckus.
This shocking and terrible event prompted the people who make such decisions (among whom I would years later count myself) to designate areas of Angeles City off limits to those under their authority. On the map telling us where we could and could not go, it looked like a fish. ‘Fishville’ is how I referred to it then, and I always will.
The Fishville order was effective immediately and it included all TDY (visiting) personnel who were staying in hotels ‘downtown.’ There were a lot of people sleeping in hastily erected tents on base in areas that were normally clear tarmac, that’s all I’m saying. It was a terrible time all around. Such is life in the military. ‘Improvise, adapt, overcome’ is an excellent way to live, but it ain’t easy.
A fun aspect of life on an archipelago in the south Pacific is the weather. And by “fun,” I mean “interesting” as used in the Chinese curse ‘May you live in interesting times.’ Hurricanes were a fact of life when I was growing up, so I was familiar with Big Water coming at me really fast. In the Philippines, these same types of storms are called typhoons. Like the Eurofighter product, but less fun when you catch a tailwind. There were two or three of those in my 2-year stint on the island, which is about the number of major hurricanes I can remember in my first 22 years on the Gulf Coast. And there were a great many monsoons. A monsoon is like a powerful thunderstorm but more violent. And more frequent. When it was nice, the Philippine weather was really, really nice. When it was not nice, it could be brutal.
Another… interesting thing the archipelago featured was earthquakes. I was accustomed to the planet doing things someone knew was coming. Some hot babe or dodgy old bugger in a suit would tell me to board up my windows or go to Montana, and I reacted accordingly (usually by buying a lot of beer and throwing a hurricane party, but that isn’t the story I’m telling here). Earthquakes just come at you out of nowhere and don’t even give a fella the goddamn common courtesy of a reach around.
I was on my way to work one evening for a mid(night) shift (graveyard shift to some), which in this case was 23:00 – 07:00. As I was approaching my shop, I noticed my bike felt a little squirrelly. ‘Gotta check that back tire when I get there,’ thought I. Bike checked out. I went into the facility and a couple guys from swings (the shift I was replacing) had a laser on the bench. This ‘bench’ was a steel test bench bolted to the floor and not at all movable. One doesn’t test and boresight precision targeting lasers on hammocks. As I walked up to the bench to take turnover, I set my hand on the edge of the thing to lean in and get a better look. At that moment, the nearest fluorescent tube light fixture cage released, hitting its hinges so hard that they let go. The metal-framed corrugated plastic crashed to the floor.
This happened so perfectly in time that the guys at the bench thought for an instant I had somehow caused that light fixture to fall off the ceiling by touching that monolithic table they were working at. Hell, I did too for a second. They were even yelling at me ‘what did you do?!?!?’ It was freaky.
We hadn’t felt the earth move at first. PAVE TACK pods weighed approximately 1,500 pounds each. There were generally two complete pods and loads of parts of others in our building at any one time. This facility was very stout, built on a reinforced concrete slab (probably by General MacArthur himself), and meant to endure both nature and some light love from potential (NPA) fighters who were having a bad day with their AKs. PAVE TACK also wasn’t cheap. And as ever, experienced personnel are the most valuable war fighting asset in any circumstance. It was a solid building.
This was the earthquake whose epicenter had been near Baguio City, a well-known resort town somewhere north of Angeles. If memory serves, it was maybe a couple hours by road from Clark AB. A popular tourist hotel in Baguio was destroyed by that quake. It was high season and a lot of people died. Many others were trapped for weeks in the rubble. Some survived, some perished. It is the nature of these things. RIP and God bless.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.