The Pragmatic Volunteer
A Memoir: Part Five
"The Pragmatic Volunteer" is 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.
In June, the timetable was sped up by our old friend planet earth. Early that month, the base populace was notified that Mount Pinatubo had been increasing in activity and that ‘measures were being considered’ to mitigate any potential threats to Americans which might emanate from the volcano along with all that molten rock. The next Monday, a base recall was initiated (every military member received a phone call or personal visit) ordering us to pile into whatever heap we could find and get to Subic Bay. Now. With the family. The mountain, she was angry.
We did not have a car. Clark was a very large base, geographically speaking. I had my motorcycle, which I used as my primary transport. If the kids needed to get somewhere or for whatever other reason, we never wanted for a four-wheeler. So I rode. There was never any black ice. Or any ice at all. But this day, I realized the folly of my frugality and fun: I couldn’t move my family, and all the usual suspects were already using their cars. This was the last time I ever didn’t have a car.
We called a couple who were friends of ours (both active duty and assigned to my shop) and asked if they could give us a ride. They had a child, and we had two. Their car was a early 80s Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Sweet ride, but we were leaving our houses forever as far as we knew (we were right), and we had seven people in this coupe. So what we mostly took was kids’ snacks and some diapers. Shorts and flip flops and water. Thanks y’all. No way I could ever thank you enough for that sacrifice.
I pushed my bike up the steps into the house, said goodbye to my doomed Oscar, and locked the door.
The Navy guys at Subic were spectacular in the main. They had to take in an entire air base of people and they stepped up. We arrived at Olongapo late that afternoon and got a spot in some couple’s place off base. The Navy dude was a really strange bird. I’m guessing submariner. So the next day I went to the ‘I’m willing to let people I don’t know sleep on my couch’ list and found a new place. This turned out to be a Chief Petty Officer’s (CPO) family quarters on the base. Quite literally on Easy Street. He even took me downtown Friday evening for a couple beers. I don’t recall your name, Chief, to my eternal shame. But thank you for helping us out. Your black life definitely matters to me.
At around midnight that Friday, Pinatubo had had quite enough of the pressure and decided to break out its party piece. We were all asleep indoors, but the sudden disco dancing of the 3-storey building we were in somehow managed to wake the entire shaking house. We were on the ground floor. A bit dicey. Me and Chief stuck our heads out, of course. A man’s gotta know.
Early the next morning, I went outdoors and it was still nighttime. But it was like 06:something. Old Sol should have been making his daily appearance by then. The sun never broke through that day. At all. I’ve called it ‘the Saturday the sun didn’t come up’ since I witnessed it. This also represented the last time there was running water or hot food until we got off that island days later. The air never stopped having large quantities of ash in it until we left the following week. It just went from night to dusk to foggy as the days wore on. I saw a man on the roof of his car with a shovel one day. He was hacking at the now-cement-like ‘snow’ on his vehicle. Looked like a guy clearing his walk, but really driving that shovel hard into his own car. Surreal.
The gym at the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) high school on base had been used to shelter as many families as could fit in there. The weight of the ash collapsed the flat roof of the building onto everyone inside. This is not a thing I talk about, but it is always with me. It haunts me.
I was familiar with eating MREs. TRIJtM was not. My toddlers had also never had the pleasure of that fine cuisine, but they became accustomed to them. They didn’t like them. No one does. It was the only food available. There are far more difficult things, but this was not fun. We muddled through. The lack of running water was the biggest problem. There was sufficient water to drink thanks mostly to AAFES and NEX being great companies who really ‘go where we go.’ I disparaged AAFES quite a lot in my career, but they were there when it mattered. But there was no bathing. Remember, the air was made of dirt this whole time. So it wasn’t just ‘ew, my pits.’ It was actual dirt. Every fucking where.
The Navy came though again in the following days. Luzon no longer had airfields that could be used to launch people-carrying jets (or any airplanes, really) because that ash was everywhere. And by “ash” I mean ‘ash and also rock and various and sundry other shit.’ Pinatubo was a real bitch. So the 7th Fleet (and maybe others, I don’t know... I was busy getting children to eat something worse than peas) steamed toward Subic Bay to pick up a lot of the people there and take us to other islands to grab a flight to somewhere less hostile to human life. We were literally refugees. We took the cruise ship USS Lake Champlain (CG-57, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser) down to Cebu and caught a C-141 Starlifter with a comfort pallet to Guam. I had never seen a comfort pallet in a C-141 before. It just means they put real seats across the deck of the plane. There aren’t stewardesses with drink carts or free peanuts. Not particularly comfortable, but at least we got some sleep.
Sidebar: Can you remember your favorite shower ever? And if you can, was it aboard a U.S. cruiser in a tiny aluminum stall? I do remember my favorite shower, and it didn’t even irritate me that I kept banging my elbows on the walls. They only gave us 4 minutes. Best sex you ever had? Fuggedaboudit. This was better than any sex I ever had. And that’s saying something. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
I know, I know: You all want me to talk about that one thing the Philippines is known for. OK, I will indulge you this one time: Yes, I did eat balut once. Once.
When we arrived at Anderson AFB on Guam (it didn’t tip over and, uh, capsize, thank goodness), we were taken by bus to an old WWII barracks building. It looked condemned, but one doesn’t turn down concrete walls and a hardened shitter. In any case, there weren’t other options. We (TRIJtM with one kid and a backpack, me with the other kid and another backpack) went into the barracks. People were dispersing like ants, trying to get dibs on the best racks (old-school Army doubles) in the open bays. As I hit the top of the ladder (staircase to you land lubbers), there was a door directly in front of me. So I opened it. It was a room designed to sleep two enlisted leaders back in the day. There was one bunked rack next to the window. There were two chairs and a desk. The bays looked like Marielitos during the Cuban refugee crisis; we were Ward and June in our little room with a door. Fortune favors the bold.
There was a Class VI / Shoppette in walking distance from that old barracks. The first night was pretty cool. Got the kids some snacks that didn’t come out of a rat-proof armored pouch, had a six pack for me and a bottle of wine for the woman. Life sucked less than it had for a while. The next day, the wing commander at Anderson invoked General Order Number 1. Apparently, a couple of Air Force dudes had a little bitch fight and so… no more alcohol until the refugees were gone. I was livid, and not just because this unknown prick had taken away my mood lubricant. It was just a bad decision for a leader to make. We were all stressed, but this dude was an O-6 who hadn’t dealt with anything beyond a bunch of unexpected arrivals on his little island. He should have known better. Anyway, there were a lot more fights after he turned off the booze. ‘Officer’ doesn’t mean ‘smart.’ Remember that, kids.
Anyway, then a bunch of other stuff happened (thanks loggies and finance guys!) and we arrived at Seymour Johnson AFB in Goldsboro, North Carolina. We were assigned on-base quarters immediately due to our status as refugees from Pinatubo. There was a lot of that going around at that moment. Clark and Subic had housed a lot of people. What? No, I don’t know. It was a lot. It’s probably online somewhere. I’d guess somewhere around 20 thousand people when including family members, which indeed you had to do. Let me know.
After a couple of months had passed, I was notified that I had a household goods shipment coming from the Philippines. I was sort of expecting an envelope with some dust and maybe a beer bottle cap. Nope. Almost everything had survived inside that house we left. Both aquariums, books, even the TV and my bike. Sadly, Oscar did not make it. Bad ass as he was, in the end he needed the guppies I was no longer there to provide. RIP Oscar. You magnificent bastard.
Another thing in that shipment was an 8-foot-long oval Philippine mahogany dining table. The Air Force had loaned me that table when I moved onto the base at Clark (TRIJtM always wanted to live on base, as you might imagine). The house we were assigned had a dining room which was mostly separated from the rest of the place by a wall and which was purpose-built as a ‘formal’ dining room. It was a beautiful table and I loved it. Used to have to cover it with a bed sheet to play poker with the fellas because it reflected the cards. It was truly gorgeous. And they sent it to me because it was in my former house at Clark AB. They didn’t discriminate, just packed everything they found. I worked for 3 months to get the Air Force to take that table back. I regret not keeping it to this day. It ain’t always easy having integrity. But I suspect that table would have had a better life with me.
The system I had been assigned to Seymour Johnson to service was called LANTIRN, which acronym stood for “Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night.” The platform carrying this two-pod system at Seymour was the F-15E Strike Eagle, aka the Mudhen. I was assigned to the back shop this time, and never even sat in a Mudhen cockpit. I had also never heard of LANTIRN before. It had recently been deployed for active service and my specific ‘shred-out’ (a single-letter at the end of my specialty code) was for systems other than LANTIRN’s targeting laser (EO, IR, video). Of course, the F-15E has a gun camera, so that and the “IR” in LANTIRN is how I got there. But I worked on LANTIRN almost exclusively, including the targeting pod (though lasers were not my shred-out). Got to Seymour in June 1991. Sometime shortly thereafter, I was informed the Air Force was ending my shred-out for good. Film was a dying medium in aerial reconnaissance. So I went to the place with the big ‘job book.’ Long story short, intel was what was available. So I selected intel.
At the beginning of December that year, I was sent back to Denver for advanced training on the LANTIRN system. I was running a crew now, so it would be helpful if I understood our primary system at least as well as my guys did. My boss, a MSgt (maintenance shops usually had enlisted leaders), knew my local interview had gone well (you had to speak with the local flying wing’s intel chief before you got accepted) and that my application for intel would likely be approved. He thought he could get AFPC to convert my shred-out to the one that was sticking around and stop the behemoth from taking my expensive ass away from him. He was wrong. And he was mad as hell. That school was 2 months, Dec – Jan, and it cost our unit around $100K for me to go there and complete it. We knew before I was finished in Denver that I’d soon be gone. And in June, I was.
In LANTIRN school, I met a couple guys I ended up spending a lot of my free time with while there. ‘Bo’ was a stout country boy from somewhere in the swamps south of Tallahassee. He was stationed in Alaska and was an avid hunter and a great supporter of the Second Amendment and the companies servicing the needs and desires of people such as himself. I’m implying he had a lot of guns. He even brought a compound bow and hunting arrows with him and stowed them in the closet of his billeting (Visiting Airman’s Quarters, the base hotel) room. Not sure if he thought he might get out to the woods sometime or if he was hunting wabbits in Denver. The other fellow was ‘Bodhi,’ a skinny young blond guy who may not have been from California (I don’t recall), but he should have been. Bohdi was stationed in Arizona, which is where my ‘surfer dude’ thing breaks down.
We stayed in Denver over the holidays because one does not take leave while on temporary duty (TDY) to a formal school training evolution. So it was that we found ourselves at the base NCO club on New Year’s Eve 1991. They were doing door prizes, and we won a very large, very whole turkey. VAQ billeting rooms do not have proper cooking facilities, usually just a microwave and a small coffee machine (as we all did in this case). What this facility did have was those open barbecue things on sticks that are planted into a slab of concrete in the ground.
As I mentioned, Bo was an outdoorsman. He had also brought a large hunting knife and we all had quality folders we carried everywhere (Gibbs Rule No. 9 wasn’t Gibbs’ idea originally). So we butchered the bird in one of our rooms, then went downstairs to cook it. It had recently snowed, and in my experience when it snows in Denver, it snows a lot and all at once. So we cleared the snow off the grill and built our fire. And then we cooked an entire turkey over an open fire. On New Year’s Day. In Denver. In deep snow. Improvise, adapt, overcome. We also got some cans of vegetation (yams and green beans, as I recall) when we bought the charcoal. We aren’t savages. Not that you’d have known that from watching us feast on that free turkey.
5/12/2017 08:12:18 pm
Interesting as always. You should have kept the table. Probably worth a lot of money. Anyway, that's the days before everything had a bar code on it, I'm guessing.
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