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!
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.