A Memoir: Part Two
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Previously: A Memoir: Part One
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.
So I was sent to Denver, Colorado for technical training. First time I’d ever liked a place that didn’t have an ocean nearby. One of the first things I learned living that far above sea level was that it really does matter in the realm of physical training. People younger than me were dropping off the sidewalk to puke in the grass (no running path back then at that base – the USAF wasn’t known for the elite-level physical fitness of its troops in those days).
The specialty to which I had been assigned was heavy on electronics and back then, that meant one needed to grasp basic stuff about circuits and theory and drinking beer and partying… wait. Just the first two. As far as you know. The first thing you have to learn when learning electric theory is algebra. It took me a minute to reacquire the whole ‘‘x’ is a number’ thing, but it clicked within the first couple days or so. Algebra is a funny old thing. One never needs it until one actually does. And when one needs it, nothing else will do. I think I’ll name my carry piece “Algebra.”
Less than a month after I arrived at tech school, the space shuttle Challenger was scheduled to launch for its tenth mission. Because of the historic nature of that mission (mostly due to Christa McAuliffe being the first educator selected for space flight as part of “Teachers in Space,” a Reagan initiative to bolster public support for the expensive program), our instructor had a television on and tuned to CNN. For anyone too young to remember, CNN was pretty solid and worth paying attention to back then. They were also the only commercial network carrying the entire process live. So it was that I watched the disaster unfold in real time on television. It is the first time I remember crying in the presence of people to whom I wasn’t related.
At the beginning of ‘systems school’ (the second phase of the training where we learned about the specific, well, systems we were to be working on in the field), the school’s squadron commander (aka commanding officer or CO) came in for a meet and greet. The major went around the room asking the usual stuff. Name, why did you decide to grace my beloved Air Force with your presence, etcetera. Answers were as you might expect (travel, college money, chicks…). Then he came to me. Again, I told the truth. He lost interest in me very quickly, which suited me just fine.
It was also during this training that my education in the odd manners of speaking of my fellow countrymen continued. I was assigned a roommate from Wisconsin, and it actually took me a minute to understand what he was saying when he said the word “bag.” It sounded like ‘baeg.’ Something akin to the sound of the ‘bag’ in “bagel.” Fascinating. As it turned out, a guy from my ‘sister’ flight in BMTS was also a Sconnie and had also been selected for the same career field as me. We became good friends at our first Permanent Duty Station (PDS). I may or may not have called him “Bagel” a lot after a few beverages.
A couple weeks after Challenger, my daughter was born. The DoD insurance covered almost all of the medical costs and everything turned out fine. Mission Accomplished. She was born in my hometown because her mother had been too pregnant for air travel by the time I was authorized to have ‘dependents’ living with me. There are actually some strict rules in the Air Force, despite what some of the other services may insist. So I flew down to meet her the following Friday after duty. It was 14 February, and she was beautiful. She still is.
At some point before the end of tech school I received the assignment to my first PDS. Bergstrom Air Force Base just outside Austin, Texas. I was newly minted Avionic Sensor Systems Technician, and Bergstrom was home to the largest collection of RF-4C reconnaissance jets stationed in the continental United States (CONUS). The RF-4C was a modified version of the famous fighter from early in the Vietnam era. The F-4 was known to those of us who loved / hated her as ‘The Flying Pig.’ The theory was that if you put big enough engines on it, you can make a brick fly. I was assigned to an Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU) and my buddy Bagel to the back shop. Basically, I fixed wires and such on the flightline and helped with other duties to keep those pigs flying and taking pictures. If the problem came down to a box, my job was to pull the box and take it to Bagel and he’d fix it.
One of the more mundane and routine tasks on my daily schedule was taking mission film from the Recces, putting it into a plastic film can and delivering it to the “PIs” or Photographic Interpreters. These are intelligence folks who specialize in figuring out exactly what an aerial image shows. Have you ever tried to figure out the height of a building based on shadows and other inputs just from an overhead image? It’s… complicated.
Every couple of years back in those days (when most developed countries used manned aerial tactical reconnaissance vehicles – most now don’t), an international competition called the Reconnaissance Air Meet (RAM) was held to determine who was the Best Damn Recce Unit in the World. It was serious business, and we were very busy during the 10 days or so Bergstrom hosted it when I was there. Also found out that Aussies have a summer uniform that includes short trousers. Lucky bastards.
On the flightline, we used color codes for the various flying units to differentiate between all of them. My unit, for example, was the 45th AMU. On the radio, the 45th was “Blue,” and my specialty was “Blue Photo.” During RAM ‘86, with many units from all over the world visiting, we had to expand our use of the light spectrum on radio comms. So one unit was known on the radio as “Black Photo.” To keep things fair, we had all been assigned converted conexes to use as storage for film and as darkrooms to do the aforementioned removing film from cameras and putting it into cans. As a home unit, we had our own hardened (and air conditioned) facility, but were required to use the conex so the playing field was level. We also were not allowed to use the darkroom we had built into the back of our ‘bread truck’ for the same reason. That was a ‘local man’ thing, and not everyone was clever enough to have one.
These conexes were left unsecured during the flying schedule. They were secured using padlocks and there weren’t enough keys to ensure every crew could have access when they needed it. The USAF team out of Zweibrücken Air Base in what was then West Germany was assigned the “Black” radio call sign. And we were having issues with them stealing our film and other supplies, which they did to such an extent that it caused us problems at times. So we came up with the always-effective ‘put a piece of paper with words on it up on the door’ plan. That ought to keep those jerks out of our stuff. The words written on that piece of paper? “No Black Photo Troops!” It never even occurred to any of us that there might be some type of issue. We knew what we meant.
A bit later, our expediter (the guy driving the Blue Photo bread truck and assigning us all various jobs) pulled up at the conex. I was in the truck at that point. Well, Blue Photo expediter, himself a black photo troop (but not a Black Photo troop) saw our sign and he could not stop laughing. Finally, he caught his breath, said ‘Yeah, fuck those assholes!,’ and had us change the sign to “Blue Photo Personnel Only.” Ah, youth.
Another particularly memorable flightline moment happened later in my 3-year tour of duty at Bergstrom. The bread truck had pulled up to a jet on which I had been assigned a job. As I moved to gather my tools and equipment, our flightline maintenance ops coordinator (call sign “Alpha”) crackled into life on the radio alerting the Maintenance Operations Center, from which all flightline maintenance was overseen: “MOC, Alpha. We’ve got one on fire.” I looked out the front windows of the truck and saw an F-4 standing still in the air, nose pointing at the sun. Fire was indeed evident, and a second after I looked up, there was a “pop” and some extra flames. A few seconds later, as the ruined equipment was exiting my field of view, I saw two silk canopies descending from the vicinity where it had been. Both aircrew members survived with minor injuries. ‘Minor injuries’ is code for ‘were violently jettisoned out of a flying jet aircraft by rocket-powered seats with enough force to escape the conflagration which drove this drastic decision.’ Did you realize that Martin-Baker Ejection Seats egress an F-4 so quickly that your eye can’t detect it (at least not when you’re marveling at seeing an Air Force jet burn in the sky)? I did not.
As it was reported later, the No. 2 engine (that’s the starboard one of the two jet engines), experienced a massive compressor failure on takeoff due to an undetected or ‘within tolerance’ crack in a flywheel in the workings of it. “Massive compressor failure” means the turbine stopped turning all at once, like locking your brakes but you didn’t know it was going to happen. And you’re hundreds of feet in the air.
When I first saw the plane, the driver was vertical in a very tight turn in a heroic attempt to get that piece of shit to the ‘safe area’ (safe space?), which was a large area of clear field designed for jets with major problems to ditch if possible. We do that near cities. He never exited that hard bank because the ruined No. 2 had flung bits of metal through one of the internal fuel tanks along the spine of the F-4 (this caused the “pop” and explosion I witnessed), and into the No. 1 engine, ending its useful life. If you know anything about human flight in general and F-4s particularly, you know that this was the point at which one of the crew used one of the ejection handles and they lived to fight another day. We found most of the pieces over the next few days in the wilderness beyond the runway.
The jet landed in a self-storage maze near the intersection of Texas 183 and Riverside Drive. It crashed so perfectly inside that you couldn’t see the wreck from any angle accessible from the streets nearby. I drove around it and looked. That jet was ensconced inside the maze of units. You would be surprised how many people who rent such storage facilities remember they keep expensive sports cars and very large jewels in there after the federal government drops a burning jet on their old Elton John records. No civilians were present. No one was seriously injured in the course of the day’s events. My arms did get scratched up from digging through brambles looking for jet pieces. Thanks for asking.
Early in this first tour of duty, I broached the idea of having another baby with The Reason I Joined the Military (TRIJtM). She was enthused about it, and so about 9 months later, our son was born. We were young and frisky. And fertile, by any objective measure. I was in the room when this one came along. At the clinic on Bergstrom, so the boy is technically a Texan. Bonus!
The reasons we decided to have another child so close to the first (they’re ~1.5 years apart) are manifold (aren’t they always), but mostly it was that I had never planned to serve more than that first 4-year hitch. At a year out I was studying options, had calls in, some good prospects on shrimp boats and possibly the (erstwhile) paper mill back home. And then a thing happened which caught me by surprise: I had a minor ankle injury and was working the dispatch radio when my boss came in and told me I had gotten an assignment to the Philippines. I had heard of such a place, but really had no idea where it was or why my rich uncle would want me to go there. So I talked to some old heads who had been there and did some serious thinking about how hard the work is on shrimp boats. And after a consult with TRIJtM, I reenlisted and we were off to the other side of the world. Woooooo!
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.