My Glorious Air Force ‘Career’
My time in the service was from Oct 30, 1960 to Oct 30, 1964. I did my basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. My basic was shorter than most and in many ways more interesting. Rather than 8 weeks, we were release a week early for Christmas. Really? I didn’t know the military considered such things as holidays for new troops.
In truth, I enjoyed basic more than any other Air Force experience, except maybe driving my two and a half ton dump trunk in Vermont. Another story. But I even remember my TI, SSgt Russell even to this day 56 years later. He was terrific. Actually made me think seriously about becoming a Training Instructor there at Lackland I was having such a good time. I think a lot of that was a result of hearing so many stories of Marine Boot at Paris Island, due to my father’s history. But I enjoyed the whole thing, especially the obstacle course. Even as a smoker, running that course was the highlight of my time there. Thought I was going to die in that smoke house, but made it through. Russell was outside egging me on in language I won’t use here. But he was great. One big influence on me for sure. Hardly ever pulled PT, Russell would march us under some trees and say; “Drop it here, light ’em if your got ’em”. So many tales of adventures in that lousy 7 week, hard to believe we live through so much in such a short time.
To get home for Christmas, I took the train from San Antonio to DC. One long train ride. But we made it… interesting. The train stopped in some, tiny, Louisiana town for just a few minutes. But enough for this other fool and me to run through town looking for a liquor store. We found one. Bought a bottle of Johnny Walker scotch and dashed back though the middle of the street to the train just as it was puling out. A nice WAF riding with us sewed our new stripes on our uniforms before we all got too toasted. Don’t remember much after that until we reached Washington.
I arrived in St. Albans, Vermont on Jan 11, 1961. I was discharged at Plattsburgh AFB, NY directly across Lake Champlain from, dare I say it, St. Albans, Vermont, on Oct 30, 1964. Right. I spent my whole four year tour on the same radar site, on a hill above the same town. But, I learned a lot while there and learned to appreciate so much of it many years later.
The Air Force, in their infinite wisdom, assigned me to this radar site as a boiler fireman after my spending three years in Europe, speaking French almost fluently and having a great deal of cultural background. Let’s see, how long will it take to make an intellectual into an animal? As it turns out, less than one year.
While I was shoveling coal in the boiler room, we experienced a winter with one week of temperatures at 40 below zero or lower. The record for the winter of ’61 was 42 below during that week. I had to clime up on the coal and chop it up with a pick to get the coal mixed with snow into the boiler room, while the wind continued to blow more snow into the coal bin. The coal froze to the sides of the hoppers on the front of the boilers. The radiators in the barracks froze. The fun was leaving me quickly that first year.
But I was 18 and the local town kids were terrific. We drank, danced, drove cars like insane people and became fast friends. And still are 50 years later.
For a while I had a roommate who played guitar. I bought a pair of drumsticks. Oh yeah, I’ve been fooling with being a drummer since I was about eight or nine. Started getting serious in Military school during my two years in the fifth grade. I wanted to be in the drum corps. Never came to pass. But I dreamed. This other lunatic listened to me bang on the arm of a chair and asked me to be his drummer. There were, I believe, ulterior motives. I was a walking bomb from my working so hard in the boiler room and I had a mountain sized attitude. My roommate believed that if I didn’t let go some of that anger and frustration, between the work and the beer afterwards, I might kill someone. I doubt it. Most people wouldn’t walk on the same side of the street with me, so nothing ever came to pass. Except I got to play with a band and loved it. And then I drove.
In ’63 a friend drought back to Vermont a ’49 Ford from Pittsburgh and sold it to me for $150. I was one happy guy. I put 16″ sand tread snow tires on it and it would go where no other vehicle would go. One buddy borrowed it from me for a weekend in the Catskills NY and it snowed mightily for him. A local barn caught fire, the fire department couldn’t get the trucks to the barn, so my buddy used the ’48 to make a path and they got the fire out. I’d pickup a couple of cases of beer and six or more friends in that huge back seat and we’d cruise the dirt back roads in the snow. No problem.
Early in ’64, the same friend who sold me the ’48 brought back another Ford from Plattsburgh. This was a ’54 Crown Victoria. Maroon and white. But I was, by then, a road daemon. So the Flathead had to go and I replaced it with a ’57, 245 hp V-8. That engine came with two Holly four barrel carbs, milled heads and a bunch of other enhancements. Took it, I was told, to about 350 hp. Seriously bad news. Especially in my hands. On those roads… insanity. Couldn’t get enough.
Also in ’63, I finally got out of the boiler room and into a new career field. “Building Maintenance Mechanic”. Right. I went from shoveling coal to shoveling snow in the winter and shoveling crap out of the sewage filter bed in the summer. But it wasn’t all grim. I also had the opportunity to work with the electricians, plumber, the carpenters and learned masonry along the way. All these trades have served me well over the years. I also got my military drivers license and was elected to make supply pickups at Pittsburgh in the winter and the trash pickup at the lakefront Air Force beach in the summer, in my 1961 Ford 2.5 ton dump truck. Well of course, it was the bases truck, Air Force blue and all. But for a while it was mine and I was in love. I had more fun hot-rodding that beast around town. Something about split-shifting that transmission that just lit me up. It was great.
Of course in ’64, I was expected to attend a reenlistment ‘talk’. Well I might have. For the right assignment. Europe, Texas, anywhere in the Southwest. So before I made any decision, I went to the IG (Inspector General) office at Plattsburgh, out support base, and checked. What would happen to me it I reenlisted. It too a week to hear, but the answer was another four years on the same radar site.
I road to Plattsburgh to clear finance for the last paycheck on my last day, in our site squad car, which also happened to be our ambulance. I know this may sound made-up, but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. On our way off the base once I was done with finance, the base sirens went off. The whole base was going on alert. Probably for the weekend. This was Friday, Oct 30. My friend driving was a 1st lieutenant from my site. I was shouting; “No, No, No. Not now!” So Jon laughed and turned on the lights and ambulance siren, and charged down the main drive to the gate. The gate guard just waved us through and we were gone. We stopped in St’ Albans and I ducked into my favorite restaurant. I changed from dress blues into jeans and stuffed my uniform in the trash. A couple of weeks later a local friend and I left town in his Chrysler headed for Florida. It was October and I was not spending another winter in the frozen north.
So ended my illustrious military experience. But…
All these years later I have great appreciation for my time in the Air Force. I learned a lot during my time in Vermont, met some wonderful people, held on to them as friends and I’m ever so grateful for my VA benefits. They helped me buy my first home. And now when my only income is my Social Security, I have no funds for medical insurance. But the VA is there and they are simply wonderful to me. So for all the terrible cold I endured and crushing physical labor, I have a great deal to be grateful for after all.