The mostly humorous ramblings of my day to day existence.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

An Airman’s Story

The world was divided, and I was at its border.
Ramstein Air Base Germany, 1979
The cold war trudged on, the United States had been in Germany since the end of World War 2, the Soviet Union was still asserting its grip on Eastern Europe, and it was a strange time with few heroes. I was there to do my part, repairing airplane radios for the United States of America. A young Airman only a few years out of high school, I was learning some hard lessons in life from a somewhat twisted perspective.
Ramstein Air Base, headquarters for the U.S. Air Force in Europe, the place where the Air Force Brass directed everything on the continent. The Generals shuttled around from country to country in small luxury jets. They used Lockheed Jetstars, and Cessna Saberliners, and they even had an old Air Force One that we called Miss Piggy.
Along with the elite transportation, Ramstein had a squadron of F4 Phantom fighter jets. I wasn’t assigned to the fighter squadron, I instead was assigned to the Military Airlift Command detachment, a somewhat ragtag bunch of mechanics, specialists, and freight handlers, with hydraulic fluid stains on our field jackets, and black baseball caps with the bold white letters MAC printed on the front. We were the red headed step children of the base.
Most of the MAC detachment worked out of the Enroute station located at the far end of the runway. Large cargo planes would land, get parked, get their cargo unloaded, new cargo loaded, get fueled, and repaired just enough so that they could limp back to their home bases. I worked in Enroute for about six months, mostly helping the mechanics by pumping gas and checking tire pressures.
Every once in a while I would be called upon to repair the radios in an airplane, but only if the flight crew absolutely wouldn’t fly without the problem being fixed. Once I was sent out to a C-130 transport that had one of its bottom antennas torn off by an unfortunate bird in flight. The metal was torn and bent and I was instructed to bash it back in shape with a hammer, cover the hole with the metal equivalent of duct tape, and write in the maintenance records “Temp fix, carry forward home station” It had another antenna on top it could use.
I worked with mechanics off all types; General mechanics vastly outnumbered everyone else and were responsible for the general welfare of the aircraft. When they weren’t helping to park or gass up a plane they were usually playing pinochle in the office. I was an A1C (Airman First Class) at the time which meant I spent a lot of time on my butt checking tire pressures and pumping gas for them; the mechanics rarely helped me when I had a radio problem, they simply had no idea of how to solder two wires together.
We referred to the mechanics as nose pickers; they just thought we were smart asses. I once walked in on a group of them discussing how they were going to “take LaFollette and Lorenzo out back and beat the crap out of them.” Well I was LaFollette and Lorenzo was my friend an A1C radar guy. Lorenzo regularly insulted the mechanics using big words like ignoramus; evidently someone must have told one of them what ignoramus meant because they were pissed off. I walk into the middle of the group and stated “Great plan guys! What can I do to help?” they grumbled and then quickly dispersed. It’s always good clean fun taunting sergeants that are openly planning to illegally beat you.
They got back at me by abandoning me by a C-141 transport in a remote spot on the far end of the runway, my launch team told me the plane wasn’t leaving for an hour and that they were going to go get some coffee. The four of them -all out ranking me- jumped into a step van and sped away leaving me by the plane alone. About two minutes after they left the flight crew showed up, and of course they wanted to leave right away.
To launch a C-141 you need at least 3 ground crew, one to get hand signals from the pilot and guide the plane out of its spot, one person on each wing to pull chocks and ensure the wings won’t hit anything, and there was an extremely heavy ground power unit that takes 2 people to push out of the way after the engines start.
I proceeded on my own to launch the plane; I follow the hand signals from the pilot, unplugged the power unit after the engines were started, rolled up the cable, and then pushed it with all of my strength to get it out of the way. I ran under each of the 4 running jet engines mounted beneath the wings to remove the chocks from the tires. -It always made me nervous doing this, the front of the engine could suck you up and kill you, the back of the engine could burn your head off… and kill you- I then got my orange paddles and started directing the large plane to turn in a circle to get onto the taxiway. The plane didn’t hit anything and it managed to get out onto the taxiway with no problems. About a half an hour later the motley launch crew showed up. One of them actually said “What happened to the plane?”
“Dumb asses!” I thought to myself. It would have been a real big HA HA if one of the plane’s wings had clipped something with no spotters by them.
Don’t get me wrong, the mechanics were very good at what they had been trained to do, with emphasis on “what they had been trained to do.” Most of my resentment came from the lack of training I received to do their job. When I was asked to fill the liquid oxygen tank of a plane I could easily say that I hadn’t been trained to do the dangerous task and I wouldn’t have been expected to do it. But one day on the flight line a Staff Sergeant mechanic threw what looked like a case of oil on a stand and told me top off the oil reservoir just like you would do in a car. I had never done it before, and it sounded simple enough, and he even supplied me with the oil. I climbed up onto the stand and checked the dip stick, I found the first engine to be low by several quarts (this was apparently normal) I then started popping open cans and filling the reservoir. After the third or fourth can the wind picked up and a drip of oil spilled on the outside of the engine, it was red.
“Red? Oil isn’t red.” I thought to myself. I then looked at the can. “Hydraulic Fluid” was printed on the bright silver can. Hydraulic fluid was purposely put in bright silver cans so it wasn’t mistaken for oil. I immediately stopped what I was doing and told my superior what had happened. A crew of several mechanics spent hours flushing out the engine and replacing the oil. If the engine hadn’t been flushed it could have failed in flight. I wasn’t blamed for the mistake, but I was a little angry that the Staff Sergeant had made me look incompetent by tossing the case of Hydraulic Fluid on the stand and instructing me to do the task. I’m sure a trained mechanic would have spotted the silver cans and the mistake would never have happened.
A few days after being abandoned on the far end of the runway my opportunity to leave this bunch of yahoos had arrived; they needed a radio and a radar guy over at Teeny Weenie Airlines. Lorenzo and I jumped at the chance and volunteered to be transferred. We had to endure a week of being called traitors but it was worth it.
Teeny Weeny Airlines read the little wooden sign over the door on the aging green hanger. We started our new assignment working on the luxury jets that I referred to earlier. There were a few desks in an open office space and a door that opened into a medium size hanger. The hanger was where we repaired the luxury jets when they needed to be out of the weather. I and one other radio person were responsible for the communications equipment of the entire fleet of aircraft. It was great feeling to be doing the job I was trained to do once again. Lorenzo and I hadn’t pissed off the mechanics yet so we were off on the right foot. We also got to do new things like spending hours waxing the little airplanes so they were nice and shiny; it was almost a Zen experience.
I eventually got promoted to Senior Airman so I wasn’t getting pushed around quite so much. One evening, with our feet up on desks, we were waiting for a few planes to arrive back home. I was reading something written by Larry Niven when above me I heard a slurry voice, “When was the last time you were hit so hard, you couldn’t walk away?” I looked up and there stood (slightly swaying) MacCooly, a 6 foot 6 Tech Sergeant who was built like a brick shit house, he was affectionately known as Nasty.
Nasty was a jet engine mechanic and in charge of us that night. He had just returned from the NCO club where he had consumed large quantities of liquid dinner. Sizing up the situation I figured he had more to lose than I did so I looked up at him and said “Look it’s a talking asshole!” That statement didn’t seem to faze Nasty, he sort of stumbled over to Lorenzo and threatened him with a similar assault. Then tripping over a chair to Smitty pointing a finger he said “and you’re next.” Smitty, an autopilot guy, just looked at him like he was some sort of idiot and shook his head. Nasty stumbled off into another room, most likely to fall over for a nap.
It was 20:00 hours -8 PM for the rest of you- and I decided we should do something. I looked over at Lorenzo and said “We can do one of two things, we can call the SPs and have our boss arrested for being drunk on duty and threatening us, or we can go back to the barracks. If anyone asks we can tell them our drunken boss said we could leave.” We smiled at each other, closed our books, and headed back to our rooms for some beers of our own. We didn’t really want to get Nasty busted; we just wanted the night off. The next day there was no mention of the night before, and I’m sure Nasty was happy with our decision. Nasty got in trouble and lost a stripe a month later for some other drunken act. Germany was the perfect place to be a drunk.
We lived in a complete zoo, the barracks on Kaupon Air Station. Freight guys would buy speakers that went from the floor to the ceilings of their rooms, and they liked to play their stereos at levels that would make your ears bleed. I remember asking one of them to turn the stereo down at 2 AM so I could get some sleep; I got the finger from some glazed eyed moron.
“No problem” I thought to myself, I walked a few yards down the hallway and started tripping circuit breakers in a panel until the noise stopped. Freight guys had no concept of electricity so they didn’t figure it out. They were the fellows that put boxes on pallets, and then put the pallets on airplanes, or took pallets off planes and took boxes off pallets. You didn’t have to score very high on the entrance test to get that job.
Once every six months they ran drug dogs through the barracks, they would station people outside of the building with clipboards and when the dogs started sniffing the doors of rooms, objects would start flying out of windows. The people outside would make note of which object flew out of which window and then arrest the occupants. The cycle would continue, drug use would build up, dogs would sniff, and people were busted. Usually I didn’t care, because they ended up being the same assholes that liked to give me the finger at 2 AM, so it all worked out.
Lorenzo was busy taking care of the guys who had contemplated beating the crap out of us by placing ping pong balls in their gas tanks and putting bricks under the rear differentials of their cars. On occasion he would throw a string of firecrackers in an open window after 4 or 5 of us encouraged him, and he had a lot of beers. I had no interest in his petty revenge but was mildly entertained by his need to get back at jerks.
I’m sure my experience at Ramstein twisted my personality in some way; I seemed to be constantly putting up with some sort of crap, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world. I got to learn and enjoy a new culture and I could never have imagined that I would be exploring ancient castles a few years earlier; quite frankly I had a lot of fun. I also have the cuckoo clock I mailed to my parent hanging on my living room wall. I inherited it after they both died. I got chewed out by a Colonel while I was walking to the post office in the snow with that clock, my arms were full and I didn’t see the eagle on his staff car that required a salute. He was small potatoes compared to all of the Generals running around; I guess he was just feeling inadequate that day.

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