The mostly humorous ramblings of my day to day existence.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Seargent's Story, of the Great White North

It was a hard decision to make, re-entering the Air Force after being out for over a year, but it was 1982 and the economy just stank. I had to trade my Swiss army knife for a tank of gas to get to the military recruitment office to raise my right hand once again, and swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Unfortunately for me I was living on North Dakota street at the time, and someone in the assignment office must have thought it would be real funny to give me orders to Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. A Strategic Air Command SAC bomber base poised to strike the USSR right over the North Pole.

I was able to get an advance on my travel pay and purchase a used Volkswagen 412 to drive across Idaho, Montana, and into North Dakota in the dead of winter. I had never driven on snow packed freeways for hundreds of miles before, and I was sort of enjoying the adventure. I had a tire blowout in Idaho and was able to purchase some used studded tires that came in very handy. The heater didn't exactly work very well in my Volkswagen with no radiator, so I spent a lot of time scraping ice from the inside of the window that accumulated from my breath.

Per Potentiam Pax, Latin for Peace through Power.
After a couple days of driving, and sleeping at a rest area in my car in sub zero weather, I finally arrived at Grand Forks. Not exactly what I would call a winter wonderland with it's flat bleak landscape, and blowing snow snakes. Coming from a place where you always saw hills and mountains the flatness everywhere was unreal. I was able to get a room, and the next day showed up at my duty assignment, the Radio shop at the 319th Avionic Maintenance Squadron. I rang the doorbell to the secure room and I was greeted by a familiar face, John Treadaway an old high school acquaintance that I had run track and cross country with in High School. I really couldn't believe I was going to work with someone I went to school with, but those High School days were long gone, and we never really developed a friendship. I was a Sergeant and he was an Airman First Class with a chip on his shoulder. I suppose he looked at me as one of the authority figures that he had a grudge against.

After processing, and training on B-52 bombers I was assigned to the swing shift; 4PM to Midnight. The swing shift supervisor's name was Staff Sergeant Johnny Blane. Johnny was great to work with, a charismatic leader who knew how to motivate his people. I soon became second in charge, and after testing, and making the cutoff was waiting for a promotion to SSGT myself. Johnny was on top of his game, but his life took an unexpected twist after a random piss test. It came back positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The Air Force had a zero tolerance policy toward drugs, you could get drunk every night if you wanted to, and if the police weren't involved, nobody cared. But don't Bogart that joint my friend, because if you did, they would find out, and make you miserable before they shoved you out the gate.

Johnny claimed that his brother had sent him some funny brownies as a joke, and that he wasn't a pot head. Of course it didn't work (it never did), and Johnny was demoted, forced to clean toilets for months, then booted out. At about this time I received my promotion, and took Johnny's place as the swing shift supervisor. Johnny got married to a woman in our shop before getting busted, and she got orders to Alaska. We received a post card from Johnny months later with a picture of him surrounded by a table of pot. I guess those brownies really must have been addictive.

SSGT Daniel LaFollette re-enlisting in the Radio Shop. I drew the Garfield in the background.
I was a pretty easy going boss, all I really cared about was that we got all of our work done. If we got everything done we would get off work early on Fridays, and head into town for Margaritas. Lunch usually consisted of boxes we affectionately called box nasties. When mystery meat sandwiches on white bread where placed in our box nasties, someone would usually declined to eat theirs and the Glad wrapped questionable food item would become a baseball. Mystery meat sandwich baseball was always a good lunch time activity in the shop, and we tried to remove the meat and bread chunks out of the million dollar satellite communication radio tester before we left for the night, but the day shift supervisor did find a chunk of meat one morning, no big deal it was blown off as being left by a sloppy eater. It was handy to have a lock on the door because of our secret equipment in the room, this way nobody ever hit a sandwich home run just as the Squadron Commander walked in. SAC officers just didn't have a sense of humor.

Grand Forks was really a depressing place in the winter, and most of the time it seemed to be winter. The only thing that there seemed to be able to do was go to bars or restaurants. They had great bars, and drinks like the Suffering Bastard in a skull mug were my favorite drinks, I don't think it was safe to drink more than one of those unless you liked a pounding head in the morning, they really lived up to their name.

living in the barracks as a Staff Sergeant meant I had my own room; it did however come at a price. I was put in charge of half the hallway on the third floor, and I had the key to the room where the vacuum cleaner was stored. Anyone wanting to clean up after hours would could come to me asking for the key. It became a little annoying when I received a knock on the door at 1 AM from a drunk (Suffering Bastard) who wanted to use the vacuum.

“I -hic-” “need the vacuum cleaner” A swaying, slurring young man said to me as I opened the door.
“It's 1 o'clock in the morning go back to bed man.” I say to the weaving drunkard, as I squinted through one eye.
“I um, got a pile of ralph here, and a pile of ralph there” He says to me still looking like he could hurl again at any moment. Apparently he had barfed all over the hallway in front of his room.
“I'll tell you what, you let your ralph dry up, and then you can get the vacuum cleaner in the morning” I say to him with a half awake smirk, and shaking my head up and down.
“Oh -hic-, good idea” He said stumbling back toward his room. I went back to bed, I had to be at work at 7AM and needed my beauty rest.

2:12 AM I am awakened by screaming, apparently someone stepped barefoot into our drunks puddle of ralph. A lot of profanity ensued but then it died down after a few minutes.

6AM I get up to go to work, I see our now hungover suffering bastard cleaning up his puddle of vomit. Apparently he was passed out in his room, and didn't hear his victim stepping into his mess.
No harm done, nobody punched, mess cleaned up, nothing to report.

Yes, there was a lot of drunkenness, and I remember on New Years Eve one fellow swinging outside of the second story barracks window in a make shift New Years baby diaper. He luckily didn't kill himself and provided a few minutes of “look at the jackass” entertainment. I had one friend who would be drunk every other day, and on a hangover on the rest. He used to stop by my room and play video games on my Commodore 64 computer. He would always offer some of his B&B or Drambuie and I actually grew to like the stuff after a while. That same friend had a wealthy family and when we both got orders to Europe, he offered to let me come along with him across the Atlantic. He was going to live on this small ship in Spain and planed to captain it himself. I don't know about you but I really didn't want to depend on a drunk to get me across the Atlantic ocean in a boat. I've often wondered if he made it, or if he ended up swimming with the fishes.

I had the honor of attending Non Commissioned Officer Leadership school at Minot AFB down the road also in North Dakota, in the middle of winter of course. In the Air Force there is a saying “Why not Minot? Freezen's the reason.” Corny yes, but it was a way of passing along that this wasn't a choice assignment. My school was 6 weeks of concentrated training on how to supervise, and handle subordinates. We had an inspection every morning, and we had to sort of march on the ice to the classroom. It didn't take long for me to be pegged as a funny man, and the instructor who couldn't pronounce my name dubbed me SSGT La La. Some of the material was pretty dry and I did my best to keep them entertained when I could. To tell you quite honestly it was one of the best experiences of my life.

Grand Forks wasn't all fun and games, and my job was deadly serious. Working around B-52 bombers loaded with nuclear cruise missiles meant having to go through checkpoints where if you forgot your password you ended up on the ground with your face in the snow with the barrel of an M-16 pointed at your head. You always performed work in pairs and if your partner started sabotaging the plane you were required to take them down with any force possible. Simply working around aircraft is hazardous, especially large ones. One of our bombers exploded, and burned to the ground with four people inside after an electrician pushed in a circuit breaker that had popped to a fuel tank boost pump. I remember going out to retrieve a portable radio out of the small pickup truck that had melted in front of the plane with a pair of tongs; a chard winter boot had been tossed into the bed of the toasted truck.

The cold war is now over, the nukes are gone, and the base no longer hosts a wing of strategic bombers. The base has a different mission now, serving as a squadron of in-flight refueling planes. In many ways I really miss my time at Grand Forks, I think the harsh weather and the semi remote location made everyone closer, but I don't think I would really want to live through those winters again. I still communicate with a few people I knew then in a group on Facebook. I keep looking for the drunk that sailed his boat across the Atlantic, maybe some day I will get a surprise and he'll turn up alive.