Great Legs

Jan Wilberg rung my bell the other day with a list of things she missed. We must be kin, somehow. Further down she mentioned having great legs when she was younger.  That rung a bell too.

Back in the 1950s when I was in boot camp sometimes shorts were the uniform of the day. As a result someone pinned the name Legs Laughlin on me. And it stuck.

So I asked a friend, “What the hell’s wrong with my legs?”

“I don’t know. They look twisted.”

“Thanks buddy. Thanks a lot.”

Hurricanes

Photo from air force

This is Tuesday. I should be ranting about something, but life seems to have smoothed somewhat. I can’t help but wonder if this calm is like the stillness that brings false comfort before an advancing hurricane.

Barb and I weathered several hurricanes when we lived in the West Indies. However, the positive life style we experienced there has caused those worrisome hurricane memories to fade into washed out images that have grayed with time.

The hurricane predictions for 1964 were so dire that six WC-130 Hurricane Hunters aircraft were dispatched from Mississippi and spent the summer with us. One of the crew members, a meteorologist, moved into the apartment beneath us. I came to know him quite well. Though much of his job was classified as a Need To Know, he shared a few aspects with me.

barometric pressure within a hurricane proper is so radical a typical barometer we might purchase from a store is useless. Instead, they depend on a radar altimeter my shop maintained at that time – a SCR-718. The aircraft commander relied heavily on this and had two identical systems with twin readouts which he monitored closely. If the readings indicated a difference greater than 50 feet between the two, he aborted the mission and went home instead of flying into the eye.

I asked about the ride. He told me the turbulence was so great the crew members remained strapped into their duty stations to prevent being thrown to the floor.
Eventually, the hurricane season passed. My neighbor packed his belongings and returned to Mississippi. And I’ve not seen him since.  

They Erased the House

Married air force personal with sufficient grade and time in service are encouraged to live on base. Folks in key supervisory positions are obligated to accept the offer.

There is an upside: It’s close to the job. Rent, though not a bargain by any stretch, is not subject to unannounced increases.

There are some downsides to such an arrangement. First: becoming acquainted with the civilian population is more difficult. Second: living under the thumb of someone with authority behind a large gray desk is not always a comfortable situation. Worse than an HOA.

Before moving in an inspector performs a detailed inspection, noting the condition of literally everything and then filing his report under the new occupant‘s name. When it’s time to move out the process is repeated. Normal wear and tear, other than interior paint, is not often a consideration. Condition must compare favorably with the report on file, or the occupant must pay to make it so. One of my supervisors, the shop chief of my airborne communications/navigation shop was confronted with such a situation.

The house in which he and his family had lived for the previous three years was in good condition except that kids had written on the outside walls with pencils, using his house as a message board. It had to be removed or pay for new siding.

He tried everything – soap, bleach, cleanser. Nothing touched it.

Of course, the neighborhood kids had all come to watch, probably the message writers, as well. A first grader in the group suggested: “Why don’t you erase the house?”

“WHAT?”

“At school we use erasers all the time.”

Someone produced a yellow pencil with an eraser and the writing vanished. He drove to the base exchange and bought two-dozen art gum erasers, passed them out to the kids with a promise of money in exchange for their labor.

By the end of the day the condition house was the way my friend had found it, and the neighborhood kids had some walk around money.

Arnold Paints His Room

Beale AFB had belonged to the army during World War II, Used for tank training. That accounts for the gigantic size – 34,000 acres +/-. Our barracks, where the  Armament and Electronic Squadron quartered had been the bachelor’s officers quarters. The air force had taken possession only a short time before I arrived.

The army, when it came time to leave, had evidently spit, leaving many things in their wake. Among these castoffs was a moderate-sized warehouse filled with a large number of gallon cans of white paint and apparently brushes too. Some said the paint been there since 1939. Indeed. A sharp screwdriver was needed to begin stirring.

Obviously, the powers that be had worried over this paint since day one. Shortly after my arrival we were notified of a “Self Help Program”. We were directed to paint our rooms any color we wished. To help, several airmen were stationed at the warehouse with dye of many colors – red, pink, yellow. Even black or gray.

My roommate and I settled on mint green walls with a white ceiling. Others chose yellow, rose, lavender. Arnold chose black and gray. Arnold had a room to himself. His choice. And ours. Because he was a loner we were unaware the Jaguar was his until the day he bought roll up window shades which he fastened to the window frames. From that point he kept his door shut and locked.

At last the “Self Help Program” was concluded. All the rooms were accounted for. An inspection day was published and placed on the bulletin board. That same day an open ranks inspection would occur at the parade ground. Everyone was invited. And while someone was conducting the inspection our Squadron Commander, a Bird Colonel, and our First Sergeant would tour the barracks and admire the results of our labor.

Someone had gotten a glimpse of Arnold’s room. He would not reveal what he saw. Instead, he suggested we find a way to put a tape recorder in the middle locker which always remained locked. No one had a key. While someone lured Arnold from his room our resident “safecracker” opened the middle locker and planted a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder inside, set it to RECORD and then resecured the locker.

After our inspection at the parade ground was concluded  the safecracker retrieved his Wollensack while we waited in the day room to have a listen.

The owner fast forwarded the first half-hour that had only the hissing sound of the the tape passing over the record head.

We recognized the First Sergeant’s voice as he shouted: “COLONEL! COLONEL! COME SEE THIS.”

“MY GOD,” roared the Colonel. “WHO LIVES IN THE ROOM?”

“I’ll have to look, sir,”

“Then get to looking!” the Colonel ordered.

His words were followed by a rustling of paper. And then Arnold’s name was revealed.

“I want that man in my office, front and center at 1200 hours today.”

“That’s only ten minutes from now, sir.”

“Do it. That’s an order.”

We knew where Arnold would be at noon, so we beat it to his room. And then we understood.

The floor, walls, and ceiling were gray. The window shades were also gray with black bars painted on them like a jail. A large link chain was painted from the bed frame to the wall where it was connected to a large black ball.

There didn’t seem to be any immediate reaction other than he repainted his room under  the supervision of the First Sergeant and colors of his choice.

Weeks later, some of us were in the mailroom when Arnold checked his box.

“Ah, a letter from my Congressman,” he said, ripping it  opening. I peered over his shoulder. The text was short and to the point.

I’ll no longer support you. You are on your own.  

The PI (Political Influence) stamped on his records no longer carried any weight.

Arnold was awarded a Bad Conduct Discharge four days prior to his regular discharge date.

Arnold’s Coffee Shop

When I arrived at Beale Air Force Base I met an individual who may have possessed a negative attitude that was the worst ever. Rumors stated he had earned an electrical engineering degree from Princeton. With such a high-powered education I wondered how he ended up as an aircraft maintainer, fixing the things he should have been designing.

His air force job was maintaining the fire control systems on B-52G aircraft – guns, optics, and radar systems that controlled them. His shop was haunted by an aircraft with an intermittent gun problem. Sometimes they fired. Sometimes they didn’t. The shop chief and his underlings were beginning their second day into this intermittent malfunction and the Wing Commander, a brigadier general, had sent the Deputy Commander of Maintenance around asking questions. Someone suggested it might be a fuse that looked serviceable, but was fractured and somehow the result of inflight vibration. Desperate for any solution the shop chief let his eyes drift around the shop. They settled on Arnold.

“Arnold!”

“Yeah?”

“Go out to aircraft 579 and bring me all the fuses.”

Arnold headed for the flightline. A half-hour later he returned and dumped what may have been a hundred, perhaps two-hundred fuses onto a work bench.

“What the hell have you done?” the shop chief hissed, the veins at his temples standing out.

“I pulled all the fuses like you said.”

“Get out of here. Take the rest of the day off. Get out of my sight.”

After Arnold was gone the shop chief contacted the 579 crew chief, the man responsible for the aircraft when it is on the ground, and asked him to come to the fire control shop ASAP.

There are always security measures described as “a need to know” and I didn’t need to know. So I left.

Aircraft 579 was out of commission for several days while the hydraulic, engine, instruments, radios, navigation, autopilot people sorted through the fuse pile, claiming what they thought came from their systems. It had become a serious situation of the type that often cost supervisors their careers.

Arnold’s security clearance was modified. He was no longer allowed on the flight line. His sole duty was the coffee shop.

The coffee cost only a nickel, so no one expected world-class brew. But this coffee became so strong it had a taste all its own. I watched him open a fresh three-pound can of coffee and dump the contents into a 30-cup urn and then start it perking.

Word got around and we stopped drinking it. However, one morning officers were heading for Commander’s Call to present progress reports to the squadron commander. A captain en route with his report paused a cup.

“What have you done to this?” he shouted after spewing his first sip onto the floor.

“Sir, if you don’t like our service you may take your business elsewhere,” Arnold stated with a poker face.

The following day someone else was making coffee and Arnold   was pushing a broom.

In the course of time I learned Arnold had summoned political influence from his Massachusetts Congressman, making virtually untouchable. His adventure does not end with the coffee shop.

What If

The year was 1958, and Ben was serving in Military Air Transport Service (MATS),  stationed in Charleston, South Carolina. His folks lived in Medford, Oregon, a long haul from that historic town, but hadn’t seen them in two years.

Hitching a ride with a fellow airman got him somewhere near Atlanta. In order to save money he decided to thumb the rest of the way to Kansas City which was a huge mistake. It was already dark when he and his friend had that final cup of coffee and he headed for home. Ben spent hours at the roadside staying close enough to be seen in the headlights without being run down by some dozing motorist. That night and part of the next day were wasted before he reached Kansas City and purchased a ticket on Union Pacific’s Portland Rose.

Sure, he could have flown. But flying is about as exciting as a prolonged elevator ride.

The best part of three more days were behind him by the time Ben reached Portland. From there he took a cab to the Greyhound station and after a few hours wait he resumed his trek toward Medford.

The bus was loaded and Ben took a seat next to an attractive girl about his age who was  headed for a new job LA. She was Her perfume was light, unforgettable. Her silky, dark hair was shoulder length, her voice low and pleasant. Easy to know, the two struck a warm friendship right off the bat, bonded, you might say, talking all the way to his destination. When the bus wheeled into the station she fell silent and her pastel blue eyes grew serious, brooding. It was obvious she wasn’t ready for their friendship to end. Nor was he.

The urge to continue to LA was overwhelming, but his folks were expecting him. Disappointing them was out of the question.

For weeks, even after returning to Charleston, the scent of her perfume shadowed him and he couldn’t help but wonder – what if.

Black

In the summer of 1957, while stationed at Biloxi, Mississippi four of us often went to town together. One of us was a tall black man from Houston. He redefined the word black. On Saturday, after inspection, we all headed for town. A city bus came through the base. At the gate black people had to move go the four rear seats. He didn’t like doing that, so we all got off there.

The guy from Houston always wore yellow shorts, yellow shirt, yellow cap, yellow knee-high stockings, and black shoes.

His personality was just as colorful as his outfit. And we liked him.

Zeke 01

In the thin morning dawn I spotted Dan’s hangar. Pulling myself into the aisle I made my way forward. “Can you let me out near that lane up ahead?” I asked the driver.

“Sure,” he replied, glancing up at me. “I suppose you know town is another six miles,” he added, his features unreadable in the instrument lights

“I know.”

“You got luggage?” he asked, the heavy bus rocking from side-to-side as he brought it to a halt on the shoulder, the sound of his flashes adding noise to the surging Detroit diesel.

“Negative. Just this,” I said, swinging the AWOL bag so he could see it in the light from the doorway lamp as I waited for him to open the door.

Stepping out, I turned away from the diesel exhaust and the shower of grit that filled the air as the driver powered it back onto the highway. In less than a minute only his marker lights were visible. Then there was silence except for the whisper of the morning wind. Reflecting on my late friend, Dan, I tried to compare this silent world with the confusion I’d shared with him – the Vietnam War, the firefights, the womping sound of helicopter blades, the voices of injured men, the shouts of the frightened GIs. There was no comparison.

The Eastern Texas horizon grew paler as I hiked the lane, the gravel crunching beneath the thick soles of my combat boots.

Dan and I had crewed a medevac helicopter. We’d nearly finished a tour when a sniper bullet took him out. It happened in an instant. One second he was giving me directions through the Interphone, the next second his blood was everywhere and his weight on the stick was taking us in. Had he been the pilot rather than the copilot we probably would have lost the aircraft in that desperate moment. As it was, I managed to heave his body off the stick before we did. With only fifteen or so feet it was touch and go.

Sally was Dan‘s life. He talked of nothing else. If he showed me her picture once he showed it to me a thousand times – a lanky blonde with tangled hair and grease on her cheek.

“She was packing the wheel bearing on one of the Stearman,” he said.

She was a skilled crop-duster pilot, and she was a capable maintainer. But she wasn’t certified. Dan was so he checked over her work and then signed it off. He’d mentioned once that if something happened to him he hoped I would look in on her.

And this morning, while on my way home, that was what he was doing – looking in.

On the southeast corner of the hangar was a light blue entry door. I paused there, wondering if anyone was around. Then I heard the faint sounds of country music, maybe Ernest Tubb. I couldn’t be sure. I made a fist and knocked. The music stopped and I heard nothing but the Texas wind. I knocked again.

“Who is it?”

“Name’s Zeke,” I replied.

“Don’t know anybody called Zeke.”

“Probably not, unless Dan mentioned me in one of his letters from ‘Nam. He was my copilot.”

A brief silence was followed by the sound of a deadbolt. The door opened as far as the safety chin would allow and just enough to reveal Sally’s face. She was just as pretty as her photograph. In her left hand was a very large revolver.

“What do you want?”

“I didn’t come wanting anything. Dan just asked me to look in on you if anything ever … anything ever happened to him. And that’s what I’m trying to do. But if you‘d rather, I‘ll set this stuff down and be on my way.”

“What stuff? I didn’t hear anyone drive up. How’d you get here?”

“I’m on my way to North Dakota. I flew to Dallas from Travis Air Force Base in California. Then I rode a Greyhound to here.”

“You got any ID?”

“I got an expired North Dakota driver’s license.”

“What kind of stuff did you bring?”

“A picture of you and Dan standing next to a Stearman and a hanky that he said used to smell like perfume.”

Cornbread and Buttermilk

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This morning while shopping at Walmart we passed the milk display. My eyes focused on a half-gallon of buttermilk. I suggested we should buy some, and an ancient memory screamed in from my past….

The year was 1963 and I was a new arrival at an air base in the West Indies. Our newborn daughter, Evie, was required to reach the age of six weeks before she and her mother could join me. So i was living in the A&E barrack for that period.

We were in the midst of the Cold War. Keeping aircraft and flight crews at the ready everyday and around the clock meant that our duty hours were all over the place. But once in a while two A&E maintainers from Tennessee would join our rotating gab session on the small porch near the First Sergeant’s office. These two Tennesseans were previously acquainted from a previous SAC assignment. They had one thing in common – cornbread and buttermilk, the way Mama used to make it.

I heard their story so many times that I can’t imagine why it’s taken me so many years to give it a shot. But that’s what Barb and I are going to do today.

I’ll let you know.