Biography: Air Force Years
In the preceding paragraph I wrote about going to the Air Force like it was my real first choice. Actually, my vaguely thought-out idea was to join the Coast Guard. This was based on no more than a short conversation with a C.G. radio operator who was manning a recruiting presentation at some sort of fair. His description of his previous assignment, boating up and down the Ohio/Mississippi Rivers, sounded like just the sort of thing I could get to like. Problem was that in the year 1965 military positions which were unlikely to get you killed in the jungle were pretty scarce. And C.G. assignments which seemed more likely than most to keep you, if not close to home, at least in the vicinity of the USA were especially prized. To those unwilling to protest and evade and equally unwilling to be conscripted some form of legal draft dodging seemed a good alternative. Thus I fell back to the Air Force as a second choice. Even that second choice had many drawbacks at the time, the primary one being an extended waiting list for enlistments. So I took the tests and signed the enlistment papers with the understanding that it could be months before I would be called to serve.
As luck, or lack of it, would have it, the "months" of waiting turned out to be less than one day. The day I went to Pittsburgh to take my physical and finalize the paperwork before beginning my wait was the same day I was called up. I had no more than gotten home when a call came telling me that I should go to the airport that evening and report to basic training the next day. I was never told what happened to precipitate this inconvenient and unexpected turn of events but I suspect that a fatal accident took somebody off the list and put me onto it.
Basic training proved to be less painful than I had any right to expect. Confusing yes, but difficult no. I caught on pretty quickly that a large part of the training process was meant to change my mind set and I could at least fake it well enough to get along. Part way through basic we were herded off to a building to make "the decision" about what career field we would go into. For me the decision was already firmly fixed. I loved electronics, already had a lot of training in it, and had passed every qualification test (actually "aced" them all) so nothing really stood in my way. Well, ignorance of the system did stand in my way and when the when career interviewer started rattling off fields that I had never heard of my head was spinning: tropo scatter, ground radio, navaids, television. Ah! Television. That was something I understood. I had been fixing televisions for a while and I could see the USAF training me to do that and then I would get out and run a TV repair shop or something. I said yes. Little did I know that the USAF's idea of television and mine had little in common. Ignorance wins out again.
So it came to pass that, at the end of basic training I was sent off to technical school. Again things weren't as straightforward as they might have been. The USAF didn't actually have a school for this field although they did have personnel practicing it. Instead they sent trainees off to the US Army Signal Corps school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey for six months and hoped for the best. One thing about the US Army experience was certain: I was smart to have avoided them at all costs because they treated their own students rather badly and these were supposedly the cream of their crop. The assortment of non-Army students at the school had it pretty easy however. The USAF, German Luftwaffe, Iranian Air Force, and other collected oddities were treated well, not expected to arise at ungodly hours, nor perform dirty details. This was just fine with us. Avoidance of extra duties had another upside for me—the chance to use the post's photographic darkroom which lead me into a lifelong hobby.
This is probably the time to indulge in conjecture. Right about the time I graduated from high school my great uncle, the only person in my family that had real experience in such matters, having been a school teacher and counselor for all of his life, arranged for me to go to the IBM office in Pittsburgh and take their employment qualification test. I was pretty well up for it and didn't find it overly difficult having just come out of two years of intensive technical training. And then disappointment set in. They never contacted me as I had expected. Did this mean that I wasn't really as smart as I had thought? This is one of those times when it would have been better to wait. A few days after I turned eighteen, at about the beginning of my USAF/ARMY technical training my mother got a call from IBM with the message that I could start work immediately and go off to one of their fabled schools. Seems that IBM had a policy of not dealing with "children" which I guess I was at the time. Had they at least told me that something was coming up there is some chance that I wouldn't have jumped into the military quite so quickly to make my escape from home. What would life been like had I been in the standard IBM grey suit rather than the USAF blue one? I'll never know but I sometimes still wonder...
As the end of my schooling came near I started wondering about where I would be going next. Other students had been receiving their assignments: Germany, England, Japan, even Australia! All of this sounded exciting to me. Then my assignment came in: Pakistan. Huh? Why would anybody be going to Pakistan, let alone me? To make things even worse, there was nobody who could tell me anything about the assignment other than that I was to show up at Charleston AFB at a given date and time.
Graduation time eventually came around. I managed to graduate at the top of my class, scoring higher than any previous course graduate. This probably wasn't too much of a surprise since, before enlisting, I already had more training than the course instructors. I went home to Pennsylvania after graduation to wait out the couple of weeks before leaving the country. Nothing interesting to report about that except that I managed to break my left arm and was in a finger-to-shoulder cast for the next couple of months which made for interesting traveling half way around the world.
It would take a long time to describe my Air Force career. Just figuring out the sequence of my assignments has been difficult enough. To save time I'll simply give a short chronological list and make any comments about the assignments that seem to make sense.
- Peshawar, Pakistan
My first assignment was probably my strangest. Assigned to a base on the edge of Pakistan's infamous tribal territories I was a maintenance technician at a tiny AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) station which provided a limited sort of entertainment to the troops. Note that AFRTS was frequently called A-FARTS among those in the know and not entirely without provocation.
I was about to call this location Okinawa, Japan but though better of it. This island in the Ryukyu chain south of the main Japanese islands was still officially under US occupation after WWII, used US currency, and drove on the US side of the road at this time. Again it was an AFRTS assignment but this time the station was of an entirely different caliber. Largely thanks to the efforts of Robert Taplin the long-time civilian chief engineer the station had top of the line equipment and facilities and a better sort of programming than was ever seen in Pakistan. Another life-changing decision was made here: I was scheduled to be discharged from the AF upon returning from Okinawa but decided for various vague reasons to re-enlist. Possibly it was just the though of having to get a real job that pushed me over the edge
- Goldsboro, North Carolina, USA
This was a fairly short-term assignment maintaining a closed-circuit television system which carried weather charts and such from the weather forecasting station to various places around the base. Most notable thing here was the discovery that money could be made carrying cigarettes north and hauling Pennsylvania beer like Rolling Rock and Old Frothingslosh at holiday times to homesick airmen stuck in the south without access to real brew. Also noted that it is entirely possible to cover the 500 miles from Goldsboro to my mother's home in PA in 6-1/2 hours if you drive at night when most of the police "patrolling" the highways seem to be sleeping.
- Galena, Alaska, USA
My first Alaskan assignment was to a remote forward fighter base on the bank of the Yukon River almost precisely in the center of that huge state. Again I was back to AFRTS duty, keeping a tiny TV and AM radio station going. At Galena I learned exactly what "cold" means but overall it was not terrible since the long days of the sub-arctic summer made up for a lot. A few days after I left in 1971 the spring flood on the river came over the dike and flooded the entire base.
- Grand Forks, North Dakota, USA
Probably the worst assignment of my career. Again I was taking care of a closed-circuit weather system. Within a week of arriving a truly monumental thunderstorm hit the base and there were multiple lightning strikes on the cables which carried the TV signals and virtually every bit of circuitry was fried. Components to make the repairs were ordered but would take months to arrive and I was not to see the job completed. I fought on a daily basis to get any assignment out of this hellhole and finally broke down the system: total length of assignment turned out to be 120 days.
- Okinawa, Japan
This time I will call it Japan. This was the time of "reversion" when the US gave the Ryukyu Islands back to Japan ending the occupation. AFRTS duty again at the same station. I should mention that the station was a multi-service operation with Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps personnel. It was an odd station in another way since virtually all the maintenance which normally would be done by military was performed by long-time local civilian personnel. It was also unusual in that we had two AM stations, an FM station, and a color Television station in a time when AFRTS worldwide was still black-and-white.
- Sunnyvale, California, USA
This assignment came as a real surprise. I got to the San Jose Airport, the closest available, in the afternoon and asked a cab driver to take me to "Sunnyvale Air Force Station". When this drew a blank stare I tried another. Same result. This time the driver was helpful and put the question to his dispatcher and after some extended conversations he was told to take me to "the blue cube" and this seemed to make sense to him. Most military facilities have a rather high profile in their communities but this one was effectively invisible from what I could tell. Not that you couldn't see it—who could miss seeing an eight-story windowless building standing alongside a major highway? Most people, it seemed, assumed that the building was part of Lockheed's big facility. Or part of Moffett Field. Or part of NASA. But no, this single building was actually an Air Force Station all by itself having no support buildings, services, or even housing for the troops.
Probably the most significant thing that happened to me here was my introduction to personal computers. This was before the concept had been formalized and having a personal computer meant building it yourself. And writing your own programs also since the PC software industry didn't exist yet. I took on a part-time job with a company named RGS Electronics down the highway in Santa Clara as technician, floor sweeper, coffee maker, etc and this lead me to build my first computer. The computer was incredibly simple by today's standards but at the time the brainchild of Ray Stevens was a wonder. The machine involved, the RGS008A, was a kit and was, so far as I know the subject of the first computer review in the very first computer magazine, Byte. If you are curious about archaic computer equipment, clicking the link and flipping to page 16 will take you to the Byte article in question. By the way despite what the magazine says, the machine pictured is the very first prototype which I built since the reviewer's machine was not very photogenic and the publisher went to RGS to get usable pictures. Thanks, Ray, for getting me started. Computers have served me well over the years.
- Anchorage, Alaska
Well, back in Alaska again but no longer out in the interior. Elmendorf AFB is a fairly substantial installation on northern side of Anchorage which, if not a big city, is the biggest Alaska has to offer and even at the time was had most of the requirements for civilized living. It was said that Anchorage had the advantage of "being close to Alaska" at least to those who longed for life on the wild frontier.
My work was again in broadcasting. This time it was supporting a statewide radio network as well as maintaining equipment for the small television operations that my unit ran at various locations around the state. At this time satellite broadcasting was expensive and impractical for our small audience so we had small detachments operating to provide limited TV via film along with daily live news and local-interest programming. Radio broadcasting was largely via recorded programs from AFRTS in Los Angeles, feeds from Anchorage, and some limited live broadcasting. All-in-all a rough sort of entertainment to keep the troops in touch with "home" wherever that might have been.
- Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
As the tag line on Monty Python's Flying Circus said, "now for something completely different". This time it was fiddling with airplanes. This came as quite a shock to me and quite a learning experience but the task was to run a small maintenance shop, a maximum of ten people as I recall, to install and maintain television recording equipment in various fighter aircraft at Nellis AFB to support weapons testing, and to a lesser extent, training operations. Overall this was probably the most challenging assignment I'd ever had. The technical portion was not that terrible since the equipment being used was pretty simple at the time but being thrown into managing even a small shop under the bizarre and inexplicable rules and paperwork of the airplane folks was nearly my undoing. This was definitely a narrow-minded and non-creative bunch -- no attempt to do the job better would be tolerated unless in could be guaranteed to take longer, be more expensive, and to generate more paper. It was all I could do to keep of an illusion of respect for their way of doing things. A few times I let my cover slip enough to show the powers-that-be that I wasn't attuned to their ways and this would normally have cost me any chance at further promotions but I totally flummoxed them by earning a jump to Master Sergeant at about the time I was to leave.
I guess I should add in passing that it was during this period that I first got married. The less said about this the better. Theory would suggest that by the age of thirty I should have known what I was doing but practice didn't bear that out. My seven-year marriage was, well, the pits. It would be easy to blame my spouse but I probably should have realized that any woman who was still living with her parents at thirty might have some issues. It is also tempting to use terms such as one of my technicians used to describe his ex -- "psycho bitch from hell" but I'll refrain. Let's just say that it was a mistake made by two people who should have, but didn't, know better.
- Anchorage, Alaska
Well, back to Anchorage again. Same unit, same mission, but with far better equipment and support. By this time, Spring 1980, satellite time had become more affordable and videotape had replaced film. That meant that the unit in Anchorage could provide full-time radio service to all of the Alaskan bases and that the larger ones could have color television from local studios with satellite feeds of live news, sports, and the like from the headquarters at Elmendorf.
In my absence a very nice, by military standards of the time, broadcasting and production facility had been set up. Very shortly after coming in I was promoted to be the "chief engineer" of the television operations. I use that term in quotes since "engineer" in this context does not connote the same thing as in other industries -- basically a "chief engineer" was the person responsible for making sure that the existing facilities were in perfect working order and that new installations and designs were handled properly. What it doesn't mean is that an engineering degree is required. I had gotten along further with my on-again-off-again college education but had no intention to go the way of the engineer.
Well, this delightful situation couldn't last for ever and certainly didn't. Higher authority decided that the television production part of our operation was no longer needed and that even the radio was to be cut back. My job was on the line and with that came the prospect of yet another transfer -- not something I wanted. To avoid moving yet again I did an abrupt about-face and essentially invented a position for myself to stay in. You see the unit at Elmendorf was still in charge of some detachments in Alaska and had picked up a couple in, of all places, Greenland, and somebody still had to do the "engineering" work and training. So after some fast shuffling I found myself in a position that involved designing facilities, training technicians, managing a multi-million dollar budget, juggling satellite communications, and acting as a contract monitor to the Danish companies which performed our maintenance at the Greenland facilities. The latter proved interesting, at least in a sense of the word, because it called for me to travel to Greenland at least once a quarter to see how the work was being done, train the technicians, and help solve problems. Flying from Alaska to Greenland could have involved something as simple as getting on a civilian SAS plane and popping over the pole. Sadly in the military it really meant flying from Anchorage to Seattle to Philadelphia and taking a bus to an AF base in rural New Jersey and then flying in the back of a cargo plane up the east coast to my destinations. I did this thirteen times by my count. Call it an education.
Not to leave the impression that this new position was a total hardship. It also allowed me, at least occasionally to fly of to Las Vegas for several days to attend the National Association of Broadcasters convention -- and to go back to Nellis AFB and rub my former bosses' noses in the fact of my promotion and new opportunities. I also found myself attending some rather interesting training at various civilian facilities on both coasts although the trips to Sony's training school in San Jose were probably the best. I will deny categorically that the fact that I was in charge of the training budget had anything at all to do with my frequent training trips.
My spousal unit was seriously bothered by my frequent absences. This, along with other festering problems finally led to a divorce at almost exactly the time I achieved my 20 years in the Air Force and could finally retire. The divorce left me with a house in Anchorage purchased at the peak of the market and which, because of a crash in the local economy, I could dispose of only by dumping it and suffering a disastrous loss. This situation left me pretty much rooted in Anchorage, Alaska for the foreseeable future at the end of my 20-year and 7-day career in the United States Air Force. Just color me retired Master Sergeant looking for a job before the next mortgage payment comes due...