Saturday, September 10th, 2016

Here’s a random memory that popped into my head as I was taking out the trash:

I used to work with a woman I’ll call Lilly, for the purposes of respecting her privacy. We worked together while I was stationed at RAF Chicksands in central England and, coincidentally, we both went to language school in San Antonio at about the same time. I didn’t know her well, so my impression of her may have been wrong, but she seemed like a rather quiet person with a disposition on the sunny side. I never saw her angry, until one night at Chicksands.

Our jobs at Chix seemed really super-cool at the time, mostly because we weren’t allowed to tell anyone about it. I’m still not allowed to tell you about the details, but there is one aspect of the job that’s important to this story: We banged out a lot of text on teletype machines, which are a kind of electric typewriter. They printed all this text on that old computer paper with the holes along the sides that came out the back of the machine in one long ribbon of paper that never seemed to end.

The text was considered classified material, so after it was no longer needed, the paper had to be destroyed. The military preferred to destroy classified paper by shredding it, and at a station like Chix there was a lot of material to destroy, so they built some impressively huge shredders to do the job. Unfortunately, Chix didn’t have one of these monster shredders. They had a furnace at the back of the building in a dirty, stinking room called the burn room. Nobody wasted a moment’s imagination naming that room because it didn’t deserve it.

At the end of every shift, we collected all the paper in bags, labeled the bags so we knew where they came from, and piled the bags in the burn room. A couple times a week, two or three airmen were given the responsibility of firing up the furnace and burning as much paper as they could, a dirty job made even dirtier because they had to break open every bag and sort the paper from the garbage. It was strictly verboten to put garbage in the burn bags, but people did it anyway, and nothing but paper could go in the furnace, so all that garbage had to be picked out by hand.

I’m pretty sure it was a swing shift or mid shift when I found out how much Lilly hated being on the burn detail. I was sitting at the far end of the aisle I worked in — and let me back up to describe the aisle for you: We worked on what was called the operations floor, an open room filled by rows of tall gray steel cabinets. There was a gap between each cabinet big enough for one of the teletype machines to sit on a shelf. We sat in the aisles between the rows of cabinets, facing the teletypes. Our seats were in an aisle wide enough for us to sit back-to-back with room behind us for one person to walk.

The cabinets were chock-full of electronic equipment that hummed and buzzed and clicked. All that electronic equipment generated a lot of heat, so the room was kept very cold by refrigeration units blowing cold air up through vents in the floor. We wore headphones while we worked, and between the noise coming the headphones, the chatter of the teletype machines, and the rush of air blowing through the ventilation system, it was pretty easy to sneak up on us.

Enter Lilly. Did I mention she was a tall woman? At least as tall as I am, maybe even an inch taller. Dressed in green fatigues, covered in soot, dripping sweat, and face as red with rage as her hair, she seemed to appear in the blink of an eye. One moment we were all concentrating on our work, and the next minute this red-haired fury was in our midst. She held a torn-open burn bag in one hand and bellowed, so we could all hear her: “I AM SICK OF PICKING YOUR GARBAGE OUT OF THE BURN BAGS!” Then she swung the burn bag over her head, smashing it against the floor like the hammer of Thor, where it burst open, scattering paper, orange peels, apple cores, and paper cups dribbling coffee everywhere.

We were caught dead to rights. Written across both sides of the bag was our address and the date it had been sealed up. I don’t recall if that fixed the problem or not, but I will never forget the way Lilly glared at us with disgust before stalking away.

And I never saw her angry again. Maybe she got it all out that one night.

trash talk | 10:42 am CDT
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career
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Sunday, December 14th, 2014

I recently went to a meeting with my supervisor, who was busily working up an e-mail or a memo or something as I walked in. “Give me just a minute,” she said, banging away at the keyboard in a most determined way and I answered, “No problem,” and waited while she finished her thought.

When she hit the final full stop and turned from her keyboard, I made an offhand remark like, “Are they keeping you busy much?” She took a deep breath, let it out and said, and I wish I could quote her verbatim but it was something like, “Oh, it’s been one of those days, but I guess none of us has ever had a job that we looked forward to every day,” by which I’m sure she meant only that there are good days and there are bad days, not that she wasn’t happy in her job. But her comment made me perk right up and blurt, “That’s not true!” It was out of my mouth almost before I realized I’d said it.

That stopped her dead in her tracks. She looked puzzled, then asked, “You had a job that you looked forward to every day?” as if she didn’t quite believe it. And then she had to ask, “Well, what was it?”

So I proceeded to tell her about when I was a resource manager, programming the work schedule at a military facility just outside of Denver, Colorado. I know it sounds lethally boring and I wish I could tell you exactly what made it so enjoyable that I looked forward to it every day, but I can’t because I’ve been sworn to secrecy about it, not in the cool I’ll-have-to-kill-you-if-I-tell-you way but in a mundane, we’ll-both-go-to-jail-if-I-tell-you way. Think Edward Snowden instead of James Bond.

But I can tell you that I was part of a small, specialized team of people whose work made it possible for dozens of other people to get their work done. Without our team, everybody else would have been sitting on their hands a lot of the time and billions of dollars worth of hardware would have sat idle. The team I was on found where those idle spots were most likely to be and reassigned the hardware.

It was entirely different work from anything else I had done before that, so I had to learn it from scratch, mostly by sitting next to the inestimable Chad Burlingame for a few weeks as he explained how things worked, talked me through what he was doing, then moved aside to let me sit in his seat and nervously try to mimic what I’d seem him do. I listened carefully as he patiently correct the thousand and one mistakes I made, and eventually he let me do the job on my own, so I must have learned it well enough.

I did that job for three or four years (I forget exactly), and loved it from beginning to end. There were probably a few off days, but I don’t remember them and I never got tired of the job. I would’ve done it for as long as the Air Force let me stay there.

happy in this job | 3:25 pm CDT
Category: coworkers, My Glorious Air Force Career, office work, work
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Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Thirteen years ago today I was one of the newbies on Misawa Air Base. By this time in November I’d been there a little over ten weeks and I’d gone to more mandatory formations in that time than in the rest of my military service. In the Air Force, we called any meeting a ‘formation.’ Mass formations were held at the base theater because they could cram a lot of us in there, checking the box on a whole lot of forms at one sitting.

They briefed us on everything that happened at Misawa, but they were especially thorough about briefing us on winter. Thorough, as in they talked a lot about it, but the briefing was dumbed down to the point that it was inane. Sitting through it I would think, Do people really have to be told this?

It gets really, really cold in winter. Don’t get frostbite. And we get so much snow here that people have heart attacks shoveling it, so don’t keel over and die while you’re shoveling your sidewalks. Now, in our own special way, let us try to scare you out of doing something stupid by showing you gruesome photos of frostbitten toes and hands that got mangled in snow blowers. Thank-you for your time and don’t forget to sign the attendance roster on the way out or you’ll have to come back and do this all over again tomorrow.

I’m not kidding. They really did make us watch a slide show of hands mangled by snow blowers, projected onto a screen twenty feet high and thirty feet wide, apparently in the belief that even the dopier specimens among us would stop and think about what we were doing the next time a snow blower bogged down. And yet, every year, the clinic supplied the people doing the brief with new photos of some dummy’s hand after he stuck it into a snowblower. So, yeah, people need to be told this.

briefings | 4:20 am CDT
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career
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Saturday, July 26th, 2014

Just outside the schoolhouse on the Air Force base where I learned how to do all sorts of technical things there was a fenced-in break area with a soda machine and maybe a couple picnic tables. I think we got one break in the morning and one in the afternoon when we would all go bunch up in the break area; those who smoked would smoke as furiously as they could in the ten minutes or so before we had to go back in. Those who didn’t smoke drank soda or just stood around gabbing.

On one particular day we went out there to find a guy loading the soda machine. He was good enough to stop what he was doing and pass out cans of soda to us so we wouldn’t have to miss out before going back to class. As he was passing out the cans he bobbled one of them, and when it hit the ground it must have caught a stone just right because as it rolled across the concrete floor of the break area it sprayed a geyser of brown caramel soda pop into the air each time it rolled over.

I had never seen panic and mayhem in a crowd setting before. Turns out that kids wearing clean blue uniforms will climb over one another to get away from a rogue soda can.

let us spray | 7:03 am CDT
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career
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Monday, April 28th, 2014

England memories:

When Tim heard that we were moving into a house on RAF Digby with an upper floor, he asked right away if it had stairs. His eyes lit up like Christmas when I told him it did. “Cool!” he said. I enjoyed his exuberance even though I didn’t fully understand it until the day we moved in. I was downstairs when I heard what sounded like a god’s knuckles dragged along a washboard. Looking for the source of the noise, I found Tim at the top of the stairs on his belly looking down at me. “Watch what I can do!” he commanded before launching himself downward, arms outstretched like Superman, going flup flup flup flup all the way to the bottom. Made my knees hurt just watching (he was using his as brakes).

superman | 8:29 pm CDT
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, T-Dawg
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Thursday, March 28th, 2013

I suffered the biggest culture shock of my life when the Air Force transferred me from the peace and quiet of RAF Digby in northern England to the ear-shattering jet noise and chaos of Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The culture of the Air Force in the two places, and the culture of the host countries, were so completely different from one another I was nearly catatonic.

There were about a half-dozen Air Force goobers stationed at Digby, most of them airmen. I was a technical sergeant. But the station and the base were so quiet, dare I say even sleepy, that I didn’t have much to do in the way of supervising anybody, as tech sergeants are expected to do in other places. I supervised a staff sergeant, and he supervised the airmen. Two years of that left me fat, dumb and happy, if a six-foot-tall guy who weighs 155 can even metaphorically be described as “fat.” (Sadly, there’s no question about the “fat” part.)

I don’t know how many Air Force goobers there were at Misawa but I was immediately put in a position where I was responsible for about two dozen of them, and by “responsible” I mean that I was the person whom the mission superintendent yelled at when one of my minions screwed up. My duties, I soon learned, were to then go and find out who screwed up and yell at him or her or them. The mission supe, you see, was too high up the food chain to yell at the underlings directly. It was a game of monkey in the middle, and I got to be the monkey. Also, I got to write everybody’s performance reports. Every single goddamn one. The sergeants who were supposed to do it couldn’t write a bathroom-stall limerick to save their lives, or so they said, and backed it up by not doing it.

And that was just the change in Air Force culture. Going from England, where I could read and write and speak to the local people, to Japan, where I couldn’t do any of that, very nearly drove me crazy. I was literally walking around in a daze for I don’t know how long. I’d been stationed before in foreign lands where I couldn’t speak the language, but I’d always been able to read. Give me a dictionary and I could figure things out. Being stationed in Japan, though, was the first time I’d been plopped down in a country where I couldn’t read. It was like being an infant again.

Culture shock | 5:59 am CDT
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time, travel, work | Tags: ,
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Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Ten years ago:

I got a new computer at my desk. This happened in a really weird way. I was using the old computer a couple days ago when I reached across the desk and spilled a Styrofoam cup of hot tea on the keyboard, which stopped it dead. This was not entirely a bad thing, so far as I could see, because the old computer sucked, but unfortunately for me and anybody else who was a mission supe, we had to have that computer to do our work. I had to ask for a new keyboard, which meant that I had to explain why it wasn’t working, and they wrote up a memo for record and all.

Two hours later, another guy brought out the new computer, a sleek, black Dell with all the bells and whistles. Everybody stopped at my desk to oooh and ahhh over it. The lieutenant was so jealous. “Master Sergeant,” he commanded, “I want you to go get another cup of tea and dump it on my keyboard.” His computer sucked, too.

 
I was stationed overseas at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan from 2001 until 2005, where I did a brief stint as a mission superintendent. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that was ten years ago.
 

We had Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. Each family brought a dish or two and made a pot luck out of it. When the meal was ready, we made a long line that kept circulating through the kitchen as people came back to load up for seconds and thirds.

After supper, we got together in the living room to sing karaoke. Summarizing generally, the Americans sucked, but the Japanese were great at it.  The Japanese sergeant they called Chi-chi had a beautiful voice, but he sang only one song, so we mostly had to listen to the Americans butcher pop tunes from the 80s and 90s. 

Sean probably had the most fun of anybody; karaoke is his calling, I think.  He said later that it was the most fun he’s ever had.  Go figure.

 

Thanksgiving | 3:22 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, O'Folks friends, story time, work | Tags:
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Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

On my emergency trip across the Atlantic during the Thanksgiving weekend I’d had to suffer two broken ATMs to make sure I had no money in my pocket, a lack of places to eat in O’Hare airport except for a tavern serving cold sandwiches, a seat with no floor space next to a guy who liked to talk with his elbows (and it was a pretty boring conversation; all he could say was, “Back off!”); a minor malfunction of the airplane’s control systems requiring a special procedure that was in no way an emergency even though the flight controllers at Heathrow cleared all the other planes from our flight path and reserved an entire runway for us to set down on, and finally an uncomfortable moment at the customs gate as I tried to explain why I had left the country and was trying to get back in without proper leave papers.

But all that was over. At long last, I was back. There was no more welcome sight I could imagine than My Darling B’s glowing face at the baggage claim. After all the weirdness I’d been through, I didn’t even care if my bags showed up on the carousel or not. B greeted me with hugs and kisses and other happiness, then listened as I told her about the non-emergency that delayed our flight while we waited for my suitcases to be vomited up by the stainless steel baggage mangler. We scooped them up the moment they appeared and bolted for the door. The claim area was surprisingly close to the parking garage and B had even managed to snag a spot on the bottom floor. And luckily for me, she agreed to take the wheel for the first leg of the drive out from London. My brains were still woolly from jet lag and sleep deprivation. I never could manage to sleep on a plane, only jerk and snort through periodic dozing that’s a lot of fun to watch when other people do it, but agony when it’s happening to me.

Dusk was falling as we left Heathrow but the airport, urban London and the six-lane M25 motorway were all brightly lit by a tall picket line of sodium lights bathing everything on the road in sepia tones. We turned off the M25 to the M1 and followed it north until we hooked up with the A1, also a well-lit highway. It probably wasn’t until we were in the neighborhood of Alconbury, were we knew the back roads well enough to make a few short cuts along country roads, that I noticed how difficult it became to see the road when B dimmed the headlights.

“Does it look to you as if one of the headlights could be burned out?” I tentatively asked B.

She flicked the lights from bright to dim a couple times. The high beams were fine, but when she switched back and forth it became obvious that the low beam on the driver’s side was out. That whole side of the road disappeared from view each time she flicked the switch.

“How about that?” B said, not at all as amazed as I was that another mechanical gremlin was messing around with me. “It worked fine yesterday.”

And the little bugger was just getting started. As B steered the car through a roundabout, she ran over something in the road. The sharp turn around the island, together with the blind spot she had to deal with while she used the low beam through the busy intersection, made it impossible for her to see whatever the piece of discarded junk was until she was almost on top of it, way too late to avoid it. She swerved in the hopes of maybe straddling it, but a telltale bump-clunk under the car announced she hadn’t quite managed a clean miss.

Right after that, our engine exploded, or sounded like it, anyway. If you’ve never heard a car that’s lost its muffler, that’s exactly what it sounds like. My Darling B looked at me with terror in her eyes. I looked right back at her with “I can’t believe this is happening to me” in my eyes. The roar was so deafening that I leaned over to make sure B would hear me when I shouted, “We lost the muffler!”

“Should we stop?” she shouted back.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” I answered. “Keep on going!” She didn’t appear to be very happy with that answer, but there really wasn’t anything we could do about it. There was no chance we would find a garage anywhere along our route that would be open at such a late hour, and I would never have dreamed of attempting a roadside repair, which would have required lying on my back in the gravel while trying to fit together the hot exhaust pipes by touch as cars and trucks roared past us on the highway. The only thing to do was grin and bear it, which wasn’t too difficult for me at that point. All I wanted was to get home, pop open a beer, slouch back in a chair and flip the bird at the angry gods when this trip was finally over. No way the gods were going to let me off that easy.

On a stretch of back road that was just a half-hour’s drive from our house we came to a full stop behind a queue of three or four cars waiting at a signal light. Just beyond the light the opposite lane ended and an impressively deep trench took its place, snaking out of sight around a sharp corner. Road crews often dug up stretches of country roads this way and, when they knocked off at the end of the day, they left automatic signal lights standing sentinel over the yawning holes. The light would change in a few minutes and we’d be on our way.

B glanced into her rear-view mirror as a car slowed to a stop behind us, and again as the headlights of the next approaching car appeared in the distance. She didn’t look away from him, though, because he didn’t slow down at all until he was way too close to stop safely. I missed all of this, of course, and she had no time to warn me except to say, “Oh, shit,” as she fumbled for the gearshift.

I perked up. “What?”

She turned around just in time to see the oncoming car swerve into the open lane, the one that was dug up, trying to avoid the line of cars we were in. When he saw the yawning hole ahead of him he swerved back again, and somehow he missed us. The car that had stopped in line behind us left just enough room for his car to slip between our bumpers and, against all odds, he did exactly that. Not only did he manage to not hit us, his car didn’t even give our car a peck on the cheek as it went by, and to make it even more jaw-droppingly amazing, he even missed the car behind us. If you had seen it in a movie, you wouldn’t have believed it.

After making sure that Barb was all right I jumped out to see if I could help. So did almost everybody else waiting in line, and we all stared open-mouthed along the side of the road as the driver climbed out through the window of his overturned car, stood beside it for a moment with his hands on his hips, and looked over the situation wearing an expression that said, “Well, dammit! Now how am I going to get home?” Then he dug his cell phone out of his pocket, dialed a number, and held the phone to his ear as he climbed up the side of the ditch to get to the road.

Our small crowd gathered around, repeatedly asking if he he was okay and watching him to see if he would collapse in a heap, felled by an aortic aneurysm or, at the very lease, nervous exhaustion. He seemed a little shaken but there wasn’t a cut or bruise visible anywhere on him. In between dialing numbers on his cell phone he kept assuring us he was all right, and eventually the crowd broke up and drifted away when it became apparent he wasn’t going to topple over and die.

His cell phone appeared to be giving him quite a bit of trouble, though. “The battery’s going,” he said to no one in particular, sounding a bit lost.

B had joined us in the road by this time. “Here, use mine,” she said, digging her phone out of her purse.

“It’s a long-distance call,” he apologized.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, then turned and held the car keys out to me. She was looking a lot more shaken than he was. “Would you mind driving home from here?” she asked.

We waited by the side of the road for the driver’s friend to pick him up, making small talk as he chain-smoked. When his friend arrived he thanked us again for the use of our cell phone, then we climbed into our respective cars and drove off, his friend’s car purring quietly, ours rumbling like a dragster. We were less than a thirty-minute drive from home at that point and there was no chance I would fall asleep. I wasn’t even worried about jinxing myself by saying that aloud. At that point, so many other shoes had been dropped that the most outrageous thing I could think of that could have happened to us was, we would get home without another incident. And as crazy as it sounds, that’s just what happened.

heading home #3 | 2:15 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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Saturday, May 21st, 2011

A transatlantic flight in coach class has to be one of the most miserable ways to travel even under the best of circumstances. I count myself as damn lucky when I can wangle a seat on the aisle so I can hang over the edge a little bit to get some breathing room, and the few times I’ve been given the option of a seat at the very front of the coach section where my knees weren’t pressed against the back of a seat in front of mine, I’ve been as close to happy as I could ever hope to be on a commercial airliner.

But on this particular flight I didn’t find myself in either of those circumstances. I was stuck in the tail of the plane with Mister Pushy McElbows in the aisle seat making sure I stayed plastered up against the inner wall of the fuselage, which curved far enough into the cabin that it ate up most of the floor space under my seat, forcing me to sit crosslegged like a pretzel for twelve hours. I wouldn’t claim it was the very worst of circumstances – certainly somebody out there can come up with a story of a trip that was worse – but I will go so far as to claim that, when the engines began to wind down and my ears clogged up, signaling our descent as we crossed over the coast of the United Kingdom, I heaved a sigh of relief strong enough to muss the hair of people sitting in the first row.

Then the public address system switched on with a hollow pop and the captain made his “Welcome to England” announcement, with a few added comments that made my relief so short-lived it was over before I could finish that sigh.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please, ” he said. “As we begin our descent over the Welsh countryside, I’d like to take ten minutes of your time to inform you of a few special procedures we’ll be using for today’s landing at Heathrow.”

Special procedures? Yes, do go on, please.

“But before I say any more, I want you to know that we are not using these special procedures because of a state of emergency,” he continued, very casually, no emphasis at all on any word. It was almost as if he meant to imply that what he wanted to tell us was all in the way of making time-filling conversation, the way he would if he were pointing out a landmark we happened to be passing: “And if you can look out the left side of the plane you’ll see the Tower Bridge,” or somesuch. Instead, he was talking about special procedures and how they very definitely did not have anything to do with an emergency, or were unusual in any way at all, even though the fact that he even mentioned them was really pretty unusual.

“Shortly after we departed Chicago,” he went on, slowly, casually, “we detected a leak in one of the hydraulic systems. After an exhaustive analysis of the situation we were able to determine that, because the loss of fluid didn’t affect our ability to control plane, we could safely continue our journey.”

Oh. We sprang a leak. In the hydraulic system. But it was a small leak. So tiny that the flight crew, all experienced professionals with thousands of hours of flying time between them, and keenly aware that the lives of three hundred passengers were in their hands, found after reviewing the data that the leak was so insignificant as to make turning back unnecessary. Surely that’s what the captain was saying.

“The leak occurred in the hydraulic system that raises and lowers the main landing gear,” he went on, “and even though all the hydraulic fluid has been drained from the system, we will still be able to extend our landing gear by simply opening the doors that hold them in. The wheels will drop out under their own weight, and we’ll make sure they’re locked into place by rocking the wings just a bit. I’ll try to keep it to a gentle roll.”

Wait – all the hydraulic fluid leaked out? All of it? And the work-around for a jet that pees away all its hydraulic fluid is to let the landing gear fall out of the fuselage and trust that everything will get stuck in the down position? That works? Really?

But wait! There’s more! “The affected hydraulic system is also used to extend the flaps,” the captain went on, “but each one of them has an electric motor, to be used in situations just like this. The electric motors can only extend the flaps, though. After we put them down, we’ll be committed to making a landing because we can’t fly a circle around the airport with the flaps extended. So, to make sure we can land on the very first try, the flight controllers at Heathrow have closed a runway to every approaching plane but ours, and they’ve cleared all traffic from the air corridor we’re going to use on our approach to land.”

Like getting a pass to use the HOV lane on the highway through Chicago, we would have nobody in our way until we got to Heathrow! The pilot would take us straight in and ease us down to a smooth landing. It was almost enough to convince me that, for a no-fuss landing, losing all the hydraulic fluid was the best thing that could have happened to us.

There was just one more thing:

“The loss of this hydraulic system also affected our ability to steer the nose wheel and apply the brakes. After we touch down, we’ll keep on rolling straight ahead until we lose all our momentum and come to a stop, probably somewhere near the end of the runway. It’s miles long, so we’re in no danger of running off the end. A tug will be waiting there to tow us to the terminal.”

This far down the laundry list of broken things on our jumbo jet, adding “no steering” and “no brakes” didn’t make enough of a difference to worry me much.

The wheels came down with the usual bump-clunk and, just as he promised, the pilot did a slow, lazy wing-waggle, rolling the plane first to one side, then to the other. He must have been satisfied that the wheels were locked in place because he flew rock steady and straight as an arrow for miles and miles after that. There was no turbulence that I remember. I could hardly tell we were descending until the flaps whined down into place, causing the plane to nose over a bit.

Touchdown was smooth as silk. The plane’s wheels kissed the concrete so gently and with the tiniest of squeeks that I wasn’t sure when it had happened or even that we were on the ground until the rumble of the tires along the runway confirmed it. And, even after the thrust reversers kicked in, the plane didn’t go through the usual buck and weave it would have if he’d been able to jam on the brakes because, hey, no brakes!

After a long roll-out we came to a gentle stop near the end of the runway, where we added one more glitch to our list: The tug waiting for us had the wrong kind of hitch to pull our particular model 747. We had to hang out there for half an hour or so while a replacement tug was called up and it raced out to drag us off the runway. By that time it was too late to take our plane to its assigned gate. We’d lost our turn and had to be towed to a parking spot far off in a corner of the airfield where we were transferred to buses that converged on our plane to ferry us to the terminal.

They were the kind of buses that rose up on stilts and kissed the door of the plane so we could walk aboard. Each one was standing room only; there were no seats, only those floor-to-ceiling stainless steel poles you find on subway trains. I thought it would be a fairly short trip to the terminal – I could see it out the window – and yet somehow the ride went on forever. Honestly, I can’t remember that I’ve ever been on a bus ride between two places I could always see that lasted so long. And it wasn’t like the driver was taking his time, either. As he ducked through one darkened tunnel after another, arched over bridges and jackknifed around hairpin corners, he seemed to be living a roller-coaster fantasy. When we finally made it to the terminal I noticed I wasn’t the only one in hurry to get out the doors as soon as they opened.

We stepped off the bus into a high-ceilinged waiting area roughly as big as an elementary school gym. A row of chest-high desks, each with a uniformed customs official standing behind it, made a barrier along the far wall between me and the exit. Behind me, passengers were arriving in waves as one bus after another came to the door. And somewhere in Heathrow airport my darling wife was waiting for me – and had been waiting for hours longer than she expected to be.

I could only guess that she had been watching the arrivals board the whole time, only to see my arrival time delayed again and again, but I would have laid odds she would not have known anything about the reasons for my delay. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing they would announce to the crowds waiting to get aboard their long-distance flights. So she would have been sitting there, waiting, checking, sitting some more, checking again, waiting still longer, and on and on ad nauseum. There is no way to sit in an airport doing nothing for hours without getting tired, then desperately bored and finally cranky enough to want to kill somebody. And I would likely be the first person she spoke to.

It seemed vitally important that I call her right away to tell her what happened, to let her know I was off the plane and headed her way, and to arrange for a place to meet. As soon as I stepped off the bus into the customs area I headed straight for a payphone, dialed her number, then stood there counting the people who got off each bus as they came to the door. And holy cheese, there were a lot of people getting off thoses buses! How many people were on that plane, anyway?

Thankfully, she answered my call after just a couple rings. “Where are you?” she asked as soon as I said hi.

“Customs,” I told her, and gave her the short version of the leak and the landing and the wait and the roller coaster ride. “I’ve got to get in line before another bus pulls up,” I warned her, watching the stream of passengers queueing up to have their passports inspected and stamped. After we arranged a place to meet and a hurried good-bye, I sprinted away from the payphone to begin the hour-long snake-dance through the maze of ropes in the center of the room until I finally stood at the front of the line for the next uniformed officer who waved at me.

“Welcome to the U.K.,” he greeted me brightly. “Passport, please?” I slipped it across the desk. “Thank you. You’re on active duty?” he asked, when he saw my military ID sticking out of the centerfold.

“That’s right,” I nodded.

“May I see a copy of your orders, please?” he asked, and I slipped him a copy of my permanent party orders, but when he saw that the date of my assignment was months ago he asked, “You’re on leave, then?”

“Emergency leave, yes.”

“May I see your leave papers?”

“I don’t actually have any leave papers,” I confessed, and quickly tap-danced my way through the tune of trying to arrange emergency leave right before a significant American holiday that most British had never heard of. He seemed to understand my predicament but was unsure what do do about my lack of documentation and called his supervisor over so I could do my tap dance again for him, too. Then they had a short conference in hushed tones during which I tried not to look nervous at all about the fact that they still had my passport, ID and papers and I had no excuse at all for being out of the country without leave papers, other than an airman in the orderly room whose name I couldn’t remember said it would be okay. If I’d been in their shoes, I’m not sure I would have let me in, but for whatever reason they decided I was worth the risk, stamped my passport and sent me on my way.

heading home #2 | 10:29 pm CDT
Category: My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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Thursday, May 19th, 2011

The longest journey ever made in the history of humankind was a trip I took from the small town in Wisconsin where my mother lived to the small town in England where I lived with my family. It wasn’t the longest trip if it were measured in ordinary miles or hours, as most normal trips would be, but I don’t take “normal” trips and have consequently never been able to measure trips that way. For longer than I care to remember, I’ve measured trips using a Bizzare-O-Tron, a clever device of my own invention that registers every coincidence, catastrophe and just plain weird occurrence and calculates a Weirdness Rating between one and eleven. The Bizarre-O-Tron doesn’t have a zero, because that would imply I could take a trip on which nothing untoward would occur, and that simply never happens, so I didn’t even bother with zero. And the meter doesn’t stop at ten because there will, someday, be trip that will bury the needle, and I want to be ready for it. This particular trip came so very close. It could have been weirder only if Steve Martin and John Candy were in every scene.

It started with the timing: Just before the Thanksgiving Day weekend I found out my grandfather had passed away, so I calling around to see what I would have to do to take a few days’ leave to attend the funeral. I was an enlisted man in the Air Force at the time, and under normal circumstances I would report to the orderly room to see the first sergeant, who would give the thumbs-up to the commander, who would sign my leave papers and I’d be on my way. The post I was stationed at, though, was a very small unit, just ten or twelve guys maintaining some equipment out in the boonies. I had to drive an hour and a half just to visit the orderly room to get the ball rolling. This being the Thanksgiving weekend, the orderly room was virtually deserted when I got there. I found one lone airman to help process my papers, and there was no commander, or anybody with any rank at all, to sign them.

“Leave these with me,” the airman said nonchalantly, gathering up the leave forms. “I’ll get the commander to sign them as soon as he comes back, and I’ll forward a copy to you.”

That right there bumped the Bizarre-O-Tron up a notch, which was a faulty reading, now that I think about it. Coiled, robotic arms should have come shooting out both sides and an alarmed voice shouting, “Warning! Warning” was supposed to make me back away and think long and hard about the trapdoor I was about to fall through, but I wasn’t hit by the full impact of this weirdness until later. I guess I was in too much of a hurry. Instead, I only asked, “How am I supposed to travel without leave papers?”

“Just show them your ID when you get back,” he said. “As long as you’re permanent party there’ll be no problem.”

He meant that, because I was stationed in the U.K. the customs agent would let me just waltz in and out of the country by showing him my military ID card, and for some reason I bought that, even though I’d never done it that way before. It seems like such an obvious red flag now, but as I said, I was in a hurry and there was still a lot I had to do.

The trip to the States was mostly benign, probably because of the Thanksgiving weekend rush. My Darling B drove me to Heathrow where I boarded a jumbo jet for a transatlanic flight that went by in a blur. Everybody from the ground up worked feverishly to get passengers through the gate, loaded on to the plane, unloaded and back out the gate. Time passed in the usual mind-numbing way.

The details of the trip back, though – those are burned into my memory forever. For starters, by the time I got through security and into the terminal it was way past supper time and my stomach was growling. With a few hours to go before my flight started boarding, I figured I’d grab a bite in one of the many restaurants in the terminal, but first I had to find an ATM so I could reload my wallet with a few twenties. The first machine I found was broken; probably still reeling from the assault of hundreds of holiday travelers. No problem, I was in O’Hare airport, the largest, sprawlingest airport in the midwest. I should be able to find another machine in no time, right? But no. No matter how many times I walked the length of the terminal, I could find only one other ATM, and it was out of cash. Two machines in a terminal big enough to be its own country. Who thought that was a good idea?

By scrounging through every pocket in my jacket and carry-on bag, I managed to put together just enough loose change to buy a sandwich at one of the few taverns still open. That was another peg up on the Bizzarre-O-Tron. On the one holiday that’s legendary for the huge number of travelers jetting from Atlantic to Pacific and back, in an airport terminal where most of those travelers will find themselves waiting for many, many hours for a connecting flight, there were no restaurants open for dinner, just a couple taverns serving hot sandwiches and other bar food. I guess all the waiters went home for Thanksgiving, too.

My flight went non-stop from Chicago to London Heathrow, a leg that typically lasts a numbingly long twelve hours, so I usually try to snag an aisle seat or, better yet, a place by the bulkhead where I can stretch my legs. No such luck on this trip, though. I got herded so far back into the tail of the plane that the seat they shoehorned me into didn’t have a floor under it. The inner wall of the fuselage curled in under my feet. Honestly. There was just enough room for me to plant my right foot flat on a sliver of level carpeting, but my left foot had to either ride on the curve of the wall, or I could cross it over my knee. Or, I guess, I could have asked the steward to lend me a steak knife from the galley, sawed my left leg off, and stuffed it into the overhead bin. Would’ve been about as comfortable as the other two options.

But the crazy geometry of the seating arrangement became even more awkward when Mister Passive-Aggressive plunked himself in the aisle seat next to me. If you’ve ever flown coach, or ridden a Greyhound bus, you’ve sat beside this guy. Before we even pulled back from the gate he staked his claim on what he thought was his personal space by digging an issue of the Wall Street Journal out of his bag and holding it wide open in front of him, elbows out. There was no doubt in my mind that he stopped at a newsstand in the terminal just before he boarded the plane just so he could buy the biggest newspaper in the pile for this very purpose.

Supper time was more of the same: Fork in one hand, knife in the other, elbows out. When he started sawing pieces off his beef cutlet his arms flapped like a Canadian goose trying to get enough lift for takeoff. And when he wasn’t eating or reading, he had his laptop out and was pounding on the keys with the ferocity of a blacksmith forging a weapon of war. The only notice he took of me from the beginning to the end of the flight was to mutter “Excuse me” each time his elbow jabbed me in the ribs to remind me he was still there.

To this day, that one leg of the trip ranks as the longest transatlantic flight of my life.

heading home #1 | 8:37 am CDT
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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Friday, April 29th, 2011

Speaking of birth certificates, did I ever tell you that our youngest, T-Dawg, was very nearly born in a forest on the outskirts of Berlin? It’s true. He very nearly was.

We lived in an apartment in Zehlendorf on the southern edge of the city, right next to the Berlin wall, and when I say “right next to,” I mean we were right next to it! Keep going down the street past our apartment about a hundred yards and you were in a wooded park looking through barbed wire across a kill zone at the wall on the eastern side.

The wooded park ran all along that part of the wall, and on the inside of it there was a footpath called Koenigsweg that went from Duppel all the way out to Potsdam, I think. It was a very popular place to go walking just about any time of day, but especially in the evening.

My Darling B and I were expecting Timbers in August. As a matter of fact, when B started having strong, regular contractions on the eve of our anniversary, she was pretty sure he’d be born on the same day we were married, but sometime during the night the little bugger changed his mind. B was sorely disappointed, but she couldn’t convince him to come out that day, not for nothing.

But that afternoon she felt the contractions coming on again. After last night’s false alarm, though, she played them down. “It’s probably nothing again, I’m okay,” she kept saying, even after a contraction was strong enough to make her sit down and suck in a whole lot of air for a few minutes.

This went on for a couple hours, and the contractions didn’t seem to be going away. If anything, they seemed to be getting stronger, but B continued to downplay them. “Really, I’m all right,” she insisted, even while she sat slumped over, her head practically between her knees.

After a couple hours of that, B’s back was killing her. She wanted to try to walk it off, but I didn’t want to get too far from a phone, so I agreed to walk her up and down the street in front of the apartment. While we were out there, though, she wanted to keep walking down to the footpath through the woods. “Are you sure?” I asked her.

“Oh, yeah, I’ll be fine,” she assured me, even while she was still sucking wind. Since I wasn’t the one having contractions, and because she’d just been through a long night of them with no result, I reluctantly took her at her word, and off to the forest we went.

It was slow going. She would shuffle a dozen or so steps with one hand pressed against the small of her back, stop and make a this-is-killing-me face, then double over forward with her hands on her knees and take deep breaths for a minute or two before straightening up again and assuring me, “I’m fine, I’m okay.”

And I’d keep asking her, “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, uh-huh,” she’d say, and for some weird reason I’d believe her.

Shuffle-shuffle-shuffle, this-is-killing-me, huff-huff-huff.

“I’m okay, let’s keep going.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh yeah, uh-huh.”

Shuffle-shuffle-shuffle, this-is-killing-me, huff-huff-huff.

We did that over and over again until we were about a half-mile down the footpath, which was strangely empty for once. There we were, in the woods, far away from any telephone, and neither one of us knew how to say, “Take me to a hospital, I’m about to have a baby,” in German. Boy, were we stupid.

Shuffle-shuffle-shuffle, this-is-killing-me, huff-huff-huff.

“Uh, I think we’d better get to the hospital.”

“What!”

“Yeah. I think we’d better head back and get to the hospital.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to hurry a very pregnant woman to the hospital when the only hurrying she can do is a very slow shuffle. I know she was in a lot of pain just then, but I was primed and ready to literally explode. I have never been so juiced up with adrenaline in my life, yet there was nothing I could do. With that much nervous energy banging on every one of my muscle fibers I should’ve been able to scoop her up in my arms and jump to the hospital in a single bound, but that’s Superman’s gig and I couldn’t get in on it. Talk about frustrating. What good does it do to get such a charge built up if you can’t do anything with it?

I was sure I’d have to deliver my own baby boy myself right there in the road in the middle of the forest, but somehow B found the strength to hold him back until we shuffled all the way to our apartment, where I phoned a friend who gave us a ride to the hospital. Only a little more than an hour after we got there, Tim popped out.

Certified | 3:09 am CDT
Category: My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, T-Dawg, work | Tags:
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Saturday, April 16th, 2011

I drove a little Datsun coupe while I was stationed in the United Kingdom. I didn’t intend to get a car but, when I got the chance to move out of the dorms after living there a year I took it, and I would have to buy a car to commute. Riding the bus wasn’t an option; the base was way out in the countryside and the bus ran by it infrequently. So I found my little Datsun at a garage just down the road and paid about $750 for it.

They say you get what you pay for, but that little Datsun was worth way more than $750. I drove it all over England, and the guy I sold it to drove it even more. It never gave me any trouble at all, except for one night on the commute either to or from work, I’m not sure. It was late at night, that I can remember for sure. I was tooling down the road at fifty or sixty miles per, and even with loud music coming out of the cassette player I heard a bang! under the hood. That, and the fact that every warning light on the dashboard lit up made me quickly take the car out of gear and coast to a stop alongside the road. I even managed to make it as far as the intersection with a side road so I could pull off the main road a bit.

When the car came to a stop, smoke came billowing out from under the hood and around the fenders, not a good sign at all. I jumped out and waited a minute or two for the car to burst into flame, but when it didn’t I walked slowly around the front and popped the hood. The smoke turned out to be steam hissing from gashes slashed into the back of the radiator when the fan blades cut into it. When I had more light in the morning I could see that a bearing in the water pump had failed spectacularly, giving the fan enough of a wobble that the ends of the blades could chomp pieces out of the radiator big enough to spray coolant all over the engine block.

I couldn’t drive it without any coolant in the engine, so I had to either call a tow truck to have it taken back to a garage, or try to fix it myself by the side of the road. It seems outrageous to me now that I decided to fix it myself. I had a simple tool kit in the car and a bare minimum of experience fixing cars. At one point, after unbolting the water pump from the engine, I resorted to whacking it with a brick I found by the side of the road when it wouldn’t come unstuck any other way. My tool kit didn’t include a hammer, for some reason. I guess I didn’t think I’d be needing a hammer to work on a car. Why would I, right? Well, here’s why.

I bought a new water pump in town because I had to, but I found a garage that would patch up the radiator on the cheap, a stroke of luck except when I went back to pick it up it no longer had a radiator cap. Jumping off the bus at the edge of town, I walked through the front door of the auto parts store with a radiator under one arm. When the guy behind the counter looked up at me and asked, “How can I help you?” I couldn’t stop myself from holding up the radiator and asking, “Have you got a Datsun that would fit this radiator?” He didn’t think that was funny at all. I think I had to apologize to him before asking help to find a cap.

Back out on the B-road now with a patched radiator and a new water pump, I set to work with only the fuzziest idea how to fix this thing. The mechanic at the garage helped me out a bit: He made sure I had a clean gasket for the pump and a tube of sealant for the gasket, and gave me a big plastic jug full of water to pour into the radiator in the somewhat unlikely event that I should be able to patch the thing together and get it going again.

But you know what? I did it. the water pump was bolted to the engine in just three places. I was very careful to clean off all the gunk, slather lots of sealant on the gasket and turn the bolts tight but not too tight. The radiator was easy to mount and even easier to connect to the hoses. The fan blades were nicked up but still in good shape. After it was all put back together and the radiator was filled up, I took a deep breath and started the engine, ready to shut it town the minute it didn’t sound right or I saw smoke or steam or anything go wrong.

Nothing went wrong. It purred like a kitten and kept on purring. I drove back, stopping off at the garage to drop off the water jug and have the mechanic look over my handiwork, but he found nothing to fault me on, and that little Datsun and I traveled all over England in the year ahead without another hitch. Well, except for one, but that was pretty minor, an oil cap that popped off in the middle of a long trip to York and let the engine burp oil up all over itself. Makes lots of smoke, does no real damage. Not to the car, anyway. Sure frazzled my nerves, though.

Wait, two. Yeah. Just two. But that’s another story.

My Little Datsun | 5:33 pm CDT
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, The O-Mobile, travel, work | Tags:
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