Saturday, November 24th, 2001

I finally overloaded on Thanksgiving Day turkey. We made another batch of stuffing and reheated the leftovers, then pigged out again last night, and this morning when I woke up, I was still full. It was sort of like when you drink beer all day, then wake up in the middle of the night after a dream about drinking from a fire hose. You want to go get a big glass of cold water, but you know it’ll just make you queasy and you won’t be able to lie down again. So instead of real breakfast this morning, I had a pot of tea, and got through the day on a bowl of noodles. That’s because we all went to Viking in the evening, and I wanted my stomach ready for a big meal. Twelve bucks for all you can eat is a great price, but I wanted to rob them. I think I came pretty close, too, but was I ever disappointed in Sean. I expected the evening to end when management came to our table to beg him on bended knee to stop eating, but he bogged down long before the dishes and bowls piled up above his shoulders. I can usually depend on him to eat his weight in carbos alone, so I can’t explain what went wrong.

carbo-overloaded | 9:47 am CDT
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Friday, November 23rd, 2001

Sean went to one of the wrestling squad’s “lock-downs” tonight. The team goes off to the high school cafeteria and watches movies, eats pizza and, for all I know, wrestles all night. The coach is pretty intense that way. They did one of these lock-downs just a few weeks after we got here; the coach showed up with about a half-dozen of the boys and they dragged Sean, sleeping, out of bed and off into the rainy night. The head coach for the wrestling team is a woman, by the way. That still seems unusual enough to me to warrant comment, even though this woman is crazy serious about wrestling. She must work out every minute she can, because she’s got muscles in places I don’t have places. And she’s every inch a coach, absolutely ruthless about maintaining discipline and making the boys work until they drop. Practice begins at four, and Sean doesn’t get home until after seven, wrung out like an old dish rag. He’s talked a couple times about quitting, but he keeps pressing on.

lock-down | 9:44 am CDT
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Our next-door neighbors asked us if they could string Christmas lights all the way around the eaves on our corner of the building. Sure, why not, we said. I didn’t care, so long as I didn’t end up climbing out onto the roof. Well, I thought what they meant by “string Christmas lights” was maybe those drippy icicle-looking lights, hung from the eaves. Turns out these guys are from the “more is better” school of Christmas decorations. They must’ve blown a couple hundred dollars on reindeer and angels and candy canes and about a million feet of garland with woven-in lights. “I didn’t know you were going to so much trouble,” Barb said in her ever so diplomatic way when she went to talk with our neighbor about stretching the bounds of good taste. Our neighbors must have been acting on some weird signal from outer space that’s just above the pitch of our hearing, because just after they covered our building in dripping lights and ribbons, everybody in every other house down the street climbed out their bedroom windows and hung all the Christmas lights ever made in Taiwan across the front of their buildings. The whole street looks the way downtown Green Bay at Christmas time used to look; the only thing missing is animated toys in the windows.

more is just more | 9:43 am CDT
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Another beautiful day today; we’ve had a string of four or five days with clear, deep blue skies, lots of sunshine, and temps in the sixties. They keep telling me that we’ll be up to our noses in snow any minute now, and that the earthquakes knock you right off your feet, but what have we had so far? A flurry that hardly amounted to a dusting and two temblors that hardly slopped the water our of our glasses. Feh. There. That ought to jinx me good.

We went a couple miles south to Shimoda today to do a little shopping, some of it for us, some of it for Christmas gifts, thank goodness. Sean gets wound so tight about buying gifts that his head just about pops off and flies spinning high into the air; I think we loosened him up a bit with this trip. In one store I bought a set of soup bowls the size of bathtubs, porcelain soup spoons, and tiny little dishes that you pour soy sauce into for dipping. When I brought my meager purchases to the cashier’s counter, three check-out girls rushed to attend to me with many thank-yous and much bowing. I’ve never been to Tiffany’s my darned self, but I’ll bet the service there is shabby in comparison to this common department store. With three of them working furiously, it still took them at least five minutes to wrap them in more newspaper than you usually find in a Sunday edition of the New York Times.

Christmas shopping in Shimoda | 9:39 am CDT
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Wednesday, November 21st, 2001

Rode the bus to work this morning. The base runs two bus routes up to the north area and back which almost nobody uses. I don’t use it much, but when I do, I’m usually the only one on it. The drivers are usually Japanese. They must think that’s one lunatic job, driving an empty bus round and round the base all day.

[10/20/2014: The “north area” of Misawa Air Base was anything north of the runway: a housing area, a gym, a store, and just about all of the Japanese air force’s stuff. We lived in the housing area on the south side of the base which, if memory serves, was called simply “main base.” I worked in an entirely different part of the base that was off on a spit of land to the west. The only way to get to it was to drive about five miles around the end of the runway, through a forest and across a causeway. We had just one car at first, so on days when B needed the car to go somewhere, I took one of the two buses that ran circles around the base, and they were almost always empty. I’m not kidding. I was very often the only guy on a sixty-passenger bus. The white-gloved Japanese drivers spoke no English, not that that was a problem: all drivers pulled over at every bus stop and opened the door, whether somebody was waiting there or not. Most often not. They would wait a couple beats, then close the door and drive away. This made a trip to work – normally a ten-minute drive – drag out over a half-hour. I usually brought a book, or napped.]

base bus | 5:24 am CDT
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Another temblor hit us at suppertime tonight that made the water in our glasses slop back and forth a bit and rocked us gently in our chairs, just enough to make B get up and head for the doorway. Turned out it was a 5.0 centered about a hundred miles north of here and twenty miles below the floor of the ocean.

temblor | 5:22 am CDT
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Tuesday, November 20th, 2001

A day off? How’d that happen?

I checked out the Base Honor Guard this morning during their weekly practice, to see what the entrance requirements were and how often they performed. Honor Guard is something I’ve always wanted to take part in, but I’m thinking this is the wrong time for it. Besides the weekly mandatory practice sessions, they sometimes perform several times a week. I’m a fast-moving target right now trying to keep up with work, supervising, PT and keeping in touch with my family. I can’t see shoehorning one more activity into my regular schedule and keeping it all balanced. Think I’ll have to put this on the back burner and get to it later, if I can get to it at all.

Then I went to PT. This is becoming bad for the tendon over my left ankle, which is swollen and painful; must have tendonitis from pounding the treadmill and cranking the stationary bike. Think I’ll spend the next two days sitting at my desk on my narrow butt, gulping aspirin.

But for the rest of the day, even though I had errands to run, I tried not to do a whole lot. I took the library books back and got the mail, but I turned that into a reason to stroll in the crisp autumn air. I did the crossword and the cryptoquip while washing the clothes. I fixed a door, but that was pretty much mindless work, which is a pleasure after the brain-crunching of writing an EPR. I made calzones for dinner. I’ll probably spend the rest of the week farting the cheese out of my system, but what the hell, sometimes you gotta satisfy your lust.

a day off | 5:06 am CDT
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Monday, November 19th, 2001

Got hailed at the Dawg flight Hail & Farewell, where I sat all night NOT drinking beer. Wasn’t thinking ahead when I volunteered to be a designated driver. Like the Air Force Ball, this get-together was a bit of a disappointment for me, but this time mostly because I’m the new guy. Without any common ground, it’s hard to stay with the conversation; not for the first time in my life, I’ve thought that I may have to take up football or baseball just so I can do something other than sit there like a slack-jawed ignoramus when somebody tries to jump-start the conversation by asking me, “Did you see the game last night?” I get such a kick out of the way the game is automatically about football. If I started talking sumo or rugby, somehow I’d be the weirdo.

[11/21/14: A guy at the hail & farewell introduced himself to My Darling B, said they used to work together up on the hill. “Remember me?” he kept on asking, but no matter how many different ways he tried to remind her of where they worked and what they did, she could not get the neurons to fire so that she could recall who this guy was. He left us utterly deflated. Weirdly, this same scene would play out the other way around when B and I went to her favorite noodle shop and the owner, who she seemed to remember as a good friend, had no idea who she was.]

hail & farewell | 4:44 am CDT
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And I was having such a good day today.

It started off with PT, which is boring but not too bad, and I had to go in to work right after that, but I went in happily because I was writing up a letter of appreciation for a troop who was doing such uncommonly good work on duty that it was a crime not to recognize him by giving him a one-day pass. I finished by visiting a few office heads to tie up some loose ends, then set off to pick up B from school. I was already light of heart, but seeing her smiling face somehow lifted me even higher.

After we came home from the commissary, I went straight into the house to answer the ringing telephone and, in an almost magical moment, that is to say a moment afflicted by a curse, my hand paused over the receiver and I said out loud to myself, “Do I really want to answer this?” But, shaking off the fear as irrational and stupid, I picked up the phone and said hello to the NCOIC of Operations, SMSgt Holland, who was looking for SrA Ball’s supervisor. Lucky me. SMSgt Holland had a few curt words to say about SrA Ball’s conduct and then left the matter for me to resolve immediately.

I supervise just three people, which means that I’m supposed to look after them personally and professionally; not just write regular evaluations, but provide them insights to military life that will lead to their appreciation of the Air Force. I’m supposed to ensure the good ones to stick to their standards, and to encourage the not-so-good ones to do better.

I have to encourage SrA Ball. This is challenging in so many ways, first and foremost because she, like many airmen new to military culture, has a tendency toward flippant familiarity bordering on insubordination, which is not a bad thing if it can be controlled and used to foster positive traits such as self-determination.

Communication is also a problem, because it’s nearly always a one-way stream of almost nothing but self-criticism, and wow, the girl can talk. Weapons experts the world over can only dream of delivering the kind of rapid fire SrA Ball routinely uses. I have to forcibly break in to every conversation I have with her to get any kind of message across, and I feel pretty rude about doing it, but unless I do, little communication takes place, if any at all.

Probably the next biggest challenge is representing her to command staff – well, to anybody above me, really. From what I can tell, she’s alienated just about everybody on site with four stripes or more. I don’t know what to do about SrA Ball except just keep listening to her stories, and keep documenting every incident she gets involved in.

[11/20/14: Somehow, I left out the best part of this day, the phone conversation I had with airman Ball immediately after the NCOIC of Ops directed me in no uncertain terms to straighten her shit out. Her infraction this time, as best as I can remember it, was a string of parking tickets she had put off paying for a leetle bit too long.

Ball was attending Airman Leadership School at the time and it must have stressed her out a bit more than usual, although almost everything stressed out airman Ball. She was in class when I called the school, so I left a message and when she called me back she was apoplectic with rage when she found out why I was calling, and I mean she was screaming into the receiver so loudly that she probably didn’t need a telephone to get her message across. If I’d stood at my open front door, I might have heard what she was saying from the other side of the base.

When she was done venting, and it took a while, I directed her to pay the parking tickets, then report to me at work that evening with a copy of the receipt in hand. I tried to keep it brief because I was speaking through clenched teeth and didn’t trust myself to say much else. If I recall correctly, she did manage to take care of the tickets the same day, and I think she even apologized to me later for blowing up on the phone. Oh, the joys of supervising.]

joys of supervising | 4:38 am CDT
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Sunday, November 18th, 2001

I may be wrong, but I think the Dawgies are starting to settle down to work.

I expected a bit more rowdiness over weekend day watches, when there wasn’t as much to do and everybody was in that weekend mood. Not much trouble at all, though, and in fact several of the ops are doing outstanding work.

After the watch, Mark Ursich told me a bunch of Dawgs were going to get together at Viking for a bite. Viking is an all-you-can-eat place, where you pick out what you want from prepared food and cook the meats back at your table on a gas grill. I tried salmon sushi (okay, so you don’t cook that), marinated lamb, some kind of beef strip, and the usual Japanese stuff I love like gyoza and miso.

I love eating at Japanese restaurants, but there was one hitch to eating at Viking. It had what I guess you’d call a traditional dining area, where you sat on the floor at short tables. I had to take off my shoes when I entered the dining area, and though the restaurant provided slippers to put on when I went to get more food, the biggest slippers they had are comically small on me. They went as far as the balls of my feet, and I had to shuffle across the floor with my toes clenched to keep them from falling off.

Dawgie chow | 4:34 am CDT
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Saturday, November 17th, 2001

Shawn Bryant sat CHFS for me so I could leave about eleven o’clock to get ready for the Air Force Ball, my first chance to wear my mess dress here, and B’s first chance to go get her hair done again, and goodness, did they do her do. I knew she’d be in the beauty shop so I went straight from work down to the mall (yep, we’ve got a mall) and hung around waiting for her so she wouldn’t have to walk home in the rain. When she finally came out of there, two flippin’ hours later, her hair was piled in a curly coif that took her an hour to undo. Now she’s talking about a short-haired perm, not that I blame her.

800 people showed up for the ball, and from what I could tell, it was just another night at the club, except that we dressed up for it. Well, some of us did. Some of the prom dresses that the wives wore made the night almost interesting; Barb and I spent most of the night wandering from room to room, pointing out fashion crimes and trying to decide how to describe them. Lots of tattoos on parade. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but a women who has a blue rose the size of a cantaloupe tattooed on her breast should probably rethink her decision to buy, let alone wear, a low-cut ball gown, and women with unidentifiable winged things tattooed across the backs of their necks probably shouldn’t go out.

[11/20/14: My goodness, I was an opinionated son of a bitch back then, wasn’t I? It’s like I didn’t know that people could get a tattoo if they wanted. But I wasn’t the only one in the Air Force with a stick up his butt: This year or the next, the higher-ups would enact new regulations that would prohibit airmen from displaying tattoos. They could get tattoos, but they had to be in places where they would be covered up while on duty. But that’s not why I dissed people with tattoos; it was most likely because I was an being an asshole. At Misawa, there were a lot of people from the generation that was starting to get tattooed. I was meeting them and their tattoos for the first time, and I didn’t know how to react. That’s typically when my assholishness tends to rise to the surface of my personality. Change does not come easily to me.]

a night at the ball | 4:23 am CDT
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Friday, November 16th, 2001

I’m a certified Chief of HF Systems now. That means if anything goes wrong on the ops floor, the Mission Soup chews my ass first, which happens more often than you might think. The Soup, MSgt Godwin, is a teensy bit excitable; tends to go off like a hatful of nitroglycerine at the slightest provocation, scuttle back and forth across the ops floor, spewing expletives, until he gets it all out of his system. Giving him the chance to vent is written into my job description. When he’s not wound up, though, he’s a decent guy, and seems genuinely interested in making Dawg flight a good place to work.

[10/20/14: I’m not sure why I cut this so short. Godwin was a good guy. Gave me rides to work and back home all the time, told me stories on the way about his days as a crew member on a tanker or a cargo plane, one or the other. Tried his best to mentor me in The Ways Of The Air Force. I did not always take to his lessons, but looking back I can plainly see that I shoulda listened.]

scuttle? | 9:53 pm CDT
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I’ve gone to more mandatory formations in the ten weeks or so that I’ve been here than I ever went to in the last ten years in the service. They brief us on everything here; today, we got briefed on winter: It gets really, really cold in winter. Don’t get frostbite. And we get so much snow that people have heart attacks shoveling it, so be careful not to keel over and die. Now, in our own special way of trying to scare you out of doing something stupid, here are some gruesome photos of frostbitten toes, and hands that got mangled in snow blowers. Thanks for your time.

winter brief | 9:52 pm CDT
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Wednesday, November 14th, 2001

First day of break between day watches, sort of. The flight’s PT-ing together now, which means that everybody on flight has to trudge over to the gym at least three times a week and sign in with the duty sergeant, go do something aerobic like play basketball or run on a treadmill, and then sign out. Most of the airmen don’t so much as try to pretend to work out; they get on a bike, for instance – if it’s broke, that’s perfect, but if it’s not, they put it on its lowest setting and pedal as slowly as they can for thirty minutes or so while they watch television. Sometimes they get off the bike after ten minutes or so and wander around as if they’re looking for something else to do. Airmen are so good at this that it should probably be considered an aerobic activity, although I rarely see many of them break a sweat. I get to be the duty sergeant next week, by the way.

There’s a definite nip in the air now, and not a friendly, bracing chill, more like a threat, really. We had our first snow of the season today. Barb says it snowed yesterday, but I didn’t see it and it didn’t stick, so I figure it doesn’t count. The world was white this morning and it came down on and off through the day, even though a lot of the stuff on the ground melted by afternoon.

break broken brunk | 5:55 pm CDT
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Tuesday, November 13th, 2001

I don’t think I’ve said a word to you yet about my new diet, and this is as good a time as any.

I went to the doctor a few weeks because I get a lot of congestion in my head. The little gears turned in his witch doctor’s mind and he diagnosed me with some kind of twitching nasty that’s apparently caused by a reaction to corn and corn products. Doesn’t that just figure? So now I have to read every damn word on every ingredient label because nearly every processed food on your supermarket shelf has some kind of corn product in it. Go pick up a can of anything in your kitchen cupboard right now, and if it isn’t loaded with high fructose corn syrup, I’ll stand on my head in the center of town and sing Yankee Doodle Dandy. Ditto for dextrose, which is corn sugar. I’m used to simply buying what tastes good. Now I have to pay attention to what I’m eating. It’s almost like being a health nut.

soup to nuts | 5:51 pm CDT
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On to work: I’ve spent quite a bit of my time lately talking to all the operators on the floor so I can give them an idea what’s expected of them while they’re at work, because a lot of them don’t seem to have the idea that, while they’re there, they’re supposed to do something other than gab with each other and play games. I started by briefing each of them on flight policy, which included what I thought were common-sense things, like stand when an officer talks to you, don’t read books while you’re supposed to be working, that kind of thing. The briefings were an opportunity to squawk about whatever they saw as unfair, or ask me questions about anything, but surprisingly just one of the troublemakers said anything. Everybody else took it like bad medicine and pressed on.

I went to the section where the linguists sit to ask the controller a question, or something just as routine, and as soon as I stepped into view everybody bolted up out of their seats and stood locked at the position of attention, eyes front. I just about wet myself. I’d been having a mixed day, and that light bit of ribbing was just what I needed. It was the high point of my day.

The low point of my day was having to sit in on the ass-chewing that the Mission Soup, MSgt Godwin, gave to the kid who got busted for getting drunk and breaking curfew. The kid was in deep trouble. He’d violated a general order, a very serious thing. Godwin evidently thought that the way to demonstrate that was to cuss and rail at the guy for a good long time. I thought some of the things he said were just plain mean, or said out of pure anger; it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a sergeant yell at an airman just because. I hope I don’t have to see it again soon, but I get the feeling that I’ll be privy to anything that happens to the kids on the ops floor so long as I’m Chief of HF Systems.

joys of supervising | 5:57 am CDT
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Monday, November 12th, 2001

Experienced my first earthquake tonight, though “earthquake” is a pretty strong word for the two or three gentle shakes we got. Must’ve been about a 0.8 on the Richter. I was sitting on the sofa, Tim was on one of the overstuffed chairs; we were watching television. About halfway through the program I got the dim impression that the sofa was moving, as though somebody was kicking it over and over, but B was on the other side of the room, and I don’t know why she’d kick the sofa, anyway. So I figured I must’ve been having some kind of insanity attack and I was about to die. Since I was going to kick off anyway, I said something remarkably intelligent, like maybe, “What the hell’s going on?” and that’s when Tim noticed that his chair was moving, too. It didn’t last very long, nothing else in the room moved that I could see, and B never felt it even a little bit.

first earthquake | 5:47 pm CDT
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Sunday, November 11th, 2001

Sunday, our lazy day. When I wasn’t taking a bike ride or working on a project with Timmy, I spent my free time working out the tougher parts of the Sunday crossword.

Sumo season has begun. I can’t say why we’re interested in it as much as we are, other than because it’s so very Japanese. What’s funny, when you look at it that way, is that the yokazuna, the highest-ranked sumo wrestler, isn’t from Japan at all, but Hawaii. And man, is he big. I mean, they’re all big, but this guy’s a monster, probably weighs close to 400 pounds, and I’ll bet at least two-thirds of his weight is above his waist. Pushing him around has got to be like bringing a speeding locomotive to a dead stop with your bare hands. They’re not just fat, though. The guy I like to watch, Tochiazuma, is a big guy, but he’s built like a cast-iron fire plug, and he’s fast. Most sumo matches are over in seconds, and the energy these guys unleash in those few seconds is so tremendous that sweat runs off them in rivers after they finish. In interviews after his matches, Tochiazuma sweats worse than Nixon. So we’re watching the matches closely, picking our favorites, and having lots of fun adding our own commentary, because the Japanese sports guys are just as insipid as any of their American counterparts. They usually work in pairs, and it seems as if one guy’s job is to keep repeating “so desu ne” – “That’s right!”

so desu ne | 5:43 pm CDT
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Saturday, November 10th, 2001

Picture a shallow pool filled with about 200 salmon, big ones, about ten-pounders. A siren sounds, and about a hundred people jump into the water and try to catch the salmon with their hands. That’s the Shimoda Salmon Festival, our latest cross-cultural experience.

Shimoda’s just a little way from here, so we figured if we bundled Tim up tight and brought along a change of clothes to keep him warm and dry, he’d be all right. The air was brisk all day, but when the sun came out it was toasty warm, and the Japanese had little fires going all over the site where you could stop and warm your hands or any other part of you that had gotten wet. There was also plenty of yummy festival food to warm you up from the inside.

Catching the fish was lots of fun. At least that’s the way we felt about it; I’m sure the salmon felt differently. They all crowded into the far side of the pool as we lined up along the edge, so they must’ve known something was up. When the crowd waded into the water, the salmon went absolutely batshit and took off in all directions, slamming into our feet hard enough that I thought somebody was kicking me. Sooner or later they stop for a breather, though, and that’s when you reach down and yank them out of the water. Grabbing them by the tail seemed to work best, although a couple people put the fish in a bear hug. You could spot the experienced fishermen in the crowd, hooking their fingers in salmon’s gill slits.

We left about ten in the morning and had such a good time we didn’t get home until about four that evening, when we were faced, of course, with CLEANING THE FISH. I’d paid about ten bucks to have some farmer’s wives clean them for me, but their idea of cleaning fish and mine are worlds apart. My method leaves behind neat, clean fillets prepared with tender loving care; theirs is a high-speed hacking, and the gore-smeared fillets look more like the victims of a sociopathic axe murderer than a meal. Barb and I spent about an hour cleaning and wrapping, after which we put a really big fillet under the broiler and sat down to salmon and rice at about supper time. Delicious stuff.

[Julie Arnzen wrote:] Oh you found the Salmon Festival. Isn’t it FUN! Have we ever told you about our trip? We went along with our lovely Japanese landlords who decided to treat us to lunch whilst we were there, you know those food stalls they have there, well they treated us to squid on a stick, the biggest tentacles you have ever seen too, and couldn’t possibly turn it down and be impolite, so we ate it, all except PJ who quite loud enough for our hosts to hear, said OH YUCK! PJ and I did the catching of the fish, or at least I attempted to, but fell in, tripping over a heap of bouncing fish, got completely soaked and a few days later was treated for pneumonia ha! but we did actually come home with a fish too, ours bit right through the plastic bag that it was placed in, they’re pretty tough fish! taste good though.


Shimoda Salmon | 6:41 am CDT
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Thursday, November 8th, 2001

[a letter to Mom:] Thought I’d pass along to you that I finally went through the hoard of coins you passed on to me from Grandpa Fred. It was a lot of fun, just like going through his pocket change, and I wanted to thank you. Lots of nice coins in there, by the way; about 450 pennies, some as much as ninety years old, and an interesting mix of foreign coins. The Canadian coins were especially fun.

After years of being little more than an airman sitting at a rack, I’ve suddenly become an NCO with all kinds of nasty things to do. I started this week by giving an official reprimand, a job I found very unpleasant, and I finished it tonight by chewing out some insubordinate snot-nosed loafers, not quite as unpleasant; in a way, I was actually looking forward to it. I’d gone to sleep thinking about it, woke up thinking about it, and was so used to thinking about it by then that I was more or less determined to get it over with, although it still made me a little anxious when it came to actually doing it. I’m not used to bawling out anybody except my kids, and it occurred to me the other night that these airmen act just like my kids, or any kids do when they’re caught doing something they’re not supposed to do. One of the two I got after tonight, for instance, was spending way too much time in the wrong place, and I said so to him. There was no reason whatsoever for him to listen to me. He could’ve taken me three falls out of three and could probably talk faster, too. Didn’t even try. Just mumbled something like, “I was just leaving,” and headed back to his rack. Being in charge is a very sudden turn of events for me. And it’s not all nasty; there have been some pretty cool things, too. Trying to get a sense of the balance of the experience is the part of it that makes me a little nervous, like balancing on a cliff’s edge.

dear Mom | 6:36 am CDT
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Monday, November 5th, 2001

Stopped by the Orderly Room and asked to see the 1st Sergeant because it seemed to me that I might be spending a lot of time talking to him anyway, now that I’ve got a “problem child” to look after, but I didn’t want that to be the only time he saw me. He asked me into his office right away and we had a warm face-to-face; intel’s in his background, so he understands operators and shift work. Seems to be a very straight shooter, and genuinely loves his job.

I had about forty minutes to kill after seeing the 1st Sergeant, so I went to work. While I was sitting at a work station, a staff sergeant, servicing a rack right next to me, looked over and remarked, almost to himself but loud enough that I was obviously supposed to hear him, “Ah, a rich tech sergeant.”

“A rich tech sergeant?” I asked. “You know one of those?”

“You make more than me, right?” he shot back with a smile.

“Can’t deny that,” I answered. “Now the question is, do I get to keep it?”

“You married? Kids?” he asked. I nodded affirmatively. “Never mind, then.”

richer than he knows | 5:37 am CDT
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Sunday, November 4th, 2001

Last night I was party to a minor miracle: I sat down with two other guys and we drafted an initial performance report. Enlisted Performance Reports, or EPRs, have got to be about the biggest pain in the ass the Air Force has it in its power to devise, mostly because every NCO in the chain from me up to the commander feels he just has to add his own personal touch to every draft I submit, even though it’s my name at the bottom. Even if I’ve got the most outstanding troop in the Air Force, it’s just about impossible to submit an EPR without getting it back with red ink through every other word. I think this practice began as a way for senior NCOs to pass along EPR writing techniques to junior NCOs, and when they realized how much pain it caused besides, they refined the technique to maximize the torture.

But back to the minor miracle. An initial EPR is even harder to write than a regular annual EPR. After my troop’s been on the job a year, I ought to have something to write about, but a troop right out of tech school hasn’t done anything except, well, go to school. Doesn’t fill up a lot of space on the EPR, and filling up all the space is the biggest challenge to writing an EPR, after getting it past the senior NCOs.

maximize the torture | 5:35 am CDT
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Saturday, November 3rd, 2001

The Air Base Fire Department came to our neighborhood today to set fire to the house across the street. You heard me.

It was such a bizarre event – one might even say Bradburian, if one were an effete snob who used words like “effete” – that I just had to watch, even though I should’ve been trying to catch some sleep after a twelve-hour mid. Not like they gave me much choice; they parked a fire truck just outside my bedroom window, dropped a brick on the gas pedal, and left the motor running all day.

Now, try to imagine: You’re a fireman in the air base fire department, maybe a young airmen or NCO, and one day you say to your supervisor, “Sarge, you know those old buildings they’re gonna tear down? Why don’t we set fire to them and use them as a classroom to teach fire fighting techniques?” And the supervisor says, “Sounds great. Work out the details and get back to me.” And you spend the rest of the week writing up a detailed plan to burn houses down. What a great job! If only it involved using explosives, it’d be a perfect job.

Sean’s first wrestling scrimmage is going on tonight, and I’ll have to miss it so I can go off to save the free world yet again. It’s really just a practice amongst the team members, not facing another team, but he worked so hard both at practice and on bringing his grades up from an unfortunate slump that I wanted to see him in action.

General Order #3 wasn’t the same: We’re now instructed to remain indoors during curfew, instead of in our “domicile.” The Ensign interprets this to mean that we can overnight out of town, so long as we let her know where we are.

effete snob | 9:36 pm CDT
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Thursday, November 1st, 2001

You should see My Darling B read Japanese! I started learning the characters before we left England and I’m still piss-poor at it, but I’m a slug and haven’t been studying. B, to my shame, taught herself one of the alphabets in a single evening! Went out and bought some cooking gunk the next day. It was even the right cooking gunk, not just gunk that looked like cooking gunk and turned out to be useful anyway.

That’s right, I said “one of the alphabets.” The Japanese have at least three, like life’s not complicated enough. When Japanese kids start to read at school, they learn the fifty-one characters of the hiragana alphabet; each character is a syllable, like “ba” or “sho.” Once they’ve got that down, they learn the fifty-one katakana characters – same syllables, different characters, but they use katakana to spell foreign words only, to keep them separate, I guess. I’m surprised the French haven’t thought of that dodge. Finally, they learn kanji, a set of about two-thousand Chinese characters; these are the classic pictograms that stand for an entire word or meaning, and they’re insanely complicated. To make reading as difficult as possible, the Japanese mix hiragana, katakana and kanji at whim, no rules, all bets are off. You’d think they’d all be psychotic from having to read like that.

I’m a big fan of the kanji myself. They’re like little puzzles to solve, sort of like when you read in your schoolbook that the letter A was a pictogram of an ox’s head, but no matter how you screwed up your eyes, you couldn’t help wondering what kind of peyote the authors were smoking that day. The trouble with kanji is that, just when I think I’m making some kind of progress towards becoming semi-literate, I find myself looking at a menu or a sign that’s written almost entirely in hiragana. A tiny little pain in my left temple, sort of like a knitting needle running through my head, distracts me at about that time, and I wonder why I kid myself that I can ever learn this.

Thank goodness B’s a little more determined than I am. She’s trying to get her brain wrapped around Japanese cooking, starting with figuring out how to make miso soup as yummy as we’ve had in the tiny little shops around here. When she’s in kitchen-experiment mode, she goes to the store and buys a bunch of stuff that looks sorta right, then comes home and plays for a while before running out to get a bunch more stuff. She was stuck on the first step, though, because – and I hate to sound like a broken record – we can’t read anything, absolutely nothing, and it doesn’t help that the food doesn’t look like food. It looks like snails and seaweed, and squeeze tubes and plastic tubs full of play-doh.

B’s also working on her degree now that she can go to school, and she can squeeze a Japanese class into her elective requirements. Bang! Two birds with one stone. So the other day, when I crawled out of bed in search of a hot cup of tea after sleeping off a mid, she very nearly dragged me down the stairs to read me the labels on the stuff she’d bought at the store. Even though my brains felt like moldy cotton gym socks, I could appreciate the magic of learning to read all over again. She reads road signs and shop names, every bit of hiragana she can find, just like a five-year-old reading Dick and Jane for the first time.

kanji boy | 9:31 pm CDT
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Wednesday, October 31st, 2001

Happy Halloween! I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had giving away candy and toy treats tonight. Kids of all ages, but mostly the fun young kids, came to my front door with big sacks hoping to make themselves sick on a huge haul of goodies, and I happily sat on the front stoop and helped them realize that goal. “Now remember,” I told them as they chose their treats from my big basket of candy, “I can only set you up for success. It’s up to you to stuff yourself until you blow chunks all over your bedroom floor tonight. Think you’re up to it?”

I’m almost as happy to report that blood-spattered, knife-waving psycho killer costumes aren’t anywhere near as popular as they used to be; couldn’t have counted more than a handful, if I’d been counting at all. Most kids wore traditional costumes: Witches, mummies, vampires, good fairies, the occasional teddy bear, and – a favorite emergency back-up among military families – dad’s uniform, usually way too large.

Halloween | 9:31 am CDT
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Sunday, October 28th, 2001

It was one of those rare days when all of us are free at the same time – I wasn’t working, B wasn’t coaching, Sean wasn’t wrestling, Tim wasn’t caring for lame pets. When we find we’ve all got more than an hour together, we try to do something – play cards, go for a walk, yell and scream at one another, anything. On Sunday, we decided that, since we had most of the day, we’d try to find Lake Towada before the leaves had all fallen off the trees.

Lake Towada is one of those crater lakes left over after a volcano stops spewing fire and brimstone all over everybody and settles down for a few thousand years. The lake and Oirase Gorge, a river gorge leading from the lake down the side of the mountain, are both popular tourist destinations, although we didn’t realize how popular until we got about halfway up the side of the mountain where the two-lane road was choked with tour buses and just about every car in northern Honshu. Parking is never a problem in Japan; just like England, it’s perfectly all right to leave your car in the road and walk away for as long as you like. Oirase Gorge is reputed to be one of the most picturesque areas in Tohoku, this region of Japan, but frankly I thought it looked more like a parking lot than a natural preserve. Maybe I’ll enjoy it more if I come back out of season.

Lake Towada, it has to be said, was a beautiful place. Even in the subdued light of an overcast day, the colors of the leaves on the Japanese maples were striking, and the waters of the lake itself were wide and calm enough to inspire poetry, even when the cheesy swan-shaped paddle boats you can rent at the dockside crept into view. I somehow managed to find a place to park at even the crowded overlooks, which – you’ll have to take my word for this – was as close to miraculous as you can come when motoring around the lake. The views were always worth the agonizing twenty-minute climb in second gear it took to get there, and if we hadn’t been short on time I would’ve stopped more often and gazed at the view a little longer.

We did have enough time to stop for lunch, though, and, after agonizing over the menu posted at the doors of several restaurants, as Barb customarily does, we blundered into one on the lake shore, not because we knew they served what we wanted, but because we were getting really hungry. This is also customarily the way we solve the problem of which restaurant to eat at in a foreign country. For all the agonizing we do over the menus, we almost never learn to recognize what’s for dinner, we just learn which restaurants we like. The food, by the way, was almost as excellent as the view from the picture windows facing the lake, or the waitress’s English. She seemed as self-conscious and embarrassed to speak it as most of them do, but between her excellent English and our very broken Japanese she was a godsend, and we got delicious bowls of miso ramen that we happily slurped up, except for Tim, who can’t stand all the veggies.

Lake Towada | 9:27 am CDT
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Saturday, October 27th, 2001

This weekend was homecoming at Edgren High School, and Sean came back from the homecoming dance with most of his clothes off, as usual. The guy’s turned into quite an exhibitionist. While he was attending LSST in Lincoln, he could hardly get through the first fifteen minutes of a dance without stripping to the waist and jumping on a table. A zillion pushups and all the weight training for wrestling has made him quite buff, which he’s more than a little pleased about.

our nudist | 9:26 am CDT
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Saturday, October 13th, 2001

If you go to live in a foreign country, right after you get there you should learn to do a few key things: In the local language, ask for directions to the toilet, which you usually learn right after asking for beer; dial your own telephone number from off-base, which can be surprisingly difficult; and use the local buses and trains, or at least the taxis, because sometimes that’s the only way to get home.

To learn the last one, we signed up for a day trip sponsored by Outdoor Recreation. They’re supposed to be shuttling us about in the most discreet manner possible, by the way, but they must’ve figured that today was the terrorists’ day off, because they loaded us all onto an eighty-foot, Army-green military bus with “U.S. Air Force” stenciled on the side, and the driver ran into everything in the parking lot at the train station. Attention-getting? Maybe just a bit.

Trains are surprisingly easy to use in Japan. Each station has an automatic ticket machine, so you don’t have to talk to anybody. There’s a big map on the wall over the machines, and the price of a one-way ticket is written right under the name of the city you want. The only time this could be a problem is if the sign doesn’t translate the kanji characters into English.

We rode the train to Hachinohe and walked through the shopping district before returning. The train was fast and clean, and Hachinohe was agreeable enough, but this trip and others I’ve been taking away from Misawa is teaching me a valuable lesson: What it’s like to be utterly different from everybody else. Apparently I’m something of a curiosity to the Japanese, who stare as I pass, sometimes open-mouthed. I’m enough of a novelty that some want to take pictures of me, as if their friends might never believe what they saw without evidence. To make me even more like a monkey in a cage, I can barely speak. It’s an outrageous experience.

trip to Hach | 5:54 am CDT
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Wednesday, October 10th, 2001

Oh, Glorious Day! We took possession of quarters 292A bright and early this morning. No more living in hotel rooms!

Maybe you think you can imagine our relief, but – no offense – I seriously doubt it. Barb, Tim & I lived in what the Air Force calls “temporary lodging,” two rooms on RAF Mildenhall, for a week and a half, and we stayed one night in a pretty cheap motel in Washington, D.C. The whole family was stuck in a shabby little room in Anchorage for three nights, and then there was the Misawa Inn, a very nice place but a tiny bit cramped with a family of four, particularly after almost a month.

Phrases you might have used to describe our temperament up to this point could have been “stir crazy,” “cabin fever,” and “go away or I’ll kill you.” Our liberation came not a moment too soon.

Weird coincidences: 292A is just about right across the street from the quarters Barb lived in when she was stationed here in 1987. She and I paged through an album of some photos she took back then, and one of the photos, taken from her front porch on a sunny day, shows the buildings that used to stand where our quarters are now. She didn’t know anybody who lived over there, and can’t think of any reason she might have snapped a photo of the spot she was going to live in fifteen years later.

[11/21/14: I was so descriptive back then. What I called “our quarters” was a two-story quadriplex in the family housing area on the south side of the base, about a five-minute walk from the front gate. The building looked new; actually, what it looked like was a bomb-proof concrete bunker, which was not far from the truth. It was made to ride out earthquakes, and I can tell you that after the bigger temblors we had, the whole building used to sway back and forth like a ship at sea. The kitchen and living area was on the ground floor, and our bedrooms were on the upper floor. Until we moved in, we were living in a one-bedroom hotel suite: B and I slept in the bedroom, one of the boys slept on the sofa bed and the other boy slept on a roll-away cot that we set up in the hallway each night before bed. This got old after just a couple nights; we were in that little room for almost a month, so “stir crazy” doesn’t even come close to describing how we were feeling before they finally let us move into our quarters.]

family housing | 5:41 am CDT
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Sunday, October 7th, 2001

My first night with Dawg flight went like this: After I traded war stories with the mission supe, he took me on a short tour of the ops floor, then encouraged me to circulate and meet the ops.

I met the Chief of HF Systems, who told me the story of how Dawg flight was formed: Until sometime last summer there were only three flights, but when the ops floor began to work a 12-hour schedule they needed four flights, so Dawg was constituted. The Chief’s story was that the other flights gave up only their very worst operators for the formation of Dawg.

“We’re all a bunch of criminals,” she said. “Dawg flight only gets the very worst that comes down the pipe. Everybody here has some kind of stain on their record. Every new guy is a new problem child.”

I think this was meant to be a confidence shared in a friendly manner, but when there was a break in the conversation, the newest guy on the flight – that would’ve been me – turned to the second-newest guy and said, “I’ve got a big, warm fuzzy; how about you?”

Toward morning we all found out that the first air strikes against Afghanistan had begun. Mixed reactions from the ops floor personnel.

new Dawgs | 5:46 am CDT
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Weather was beautiful for walking today, so we ran up the Pacific coast a ways and strolled the beach for a couple hours. It’s nice, but not as nice as it may at first sound. Although we’ve walked only a few miles of the coast, we haven’t yet found a ten-foot stretch of it that wasn’t littered with truckloads of garbage. This is great for beachcombers who like to pick up a spare waterlogged television set, but if you want to wander along the sands contemplating life, it can be a bit distracting, and just forget about taking off your shoes.

I dream of sandy beaches | 5:39 am CDT
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Friday, September 28th, 2001

To keep from becoming barracks rats, we’re trying to sign up for every trip and tour that’s published. We went on our first trip today, a beach combing trip to Mutsu Bay to look for glass floats. Fishermen in this corner of the world still use them on their nets, and beach combers are crazy for them, so naturally you never see any. Well, I didn’t, and neither did Timmy, but My Darling B found one almost right away, a tiny one about the size of a golf ball. She was well chuffed; it was the one thing she’d wished for that day, and it came true.

The beaches are pretty trashy, covered with lots of flotsam, and Tim spent the whole morning throwing almost all of it back into the surf, especially the plastic floats. They’re about the size of a basketball and usually have a broken length of rope hanging from them, so he could wind up and fling it like a hammer throw. Made a terrific noise when he hit a concrete breakwater.

We walked probably three or four miles of beach along the eastern rim of the bay, and finally stopped at a roadside noodle stand for a big, steaming-hot bowl of miso ramen before scooting back to Misawa.

Miso ramen is a big bowl of ramen noodles in a broth made of bean paste, usually topped with sliced vegetables such as bean sprouts, onion, mushroom, cabbage, and radish. Sometimes you can order it with chunks of chicken, pork, or beef. And when I say a big bowl, I mean BIG; I have a hard time finishing it. It’s a bargain meal at about 500 yen.

field trip | 5:36 am CDT
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Wednesday, September 26th, 2001

Time now for colorful background: Big crows infest the base. Really big. Big enough to ride. B says she used to worry that they’d carry Sean away. That’s not just a funny way to put it; I’ll bet small dogs go missing pretty often around here. Sometimes they come soaring out of a tree, wings locked, and at first glance you mistake them for aircraft. They even sound like aircraft when they fly by, their wings beating like helicopter rotors. I just hope one of them doesn’t dump on me; that’d be a hard mess to clean up.

an infestation of crows | 5:34 am CDT
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Yesterday, I was supposed to show up for work at one o’clock. A very young security policeman – I mean, he was about eight years old! – took me to his “office,” a closet with a computer in it, read me all the big words that mean I can’t tell you what I do, then had me sign about a dozen papers and made an ID badge for me. Once that was over, I was finally “at work,” so he lead me down the hall to another guy’s office, who asked me a couple questions about my training records, which I didn’t have, before he turned me over to another training office. That was run by another very young airman, maybe seven years old. She said it was too late in the day to start training, come back tomorrow at eight in the morning.

So today I showed up right at eight. She had me fill out a few papers, told me about important stuff like lunch break and where to get snacks from vending machines, then asked if I had any appointments. I said I had to visit the housing office, and I wanted to get ahold of the guy who was going to sell me his car. “Okay, why don’t you take the day off to do that?” she said.

Wow, I’m back in the Air Force now.

training day | 5:30 am CDT
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Friday, September 21st, 2001

It’s a lot more alien than I was ready for; if you’d plopped me down in the middle of an ant colony, I wouldn’t have felt more out of place. Everything’s so tiny. The shops and houses look like ice-fishing shanties standing shoulder to shoulder and stacked atop one another. The cars are about the size of gumdrops. The chairs we sat on in the noodle shop were strangely western-looking but had deceptively short legs. The only things not shrunken are the telephones; they’re at least as big as breadboxes and colored green and red and gray.

Friday evening we taped a holiday message for Armed Forces News. You might have seen these before round about Christmas time; before they go to a commercial break, stations will play these little blips where you see a military guy with the family, they’ll say a quick “hi, folks!” and wave like goobers. We didn’t wave, but we still looked like goobers, so it’ll be pretty easy to spot us. B will be the one who looks like she’s been into the cooking sherry. You might be getting a call telling you when it’ll be on, but I’m not sure they have to do that.

Saturday we wanted to stretch our legs, get out of the room, and off the base, so we headed into town. Misawa is right out the front gate; just take a right and you’re in a main street shopping district. The culture shock is tremendous, most immediately because I can’t read anything. We took a long stroll down one side of the street, stopping for a bite to eat, then worked our way back along the other side of the street. Our first day out, the Jehovah’s Witnesses found us. I thought it was just a Japanese couple being friendly; well, I suppose it was. They chatted with us a bit before he whipped out the pamphlet and asked me to take out a subscription. I accepted his card but said I’d have to get back to him on the subscription.

more ant colony | 9:24 pm CDT
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Sunday, September 16th, 2001

It rained again all day Sunday, but B wanted to see if she could find the house she used to live in, so we set off in the rain to tramp through an old housing area just a block away from the hotel. She was in familiar territory here, and zeroed in on her quarters almost right away. It was a corner apartment on a four-unit building, derelict and covered in graffiti now. All the buildings in this corner of the housing area were vacant, and I found out later that they were all scheduled for demolition in the spring.

The base chaplains held a memorial service in the base theater in the evening. The place was packed; dozens were standing in the back of the room. The service was simple; after the posting of the colors, each of the chaplains said a few words in reflection of the week’s events, we sang the now-inevitable chorus of ‘God Bless America’ while we held lit candles, and everybody filed out after a moment of silence.

It was a cathartic moment; I got a little misty, even though I’m frankly growing more than a little tired of hearing ‘God Bless America’ every day on the public address system just before retreat. Our way of life in the civilian and, somewhat more pointedly, in our military world has been changed so fundamentally, and yet the event that has sparked the change was so outrageously crazy that I can see it’ll take quite some time for me, for probably anybody, to appreciate the weight of it. I’m fairly certain I’ll never be able to get my mind to encompass it fully.

fundament | 9:20 pm CDT
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Saturday, September 15th, 2001

Here’s a funny thing: To fly the military charter flight into Misawa from the States, you actually fly PAST Misawa to Tokyo, land there and wait several hours in the terminal – well, of course you do! – and when you take of again, you head south to Okinawa, where once again you wait several hours in a passenger terminal before you finally get back on the plane and head north to Misawa, where you land some six or seven hours after you flew over it in the first place.

Needless to say, security was tight. Armed Air Force Security Police boarded the plane when we landed at Yokota AB in Tokyo, and a rep from the pax terminal gave us a thorough briefing before we were allowed to leave the plane. Yokota was HOT! The humidity must’ve been near 100%, and the pax terminal wasn’t air conditioned. I peeled off the long-sleeved shirt, fleece and coat I’d been wearing on the plane and sat panting as sweat puddled around me, knowing that I would turn into a popsicle as soon as I got back on the plane and the sweat froze to my skin.

We landed at Iwakune, a Marine air station in southern Japan. Once again, armed guards boarded the plane and a pax terminal rep briefed us, and WOW! Were they wrapped up tight! He told us not to leave the plane without our IDs and boarding passes. If we did, we would not be allowed into the terminal and we would not be allowed to re-board the plane. I guess we’d just have to stand there on the tarmac for the rest of our lives. He advised us to take only what bags and baggage we absolutely needed, because it would all be opened and everything inside would be searched. He reminded us not to leave our IDs and boarding passes. He cautioned us to go directly from the plane to the terminal and not to sneak off for a smoke or to look for a toilet, because the armed guards would jack us up. He reminded us not to leave our IDs and boarding passes. He noted that the bathrooms were to the left inside the pax terminal, past the snack bar. Lots of ears pricked up at the mention of a snack bar, as we hadn’t been fed since we left Alaska. He then added that the snack bar was closed. He reminded us not to leave our IDs and boarding passes. He said that after we’d checked into the pax terminal we could ask to go outside to smoke, but otherwise we were to remain in the terminal building. He reminded us not to leave our IDs and boarding passes. When it was time to re-board the plane, we would be called up in order and we would not be allowed onto the airplane unless we could produce our IDs and boarding passes. As we filed off the plane, he reminded each of us to check that we had our IDs and boarding passes. “There’s always one that forgets, isn’t there?” I remarked on the way out. B smacked me in the back of the head. “You dope! Tempt fate like that and it’s going to be YOU!”

We touched down on Misawa in the rain; the weather was cool. As the plane taxied to the terminal, I saw a small gathering of people standing by the fence, swinging an American flag and waving at the plane, and I thought it must be nice to be the lucky guy who gets that kind of welcome back.

This time, the boarding party was not only armed guards and the pax terminal guy, but the base commander, a one-star general, Chip Utterback, and his Command Chief, the dad-like Chuck Clymer. Utterback said they’d heard just five hours ago that we were inbound – that would’ve been about the time we landed in Yokota – and a bunch of social club members got together to bake cookies and cakes for us, scooped up a carload of cold beverages, and put together an impromptu welcome for us. That was the crowd I saw waving at us in the rain. He welcomed us to the station, and we got off the plane. Waiting just inside the terminal was the commander of every group and squadron on base, as many colonels as I’ve ever seen in one place, and they shook hands with each of us as we filed in. I met my new commander, Col. Mitzell, who stopped to say hello to B and the boys.

It was pouring down rain most of that evening, but Barb was so excited to be back on Misawa Air Base that she just had to have a look around, so we broke out a couple umbrellas and wandered a short walk from the hotel. It was almost as hard for her to keep her bearings as it was for me; there’d been so much new construction on base that she recognized almost nothing. We poked our heads into the community center and the gym to see what they were like before we went back to the hotel. Bedtime was very early that night, and we even managed to sleep in until six or seven.

Arrival | 9:14 pm CDT
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Friday, September 14th, 2001

We decided to try to get some sleep before we left the hotel, so we bedded down about half eight and set the alarm for twelve-thirty. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but it never works, does it? Instead of feeling rested, I always end up feeling worse than if I’d just stayed awake while large men danced the flamenco on my skull.

Even though the bus picked us up at about one in the morning and delivered us to Elmendorf about ten minutes later, the rest of the night was another mind-numbing layover. We had to check our bags first. We had lots of bags, big ones, and to check them we had to drag them down sadistically long corridors before we finally got to drop them on the tarmac. Then we waited. I guess I assumed that, because the Air Force woke us up at midnight, we might be leaving shortly after that. It seems they just wanted to wake us up really early. We hung around for a while, then had a bite to eat, then watched a little television, and eventually I put my head down on a table and had a bit of a snooze, and after I woke up we STILL had to wait hours and hours. Our plane didn’t take off until seven in the morning. We nearly broke into applause.

leaving Anchorage | 6:22 am CDT
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Tuesday, September 11th, 2001

I think just about everybody will remember where they were the day the World Trade Center towers were attacked by raving whackos. We were at 35,000 feet somewhere over Alaska, just two hours into a nine-hour flight to Japan when the captain announced that we were being diverted to Elmendorf Air Force Base because of a “national emergency.” At first B and I were sure that was just an unfortunate choice of words. There was a menacing typhoon off the coast of Japan just the day before; we were sure this diversion was for something as boring as that. The pilot repeated the announcement when he got wind that somebody apparently thought there was a malfunction in the aircraft. Both times he sounded as casual as pilots usually do. I think the air traffic controller hadn’t yet told him the reason for the diversion, because when he finally broke the news to us, he didn’t sound calm at all.

When he came back on the public address to tell us that terrorists had crashed two planes into the World Trade Center towers and a third into the Pentagon he did not sound calm at all. He was very obviously shaken by this information, as I think we all were. Oddly, the news was all at once easily believable and yet utterly incredible. I remember the first time I saw the video of the first tower burning and thinking it didn’t look serious at all, just a lot of smoke and a bit of fire on the upper floors; then, the second jet appeared from the right edge of the screen, lazily swooped down to the second tower, and exploded. I’d already accepted that the rest of our lives were changed, but the heavy reality of it didn’t settle onto me until that moment.

The passenger terminal at Elmendorf was a huge warehouse of a place filled with wooden benches, almost like an old-time train station. Passengers flopped on the benches while a sergeant took roll, and then, in a surprisingly short time, the pax [passenger] terminal personnel managed the Herculean task of finding rooms for hundreds of people they weren’t expecting. They packed the single airmen off to the dorms, but they had to scramble to find hotel rooms for the families, and they pulled it off even though Anchorage was crawling with other grounded passengers desperately searching for rooms.

We ended up in an Econo Lodge in a low-rent corner of Anchorage, surrounded by car dealerships and parking lots, with no idea how long we’d be there. Rumor was we’d fly out the next day, but even the military was grounded until the FAA gave the green light, and one day dragged into the next. The first day we stayed in the room; the second, we held out until early afternoon before cabin fever drove us to walk around the downtown area a bit. There’s not much to see in downtown Anchorage, but we felt better for getting out into the fresh air and stretching our legs, if nothing else. The third day we took a long walk all around downtown, stopping for lunch in a sandwich shop having a long wander up side streets to see the different downtown shops. This didn’t take long. There really isn’t much there. I was surprised that Anchorage looked much larger from the air than I thought it was; from the ground, it turned out to be the one-horse town I’d always suspected it would be.

[10/20/14: Although this blog post was dated 9/11/2001, it was obviously written long after the fact. I didn’t start blogging until maybe October or November, so I probably wrote it then.]

nine eleven | 6:15 am CDT
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career | Tags: , ,
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