The Joys of Butter and Crackers in 1978

I have a very strong “emotional brain”; that memory-jogging sensation you get from smells, which I’ve always thought was odd considering my penchant for sinus infections. I also put on weight like a sumo wrestler on a fast-food diet and so for the past few years, I have practiced–with varying levels of success–not eating lunch. Overall, it works. I’ve managed to lose, and keep off, about 5-7 pounds simply by skipping a meal. And no, it never gets easier.

By around 4pm, however, my will power has crumbled and though I tell myself I’m only going to the kitchen to refill my water glass, inevitably I end up with a snack. Having three kids, whatever snack I end up with is usually less about cravings and more about efficiency; what can I grab quickly and quietly before anyone else in the house hears me and comes down to the kitchen to stand and stare. Because I don’t eat during the day, having breakfast before the kids are usually up, I cherish the moments when I do eat and the last thing I want is to share–no, belay that, the LAST thing I want is to be judged for grabbing an Oreo by a 13-year-old.

The other day, as I came down for my usual “glass of water” I grabbed the pack of Saltines and went to make an old standby, “Saltines with Peanut Butter and Raisins” when, as I grabbed the jar of peanut butter, I found it nearly empty. Time being of the essence, I didn’t feel like scraping out the nearly empty jar with a silicone spatula, my usual cheap-skate dad-move, and then losing precious seconds getting another jar and having to remove the safety seal. So, instead, I quickly popped off the top of the butter dish and, using a Saltine, sliced off a slab of butter and stuck it in my mouth as I headed for the stairs.

I was immediately taken back to 1978. I was five. My parents had divorced the year earlier and since my dad, who we lived with, didn’t exactly cook, we were having dinner at a local favorite restaurant, LUMS. I knew nothing of LUMS’ history then, established in Florida initially as a hot dog shack specializing in beer-grilled dawgs. All I knew of LUMS was that they had the best hamburgers and fries; the burgers served up on thick buns that had been buttered and left to sizzle until golden brown on the grill.

But even before the hamburger came, there were packs of crackers and little foil-sealed packages of butter in plastic-wicker containers on each table, presumably as snacks while you waited. And I can remember opening those plastic cracker packages, usually with my teeth because I couldn’t quite tear them with my little pudgy fingers, and spreading some of the room-temperature butter (or Marjorine more likely) on the cracker and sticking in my mouth. Oh, the sweetness of those green-labeled Keebler Club  Crackers combined with the saltiness of the butter–heaven!

I processed all of this in a micro-second as I took the first step up the stairs, heading back to my office. But then I stopped, turned back, grabbed a paper towel and a butter knife, and made myself just a few more. Along with my glass of water, of course. It also occurred to me that, by eating nearly a third of a stick of butter, I completely negated my afternoon of fasting, but some things are worth it. Not the butter and crackers I had that day in my own house, but the memory of the butter and crackers I shared as a 5-year-old boy with my brother and my dad.

As I consider it now, it feels like it was probably one of the last, truly good memories we all shared together before the life we knew it changed completely and before “things” began the slow, inexorable slide to complete shit. And I realize that it was one of the few times I can remember living in the moment. Truly enjoying an experience while it was happening without worrying about next week, or tomorrow, or even five minutes from now. That person packed up and left a long time ago, but I liked him a lot.

From the Pentagon to Japan, and Back Again, Without Ever Leaving

During the second year of my Air Force enlistment, having long-since tired of the drudgery of the Pentagon, I put in a request for a transfer somewhere, anywhere. The request was borne out of desperation for something other than the secretive dreariness of our basement facility, or if I was lucky, the solitary 8-hour shifts locked behind a foot-thick steel door in a metal box on the third floor of the world’s largest office building. My request, and the subsequent reassignment, was a mistake, or so I thought at the time.

I grew up hearing, briefly now and again, stories of my father’s time in the military. He too was in the electronics field in the Air Force. All told, he spent seven years in, only leaving it to care for his dying father, though he didn’t know at the time his father was beyond saving. But my dad was stationed in western Europe–Germany and Italy primarily–though he traveled all over during his free time.

When you join the military, enlisted personnel first go to boot camp and it is there you select your “preferred” job and where you would like to be located for the next two years. You select jobs based on your test scores and based on the open jobs available on that particular day, which may not be the same jobs available tomorrow or the day after. So what you end up doing in the military is very often, directed randomness. Directed in the sense that if you score highly in mechanics, you probably won’t be offered janitorial jobs, and random because the types of jobs available change regularly.

I scored very well in all four testing areas so I had a variety of jobs to choose from. However, because my father was also in electronics, I gravitated towards that field. I don’t remember all of my options that day, but I do remember that as I looked over my choices, I couldn’t help but glance over at my friend “Price.”

Jason Price and I joined up in Alabama together and were shipped to Boot Camp together. We hit it off immediately. Airman Price always looked as if he was waiting to see if you were going to eat the bug he hid in your sandwich. If you’ve seen the movie “Full Metal Jacket,” Price looked like a thinner version of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle, but with the personality of Matthew Modine’s character “Joker.”

I glanced over at Price and we had both come to the same conclusion, “Pick jobs with really heavy security clearances. Those are cool!” And that’s what we did. We picked very technical-sounding jobs requiring a TS/SCI clearance. From the job descriptions we had very little understanding of what we’d actually be doing, but it didn’t matter. We thought then that having a high security clearance was reward enough in itself. After all, girls love mysterious guys, especially those in uniform!

After selecting your job, you are also allowed to select several potential permanent duty locations. I don’t remember exactly where I picked, but they were places I can remember my father talking about, so likely Italy, Germany, etc.

The thing about picking your job and permanent duty location in the military is that nothing is guaranteed. You are oft reminded of the motto, “Air Force Needs Come First.” Meaning, you can pick whatever you like, but if your government needs you in Ohio, that’s where you’re going. During the selection process, they do not tell you that “Job A is open in location A.” So you don’t know that if you select Job A, you’ll get to go where you want. Far more likely, the job you want to do is not even something that’s done where you want to go. So, for instance, if you select some niche job requiring a high-security clearance, but you want to go to a very popular place like Hickam AFB in Hawaii, well, good luck.

"Air Force Needs Come First"

Turns out Price and I both got our first picks, and after Boot Camp we were both sent to Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS for training. Being assigned to different dorms in Keesler, we drifted apart, but we remained friends for many years. Just before graduation from Technical School, we received our permanent duty assignments. I got the Pentagon and he got the Azores (I think). At the time, I thought he got the short end of the stick. I would later realize it was the other way around.

Two years later, when my initial time at the Pentagon came up, I was eagerly awaiting word of my next duty station. I hoped that having put in my time at the Pentagon, the Air Force would take pity on me and send me somewhere exotic and far away. By then, my parents had divorced (only months after I left home) and had moved to completely different places. I’d broken up with my girlfriend, and frankly, there just wasn’t anything keeping me stateside.

I’d heard stories from the older people I worked with, stories of places in Germany and Austria, and I longed to go and explore the mountains and open spaces, or really anything that wasn’t the confines of Washington DC and the ever-oppressive Pentagon.

As I came to work one afternoon (I worked Swing shift from 3pm – 11pm), I found an official-looking form in my box. With eager hands, I broke open the seal and with a flutter in my stomach, began reading about my next, wonderful duty station.

It said, “Pentagon, Washington D.C.”  I wasn’t going anywhere. I would fulfill my last two years in the Same. Damn. Place.

And so there I was two days later, standing in the Air Force administrative office filling out the form titled, “Permanent-duty, Voluntary Worldwide Overseas Transfer Request.” I had been told of this chance by a fellow I worked with, after lamenting my luck. This special form basically allowed you to appeal to a higher power in requesting a transfer. It was no guarantee, but from the Air Force’s standpoint, it was an opportunity to send some poor schmuck wherever the hell they needed him or her and there wasn’t a damn thing that person could do about it because they had asked for it.

And that’s exactly what my friend warned me about. He said, “Look, if you do this, you don’t have a choice at all of where they send you. It’s a complete dice roll.

I rolled the dice and a month later, I found another letter in my inbox. With similar excitement and more than a little trepidation, I opened the letter and read aloud my fate, “Camp Zama, Japan.”

Japan? WOW! I didn’t know anything about Japan at the time, but I knew it wasn’t here. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends, which I did that evening on shift.

Turns out, I was in trouble, or not, depending on who you ask. For starters, I currently had to live on an Army base because I was single and worked in the DoD. At the time, if you worked in the DoD and weren’t married (meaning you could live off base), you HAD to live on Ft. Myer (an Army base, which sucks) because it had a bus running to and from the Pentagon. The military had to provide you a way to get to work if you didn’t have a car, which I didn’t. So, I was now destined to move from one Army base to another. And this Army base in Japan, had even fewer  Air Force members, meaning I would be mostly working and living with Army people. Which, if you’ve ever been in the military, you know of the rivalry, and if you’ve not been in the military then just trust me when I say each branch thinks the other branches are morons.

Adding to my woes, Camp Zama was apparently out in the middle of nowhere Japan (two hours to Tokyo by train) and it was a pain in the ass to get anywhere; it was (and still is) a terribly ugly and squat little bit of a base with almost nothing to do, and you can forget about having your own transportation. All in all, I had gotten myself out of the frying pan and into the fire.

After chewing on my predicament a few days, I made an appointment to speak with my Colonel, a quiet but sharp woman of Asian descent. I presented myself in her office and explained what I had done and why, and respectfully asked her to try and nullify the request, something else I had been told was possible by my fellow Airmen. Again, no guarantees. With a knowing smile and a little nod, she agreed and a few days later she filed a counter-form stating that I had special training that benefitted the DoD facility in particular (which was true) and that my transfer would basically put her facility at a disadvantage for months until someone else could be found and trained to replace me (slightly exaggerated, but also basically true).

Her request was accepted and my transfer countermanded. I was back in the Basement.

I did spend my remaining time in the Pentagon. Nothing really changed. I turned 21, which helped me get out and enjoy the DC metro area more. I made friends with a similarly introverted loner, also afflicted with little tolerance for idiots, and he took pity on me and often invited me to spend the weekends with him and his folks out in Virginia Beach. I also got into fitness and spent most of my time running along the Potomac and pretending I wasn’t single and bored.

Near the end of my four years, I received my second “end of tour” transfer notice. The military assumes you’re staying in and so they go ahead and assign your next tour even before they know whether or not you are. This time, the letter said, “Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.” The advanced computer systems a few of us had been trained on in the Pentagon were now being installed in the highly-secure underground Cheyenne Mountain facility and since many of us in the DoD already had the requisite clearances, we were naturally good fits to move to Cheyenne, and a couple of my friends had.

But, the thought of moving from the basement and locked doors of the Pentagon, to a half-mile underground facility in Colorado, a place that was also a #1 target in a nuclear engagement,  was enough to send me running for the hills, or the foothills of Atlanta as it would turn out.

I have always regretted my decision of not going to Zama and I often wonder how my life would have changed had I gone. Certainly, I wouldn’t have ended up working with the well-paid civilians I worked with at the DoD, many who had the exact same training as me and were making six figures, something that would weigh very heavily on my choice to leave the military.

But from the outside, I can also see how the Pentagon was, in itself, a special place. It is a microcosm of military irony, where the kinds of things that happen there simply don’t happen anywhere else in the military, and where the expectations for how the “Chain of Command” works everywhere else, is turned on its head. In the Pentagon, you can find Generals filling coffee pots with water in the hallway; at any other base a Captain is revered as the Second Coming. At the Pentagon, an E-3 Airmen with authority issues, who would be a lowly nobody anywhere else, is treated like a real person and respected for his work ethic if he knows his stuff.

Looking back, it was possibly the best years of my life, or at least the most memorable and formative. All in all, it was good for me. Maybe not as good as Italy would have been if the pictures of my father with his arms around two girls leaning on his baby-blue Porsche are any indication, but still not bad.