Had anyone asked me, before I joined up with the US Air Force, to describe my situation three years from the day I caught the bus in Mobile, headed to the MEPS station in Montgomery, my description certainly wouldn’t have included the words, “depressed” and “bored.” Mix in “the Pentagon” and it sounds less like a four-year duty station and more like some trippy dream you have during REM sleep right before you wake up to the sound of your alarm reminding you of the math test you’re going to fail in 45 minutes.
Living on a military base governed by a wing of the military in which you did not enlist should be high on the list of “Things the Government Shouldn’t Do To Military Personnel“; but, they do. I spent nigh on four years, enlisted in the Air Force, but living on tiny, boring, very little to do, Fort Myer in Arlington, VA, an Army base. Not to be confused with Fort Myers (note: plural) in Florida, which is not a military base, but is in fact, fun and wonderful.
Fort Myer in Virginia resides at the top of Arlington National Cemetary. Among other things, it’s purpose is to monitor and protect the cemetary and provide the elite guard watching over the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” The base itself, which is less than 2 miles at its widest point, includes (at the time I was there) a sundries store (think…low-rent Walmart with about 1/50th the selection), a BX (that’s a grocery store to Johnny Civilian), a bowling facility, a small movie facility, a squash court, basketball court, small track, and various administrative complexes. There is very little to do on-base.
Now, if you snuck through the fence at the back of the base, you could get onto a Marine facility, which was even more poorly arranged, with the exception of a much better sundries store, where I purchased this green recliner which, to this day, my wife maintains was blue. Granted, looking at this picture, I can understand why she feels that way; however, I assure you, it was not blue.
Most of us who lived on Ft. Myer and were in the Air Force, but working at the Pentagon, worked various shifts. As such, it was of utmost importance that your living conditions be conducive to a number of factors and situations, including:
- Blackout curtains so you could sleep during the day.
- A noise barrier pushed up against the bottom of your door to keep out unwanted noise from the echo-chamber hallways built of cinder blocks and concrete ceilings and floors.
- A refrigerator so you could store you own groceries to cook when you’re awake (because you’re working night shift) and the base kitchens are all closed.
- Various black-market cooking appliances you had to hide in your closet each day when you left your room due to any number of unannounced inspections. Generally, our Air Force commanding officer understood the situation in which many of us worked and was not unsympathetic to our plight. In return, he made allowances for us breaking the Army’s rule of “NO COOKING” in the barracks as long as he couldn’t see it when he did his cursory inspections.
- An unspoken competition among various rooms as to who had the best electronics setup; a contest in which I was a perennial “also-ran,” but never quite the winner.
- Cable television.
Despite my best efforts, the long nights awake in my room with no one to talk to, and even lonelier nights AT work where I frequently worked by myself in a nuclear-war survivable metal box, designed to be maintained by a single Airman in case of an attack, eventually began to wear thin. My parents divorced within months of my leaving home and my “back-home” girlfriend and I had broken up a few months back. I wasn’t terribly torn up about it, but I hadn’t yet been able to replace her with a new relationship, so all in all I was feeling pretty alone. I was also about a year younger than most of the others in the barracks, so when they all went out partying at the clubs–the ones requiring that you be 21 just to get in–I stayed home. All of that, combined with a growing tendency towards introversion, contributed to my becoming more and more…not depressed, but certainly, withdrawn.
Looking back now I recognize the mental place I was in and it wasn’t good. I needed a lift; something to pull me up and help me refocus on the good in life.
My friend Brian Tillett (another Brian) was off the same day as I. While I technically worked in “Tech Control,” Tillett (everyone called everyone by their last name) worked in Cryptography. I kept the communication lines working and Tillett made sure all of the communication lines stayed encrypted. We didn’t work together, but we frequently worked in the same facility and spent more than a few shifts watching Letterman, performing maintenance on the “world’s oldest electronics” and generally trying to avoid “guard duty,” a requirement to stand around and keep an eye on non-secured visitors to the area for anything as generic as “A/C maintenance.” These guard duties could last five minutes or five hours and all you could do was stand, or sit there, and do nothing but watch. It was interminably miserable.
Anyway, this particular day, we were both off work. Most of our friends were either still on day-shift, or preparing for swings, so we found ourselves separately with nothing to do and lots of time on our hands. I’d been feeling very detached of late and spending a great deal of time exercising if, for no other reason, than out of boredom. Sitting in my room, I heard a knock on my door, and opened it to find Tillett. We made small talk for a few minutes; neither of us coming up with anything the other wanted to do. Finally, Tillett said, “You want to just go for a drive?”
Now, at the time, I didn’t have a car on base. To get to and from the Pentagon every day, I usually caught a ride with someone. But, I’d never ridden with Tillett. He had this gorgeous Trans Am, a drop-top that rumbled when you cranked it up.
We hopped in his car and headed off base. No particular destination in mind, we just drove. I remember that neither of us spoke much. Tillett, perhaps feeling a bit of my mood too, put on Counting Crows, the August and Everything After album. You know, the good one. And while Adam Duritz belted out beautifully despondent songs like “Round Here” and “Perfect Blue Buildings,” I closed my eyes and reveled in the fall wind whipping through my hair and the feeling that I was living a nearly perfect moment; my cares lifted and my emotions soaring for the first time in far too long.
I don’t remember anything else about that day, but I remember that hour. Rarely since have I felt such peace and freedom. Maybe that’s why I love fall so much today; the faint hope that I’ll recapture that same feeling just once more in my lifetime.
I’ve mentioned before here on my blog that I wish I could go back and tell all the people in my life what they meant to me and how much they impacted my life. Tillett and I were never that close, and he’s a big-wig in the security space now, so this isn’t something I’d feel comfortable hitting him up on LinkedIn and telling him. Still, maybe he’ll stumble across this blog one day and read my simple, “Thank You.”
Brian, thank you for that day. It was one of the good ones. And there’s been far too few of them before or since.