Photos Do Not Bend

You never know what’s going to set off a memory and today’s path down things best left forgotten comes from a photo mailer. You’ve seen them. They are those moderately rigid cardboard envelopes you mail photos in; the ones that say, misleadingly “Photos – Do Not Bend!”

But they DO bend and therein lies today’s memory…

When I was in Air Force boot camp, our dormitory was a self-contained mini-prison. Sleeping quarters were divided into two wings, each with two rows of bunks with a locker beside it to store our gear. Each dorm also had a full bathroom, with enough facilities for 50 guys to use at the same time during morning dress and showers.

Our drill instructor–we called him our Technical Instructor or “TI”–also had a large office, complete with a cot for him to sleep in, which he only did for the first few weeks until he was sure no one was going to go Private Pyle on the Flight and start popping caps in folks.

At the very end of the dorm hallway was our “Day Room.” It was so called because it was the only room with windows low enough to see through and twice each day we gathered there for a group meeting in the morning and mail call in the evening. There were no chairs; we sat on the floor, most of us cross-legged. On one wall near the front was a door leading to another dormitory containing our “Brother Flight.” They were called that because they came to Basic a couple of weeks after us and technically we were supposed to help teach them how to survive. Other than one or two short trips over to show them how to iron T-shirts or to bang garbage cans to wake them up, we had little do to with them on a regular basis.

Evening mail call was a special time because for the first few weeks we weren’t allowed to call or write home. We couldn’t eat candy or drink soda either, so the mail brought an opportunity for something special…or so we thought. Anyone who received a package from home was forced to open it in front of everyone and pray to GOD that it didn’t contain anything contraband…which was pretty much anything good!

I remember one poor recruit we called Barney. Unlike most of us, Barney was at least in his late twenties when he enlisted. If memory serves, he had no marketable skills and after barely scraping by, he decided to join the Air Force in hopes of giving his wife and his only daughter at the time, the opportunity at a better life. But Barney’s wife and friends did him wrong. During our third week, I guess his wife and friends decided he might be lonely, so they thought it would be funny to send him an inflatable sex doll. When he opened the box and started unpacking his “gift,” it was as if Christmas had come early for our TI, who reveled in embarrassing his recruits any chance he got.  Barney never lived it down.

Military food has gotten a bad rap through the years, no doubt due to the MREs, Meals Ready to Eat. They are those freeze-dried, super-preserved meals that have been vacuum-packed for field readiness. With the exception of the chocolate bars, just about everything else in an MRE is about what you’d expect from something that was once cooked, then dried beyond recognition and/or powdered for easy storage and transport. However, the food served in mess halls (or the “Cafeteria” as we called them in the Air Force) was not bad.

Unfortunately, in Basic Training you have neither the time, nor the inclination to sit and enjoy your hot-meal, so everything is gulped down with nary a chance to think about how it tasted. Which means, by week three of Boot Camp, most of us were dreaming about fast food and sweet deserts.

But short of a sex-doll, there weren’t many things worse to receive in the mail from home, than a Care Package full of food. If you were unfortunate enough to get food in the mail, you had three choices:

A. Share it with everyone. The problem was that there was never enough to share with 49 other boys, leaving you with either Options B or C.

B. Eat it all by yourself right there, right then while everyone stared

OR

C) Throw it away without touching it

The smart ones simply threw it away, but the first couple of recruits actually tried to eat a full load of brownies and ended up sick and humiliated.

All things considered, the best thing to receive in the mail was a letter. It was simple; it was fairly private, and it was usually safe from prying eyes, though not always.

Our TI had this little game he liked to play where he would sit in the front of the room and after calling your name because you’d received a letter, he’d try and fling the letter sideways like a flying disc, across the floor and under the door separating our Day Room from our Brother Flight’s Day Room. If he was successful, he thought it was hilarious (and quite frankly so did we as long it wasn’t OUR letter being launched). If the letter didn’t make it, you got to pick up your letter and immediately read it. If it did make it through, you had to wait until you had some free time to go over and beg them to return the letter.

Besides letters, some recruits also received mail packaged in our good friend the Photo Mailer. The very one that says, “Photos-Do Not Bend,” to which our TI always replied, “Oh, but they do…” as he proceeded to bend and crease them to his heart’s desire. Once mangled, the poor kid who received it had to then open the mailer and show everyone whatever pictures he’d been sent of Mom, his girlfriend, whomever; and of course this opened him up to all sorts of derision from both our TI and from the other recruits.

After one or two letters, I think most guys wrote home and asked them to stop sending things because after a while, mail call petered out, which was just fine with me since I never received anything anyway.

So that’s today’s memory brought on by a quick trip to my kitchen where I have a stack of photo mailers sitting on the counter. I’ll get them out at some point, but right now I’m enjoying just looking at the envelopes and remembering Basic Training and the Day Room.

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.

Everything I need to know, I learned in boot camp.

The military taught me many things. For example, I learned that quality shoes are essential if you plan on doing any great amount of running. I also learned that if you drink two medium-sized glasses of lukewarm water before every meal, you’ll eat less. These are things you would normally learn on your own–given time. But there were other things taught to us raw recruits–such as how to shave correctly–that many people might never have learned if they hadn’t had the proper teacher(s) at home. The military assumes the very worst about incoming recruits and prepares its training appropriately.

But one of the most useful skills I picked up was ironing. Before the military, I didn’t iron. Oh, I knew how…I just didn’t. Ironing in the Me, ironing.military is not a skill; it is an art. It is an art as time-consuming and tedious as Japanese Bonsai. New recruits are taught how to firstfold a t-shirt and then, using tweezers to pull out and hold the edges of the collar so as to not burn your fingers, press that shirt into a perfect square. If you’ve ever ironed a round-necked T-shirt, you can imagine the difficulty here. From T-shirts, one moves onto the more formal uniforms and battle dress uniform (BDUs–those camouflaged things you see soliders wearing).

Needless to say, I became a really great ironer. I even bought my own bottle of STA-FLO liquid starch concentrate and mixed my own starch spray so I could control the crispiness of my creases. And so I have ironed my own clothes for years. CareerMom–notsomuch.

CareerMom has always been a dry-cleaning kinda gal. Even when the clothes don’t require dry-cleaning, she’ll send them to the dry-cleaners just so she doesn’t have to iron them after they come out of the dryer. When times have been tough and the pennies needed penching, this was an area I always criticized. Recognizing that most professional women’s clothes require dry-cleaning, I haven’t been able to make too much of a stink, but the cost was always there…hovering overhead.

Normally I don’t have to do much ironing these days. Thanks to business casual dress, I might have to iron a couple of pairs of dress slacks, but for the most part my shirts are golf-style shirts that don’t require ironing. But lately, I’ve been interviewing a good bit and thanks to it being both summer, and stressful, I’ve been sweating a lot in my shirts. To save money, I’ve only purchased a couple of nice dress shirts to wear under my suit jacket, so I’ve been washing and ironing these same shirts a lot. And I’ve grown tired of it.

So today, I dropped off my two shirts at the drycleaners. It was a pivotal moment and I expected–at any minute–for the clouds to part and the angels start singing “Hallelujah!”

Unfortunately, all I heard was the “Thank you Ms. Megan” from the Asian dry-cleaning lady who pulled my wife’s account up as she took my bundle.  I recognize that I will probably always iron the majority of my own clothes, but I gotta be honest…they do a better job than I do and it sure is more handy than dragging out that ironing board every night. Maybe I can find a relatively inexpensive men’s clothing designer whose dress shirts REQUIRE dry cleaning. That way, I wouldn’t feel guilty about having to send them off. It works for CareerMom; why not me?

Joining the Air Force – Part 3 (Arriving in San Antonio)

Be sure and read Parts 1 and 2 in this series first!

There is a reason the military has a cut-off age for acceptance that’s somewhere in a person’s early 30s and it has little to do with their ability—either physically or mentally—past that age and it has everything to do with a person’s moldability (their ability to mildew? Wha?). Looking back, with the experience and knowledge I now hold, I can see the absurdity of boot camp and there is NO WAY IN HELL I would put up with it now. And thus, the reason for the age cut-off.

But then, I was 18. And I still had a genuine respect for unproven authority. And they exploited the heck out of that…

Our plane touched down in San Antonio around dusk and we were quickly herded onto yet another waiting bus and driven over to Lackland AFB—home of the Air Force military training base. Again, we were a quiet bunch. Arriving at nightfall, we weren’t quite sure what to expect and any guesstimates we might have had, were soon to be proven incorrect.

Around eight thirty, the bus delivered us to a large, low-slung covered asphalt area. The covered portion was well-lit, but the bus pulled up along the periphery where the shadows still left the details uncertain. Above the asphalt court was a concrete and brick building—tan and squat—with absolutely nothing to belie its use. All around us were similar structures, but ours was the only one that showed any life at this time of night. It felt, then, as if we were the only ones for miles.

We filed off the bus, with our bags in our hands where a camouflage-clad man waited and told us all to form up in lines four rows deep and approximately six across. Compliant, we obeyed and then stood waiting as yet another similarly dressed person came over. Still dark, the Training Instructors (or TIs) started walking up and down the lines, looking at each of us. Still not saying anything, their oversized, wide brimmed hats cast even more shadows across their faces and the fact that we were looking into the lights of the court, left us little to see of who it was scrutinizing us.

“Welcome to the United States Air Force Military Training Facility. I am Tech. Sgt. Aleman. I will be your Training Instructor for the duration of your stay here. When I speak to you, you will be expected to respond with a “Yes Sir!”

Continuing, our new TI said, “Now many of you may have seen movies and you THINK you know what Training Camp is like, but you do not. For one, I do NOT like “Sir Sandwiches!” When you respond to me you will say, “Yes Sir!”, not “Sir Yes Sir!”

“DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

We all responded: “Yes sir!”

“Good. Now, pick up your bags!”

As one raggedy bunch we all picked up our bags.

“Not good enough! Put your bags down!”

We obeyed.

“Now pick up your Go**amn bags!”

More quickly now, we all picked up our bags.

“Put ‘em down!”

“Pick em up!”

This went on for a while. Each time, our TI would vary the amount of time between the request so as to prevent us from anticipating his next command. Throughout this initial expectation setting time, a few of us were selected for even further humiliation—usually something to do with our hair, or how we were dressed, and perhaps even for how scared we looked. Who knows? Somehow, I was passed over—that night anyway.

To say that any movies we had seen would not resemble our time in Boot Camp is not quite true. In fact, if you’ve ever seen the movie “Full Metal Jacket” then you’re pretty familiar with the way trainees were verbally harassed and even abused. There was never any physical abuse, but there was the threat of it a-plently.

That night we “Rainbows” (the name given to new recruits who come in wearing colorful street clothes) were given our first taste of life for the next six weeks. And after about an hour and a half of standing at attention down on the court and quickly becoming scared s*itless, we were filed upstairs to our new home.

Our dormitories were a space about as large as half a gymnasium. The ceilings were fairly tall, and the windows were up high looking towards the sky. The floors were that same white linoleum (highly polished) that you find in public schools across America. The door to the dorm was a heavy steel with a reinforced window about 10” tall by 8” wide. Walking in, you could either take a quick left into the first “Bay,” or keep going down the hall towards Bay 2 on the left, or the bathrooms on the right. At the end of the hall was a “Day Room,” a special place that I’ll discuss at length later.

The two bays were divided in the middle by a cinderblock wall; each wall was lined with footlockers—one for each bed in the bay. Each bay held approximately 24 beds (12 on each side). The beds were exactly what you’ve seen in the movies; thin mattresses over metal springs; the linens tightly pulled down around the corners and the covers turned down with the pillow on top. Were the surroundings not what they were, it would have almost been inviting.

That night, beds were assigned randomly, but that would change throughout our time there depending on rank and who needed additional help etc. But that night, we were instructed to put our stuff away, use the restrooms and hit the beds. Compared  to the first half of our arrival, our second half was relatively uneventful as we all silently and quickly settled down.

We were to discover that night, that our TI didn’t go home most nights. In the middle of the two bays, he had an office with a bed. And that’s where he spent most of our nights in camp. From there, he could keep an eye on us and also spring special surprises whenever he felt the time was right.
But that night, were all exhausted and within minutes of turning out the lights, we were fast asleep. It’s a good thing too because we had a busy day ahead.