For Jennifer and Jason: I’m spending a bit more space on the time after your mother and I finished high school and our first few years in the Air Force. I don’t think we relayed our exploits about when we originally left Southern California. There are not many friends or relatives who know much about that time. Your mother and I drove away a few days after our wedding. Although we kept in touch with family and friends the best we could, it wasn’t much. Once you drive away, your shared experiences diminish, and conversations quickly drift into pleasantries. Soon these pleasantries drift into polite discussions of the current weather forecast. At that point, phone calls fade and the long-distance bills subside. I guess everyone who moves away experiences the same feeling of loss. Life and people do move on, you have your own world, and you no longer belong where you once were.
I promise not to dwell as long on the times that you are old enough to remember. Well, maybe just an anecdote or two to cement one of your particularly embarrassing adventures. You may notice how the text flips from “your Mother” to “Lillian.” Over the years I’ve found it helpful to maintain a healthy distance when talking about your mother. When these stories go south, and they most certainly will, I’ll just blame it on poetic license or better yet, someone else.
So, with just a little more context, here is — the story of us.
Well, I guess a series of my life’s anecdotes wouldn’t be complete without a little about your mother and me. In many ways, it is the world’s most uninteresting story. We met in Jr. High. We couldn’t date until we were out of high school. Then we got married. Maybe there are a few details I left out. But that’s our story. As of November 2020, your Mother and I have been married for forty-six years. If you add the years before that, beginning when we met and turned twelve, that makes for a long time.
Your Mom’s Great Uncle, Uncle Carl, lived to be 102. He was the wise one everyone looked up to. He built, lost, and built again multiple family fortunes. He ended his days in Southern California, but his heart and fortune remained in Yugoslavia. When I met him, his English wasn’t too good, but his heart was huge, and his eyes could see around corners. He knew how to read people. He seemed to know things before they happened. When Lillian turned sixteen, he predicted our marriage. Lillian’s mom and dad didn’t to say but were sure he was wrong. I wish I could go back and talk to Uncle Carl, I’d tell him – back then, I knew it too.
I think all family discussions about going into the military go about the same. It was the Fall of 1973 and the Vietnam War was coming to an end. Even with the end in sight, all males needed to register with the Selective Service. Yes, my older brother and I were required to sign up for the draft. Our parents and we were keenly aware of the divisions across the Country. As a family, we were all divided in our opinions. Who cares about your opinions anyway? If the magic ball drops your number — you go. It was just that simple. Thanks for your opinion, anyway. Didn’t win? Tune in next week, bring your number, best of luck.
There aren’t a lot of options for the high school track star who wasn’t fast enough for a scholarship and a C+ average too low for most colleges. Besides, paying for college wasn’t something I’d even thought about. I knew I wanted to go to college, but I also wanted to get married and be independent. So, how about employment? What exactly did a McDonald’s fry cook have as relevant experience? Then, during the beginning of our senior year, the recruiting van showed up.
With the fall of Saigon, South Vietnamese loyalists were frantic to leave. Hundreds were climbing on any helicopter that could fly. When the U.S. Embassy was evacuated, helicopters flying personnel to the Naval ships waiting offshore were then pushed overboard to make room for those lucky enough to get a flight out. The scenes from the nightly news were horrific. America had just lost the War. Ok, technically not a War, but an “armed conflict,” where 55,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and nurses died. This was the larger context at the time I joined the military.
In December I proudly told my parents I was joining the Air Force. I was seventeen and the law was on my side. I remember my father’s offering. “The war is over, and it’ll be a long time before America gets into another one like that. It’s probably the best time to go in.” For her part, my mother just cried. My goals were simple: First, be able to get married and live on our own. Second, piece together the first few years of a college degree. A degree in what? Who knew, I never even thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I still don’t know. Getting married and being able to start going to school were the only two goals I had. Everything else was too far off or too complicated to consider.
First things first, I needed money! The recruiter said if I enlisted for six years instead of the usual four, I’d get an additional $29 per month. Every month. I signed the paperwork. Not being eighteen, my parents were required to sign as well. Three days after the Christmas of 1973 and halfway through my senior year, I took the oath of enlistment. Thankfully, I was allowed to delay basic training until after High School graduation. In August, I flew to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio Texas to begin Basic Military Training. I had signed up to be trained as a Cryptological Systems Repairman. This was an eight-month technical school and one of the hardest to qualify for. It was also a school with the highest dropout rate. I had no idea what a cryptological system was or why they needed to be fixed. I had no idea what any of this meant but it all sounded very important.
That short summer after graduation solidified our plans. Or so I thought. I left for Texas and Lillian remained at home. Waiting. She’s done a lot of waiting over the years. This was just the introduction. Having actually gone to High School and spent it mostly awake, she had excellent grades and could have gone to college anywhere. She elected to stay close to home, continue to make money, and wait. She enrolled at California State University, Northridge. She was going to major in waiting. To earn money, she waitressed for family friends at their IHOP restaurant in Topanga. For the record, Topanga is the richer side of the San Fernando Valley. She saved her money, mostly because she didn’t have to take me out and buy my dinner anymore. She bought her first car with the cash she saved from the tips she made. The 1972 Chevy Vega she bought was bright gold in color and all hers, title and everything.
In early August, I remember getting on the bus in downtown L.A. My father handed me a crisp new $5.00 bill. “I’d give you more, but you won’t need it.” Truer words have never been spoken. I viewed this as a bit cruel at the time but what did I know. Turned out that other than the coke I bought before boarding that bus, I still had the remainder of that five dollars when I graduated from basic eight weeks later.
I showed up at Basic and the 100+ degree heat in San Antonio was unbelievable. I knew hot weather and loved it. Growing up in a desert, it was second nature. But humidity was something new. I had no idea what the hell was happening. When I got off the bus, the wall of heat and moisture hit all of us like a tidal wave. Standing in the dark as we arrived at the Base, I swear I could feel my eyelids sweating.
The buses and flights are designed to deliver new recruits between 3 and 4 am. Apparently, this is designed to ensure everyone is wide awake and at their most alertness. For those few who are a bit groggy from their travels, the Drill Instructors (DI) repeated everything three times. For anyone hard of hearing, they talked real real loudly. How considerate they were. The bus I took from the San Antonio Airport had a mix of Los Angeles hippies, African American farm kids from North Carolina and me, your hero. Turned out, I actually liked basic. You might find this a bit odd. The physical conditioning was no problem as I was in good shape from my High School track days. For some reason, they didn’t want us to sleep too much or too long and making our beds was a big deal. I found the DIs downright funny. Hard and demanding but they used a language I’d never heard before. Even the words I did know were pieced together to form insults and criticisms carefully designed to make us better.
Once the Drill Instructor had us all stand up and place our head between our knees as low as we could. He then yelled STAND UP! Then — POP! “Congratulations, you’ve just pulled your F… heads out of your ass!”
See, the sergeants took time out of their busy day to offer us words of encouragement. They did so care for us.
I’ve done my share of stupid stuff in my life but none so obvious and avoidable. Never volunteer. Everyone knows that! After a full morning of running in place with full battle gear, our sweat was so heavy our socks were soaked. The afternoon turned into a rare luxury. We got to cool off in an air-conditioned classroom. Now you all know what it feels like to go into an air-conditioned room after you’ve been in the sun and heat. The classroom felt like a meat locker. We were freezing. Now we were hot, cold, wet, and tired. Maybe I was a tad confused, that’s my excuse. The DI then asked a simple question. “Which one of you gibronies knows anything about electronics?” The dumbass side of me raised my hand. “Good. You sit next to the light switch, we’re going to watch a film.”
I volunteered one more time before I got out of Basic, and that made all the difference.
Until next time.