I volunteered a second time in Basic — and it changed everything.
“Who knows anything about anything?” What could I do? Of course, I had to speak up. “Alright, all you geniuses get over in that line.” So, what did I know? Of all the subjects I could recognize on a list from a book twelve pages long was auto-mechanics. Hardly my strong suit but thank you for reading my previous stories. Then I saw a test on photography. I had always been fascinated with photography. My parents helped me buy a Single-Lens-Reflex camera in tenth grade, I was hooked. Photography interested me like no other subject. I dreamed of being a professional photographer, not the usual portrait type but the National Geographic type. I could see myself traveling the world and getting paid just to take pictures. I taught myself to process film, I wanted to be the next Ansel Adams.
Little did I know, the Air Force was looking to save money. If they sent me to do that Cryptological thing, it would cost them a year of schooling, more if I flunked out. I understand that most airmen did wash out. It was a very difficult school with courses in electronics lasting almost a year. So, with the Air Force trying to save money and me trying to do something I liked, I took what was called a “bypass test.” Bypass because you bypassed technical training and went right from basic to your first duty station. I must have passed the test. The day before graduating from basic my orders finally came. Instead of staying in Texas for tech school, I received orders to a small Base. I was going to be a photographer! I had orders to the basic fighting unit of the Strategic Air Command — a B-52 Bomb Wing! Move over Twelve O’clock High. Blytheville AFB belonged to the 8th Air Force and was home to the 97thBomb Wing. But BLYTHEVILLE ARKANSAS! Where the hell was that?
Blytheville Arkansas is Seventy miles north of Memphis Tennessee, straight up I-55. Now Arkansas is a beautiful State. But not so much the northeast corner. Nothing but cotton fields as far as the eye can see. The most interesting landmark and the highest point in the area is the Osceola overpass on I-55 about twenty miles south. Blytheville boasts 15,000 residents, is the largest town in Northeast Arkansas and the county seat of Mississippi County. An interesting fact about Blytheville and the surrounding area is that it began with forestry as its major industry in the 1870s. The town’s creation and early prosperous years were a direct result of the 1871 Great Fire in Chicago. Men flocked to work in the lumber mills. With the workers also came a host of saloons and “parlors.” Blytheville’s rowdy, tough reputation persists to this day. Eventually, the trees gave way to cotton fields. Now rice and soybeans compete for acreage.
The Air Force Base was the largest employer until it closed in 1991. During WWII, the military base served as a German prisoner of war camp. Can you imagine, if any of the German prisoners escaped? What would they think as they rambled through the Arkansas countryside? What would they talk about with the locals? How would they feel once they realized, this was the country that kicked their ass? There were no signs of the POW camp when I arrived. Only barracks and a chow hall. Blytheville was my first duty station and your mother’s and my home from the end of ‘74 until the fall of ‘77. The town is mostly African American. Like many small towns across America, the population continues to decline. I arrived in Blytheville in late September or early October via a Greyhound Bus from Memphis. I arrived with no car, no money, carrying a duffel bag full of everything I owned.
Typically graduates from basic don’t get to take leave before they move on to tech school. But I didn’t go to tech school! And then a great thing happened. My first boss, a kindhearted Staff Sergeant told me I could borrow leave! You mean I could go back to California, take a week off, and pay the leave back later? I ran out and called Lillian. Marriage? What? NOW? You mean like right now? Oh, by the way, could you buy me a plane ticket home?
While Lillian, our mothers and her aunt Lydia rushed to make all the wedding plans, I hitchhiked around the rural town to find an apartment. Remember Lillian had saved and bought a car, not me. We were less than five months out of high school, we had no idea what we were doing but we were going to try. Our wedding day was three days after Lillian turned nineteen, I was still eighteen. She’s always been more mature.
We now have an attic full of old photographs. Every decade or so we move boxes around and one or two old pictures fall out. The colors faded, my brown tuxedo dated, but we look happy. Many miles since that day, many miles since then. As I write this to you, Jennifer and Jason, I can’t remember a time being about just me or a time being about just your mother. My time only contains – us.
Our first apartment was on Main St. We had one of the five units converted from a hundred-year-old mansion. A bit dated and a bit run down were a kind way to describe our first home. At least we had other tenants living above us on the second floor. The nice Airman Basic and his wife were kind enough to catch most of the rainwater in their apartment before it ran down the walls and into our bedroom. While I was excited about finding a place I could afford, Lillian was – as you say non-plussed. Yes, the place leaked, the wind blew through the walls like the tar paper wasn’t even there, and the windows didn’t close from decades of painting. But, at $100 per month, we could live like royalty. After all, my monthly pay of $327 was quite generous. It helped being young, we didn’t know how poor we were. All was well until one fateful night.
Now Arkansas is in the South, I’ll have more to say about southern charm and culture later, but for now let me explain in terms most important to my nineteen-year-old, California bride. Southern California is a desert. It has a mild arid climate. It also has few if any bugs. Nothing like they do in the Southeastern United States. As it happened, shortly after moving into our mansion on main, while fast asleep, a cockroach the size of a small bird landed on Lillian’s arm and crawled onto her face. Who knew the bastards could fly? When we’d turned out the lights you could actually hear armies of them coming out of the walls and into everything we owned. Living in our first place, that so called mansion on Main was like living in our own Hitchcock movie. “Remember to shake out your shoes,” I would say as I went off for another day of taking pictures.
It would require sacrifice to afford a place without all the features that made our mansion on Main so special. You guessed it. It was Lillian who would need to anti-up. Well, we all needed to do our part. And she did. The new Walmart was hiring, and she was moving, come hell or high water. We still had one car, so Lillian would drive me to work, and I’d hitch a ride home in the evenings. About that time, I found another solution to our financial blight. Our Maintenance Tech was leaving or being kicked out of the barracks, I can’t remember which. We had just rented a two-bedroom place right outside the base’s main gate. Before I could tell Lillian about “our plan,” Billy had moved in.
To say Billy had a bit of an attitude was more than a bit kind. He once threatened to quit if the NCO in charge (NCOIC) said one more word to him. The next day, when Staff Sergeant Harrison walked in and said, “good morning Billy.” Billy left, he hopped a flight to 8th Air Force Headquarters in Louisiana and stayed for four months. Billy knew how to complain, he was a pro. He had a natural dislike for most people and little to no patience for suffering fools. Billy was also one of the best ground system mechanics in the Air Force. General Officers knew him by name and reputation. It was nothing for Bill to get a phone call and be on the next plane out.
I learned later in my career that folks like Bill floated above the rest and the “system” because people like him made the “system” work.
These times were not the happiest for Lillian either. She was a captive all day and I had started taking college classes. Now, I was also gone for three to four hours most evenings. The Air Force works hard to make higher education a doable reality for airmen, this gave me options for going to college. These opportunities are largely unavailable for military spouses. For example, while colleges could wave residency for active duty, military spouses were forced to register as out-of-state. This made tuition too expensive, and the classes might not transfer to the next school when you changed duty stations. For Lillian, college would be a slow and costly ordeal. But, with Billy living with us, he at least taught her how to complain properly. Lucky for me, the Drill Instructors from Basic had already taught me the lingo. She learned a whole new vocabulary. I came home unexpectedly one afternoon, or maybe it was around 10 am. Billy was teaching her to make Tequila Sunrises. They were on their third failed attempt. Billy and she hit it off. A tall order for either one.
Billy taught us to make the most out of the Air Force, we learned to embrace our lot and build for a better future. He taught us to aim high. While we went our separate ways, we remained friends and we count him and his wife Bonnie as family. Bonnie had a great career in Air Force Public Affairs and the two of them traveled the world courtesy of Uncle Sam. Billy retired as a Chief Master Sergeant, the Air Force’s highest enlisted rank. His list of medals is longer than Audie Murphy’s. After retirement, both of them went on to complete second careers as teachers. Billy taught special ed and Bonnie taught art. Billy often said that his students were better behaved than the airmen who worked for him. Finally, both of them are now really retired, they cruise the world. I mean literally, as of this date, they’ve visited or lived in over 150 countries.
I’m not sure I would have made a career in the Air Force if not for Billy. He taught me to work hard yet enjoy our time off. From him, I learned how to make the most of difficult situations. He wasn’t afraid to tell someone when they were wrong, and he never believed rank was owed blind obedience. He always expected better of those who worked for him and even more from those he worked for. He spent only a few minutes talking but lived a career doing. He was among the first in the military into Iraq, Northern Africa, and Bosnia. On one deployment, he contracted malaria. He hasn’t and won’t take a nickel from the V.A. “Too many others need it.”
And more to come…