I should tell you about the first few years of marriage in Blytheville Arkansas. I would if I could remember. I don’t really remember hard times, we were young, together and everything looked promising. Your mother tried to be the perfect wife, the first year I had macaroni and cheese almost every day. The second year I had mostly spaghetti. This made me forget how much I loved macaroni and cheese. I was happy and in my own 1950’s world. While I was having a great time, not so much for her. She was often stuck at home. She often didn’t have a car, her car. When she did have her car, where would she go? The town was small, foriegn and she didn’t have any friends of her own. Going to college was expensive and often not workable. She would take a class at the local community college, a class on base, but nothing that provided credits in the long run. In or out of the Air Force, we needed to find a way for both of us to grow and find ourselves as individuals. In the years following, I believe we did strike that balance.
I learned a lot on our first duty assignment and that made all the difference for the remainder of my career. I’ll try and give you a few of the lessons I remember:
SSGT Alfred (Al) Harrison: “Make the most of where you are.” SSgt Harrison was the NCOIC of the Base Photo Lab and my boss. Rural Arkansas was foreign to us. Memphis was seventy miles away and too expensive to visit very often. Jonesboro was a little closer, had a College but was in a “dry” county. Lillian and I spent far too much time wishing we were someplace else, anyplace else. But we weren’t. Al would tell us. “If you can’t move, wait and eventually you will be reassigned, so in the meantime, enjoy.”
SSgt Alfred (Al) Harrison. “Never go anywhere without your spouse.” SSgt Harrison was a good-looking black man with a big smile, he was charming and quite the ladies’ man. Al was also going through an ugly divorce. Most likely because of the description above. His wife and son lived in Jackson Mississippi and he traveled down almost every weekend. At the hearing, the Judge ordered Al to pay child support and alimony. He also gave her the house, car, and anything else he could throw-in. On the divorce case right before Al’s, the Judge also ordered the husband to pay alimony and child support. When the guy stammered, “but Judge, I don’t have a job.” The Judge simply said, “Son, you best get one.”
In recognition of something I did which must have not been too bad, I was awarded a six-week trip to Denver to attend the Air Force’s photojournalism school. We borrowed and went deeper into debt. Lillian and I really enjoyed Denver. My photo assignments almost always involved both of us skiing. I always remembered Al’s advice. Unfortunately, I couldn’t or didn’t always follow it.
LtCol Thompson: “There is never any excuse for being late, none.” My day was supposed to start at 0730 hrs. Monday to Friday. One day I showed up at 0732 and Colonel Thompson was sitting in the Photo Lab. Colonel Thompson was the Chief of Base Operations and the Photo Lab worked under him. I had a key to the front door as I worked weekends as an “alert photographer.” Basically, I was on call over most weekends in case there was an accident. Unlocking the door and walking into the Lab, LtCol Thompson said. “You’re late.” “But sir, I’m the first one here, I retorted.” LtCol Thompson just glared. Apparently, my boss and the rest of the NCOs got in a lot more trouble.
Sgt Joel Johnson. “Do your job well.” Joel was our resident sage. He hated to be the photographer but loved processing and printing. He could finesse an image out of a blown flash shot and could message the shadows to life as if Ansel Adams was looking over his shoulder. Joel was from the South, an African American and for me, might as well have been a Martian. Slight in stature but strong in his pride in his work. He didn’t speak to me for the first six months. After that and only after I had proven myself, did he lighten up. All told, I spent a good part of three years working in a small darkroom processing and printing with Joel. Being from the South, Joel had a difficult accent and was hard to understand. That combined with the cigarette which always dangled from his lower lip made our conversations difficult to understand but deep in meaning. From Joel I learned my job.
I once gave Joel a ride home. Joel lived on that other side of town. The side that I’d never been. Blytheville was deep in the segregated south. One-side for whites and one-side for blacks. The one movie theater in town only allowed blacks to sit in the balcony. Two one-way streets took you into or out of the town center. Blacks had their side with their own grocery store, barbershops and diners. The yearly base-community golf tournament had to held on base. Blytheville’s country club did not allow blacks. When I dropped Joel off it was dark and the area was run down but there were lots of African-American young men standing around looking at all the cars. When we stopped, six or so gentlemen came over. They came over to see me. It was clear I was not in a place I should be. I’m not sure if I should have been a little scared. Quickly Joel stepped out of the car and simply said “it’s cool.” With that, I was hailed as their new best friend. Joel traveled in circles I didn’t know. Joel had spent years in Thailand during the Vietnam War. He drank too much, smoked and I guess there were way too many drugs. Joel was promoted to Staff Sergeant more times than he could count. On his uniform, you could see where the bottom stripe had been. Looking back, I think the Officers were trying to protect Joel and get him over the retirement hump. I hope he made it, I fear not.
A LtCol whose name I’ve long since forgotten. “Let kindness be your default position.” Late one Friday night, an older grizzled LtCol walked in and asked if we could stay open and take and process his “official photograph.” Promotions in the enlisted ranks were based on skill tests and points for years of service. The Officers’ ranks relied on a much more subjective set of criteria. The “official photo” and the officer’s bearing played a key role.
I had never really talked to an “officer” before. Let alone a Colonel. He seemed genuinely interested in me. He asked things like how I got to Arkansas and where my home was. So, over the next hour, I had someone way up the food chain, take an interest in me. Taking the portrait was quick, he wasn’t too picky. Processing the 4×5” sheet film was something I had now done about a million times. He seemed fascinated with printing the negative. We talked about Ansel Adams’ “Zone System” and I showed him how to check the shadows and highlights for the minute details critical for a good portrait. He tried his hand but then accepted the one I made. Joel had taught me well. When he left, and just for grins, I handed him two rolls of Kodachrome film.
The LtCol never did make the next promotion. He called me a month later however and told me that he was flying to San Francisco for the weekend. Did I want to come along? “I remember you had a brother out that way and it has been a long time since you’ve seen him. Right?” Turns out the LtCol was the refueling Tanker Squadron Commander. Once we’d taken off, he handed me the controls.
I was nineteen years old, and I got to fly a Boeing 707 across the country.