While stationed in Denver, we settled in and prepared for life with a small child. My first impressions were not exactly the stuff of storybooks. First, not only did all babies smell, but all their stuff smelled and soon all my stuff smelled like baby’s stuff. Everything smelled. Next, babies cry, not all the time but oftentimes and usually for no apparent reason. The books all told us that babies slept most of the day. The people who write those books never had any babies. I can tell you definitively, babies only sleep cautiously. Babies sleep with one eye on you so if you try and sleep, they cry. If you give in and give them attention, which I highly recommend against, they ensure you are awake because they smell. Women are biologically better suited to handle these issues. I’ve tried numerous times to explain this to your mother. She’s a professional at pretending to be asleep. I guess I’ll have to wake up now.
I remember Lillian’s mom, her aunt Lydia and my mother all taking turns flying out and helping with the new baby. Lillian’s dad made a cradle, and my Dad made a small rocking chair. Knowing that the cradle was coming soon, Jennifer slept the first few nights in a dresser drawer. No, I didn’t shut it when she cried. I set the drawer upon two concrete blocks, lined it with new baby blankets and pink ribbons. It was a beautiful bed, befitting a new princess. Still to this day many in the family believe I used to close the dresser drawer when Jennifer cried. Who am I to have them think less of me?
Just when I thought getting paid to take pictures was a great gig, I was was asked to teach it. My classes were from six in the morning until noon. This turned out to be ideal. I quickly qualified to teach all ten blocks of instruction but enjoyed the last block the most. The last two weeks of the course were the intro section of the photojournalism course I’d taken a year earlier. Here the students got assigned their very own Nikon camera and were required to develop storyboards of some local interest event or place. In the winter, it wasn’t hard for me to convince the students that the best stories were all about skiing. With most afternoons and evenings off, I could focus on finishing school. So much of this time is lost. Your mother watched you grow up those first couple of years. She did it mostly alone. I was almost never home. I was at best, a part-time spectator.
I took as many classes as were allowed and after adding up all my credits, I was less than a year away from a bachelor’s degree. I couldn’t believe it. In late 1978 or early 1979, Officer’s Training School (OTS) opened back up after a four-year shutdown. This meant I could apply to OTS and get a commission! Maybe I should give this a try? So, I did. OTS required a college degree and the quickest degree I could finish all the classes in was psychology. At night school, I didn’t have a boatload of choices. Now you can’t just get any degree and become a 2nd Lieutenant. Apparently, the military wants their engineers and doctors to actually have some training in their specialty. But not pilots! The Air Force figures that the full year and the Million dollars it spends on each undergraduate pilot is enough of a specialty. So, off to the races I went. Eventually, I finished my degree, but I still needed to wait for an undergraduate pilot training class to open up.
Lest you think I was having all the fun, Lillian was slowly chipping away at a college degree as well. She took her first few classes at the local Community College in Blytheville, then added classes at the University of Denver when we moved to Colorado where she completed her first two years. I remember landing a night job teaching photography one day a week at the College on base. Lillian quickly enrolled. She wanted the easy A. Who was I to deny her?
Final semester complete and degree in hand, I was offered a slot at Officer’s Training School. I was going to San Antonio Texas for a three month course to learn how to be a United States Air Force Officer.
Our celebration was short-lived though. What were we going to do? Lillian couldn’t stay in Denver. She needed to move and move now! We had to leave the base. We lived on base in Denver but I was no longer assigned there. She couldn’t come to Texas, as I’d be living in a dorm with the other Air Cadets. While I flew to San Antonio, Lillian and Jennifer moved back to California and back in with her folks. Once again, my uncertainty put her life on hold. With her father working the early shift at the General Motors Plant, Lillian quickly found a job working the night shift at Bell Telephone. With Lillian’s Mom and Dad being the best babysitters anyone could ask for, Lillian took a full-time job as a “keypunch operator.” I’ll have more to say about punch cards and the obsolete technology of “our day” later. For now, the job as she relayed it to me was monotonous, but the pay was good and the hours worked. Perhaps this job paved her way to finishing college and a career. Turns out she had/has a natural ability to learn computer languages, quickly and accurately. To me, the foreign language of computer programming was just as it sounds, foreign. For Lillian, the Fortran, Cobol, and Assembly languages she learned in school opened up new worlds. She had found her path.
For every day that I enjoyed Basic Training as an Airman, I hated every second of Officer’s Training School. I missed my girls and our future seemed so uncertain. At OTS, I also didn’t like the fakeness of the pretend leadership world the military creates to train officers. Everyone gets a fake school rank, and the student leaders are picked out of a hat, vice any kind of merit. The first thing I disliked was that everyone was instantaneously awarded a pay grade equal to E-5. That’s a Staff Sergeant! These cadets got the same rank I had achieved through hard work and dedication, just by having a degree. These 90-day wonders sported a degree but no experience or time to earn their slot like I had. I now had almost five years in “the war.” I just didn’t seem to fit. Those candidates who were straight out of college had no experience. I was their age but nothing else connected me to them. Those who were prior enlisted like me, were much older. Most of them smoked a pipe to show how much older they were, even the women. Don’t get me wrong, being an officer paid better, you got a silver braid on your hat, and I was going to be an Air Force pilot! But, it would take more than 90 days of training for me to mentally transition to being an Air Force Officer.
“I Gary B. Zelinski, having been appointed a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
After I graduated from OTS, someone explained the difference between Basic and OTS. Unlike Basic Training where the Drill Instructors help you learn and fit in, OTS was designed to weed cadets out. The concept was to pile a heap of ridiculous crap on top of you and see who folds. Somehow, I guess I survived my 90-day job interview.
In December of 1979 I graduated, I was now a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Lillian, Jennifer as well as my Mom and Dad flew in for the ceremony. I remember the part where, upon finishing the oath, we all threw our hats in the air. Our “wheel” hats were heavy and sailed like Frisbees. Mine or one that looked similar hit me below my right eye. The cut was deep, and it bled a bit. I was so happy, proud and, exhausted — I never felt it.
I retired after twenty-two years, two months of service. This was the only injury I received on active duty.