Omaha was an incredible time for the four of us. Jason was born and in five years had grown taller than me. Jennifer started school, named all the animals at the Henry Doorly Zoo, and was quite the author. In six years, we bought our first house, moved on Base, and then bought another house. The interest rate on our first mortgage was only 13%. Wow did we get a deal. With four-plus people to feed – think Jason – and a sky-high mortgage, we were still poor. So much for the lavish pay of an Officer. Maybe I’m just complaining. After all, as a 2nd Lieutenant, we now got over $800 per month.
Our six years in Omaha offered Lillian and me a little more stability than we had known before, even though I wasn’t around as much as I should have been. Our six-year assignment in Omaha offered Lillian a chance to refocus on her schooling. Juggling two young kids and a husband who was rarely home still leaves me wondering how. Luckily for her, Lillian’s brain doesn’t work like mine. Anyone who knows us gets that idea. I’m sure a skilled neurosurgeon could find a dim light of order someplace inside my head. Lillian’s brain brings calm to chaos. So, with the management skills every mother will understand, Lillian did it all. She raised two small children, kept me sane and finished the final two years of a bachelor’s degree.
Lillian was good at any subject she undertook however she found the social sciences a bit arbitrary. It might have been all the editing and rewriting of my papers that tipped her over the edge. What she really enjoyed was mathematics. Math doesn’t need an opinion. You can’t talk your way into a correct answer. For Lillian, mathematics was exacting, and it provided instant feedback on your progress. Yet not everything about her was logic and order. There was a small bit of superstition to her. Lillian had her mechanical pencil. A special pencil and she carried it everywhere. While she must have used a ton of lead, she still has the original eraser. That pencil was the only one she used. She used it on every exam. Every single one. Without it, she was lost. But she never lost it. Watching her at the graduation ceremony was one of the proudest moments of my life. Knowing how hard she worked. While her grades came easy, finishing her degree was almost ten years in the making.
During our time in Omaha I was selected to attend Squadron Officer’s School in residence. The school was six weeks long and at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery Alabama. As junior officers we were required to first complete SOS by correspondence. Very few would get the opportunity to attend the school in Alabama. Maybe my bosses thought I’d do less harm if I was away?
For some reason, I also took the U.S. Marine’s Expeditionary Warfare School by correspondence. To get promoted you had to distinguish yourself. Completing these schools as well as doing a good job were important. Important, not only for promotion but also to ensure you didn’t get let go. Think Air Force, think SAC, think 1980 and the Cold War. Up until then I’d never even met a Marine. Well, maybe one.
War Story 14. Brian was a Marine in Vietnam. He arrived at Khe Sanh Combat Base in 1971. I met him in 1975. We had six or so Airman and junior NCOs working at the Base Photo-lab at Blytheville AFB when I showed up. Anyone older than me had served during the Vietnam War. During our downtime, when we did our weekly cleaning, we’d sit around and tell war stories. Usually on Thursdays, but if the Colonel was doing inspections, it might have been Wednesdays. Not always confined to our weekly cleaning, we were prone to tell stories. Often, all the time. Not me, but the older NCOs. During the War, Gun camera and Radar targets were all processed in Thailand. Most of the NCOs in our lab were stationed in Thailand during the war but often traveled to remote locations in Vietnam. Many of the stories were about the kindness of the Vietnamese or Thai people. Most of stories though were about the relentless heat, long working hours and poor living conditions. Most of the NCOs had some sort of tropical infection they were still fighting. These folks didn’t spend a lot of time on things beyond their control. For Some, the future was like that. For others, even the present was a leap. But they all had a firm control over their past. The past brought them together. I don’t remember any discussions of the greater context of the war. Nobody talked about the draft. I guess it really didn’t matter. They were in it. They were in it doing their bit. They did what they could to live through it, some of their friends didn’t.
But none of the war stories were like Brian’s stories from Vietnam. See, Brian was a cook. Why a cook? I asked. Because, instead of the usual five days a week, “I only had to do night patrol once a week.” Brian’s unit would lose one or two Marines a night during his tour. Shortly after Brian showed up at the lab, the war stories stopped. After returning from Vietnam, Brian quit the Marines and joined the Air Force. See, until that point, I’d never met a Marine.
But I digress. . . All these schools were absolutely necessary if I wanted to get promoted. Another but unwritten rule was getting a master’s degree. So, I did that as well.
While I could have traveled to Creighton University in downtown Omaha, instead I choose one of the two master’s programs offered on base. The University of Nebraska MBA program seemed promising but it wasn’t . To me the coursework all seemed like twenty-six ways to eat a bug. The University of Oklahoma’s program in Public Administration at least sounded relevant. I’d never been to Oklahoma, let alone the OU campus in Norman. I’m sure the OU professors had to be snuck by the University of Nebraska guards to get on base. I spent every other weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday night working on my degree. I was also discovering my life-long passion, being a Public Administrator. While other children were playing fireman or cops and robbers, I was quietly planning new zoning laws. The weekend format fit my work schedule as well. When I wasn’t working twelve-plus hours a day or traveling, I was going to the University of Oklahoma. . . in the heart of Nebraska Cornhusker land.
Getting a Master’s in Public Administration instead of the more common MBA proved to be a great asset. I learned how the Federal Government built and executed their budgets. I learned the roles and different focuses of local and State governments. I learned organizational theory and operational design. My courses became the underpinnings for the rest of my career. They would give me the academics behind many issues I would face over the next thirty-five years.
I used my graduate thesis to argue for a complete change of personnel shift staffing in my day job. This change would impact the lives of over 330 enlisted men and five officers. My treatise on “shift work and circadian rhythm” was 86 pages. The professors and my Squadron and Wing Commanders found it fascinating. After Lillian finished typing, she found it complete.
Advanced schooling was a critical discriminator for those who were promoted. But it was also key to being selected for a “regular” Commission. ROTC and OTS graduates receive a “reserve” commission. Only Military Academy graduates are commissioned as “regular officers.” A reserve commission is considered a probationary commission. Without a regular commission, you are limited to twenty years of service and the rank of Major. A Regular Commission also means you can be selected for “Command.” If you wanted a meaningful career in the military, you needed to be “regular”. I received a regular commission upon my promotion to Captain. This was the first time I was eligible.
It’s a good thing Lillian and I did all these things when we were young and didn’t know any better. I’m getting tired just writing about it.