If you’re not having fun, quit doing it.
In 1980, I was on my first assignment as a 2nd Lieutenant. After high school, I enlisted in the USAF. Five years later, I had earned a college degree and received a commission in the USAF. I was twenty-three years old.
The “lab” was a series of buildings within buildings and housed in what is known as Building D. Building D is 39 acres, 1,700,000 Sq Ft.
Building D on Offutt AFB is one of the largest buildings in the world. It was constructed in World War II for the assembly of Martin B-26 Bombers. In 1944, the production line was retooled, and in a little over a year, the plant produced 531 B-29s. The long-range B-29 was used extensively in the last year of WWII against Japan. The two planes to drop atomic bombs, the Enola Gay and Bockscar, were made in this building. The floor of the building was almost exclusively made of wooden bricks. These pieces of wood were the size of a red clay brick and covered in a thick layer of tar. The wooden floors were needed to reduce the chance of sparks. The bomber plant was made of wood, and an errant spark would have meant disaster. I often started my day before sunrise and ended after sunset. I believe I lost an entire winter of sunlight working in Building D.
My first job at the Lab was not in the photoreconnaissance section. Could I really be trusted with a job so important? My first job was as the Officer-in-Charge of the Support Section. Our section might not process the rolls of film from U-2 or SR-71 Spy Planes, but it did everything else you can do with film. The Black and White Unit had a couple of enlargers that could magnify an image 150X. Yes, you could read a license plate from 70,000 ft. The color unit rivaled the best commercial labs in Hollywood.
We processed public affairs photographs from all over the Strategic Air Command. Once a year, we processed the update to the Single Integrated Operations Plan. The SIOP, to those of us in the know, was SAC’s crown jewel.
These color slides contained all SACs nuclear targets, including the bomber flight paths and the ICBM Launch options. Now decades later, after a lifetime of living with some of our nation’s most tightly-held secrets, none weighed as heavy as those I learned as a 2nd Lieutenant.
Over 100 NCOs and airmen worked in my section. We had enough work to fill 24 hours a day for five days a week. Often, a dozen or more folks pulled special duty on the weekends. A basic truism of photographers and photo processors is the simple slogan, “You’re only as good as your next roll of film.” The men and women in my section took their jobs seriously, were dedicated, and treated each roll of film as if it were from their own family vacation. That said, mistakes happened. And, with a lot of work came opportunities for a few screwups. Quickly, I learned that it was my job to explain these screwups in such a way that the workers could continue to focus on doing their jobs. The only job I hated and the one I feared most of all was the Commander-In-Chief’s Wives Club holiday party. Screw that one up, and heads would roll, mostly mine.
The superintendent of my section was a quiet Senior Master Sergeant named Mike Howell. Just like me, Mike was a photographer, not just a film processor. While I cut my picture-taking career short, Mike had made the most of it and was just a few months away from retiring. Before coming to Omaha, Mike was stationed in Berlin, where the military gave him a special allowance to buy civilian clothes. They bought him two or three non-issued cameras and even gave him monthly bonuses or “walking around money.” Turns out, Mike’s job was to be a tourist. Mike’s job was to blend in. He spoke fluent German and had a passport or two, or three, or? Mike’s job was to walk around and take photographs. Mike never said exactly who or which part of the Air Force he worked for. Anyway, like I said, Mike was a quiet man.
One day shortly after I started in the Support Section, SMSGT Howell came into my small office with a problem. “Seems that one of our Master Sergeants was chronically late.” As the MSGT was a shift leader, this meant he often missed the shift change meetings. How could he manage the shift if he didn’t even make the handover meeting? SMSGT Howell explained, he had tried repeatedly to counsel the MSGT but to no avail. Still, why did I have to talk to him? Aren’t personnel problems better handled by the Senior NCOs? “Because this might warrant a formal letter of counseling,” SMGST Howell explained. “We need you, a commissioned officer, to formally document the counseling.” “Mike, will you be there at least?” “Nope, nope, just would not be right. Poor guy might think we’re ganging upon him.” “Fine,” I said. For SMSGT Howell’s part, he would arrange for the MSGT to report to me in my office the next day precisely at shift change.
1500Hrs and shift change came and went—no MSGT. I had composed a formal letter of admonishment the night before. Now I was reworking it, strengthening it. Sharpening my disappointment. Finally, twenty minutes late for a formal counseling session on being late, the MSGT showed up.
So did his spouse.
This guy brought his wife.
So now I’ve got, I don’t know what I’ve got?
Call the tower, I’m auguring in.
I closed my office door.
The MSGT sat down. Oddly, he sat on the chair next to the door and the one farthest from my desk. On the other hand, his wife sat next to me. Right next to me.
Why, what the hell? How can I get out of here? These thoughts raced through my mind. I can’t remember their names, and I’m glad I can’t.
So, this spouse, this MSGT’s wife, starts explaining how they want children.
“Don’t you like children, Lieutenant?
“You have children.”
“How nice, how special.”
I was in a bad dream, and I couldn’t wake up.
“Are those your children I see in the photograph?”
“Two children, how nice.”
“We want children, we’ve been trying for so long, and it just isn’t happening.”
“You see, Sir, you have him working past midnight every night, and when he gets home, he’s just too tired. I wait up, I try. But he’s just too tired.”
“You see, Sir, we can’t try in the morning; you make him work so late, he sleeps all day. “The only time we have is right before he needs to go to work. I tell him to hurry up, I want him to hurry up, but he can’t always.”
“You see, Sir, YOU are keeping us from having children, Lieutenant.”
Shit, shit, shit, I thought,
“I’ll try and change your shift schedule around,” I said. “Try and get here on time,” I said. “I wish you the best,” I said. “Good luck,” I said. “Goodbye,” I said.
Just then, I caught a glimpse of SMSGT Howell in the adjoining office. That office, a much bigger office, belonged to the Chief. The Chief was the highest-ranking enlisted person in the squadron. Mike and the Chief had been in the next office the whole time.
“Were you there the whole time?” I asked.
“Did you hear the whole conversation?” I asked.
“Why, Lieutenant, we just figured – with such an important issue – we would need an ‘Officer’ to handle it.”
“RAT BASTARDS,” I said.
The Chief pulled out three cigars from his desk and put his feet up. Mike was grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Mike retired a few months later. No ceremony. Very quiet. I worked next to the Chief for three more years. The Chief always had my back.