jouets dans le grenier
l'ameublement idéologique pour l'esprit sans foyer
I briefly drove a Checker cab. On one occasion I was returning from the South Side via the ice-coated Outer Drive, and was fortunately between the packs of cars as I approached the converging lanes just below the Field Museum. My wheels locked, and my cab quietly slid across all the lanes to my left, coming to a crumpled rest against a Park District tree. A lot better than if I had gone to the right, into Lake Michigan. While there was no problem with the cab company, I thought it best to alter my career path. But with the prospect of an imminent Draft, and several of my unemployed friends already in jail, I thought it best to simply join the Air Force. So early next year I signed up, and in March found myself bundled in a planeload of fellow Chicagoans, headed for Phase I basic training at Lackland AFB.
As soon as my toes hit the tarmac, I doubted the wisdom of this move. We were given a barracks chief from among our lot, and a very sharp T.I. (USAF for "Drill Instructor") who might one day easily have become Governor of his home State. We were done here in a month. Pre-enlistment testing gave me the opportunity to study electronics, so my Phase II training would be at Keesler AFB, near Biloxi.
I arrived at Biloxi's railroad station on a quiet Sunday morning. Railroad tracks incidentally marked the boundary line between White folk and Black, as was I suppose common practice in the South at that time. Alone there, no sooner had I put a quarter in the juke box, than I had White company from upstairs. Not much interested in seducing me on sight, the girls took me to their nearby home on the Black side of the tracks & fed me, while they did some hand laundry in their sink. Hating to leave such lovely company, when the blue USAF station wagon showed up, I simply had to proceed to the base.
Now instead of open bay, housing on Keesler was dormitory style, two Airmen to a room - though I never had a roommate. Getting to class involved the direct crossing of an active runway in formation, except when it occasionally rained. Then we had to march around the airstrip, which meant we would get trucked right back to the dorms to dry out. Our instructor was a little coal-black Negro, whose occupation at the Base in 1958 must have impressed the locals. He drew his circuit analysis in multicolored chalk, which meant by the end of the day he was covered in rainbow streaks.
◄ Further entertainment was provided by two Army reenlistees - a skinny mustached Irish fellow & his stouter Black companion who always wore orange sunglasses. Among Irish's skits were his version of driving an M65 Atomic canon (also imagine that) across the Southern USA - all the shifting of gears, mau-mauing right of ways, et cetera. Simulating the delivery of a single gun that could blow up a city.
The charm of Biloxi was reflected all the back to the chow hall, where its entrance had once accommodated Biloxi's slot machines. There was a strict ration on standard Air Force fare, but no telling how much shrimp or rabbit local purchase might put on the table. Outdoors, we were cautioned to stay away from the more redneck Back Bay, but welcomed to spend our small salaries in town and or on the beach. Gulfport and its Baptist girl's college were just to the west, along the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. [Officers' Club at Keesler Field as it appeared during World War II. "The mural scene shows the harvesting and processing of cane sugar in Louisiana around 1859." ►]
Training soon embraced actual equipment we would install and repair, which for me would be airborne electronic countermeasures AFSC 30100. By December I had presumably acquired a 3-level technical proficiency in that art, and the rank of Airman 2nd (E3) - all this in my first 10 months. I would continue my tour in one of two groups associated with the Air Defense Command, either in California or New York. Meanwhile, I returned to Chicago for a Christmas leave. Once there, I mainly recall emerging from Chicago & State's subway station on a bitterly cold day in my winter Air Force uniform, and the embarrassing contrast between my wool topcoat outfit and the scanty apparel of civilians huddled along adjacent storefronts. Of course years later, I would again be one of them.
My January 1958 arrival in Rome NY definitely lacked Biloxi's earlier romantic summertime suggestion, so the short blue station wagon trip to Griffiss AFB and its 4713th Radar Evaluation Squadron was I suppose without subliminal distraction. The 4713th flew TB-29s modified to drop chaff (radar confusion material) rather than bombs, and generally returned with bays loaded with Canadian whisky. Its ostensible mission was to evaluate the effectiveness of our Boston Air Defense Sector in fending off our airborne intrusion, refuel in Newfoundland, and return with its new precious cargo.
Though frequently starting a mission with at least one engine feathered (hence perhaps more on return), our B-29s held the Command's air safety record. Not necessarily on the ground: while returning from a Commander's Call just announcing the good news, I noticed that the wing of a Boeing Superfortress being towed had just severed the vertical fire escape from a nearby hanger. Or, an unattended transit yellow Coleman tug, with its long throbbing gearshift, might come to rest upon the wheel well of a parked aircraft.
My nine-to-five daily life normally consisted of reporting to my toolbox with my ilk in some 'Communications' shop on the flightline, housing folk skilled in Radio and Flight Controls as well as Armament. The latter were included because they mainained the rockets that propelled the sleds containg pilot and such when spontaneously exiting the aircraft. God forbid exit should occur while a tech was working on its seat while parked in a hanger.
Maintenance came at two levels: actually visiting the aircraft to install and/or remove whole pieces of equipment, and (under far more favorable ambient conditions) inside the shop working on a box's innards. Although I sometimes coached others in their quest for a 5-level, I myself would never obtain one. This under some curious AF logic dictated that I would not be freezing my ass undoing wingnuts upside-down in a parked aircraft.
Our prescribed duties could be scary enough. Once while working in a hangar shop with my friendly supervising Tech Sargent, I busied myself making voltage adjustment to one of our radar jamming transmitters. Everything, of course, is on full power. Mind wandering & thinking I was checking the klystron's 6.3 filament voltage, my probes came in contact with the several thousand volts on its plates. Wrapped in high-frequency AC, my arms involuntarily flung the meter across the room, drawing hardly more than a smile from the senior Tech. So we should all appreciate the science in this: high-frequency AC travels on the surface of a conductor, not inside it. This is also what happens with Tesla coils. I recalled a radio Tech's similar experience with the customary 300 volts on their equipment, which did all it could to pass DC thru his body, requiring CPR.
My one leave from Griffiss involved the most interesting flight of my life. Following conventional military practice, one just hung out at flight line Operations till a plane happened to be going your way – just like any other hitchhiking. My ride was to be as the only passenger in a Beechcraft C-45 bound for Wright-Patterson AFB. The flight visually followed the New York State Thruway to Buffalo, then to Cleveland as nightfall approached. Turning south, we were skimming just above a perfectly flat layer of cloud, just like a boat on the water, and descended into the rain. Nearly total darkness, with just the wingtip lights glowing against the clouds – I went to sleep.
Waking on descent into Wright-Pat, we broke cloud cover between and under the blinking lights of two radio towers, something like 1-pass parallel parking. I really appreciated that the guys flying this vehicle had learned what they were doing while in Burma, years ago. Continuing to Chicago on the ground was my one and only least eventful hitchhike.
In the dorms and off the flightline at Griffiss, young Airymen consumed an awful lot of either Genesee or Utica 3.2 beer. The weekend deal for our rather unimaginative 20-year old minds was to confine inventory control (if not drinking) to a single room, where we might monitor consumption. Empty cans were stacked in the window, with the singular ambition of filling it.
◄ Fortunately there were opportunities for a life outside the barracks. I purchased my first car - a 1948 Oldsmobile, for a few hundred dollars. It may have been just in time for me to transport myself during the squadron's station move; along the Mohawk valley, and down the Hudson, to Newburgh (city), NY. Lacking any other records, I presume this happened early in the Summer of 1959.
Soon after arriving at Stewart AFB, the squadron experienced its first loss of personnel, under the most bizarre of circumstances. The ‘window’ host on many of our forementioned inebriations was a rather overweight young man named Callyeur ("Fat Cal"). While I never did, Cal was among those airmen who sometimes volunteered to be onboard the RB-29's flown missions, helping out as necessary. During his last flight, he somehow contracted pneumonia. Back home, I believe treatment was initiated at West Point, but morbid obesity inhibited their effort, and Cal died. I was also told by those who viewed him that he seemed to be just "stuffed" into his casket. Since he began his short life just across the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, our squadron was transported there, to escourt him in the rain to his grave. I think there was a plan for a modest flyover, but I don't recall if he got it.
Due to a hardly surprising difficulty in obtaining parts, our TB-29s were soon replaced by B-57Bs (or RB-57As). Whatever their airborne peculiarities might have been, on the ground it was the column of smoke that attended using some kind of a small bomb to start each of their engines. There was also a known problem for inexperienced pilots on takeoff – obtaining just enough altitude to get him killed, the craft might instantly head straight down. As it did to one of our men, unfortunately on the 4713th’s inaugural use of them.
My life at Stewart was fortunately more enchanted. I recall very little of my flight line duty, thanks to the wonderful opportunity for distraction provided by
Newburgh’s location. It was effectively the airport for West Point, located to the south in the very scenic Hudson Highlands (I call Bear Mountain) range, and 60 miles north of NYC.
Of course we recall my first trip to Manhattan that was in the course of a brief excursion while working at Chicago’s Hilton in 1956. But here 3 years later I was happily propelling my vintage Oldsmobile all about, even loving the traffic. And tickets from the USO as available. My best viewing, at the Cort Theatre, was ‘The Rope Dancers,’ featuring Art Carney, Siobhan McKenna, Joan Blondell, & Theo Bikel.
◄ New Year’s Eve, 1959, was for me the best ever. I don’t recall whether we were in uniform, but a friend and I had just done the Times Square ball-dropping thing, and were still hanging out near bar closing time. We found a side-street place that started out with a long well-populated linear bar on the right, expanding into a back room with booths and a table that seemed to be reserved. Just as we were both getting a little depressed, a theater party showed up for their table. And musically recapitulated what they had presumably seen, or done, on the stage. Unforgettable!
West Point was quite a different story. I had on my own visited its War Museum, and much taken by a diorama depicting how gun fire was exchanged in the 18th century – 2 ranks facing each other, firing point blank thru the musket smoke. However, on a later visit I was to have some company. Having no sense at all, I had earlier casually fired up a joint while leaving Stewart’s chow hall, and was suddenly joined by a handful of friendly Puerto Ricans – an association reminiscent of my seedier life back home. What better way to cement Latin American relations, thinks I, than to cruise the US Military Academy all night, smoking pot. One time only. ►
Life in the squadron was also deteriorating. My good friend ‘Beans,’ whose home I had visited in Dedham, was exiting on an Undesirable Discharge. I also became a witness in some court-martial, where I learned I no longer fit well in my Blue uniform.
As the third anniversary of my enlistment was coming up, I noticed I had the option of an early out. My request for it being accepted, I was given other duty as the process proceeded. One of these was as resident room clerk in the Officer’s Quarters. In addition to handing out an occasional key, I had a TV to enjoy an anthology series of televised stage plays called Play of the Week (1959-1961) - each one of the eventual 67 selections playing every night (& Sunday afternoon) for a single week. I especially enjoyed 15 Feb 1960’s episode 1x19 ‘Don Juan in Hell,’ with George C Scott as the Devil & Siobhan McKenna as Dona Ana. Coincidently, ‘The Rope Dancers’ was 1x23, on 14 Mar 1960, with Walter Matthau in the Art Carney part.
Just to be an asshole, the Captain who was my acting CO saw that I lost one of my two stripes, putting me back to E2. I was released from active duty under AFR 39-14 Par 3(m), ‘For the Convenience of the Government:’ and Honorably Discharged, with orders for a Good Conduct medal. I showed up in Chicago at Pearson’s restaurant on Easter morning, April 17th 1960, to find my known associates parked just about where I had left them. My DD-214 shows my home to have been 1546 N LaSalle St, an address of many strange memories.
Last update on 23-October-2016 at 12:17 PM.