Every year when Veterans Day rolls around, I recall my own service and murmur thanks over how good the calendar was to me in an era when every guy had to register for the draft when they turned 18. Were I a year younger, I might have ended up in Vietnam and returned either in a box or a certified coward. Possibly both.
I wouldn’t be writing this, or course, if either scenario had occurred. That neither did, like I said, I thank the random accident of my birthday.
Like all the other guys from my high school senior class in Fort Myers, Fla., who were unmarried and not in college, I boarded a bus to Miami on instructions from the local Selective Service to undergo a draft physical. I figured my rotten eyesight — I am very near-sighted — would classify me as either 4-F (a physical wreck) or 1-Y, to be called only in an emergency such as the Soviet Army rolling ashore at Daytona Beach or an ICBM vaporizing Manhattan Island.
After a day of uncomfortable medical tests –“bend over,” “touch your toes,” “cough” — we were assembled as an official told those whose names were called to step to one side. The first was a classmate I knew had a heart murmur, and the other was not just chubby but obese. My Coke bottle glasses did not count, evidently.
Then the official told the rest of us we would receive a Greetings from our friends and neighbors in the next three weeks, and should get our affairs in order.
So I quit my job of eight months in Sarasota as a reporter for the local paper and enlisted in the Air Force. Though the enlistment was twice as long as an Army draftee’s two years , the opportunity for travel was excellent, the military Mickey Mouse (a quaint term at the time for chickens—) at a minimum. Plus, I had no desire to carry a weapon or spend long hours on my feet.
With my usual luck, I ended up in the Air Police, one of the most military outfits in the Air Force, lugging an M-16 around a site of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles at least eight hours (sometimes 10, 12 or more ) day and night at Hahn Air Base in what was then West Germany.
In basic training at Lackland AFB, Texas, I had marked “public information” as my preferred MOS (military occupational specialty) and listed newspaper reporter under “civilian employment,” so of course it made perfect sense to make me a ground pounder with a gun.
While we were officially termed police, I was essentially a security guard, as were most of us in the 50th Air Police Squadron.
Hahn did have a small law enforcement section, who wore the Class A blue uniforms and white hats, manned traffic at the base main gate and did town patrol in Lautzenhausen.
Ah, Lautzenhausen. Only 24 buildings, a dozen of them bars, a laundry and a really good Italian restaurant. I don’t think it’s just nostalgia. I’ve never eaten better Italian food anywhere — more expensive, but not better.
The bars were mostly clip joints selling overpriced beer and cheap cognac, but each with their own following, and B-girls who cajoled kids fresh out of Lackland on their first overseas assignment to “buy me small drink” with the broad promise of something better when the bar closed. I doubt many fell for it more than once.
Most of the “girls” had GI boyfriends to take them home at closing time anyhow.
Assigned to security at three missile sites and a weapons storage area, I worked a nine-day cycle: 4 p.m. to midnight for three days, then 24 hours off, midnight to 7 a.m. with another 24-hour break, and three day shifts, 7 a.m.to 4 p.m. Then we had three days off; more accurately, 72 hours to the minute, not civilian 9-to-5 days.
The work for a lowly grunt like me was to trudge along a fence line at one of the three missile sites, dark and day, rain, sun or snow, M-16 on my back, supposedly keeping a sharp eye out for saboteurs. What we were really watching for were NCOs and officers with the potential, and sometimes the desire, to give us a hard time.
I hated midnight shifts, and I’ll admit I was largely responsible for my own misery, usually from guzzling beer in Lautzenhausen during the afternoon and showing up for guard mount hungover. A lot us did that.
Because Germany is roughly on the same latitude as Labrador, the 24-hour day was dark in the winter and much of autumn, except for a few hours of daylight at mid-day. By contrast, humping post on a mid shift in the summer, I would see the first glimmers of daylight at 0300 hours (3 a.m. in normal life) and it didn’t start getting dark until roughly 2100 hours.( You figure it out).
There was one advantage to midnight shifts, but only in the winter. In the dark, I could conceal a forbidden transistor radio inside my parka hood as I trudged along the dimly lit fence line. Courtesy of Radio Luxembourg, which broadcast British and American popular music in the early morning hours, I listened to the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Supremes, all against military regulations, of course.
My mission was to keep alert for saboteurs lurking in the dark woods, not listening to mindless music. Had I been discovered, the radio would have been confiscated, perhaps returned at the end of the shift with a warning. The worst scenario would have cost me hours of extra duty and the radio. Didn’t’ happen.
In less time than I expected, I became used to the routine — you kept your head down and did the duty, which in my case was was not hard. It was neither well drilling nor brain surgery. Or writing a newspaper story on a subject I knew little about and cared less, for that matter.
The best duty at Hahn ironically was in the most sensitive area on the base; not the missile sites, but Area 9, where nuclear warheads to “the birds” were stored in bunkers in what was called “the sterile area.”
They never exactly spelled out what we were guarding, but the sterile area was covered by what the Air Force in the mid-’60s called “the two-man concept”: two APs on watch 24/7.” Nope, no women.
The sterile area had its own locked gate and small road past the bunkers. There was a shack and a couple of folding chairs for the two guards to take refuge from the rain and heavy snow, but of course we were supposed to patrol. On mids, of course, it was not uncommon for us to take turns sleeping while the other stayed awake and watched for NCOs.
In time you got used to the three-day swings-mids-days cycle. What I really hated were the “alerts,” sudden training exercises to test the competence and response time of every one on base, from fighter pilots and missile crews to medics, cops and cooks. Forty some years later, I hate the smoke alarm in my Decatur condo because it reminds me of the goddamn alert buzzer.
If you were off duty, you were dispatched to augment security on the fighter flight line or one of the missile sites. If you were already on duty, you might work another three hours, or 10. The base alerts were one thing. An Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI) was a super-dooper alert with bells on.
I was walking the fence line on a midnight shift at missile Site 5 behind the Site Control Center, which included a kitchen, tiny chow hall and small dormitory, when the ORI inspectors announced a “simulated” fire, and ordered the building’s evacuation.
Each of the three sites had their own cook, and Site 5 was lucky to have Baker, whose chow was consistantly great, the best of any of the missile sites and better than the base chow hall. I recognized Baker, shivering in his skivvies, a blanket draped around him, in the early morning dark. Labrador, remember?
The next time I had noon chow at Site 5, there was a different cook. According to scuttlebutt, the inspectors wanted a hot breakfast around 3 a.m., and Baker replied: “If they can simulate a fire, let ’em simulate their breakfast!”
I have no idea how Site 5 rated in Operational Readiness, but Baker was sent to the base chow hall, where he was one cook among many.
I finished my three-year tour at Hahn with an honorable discharge, took that free jet ride back stateside, and resumed a career as a newspaper hack.
Hahn Air Base closed in the 1990s with the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.