“What did you do
in the war, daddy?
by Kalikiano kalei
(Continued from Part-1)
M*A*S*H was closer to the truth than you’ll ever know…
Still, life in town wasn’t half bad compared to life on the base. Back in the 60s most military medical people were notoriously casual about such trifles as rank and military protocol, a custom that the television and movie productions of M*A*S*H rather accurately reflected. In the hospital and around its grounds us medics routinely went around without caps, although the regulations strictly specified that all personnel would be ‘covered’ at all times when outside of a building. Salutes routinely went by the board, especially if the officer encountered was a FOB ’90 day wonder’ butter-bar nurse, a habit even more ingrained by the fact that many of the nurses (all commissioned officers and 2nd lieutenants at the very least) regularly slept around with the hunkier enlisted men at the hospital. Thus the fraternization that is so severely condemned among the officer corps was, in our instance, conjugal fraternization of the most flagrant sort. One can image how difficult it was to even consider saluting a nurse with your hand when just the night before you had enthusiastically saluted her charms with your willy, standing erect and ramrod straight in its own right!
This habit of treating officers casually often got us into hot water when we ‘town-troops’ were out on the base, since we’d walk around by habit without our caps until some eager young fighter pilot would round the corner and heatedly call us on our failure to render appropriate military courtesies (the rumor that these junior grade Tom Cruise clones all went around with an aircraft pitot tube stuffed straight up their collective arses is untrue, but they were a bit undeservedly over-awed by the self-exaggerated importance of their very junior officer status). Typically, if we were within a 100 yard radius of the base medical clinic, instead of saluting we’d simply grin and dart around the corner to vanish in the radiography film vault (if the officer decided to give hot pursuit). It became a game we medics played with increasing finesse.
Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t even speculate!...
If the female nurses favored sleeping around with the male enlisted men at the hospital, the two male nurses we had at John Moses apparently preferred to just as eagerly keep each other’s intimate company. Our two male nurses, both FOB butter-bars, were Lt. Gringo and Lt. Dilbert, the former being somewhat short, dark and rotund, with slicked back Hispanic hair, and the latter being more closely approximating a sort of blonde version of Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane character. Despite their extreme differences, they were clearly an item. Gringo drove a late model Chevy Corvair convertible of which he was inordinately fond, despite its abysmal (and dangerous) handling characteristics, and one would occasionally see them dashing off together during warmer weather, top down, with Dilbert riding shotgun as the Corvair’s rear end sagged perilously askew around the corners. They weren’t bad guys, really, and just seemed to be a tad more…um, shall we say sensitive?...than the other male medics. Nothing wrong with that, of course, since both were very conscientious and thoroughly dedicated to their patients (and probably damn happy to find each other in this very austere and religiously conservative northern region, also). In those days of the 60s, Oscar Wilde’s ‘love whose name may not be spoken’ was still pretty much buried away in the nearest closet and even the present military ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy was several decades off in the future. Besides, even if they had been flagrant about their relationship, the military needed nurses now that the Vietnam War was in full reheat, so Gringo and Dilbert were safe enough tucked away in provincial little Minot. In fact most NoDak townies probably weren’t even aware that such homoerongenous pairings even existed!
Strangely, for someone who hailed from sunny California coastal beaches, I found the dire NoDak winters to be somehow sublime and enjoyable. If the climate was so severe that it found even some of the dire-hard Norwegian-Americans grumbling about finally quitting the farming business and moving to my state, I was clearly a bizarre anomaly beyond understanding to them. Such was the unhappy reputation of Minot AFB throughout the Air Force as a ‘hard duty’ assignment that the mere mention of Minot anywhere on a base around the world brought immediate smirks and nudges. As if the hot prairie summers and icy-cold, sub-zero winters weren’t enough of a misery for most, Minot AFB also had the dubious distinction of being hosted by SAC, just a short time earlier under the lightning bolt clutching mailed fist of General Curtis Lemay himself (we called him ‘the Cigar Grinder’ behind his back), the non-nonsense father of modern nuclear strategic bombing operations theory and practice.
SAC introduces us to the ‘ORI’ (Operation Readiness Inspection’)…
While that might not have been enough in itself to inspire markedly indifferent enthusiasms among those assigned to Minot, the frequent SAC ‘Operational Readiness’ inspections (known as ORIs) were. These unannounced inspections of a given SAC base by the top SAC brass occurred unpredictably and fairly frequently, the earliest notice coming from the base control tower upon being notified of an unidentified KC-135 approaching the base on final and requesting permission to land. As soon as word flashed out about the pending inspection, the base would suddenly become a beehive of activity with every single person on it frantically preparing for a white glove examination of the base’s erstwhile ‘combat readiness’. This typically ranged from microscopic examinations of the dozens of ceramic toilet bowls for slight blemishes, all the way up to an assessment of the polished sheen on Minuteman I missile warhead nosecones and throttle movement lubricity in the nuclear alert BUFFs that were poised for takeoff on the alert pad.
For those of us at the hospital (and at the base clinic), this most often meant wearily searching for dust bunnies and woolieboogers under the beds of our crusty old vets, dust on bedrails, and an inspection of the gleam on our sterilized stainless steel bedpans and ‘ducks’ (urinals) under the direct observation of a stern-faced bird colonel from SAC higher headquarters. The dorms also had to be spit-shined to perfection, as well, and any stray evidence of lost nurse lingerie under airmen beds had to be well hidden. However, given a little luck, an ability to roll with the punches and some smooth public relations work by the Hospital Commander (usually a formal ‘dining-in’ for hospital officers and the higher HQ command staff in the John Moses cafeteria), we usually managed to get through the worst of the ORI fun & games without losing our collective cool. Still, it was usually the closest we would have to get to being reminded of our real military status, in our otherwise M*A*S*H-like little medical slice of the uniformed services world.
We find out about the SAC ‘North/South Policy’…
In the summer months Minot would often sizzle and fry under the hot NoDak plains sun and the frequent droughts were not much fun, either, as semi-permanent features of the plains farming region along the Canadian border. NoDak winters, by contrast, were notorious for having severe sub-zero weather for weeks at a time, often just as ferocious and almost as miserable as the worst northern located bases in Alaska. Life at MAFB was hardest for good ole boys from the American south, of course, since they didn’t particularly take a likin’ to havin’ their hominy grits freeze up, but SAC had what was termed the ‘North/South’ Policy, an official protocol that would routinely assign personnel to alternate and highly contrasting temperature zones. This meant that once assigned to SAC, an airman could rely on being sent to at least one severe cold area, followed by a subsequent duty station in an extremely warm area (Arctic/Tropics). This was intended to temper the experience of all SAC personnel so as to enable them to contend with climatic extremes and function seamlessly in the complete range of global weather possibilities. Keeping sophisticated weapons systems in a top state of immediate readiness for instant nuclear deployment in either type of weather was a daunting and arduous undertaking at best, as most soon found out, but to my reckoning, having to work on the guts of a balky turbojet engine and make it operate properly at 20 degrees below zero HAD to be among the worst of the challenges anyone in SAC faced. By contrast, putting cartoon-character Band-Aids on baby booies at the base clinic was a pure lark (if not very adventurous)!
Of course, not all medical duties were as mild and pacific as that. Every now and then we’d have to respond in our big blue crash ambulances to aircraft crashes, some in (and often partly due to) the worst winter weather imaginable. Most were not catastrophic, usually resulting only in bent landing gear, aircraft sliding off the icy runways, and engine failures (on multi-engined aircraft this was not often very serious) that were either approaching the base or taking off from it. In these instances, there were usually few if any casualties, since they were what we call ‘survivable’ (non-catastrophic) emergencies. The one major incident that was a total catastrophe involved a KC-135A jet tanker that had been fitted for passengers and that was used by SAC headquarters for inspection visits to various SAC wings. The incident in question occurred in January of 1968, just before I left for a new assignment in Arizona (DMAFB in Tucson), and since I have already written about it in another article, I won’t recap the details here. Suffice it to say that all 13 individuals on board (seven crew and six higher headquarters staff, including SAC’s Vice-Commander, Major General Charles Eisenhart) died when the 300,000 pound aircraft experienced a failed take-off and impacted the ground about two-thirds of the way down the main runway in a snowstorm. That was the single most destructive crash I have ever been involved with, needless to say, and one can’t even begin to imagine the incredible forces involved that can break a human body into such tiny fragments that you literally have to comb the ground to find any identifiable human remains. Although there were only 13 people aboard, multiply that scene by a passenger factor of x 42 and you come close to a fairly accurate sense of what a non-survivable modern commercial airliner crash is like. Personally, I usually preferred pediatric clinic baby Band-Aid duty, myself.
A really mixed bag of characters…
As the winter stretched on, the USO downtown gathered a few more hard-core war protestors under its wing, including one memorable character named Dave Estridge. Dave was an engine mechanic in the base’s Air Defense Command detachment, the 5th Fighter Interceptor Squadron and he played a mean folk guitar. Like most of us anti-war protestors, Dave would rather make love than war, as the old saying had it, and he would occasionally play the latest folk tunes for us whenever LSA was hosting a social gathering for the Minot State Teacher’s College students. With wild Irish red hair, a gritty Dave van Ronk style voice, and extensive repertoire of Phil Ochs songs, Dave could outshine Leon Redbone in his better moments. You’d have thought he was still in the Village (Greenwich Village, in NYC) to hear him play and it made the rest of us (Mike, Frenchy and myself included) rue his natural 4-string talent. So compellingly unforced was Dave’s performing ability that he even affected a sort of ‘celebrity depression’ problem that made him shirk the limelight when he wasn’t in the mood to sing (shades of James Dean!). I never found out what ultimately happened to good old Dave, but hopefully he didn’t end up across the pond and stretched out on a cold Da Nang slab somewhere. Since he was in ADC (based only within the continental US), it is likely he was spared that less than happy experience.
Also mentioned earlier was my old buddy Russell Kelly, who in additional to coping with occasional mild depressions had a sort of Woody Allen complex, complete with small nervous tics and minor neuroses. Russ was my main competition for Oswanna, our mutual heart-throb, but he was always fearing rejection by her so his life was usually inconsolable. That left a bit of breathing-space for me to squeeze into Oswanna’s awareness, but one day I blew what fragile relationship I had with her to pieces, thanks to my too-clever sense of humor.
I had noticed that there was a company back east that would print sweatshirts with whatever a customer wanted emblazoned on it, so on a sudden inspiration I ordered a powder blue sweatshirt with the words SIGMA EPSILON XI on the front. Since the teachers’ college had sororities, it was a natural to see some of the students walking about in similarly decorated sweatshirts. Oswanna was actually quite pleased when I presented it to her, giving her some sort of line about her being made an honorary member of the SIGNA EPSILON XI fraternity that I belonged to. Of course, the hidden joke didn’t dawn on her until another student saw her on the campus at a Lutheran student social and asked her if the SIGMA EPSILON XI on her sweatshirt stood for SEX? Oswanna was mortified and refused to even see me for at least a couple of months after that, but I wrote it off as simply a matter of her lacking a sufficiently broad enough sense of humor and quickly forgot about it as a promising joke that didn’t quite pan out as expected.
Amazingly, many years later and long after having gotten out of the Air Force, I found Russ on the internet and reestablished contact with him briefly. He was still the same Russ, still a neurotic Woody Allen surrogate, but for all that just as likeable. For reasons I forget, we drifted apart soon after and lost track of each other. As for Oswanna, amazingly she later ended up coming to California, where she tried teaching school in San Francisco for a while. We got together occasionally, since by then I was relocated in the San Francisco East Bay (Berkeley) but there just didn’t seem to be any real prospect of a solid long term relationship between us, so she moved to Sacramento (CA), where she eventually married a sailor and had a family. As far as I know she is still there.
A winter’s tale (about yellow snow)…
I’ll never forget one time when Mike, Russ and I drove out to Oswanna’s family’s farm on the south outskirts of town. It was deep winter, the snow was falling and the wind was blowing up a howling blizzard when we decided to go out to see her in my little blue VW convertible. As I mentioned earlier, the typical Minot snowstorm was more of a horizontal than vertical affair, since the unobstructed winds swept all the dry snow in a layer over the ground to a height of from thirteen to twenty-five feet. This meant that vision ‘on the deck’ could be totally whited-out and obscured, while just twenty-five feet higher the air was clear and the sun shining (albeit bleakly). For our part, there was so much snow already on the ground that it was just about all we could do, even in my stalwart little bug, to keep ploughing on through the drifts that clung to the roadway. Despite the bug’s near-unstoppable snow-keeping ability, we all knew that to stop anywhere between town and farm would mean getting snowbound and temporarily marooned until the storm blew over. Thus we kept driving, despite the fact that Russ and I had had several beers and were feeling a dire need to take a whiz (Mike, as a priest in training didn’t drink anything ‘harder’ than root beer). I had let Mike drive, so Russ and I were passengers in the cramped bug, but since our respective bladders threatened to burst on the next sharp impact with a bump on the roadway, in our increasing desperation we finally hit upon a plan to relieve ourselves without necessitating a stop.
Forcing the bug’s right side door open against the howling wind-stream as a shield, first Russ and then I managed to shoehorn ourselves into the right front seat in succession and stand in the open doorway to direct a steaming jet of yellow fluid out onto the roadway. And this at a speed of about 35-40 mph in an almost total whiteout! It remains one of my finest performances to this day, I think, calling for a mix of good balance, reckless daring, and precise aim that I doubt I could ever repeat again. Mike’s performance as ‘pilot’ on this mission was also flawless and after a short interval we managed to reach the safety of Oswanna’s farm where she wondered how we could be so crazy as to attempt a passage in those conditions (after all, even the farm animals had had enough intelligence to stay safety out of the storm and in the barn; those that didn’t and ended up grazing near the road into Oswanna’s farm might have been momentarily attracted by two neat little lines of yellow snow that pretty much led right up to a point shortly past the entrance, by her gate!).
Elvis spotted in a flying saucer at Minot AFB again (again!)…
Since we were ‘townie airmen’, assigned to the hospital in Minot and not located directly at the base (12 miles north of town), we were totally unaware of some mysterious goings-on out there that to this day challenge explanation. While Mikie, Frenchy and I were taking care of cranky old Norwegian vets (and seriously ill base personnel who had been sent to town), our awareness of all things considered classified on the base was considerably lessened, compared to that of our cohorts stationed at the base clinic. In addition to the base’s 450th Bomb Wing, MAFB also hosted the 91st Strategic Missile Wing, a three-squadron strength unit comprised of nuclear-armed and combat ready Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) on constant alert. This large ICBM complex joined two others situated on the northernmost frontiers of the country as part of the nation’s ‘TRIAD’ nuclear deterrent force (sub-based missiles, land-base missiles, and nuclear bombers). Our 91st SMW birds, the solid-fuel Minuteman II ICBM (with an 8,000 mile range and armed with a 1.2 megaton single thermonuclear warhead), lurked in reinforced concrete prairie dog holes that had been designed to resist the near-direct hit of a Soviet thermonuclear missile and (in addition to their own highly secure perimeter defenses) were protected up topside by a very elaborately configured security force of mobile Air Police strike-teams. In the event that an unauthorized object (person, vehicle, aircraft, etc.) was detected within a certain radius of each silo, one of these teams would respond with extreme haste to intercept the intruder using both ground vehicles and helicopters. Above each silo complex elaborate sensors and surface detection systems were monitored by those below in the command and launch centers. These systems were also backed up by sensitive surface scan radar and motion detection arrays, leaving absolutely no chance that anything would get within several hundred feet of the silos’ outermost perimeters without being detected.
According to authenticated reports and recorded documentation, the 91st SMW was visited by unidentified flying objects (yes, UFOs) several times throughout 1967 and 1968. In each of these instances, flying objects were picked up in the immediate vicinity of the silos, hovering or maneuvering close to the ground (in a non-aerodynamic manner, meaning they weren’t conventionally winged airplanes) above them. Beams of light were directed by the objects at several of the silos and in at least one instance the unimaginable occurred as a result: several of the missiles in their concrete silos went on full pre-launch mode entirely by themselves (that is, the launch control officers had not initiated any launch actions themselves). Given the extremely complex series of command sequences and authorizations (both electronic and sequential) that a pre-launch mode requires, it is entirely impossible that these situations could have been either accidental or human-initiated.
Security teams actually approached the hovering objects and upon arrival at the complex found the locked outer perimeter gates open. In addition to radar documentation, a number of confirmed direct sightings were recorded and to this day there is no possibility that these objects were anything other than unidentified flying objects. More information about these sightings may be viewed here, for those interested: http://www.ufocasebook.com/minotafb.html and at http://ufocasebook.com/minotafbufo1968.html . A separate article I wrote on the subject of unconventional flight propulsion systems makes mention of this incident and may be viewed here: http://www.authorsden.com/visit/viewarticle.asp?id=50806 .
So highly classified were these incidents at the time that I wasn’t even personally aware of them until many years later, despite the fact that our medical group had direct responsibility for taking care of the medical needs of the 91st SMW launch crews and support personnel, and despite the events described having occurred when I was assigned to the 862nd MG at the time. Given the enormous range of possibilities concerning the existence of UFOs and all the swirling controversy that has forever surrounded the subject of space aliens and ET life in the universe, there is a strong tendency by most to simply dismiss ‘hardened factual’ instances such as those that occurred at MAFB back in 67 and 68 as simply the result of fanciful imagination. In this instance, however, as in so many thousands of others (as any research into this topic will quickly demonstrate), there is simply no possible dismissal of what happened as ‘fanciful’. These totally mystifying but well-documented incidents remain unexplained to this day.
North Dakota learns about California style ‘beatniks’….
Back at the hospital in town, life for us continued with a fairly tolerable regularity. Once a week in the evenings we’d meet at the local Lutheran Church, situated just across the street from the college campus, for socializing with the women students and there would be the occasional party to attend (all strictly sans ETOH, of course, since these were all good little God-fearing girls from good little God-fearing families). Naturally nothing would have pleased us more than to get into a few sets of knickers, so it was often quite frustrating to have to put on halos and assume a more appropriately ‘godly’ demeanor, but persevere we did (without much luck).
Since the war was in full swing overseas, peaceful resistance was a frequent theme of some of the social gatherings and one or two of the parties we attended reflected unconstrained war-protest sentiment. People would come dressed as what they imagined San Francisco’s beatniks looked like, with berets, turtlenecks, shades, peace symbols, bongos, etc. Of course it was all pretty hoakie, given the fact that most folks in NoDak hadn’t the most remote idea what REAL San Francisco Bay Area beatniks looked like and besides, the beats were almost totally extinct by 1968, having yielded to the growing hippie movement, with its iconic MJ and LSD substances. Nevertheless, they were known as ‘beatnik’ parties.
One of the most convincing of our group of male regulars at these LSA parties was a Lakota Sioux fellow named Phil. Phil was also a very, very smart young man, possessed of the sort of dark good looks that predictably set Scandinavian girls’ heart rates a tick faster. Slim, but well muscled and possessed of a naturally cool demeanor, Phil played the bongos with some skill and could also play the guitar. No ‘kumbaya-er’ Phil, and if he had been in California, he undoubtedly would have been right at home, riding the crest of the popular hippie movement wave. Strangely, Phil lacked any sort of connectivity with his Native American ancestry and if one didn’t know his Lakota Sioux family name was Mahpiyawakankidan (Sacred Cloud Worshipper), one would think he was merely a smoothly acculturated Italian. With his impressive looks, keen intellect, and social adroitness, Phil would have perfectly fitted right in at any Bay Area (or Italian) coffeehouse. Being cool and with local connections, Phil would show up from time to time with a vampish female on his arm and smoking funny looking (and curiously smelling) cigarettes. Innocents that we all were, it wasn’t until a few years later that I came to recognise these Cheech and Chong specials of Phil’s as that evil scourge of J. Edgar’s minions (LoL), MJ. [Sadly, super-cool or not, I am told that Phil ultimately succumbed to the bias and prejudice directed towards those Native American ancestry by WASP NoDaks and ended up prematurely dead from drink and substance abuse.]
But even if we were entirely devoid of any factual knowledge about REAL drugs, we were an inventive group at those parties and there was always a platter or two piled with simulated LSD (that took the form of a small red dot made from food color dye on the sugar cubes). The girls called it ‘LSA LSD’ which usually gave our chaperone Pastor Jurgenson mild palpitations whenever he reflected on what his parishioners might think of what his youthful congregation members were up to. It was all in good, harmless fun of course since the mid 60s were still relatively innocent, compared with the far more harmful pop-culture social excesses of later decades that followed.
Hauling ‘A’ with Heine, the wunderauto…
In the spring, another good airman friend of mine (who had a bright red 1963 VW convertible) would join my own blue 62 ragtop bug for a two-car convoy to the nearby shores of Lake Sakakawea, hauling a carful or two of the Minot college girls along for a day in the sun. There were small sailing dinghies available for sailing (Lido 14 Class) at the lake and the fishing was also great, if you liked great big lazy lake carp. Sometimes during the winter snow melt-off, these huge carp would get trapped in little drying rivulets and you could just wade in and catch them by hand (some 22 inches long and larger). To me, a person whom the fish usually avoided as often as the girls, that was quite a unique experience!
Having a ragtop VW bug in North Dakota was rare enough, but seeing two together sailing down the prairie roadways in 1967 was somewhat of a sight to behold. The fact is that, appearances to the contrary, the soft-top VW beetle was actually far better insulated than its hard-top counterpart, so in addition to the excellent snow-tracking and cold-weather characteristics of our ‘Strength-Through-Joy’ wagons, they were also warmer in the winter. [As a note of explanation, the VW beetle was originally named the KDF wagon under Hitler’s Nazi regime. That was an acronym for ‘Kraft durch Freude’, or KdF, attributable to the fact that as originally envisioned by Dr. Porsche and der Furher, German citizens would all subscribe to a mandatory savings program that would when completed result in their having purchased their own beetle. This program was known as the ‘KdF’ program, hence the original name of the vehicle.]
My own blue 62 soft-top bug was named ‘Heine’ (after the German poet) and it was the first thing I acquired after arriving at Minot. My very first car had been the lime green ’40 Chevy Master Deluxe Coupe I mentioned earlier (as having been barely able to wheeze its way to the beach) that I had picked up for $50. Having had to leave it home when I enlisted, I gave a lot of thought to what sort of car I would get at my newly assigned base before passing by a local Minot used car dealership and spotting the blue bug. It was a 62 model and the asking price, used, in 1967 was $600. Although a considerably daunting sum for someone making only $125 a month to contemplate, I was fortunate enough to get an HFC (Household Finance Company, a franchised high-rate of interest private loan business) loan for the full amount and soon took charge of the small beast. It seemed to be in great condition with only about 60,000 miles on the clock, so Heine and I began a happy association that would last until I traded it in on a new 69 beetle (big mistake, as it turned out) a while later. While installing a battery warmer wrap under the rear seat (where the battery was located, being a rear-engined vehicle) I was briefly startled to find at least a bucket full of oats, wheat, and barley. Asking the dealer about this, I was told that the car had formerly been owned by the son of a local Lakota Sioux chief who had used it to haul feed for his sheep around in. I guess it’s a good thing he didn’t use it to ferry the sheep themselves, thinking this all over.
Heine the VW ragtop gave me excellent, uncomplaining service while in the US Air Force, regardless of whether I was freezing my ass off in North Dakota or roasting under the merciless Arizona sun and I really should have kept it, since a regarded it with about as much affection as a favorite dog. Unfortunately, after getting out of the Air Force and returning to the Peoples Republic of Berkeley, I decided to trade Heine in on a late model VW. Originally intent on getting a new 1969 VW ragtop, they had none available at the Berkeley VW dealer, so I let the salesman sweet-talk me into getting a beige hard-top instead. True to VW’s rep, it ran perfectly, as smooth as a Swiss watch, but I soon got tired of it since it had none of the little quirks and endearing rattles that I had come to regard as ‘personality’ in my blue 62. For some reason I’ve never been able to either understand or explain, I actually enjoy having a few quirks in my vehicles; something about karma, I guess.
However, being very protective of it and trying to guard the new car against any possibility of damage on the crowded Berkeley streets, I was in the habit of leaving it parked safely at home by the curb, in the street in front of my apartment, and used a small motorcycle to get to and from work. Only a week after I had bought the new bug, I returned from work to find that some truck had passed too close to it and left a huge crease along the entire left (driver’s) side, gouging a one inch deep gash in both front and rear fenders! Since the fenders on old VW bugs project a good 6 to 8 inches beyond the doors, it is all too easy to overlook the fact that the lower-situated fenders are closer to one’s passing vehicle than might otherwise be apparent and in a somewhat higher American full-sized truck, well…so much for my protective precautions! I felt like my girlfriend had been raped!
And now a serious note about the ravages of war…
But I digress. Most of our patients at John Moses were, as mentioned, elderly Norwegian World War One veterans, many suffering from serious diseases and almost all of them crotchety, cranky, and sour dispositioned old men in their 80s and 90s. Since we were in our early 20s, there wasn’t much real understanding between us and them. We did what we had to do and provided reasonably good medical and nursing care for them, but for my part and despite being a military person myself, I hadn’t had the foggiest notion of what their World War One service had actually been like. At that point in my life I was far less historically aware than I am today, naturally enough, and had not yet undergone later years of academic study in history. Although my father (who had passed on when I was age four) had been a Spanish American War veteran (too young to enlist as a private soldier, he had been a drummer boy for Teddy Roosevelt’s regiment, back in 1898), the First World War was something that lay far beyond my understanding then. It had been simply another forgotten ‘war’ to me, ho-hum.
Reflecting on that today, it is amazing what a contrast there was between the conditions those First World War vets served under and those imposed upon us in the Air Force of the 60s. Reading later about the indescribable horrors of static trench warfare and the unimaginably terrible violence they suffered on the muddy French lines, I am always impressed by the fact that although the conduct of war has been steadily and increasingly refined since 1900, no matter how one considers it, war…any war at all, no matter how or where…is contemptible and lamentable. Unfortunately for them, in the early 1900s technology first began to make the mass killing of millions of soldiers possible, with the result that veterans of that war suffered in ways we can't even imagine today.
Looking back on the history of warfare, any modern student of history has to be profoundly struck by the unceasing brutality of armed national conflict throughout the ages. As science and technology grew from the age of the industrial revolution onwards, the means of inflicting death and destruction have kept proportionate pace, accordingly. With new weapons and more effective means of killing the enemy a given, over any period of time, one cannot but wonder how modern human sensibilities can tolerate the perpetuation of warfare. When the atomic age produced thermonuclear weapons capable of destroying the entire world many time over, some dared to hope that humanity had finally reached the point where a liberating epiphany of sorts was about to occur to humanity's collective consciousness. That hope has, of course, been long-since dashed as nations found ever-increasing and more efficient means of continuing to wage war just short of launching an Armageddon of nuclear holocaust. Today these ‘means’ take the form of so-called ‘limited warfare’, guerilla and terrorist resistance, and ‘limited tactical action’, but they are just as deadly in entirely new ways.
While wars still kill and maim combatants, the means employed to kill have simply become more technique-intensive, more highly technology-driven and more surgically precise. As medical science kept pace with weapons sciences, and as the effectiveness of medical treatment and casualty evacuation became more sophisticated, greater assurance of life-preservation became a byproduct of modern war-fighting, but at the same time that survival became more likely, permanent maiming and disfigurement arose as the new casualty norm. Today, in Afghanistan, improvised explosive devices are a whole new and terribly destructive force to be reckoned with, combining the worst features of traditional mine-warfare with the unpredictability and uncertainties of new guerrilla terrorist tactics. From my viewpoint, witnessing a whole new generation of partly dismembered, but still living bodies return home—life preserved, but forever severely disabled—my shame over being a member of the supposedly intelligent species that permits such outrages is intense.
Gavrilo blows it big-time…
Back in the days of the First World War (1914 through 1918), weapons technology outpaced medical science by an order of magnitude, given the abrupt assumption of hostilities after Serbian assassin Gavrilo Princip shot the Austrian Crown Prince in Sarajevo. By the time the war finally ended in an armistice in 1918, monster long-range artillery had been developed that could send 14 inch (naval sized) high explosive shells down on an entrenched and helpless enemy more than 24 miles distant. The terrible devastation of new chemical and biological weapons had also been introduced, and the machine gun provided an entirely new way of efficiently mowing down an enemy by the thousands at a time. New tactics, such as using progressive heavy artillery bombardment (known as ‘creeping barrages’) followed closely by massed infantry attacks, came into use, and entirely new armored weapons such as the tank came into being, as well. Against all of these things there was little or no defense back in the First World War and as a result of this, the veterans we took care of had all suffered to some extent or another from all of those horrors, many from mustard and phosgene gas exposure (against which rudimentary ‘gas masks’ initially provided only partly or an incompletely effective defense), a great number from ‘shell shock’, and worse.
Additionally, many of our old vets at John Moses had sustained severe psychological injuries resulting from their exposure to trench warfare and their experiences contending with the sight of seeing their mates atomized all about by unceasing high explosive shelling. ‘Shell-shock’ was the original term used to describe what we today understand as ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’, but it was rather incompletely understood in those days and in far too many cases the psychological damage was left untreated, left undiagnosed (and therefore untreated), or simply dismissed as inconsequential. Then too, far too often PTSD was felt to be the result of cowardice or mere fearfulness, with the result that soldiers suffering from such devastating mental injuries were frequently regarded as shirkers and cowardly slackers, and sent right back to the line.
Over the years following their service in the trenches of World War One, many of those with lingering psychiatric effects simply worsened until finally, although they were committed to our hospital for quantifiable physical disease and old war injuries, most also suffered secretly from severe psychiatric illnesses associated with the war in addition to any chronic or long-term war-related physical ailments.
Private Parts gets his orders…
Thus, as mere kids ourselves, we medics were largely unsympathetic to the cranky moods and demanding attitudes of ourf charges and certainly hadn’t the slightest understanding of what they might have originally suffered or gone through in that most terrible war. Considering that the United States hadn’t even gotten into the battles in Europe (effectively speaking) until the last stage of the war, the emotional and physical devastation suffered by our American troops paled by comparison with that suffered by the French, British, and German soldiers, since they had had to endure all this for almost 3 full years before the US became involved in the conflict. Today, one reads the histories and accounts of participants that survive and one can only imagine at the cumulative effects on the soldiers (and civilians) of those three nations and the horrors they faced.
Reading any history of that first great world conflict, euphemistically known variously as ‘The Great War’, the ‘First World War’, and ‘the war to end all wars’, one reads the statistics and figures that after the passage of time all wars are reduced to (long after, of course, all the intensely personal suffering and anguish has long since passed and been forgotten) and tries (unsuccessfully for the most part) to garner a small bit of comprehension about what it must have been like. While some understanding may be gained through voluminous reading, it amounts to only the merest of a small fragment of awareness of what the actual fighting must have been like.
Although by no means reflective of the true depth of the irredeemable tragedy that the First World War engendered, a few statistics may be helpful to understand the magnitude of some of the carnage that prevailed. By conservative estimate, over ten million (10,000,000) men were lost on the actual battlefields, concurrent with an equally high number of unknown civilian mortalities. That doesn’t take into consideration the millions upon millions who were either seriously injured and survived, or those who received disabling injuries that were not immediately life threatening (traumatic loss of limbs, permanent lung disease and/or vision problems resulting from exposure to war gases, etc.). Perhaps the starkest statistic is the fact that over 20,000 British soldiers alone were killed on the first day in the First Battle of the Somme, and on average more than 6,500 soldiers were killed on each and every day throughout the full five year period the war encompassed...
When one takes a modern war, such as Korea, Vietnam, or the actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, circumstances and degrees of suffering pale by comparison. Although the death rates and overt loss of life for the latter wars are far lower than those arising in the First or Second World Wars, the emotional (and often physical) trauma suffered is still substantial. One of the main mitigating factors between the two eras is the fact that America as a nation has sunk far deeper into the familiar softness and comfort of our modern, technology-enhanced materialist culture, with the development of a consequently far less firm resolve and dimiished fortitude to undergo deprivation beyond a certain point than has obtained in past decades. Thanks to the vircarious voyeurism enabled by modern, live media reporting, the loss of a few dozen of our soldiers today produces the same level of intense grief and emotional angst that the loss of thousands of World War One soldiers created among families back then, but this neither dismisses nor reduces the impact of war, no matter where it takes place, or in what era.
‘Maturity’ is a synonym for getting older…
Back in Minot, at John Moses Air Force Hospital, I had at the time none of these more recent awarenesses to help temper my youthful empathy beyond that which my normally somewhat pacific disposition supported and my intense opposition to the then-current war in Vietnam had, in my understanding, almost no association at all with the personal sacrifices all those old Norwegian vets had made in the First World War. I guess that’s partly because I wasn’t entirely anti-war (opposed to war in any form or manner), but simply (situationally and circumstantially) against that specific war being fought in Vietnam. My distaste for ALL war and national conflict didn’t come about until sometime later, when I had read far more widely and gained a much broader and complete understanding of exactly what politically motivated armed conflict is all about.
Accordingly, I led two separate and compartmented lives during my Air Force service in North Dakota, one working as a medical orderly in a hospital full of old vets whom I had little concern for and another as an idealistic young anti-war protestor in uniform after duty hours. The great but perhaps unavoidable tragedy of that may be that I hadn’t yet put all the pieces of the life puzzle together, but this is almost always the way life is. Life is a continuing experience that one may think of as an emotional and intellectual savings account. As the years go by, one’s understanding grows commensurate with one’s experiences and an equal ability to reflect intelligently upon them. Regrettably, by the time one is better able to put all those pieces of life’s puzzle together meaningfully, the opportunities for making use of what is gained from them and bringing about meaningful change has diminished proportionately, until finally one is almost at the end of life and realizes with a sense of profoundly hollow sadness that nothing will ever really change. Human beings are doomed to a cyclical life experience, each generation not listening to the previous one and repeating the same mistakes over and over and over, until…dare we hope for it?...some major error in strategic planning occurs at the top of some superpower's food-chain or another and suddenly the human race (along with all its tendencies to squabble and violently disagree) will finally be vaporized out of existence. Poof! We should be so lucky...
Wars suck, but bicycles are kinda neat…
Ah well. Meanwhile life goes on….barely. One of the many things I developed a taste for while serving in NoDak was bicycling. There was an old hole-in-the-wall Schwinn bicycle shop across the street from the Lutheran Church and just down the street from the campus. They had a nice array of Schwinn '10-speed racers’ there, one in particular catching my eye: a Schwinn Continental Super Sport. By today’s standards it was a fairly heavy beast and the quality none too great (not up to Italian or French expectations), but it was affordable and I soon discovered the delights of taking drives along some of the rural roads bordering Minot’s city limits. Taking a knapsack in hand, I’d make a leisurely run out to the orchards on the north end of town and just cycle aimlessly down the rural country roads for a few hours until it was time to get back to town. There were apple trees along the way and on a hot summer day nothing was more personally satisfying than pulling over after a sweaty hour or so and decamping under an apple tree by the side of the road, to watch the world go by. While munching on an apple (I am guessing Adam rather innocently had the same pleasant feeling, when offered one by Eve), it was all too easy to forget crotchety old vets and ignore the possibility that at any given second, due to a sudden sharp international disagreement between the US and the USSR, the drowsy, bucolic calm of Minot’s summer fields could be shattered by multiple rising intercontinental missiles exploding forth from their subterranean holes below, or that the hazy blue skies above could at any second erupt with a dozen explosive nuclear suns having a brilliance greater than the mind can conceive. The contrast between boy, bicycle, tree, and apple couldn’t have been less distinct at such moments, but the possibility of a nuclear war breaking out was all too real to dare contemplate seriously at such a perfect moment; thus, after a leisurely respite of cheese, French bread and an apple, I would pedal back to the hospital attitudinally re-equipped to battle bedpans and renew my fight against the next day’s small stresses and strains.
A few of the small, uncomplicated pleasures of those times occasionally return to my mind's eye, when I think back on those days. Some of those special little moments would occur while sitting at a nurses’ station late at night, listening to the winter winds howl along the window ledges, moaning past the window panes and whining with a most animal-like plaintiveness. Closing one’s eyes to blot out the dingy institutional yellow of the ward’s walls, it was easy to think about the great frozen expanse of snow-draped landscape that lay just outside the window and seven stories beneath, as if it were a location off in Russia somewhere. There was something magical about that thought, very evocative and melancholy simultaneously, but I was given to abundant imagination anyway. The resulting mood reminded me strongly of the scenes in David Lean’s cine masterpiece, Dr. Zhivago, in which he and Lara Feyodorvna have sought refuge in an old family dasha, far out in the snowy rural wastes surrounding Moscow, late at night. In one especially memorable scene, the windows of their frozen sanctum are frosted over with hoar crystals and the temperature outside is far below zero as Zhivago and Feyodorvna huddle for warmth by the light of a single candle. Gazing at each other over the guttering of a half-burned candle with unspoken passion, it is a particularly evovative romantic moment in that movie. Although there was precious little romance at the dimly lit nurses’ station that I was charged with watching over, a vestige of that mood was still vaguely palpable, lurking just beyond the mind’s full grasp and captured in the vocalizations of the icy draughts playing outside the frost-covered windows.
Sodding off on ‘All Souls Day’…
Another time, at Halloween and late at night during a fairly stiff snowstorm, Mike and I had just finished up printing yet another issue of our war protest broadside (which we distributed at the USO and covertly passed out on the base whenever circumstances allowed) and on a whim, as we closed up and left, grabbed a large carved jack-o-lantern someone had left at the USO and placed the pumpkin on top of my VW bug’s roof. The lit candle inside faced rearward, since the wind would otherwise have blown it out, and thus decorated I drove my beetle slowly back down the city streets to the hospital. It made quite an interesting spectacle, I’m sure, but there were few others out and on the road to see it. As our luck would have it, one of the few spectators happened to be a Minot policeman in his patrol car and we were soon pulled over. Although I can’t imagine a LEO writing a ticket for something like ‘illegally driving with lit Halloween jack-o-lantern on roof of car’ (since as we all know there are so many laws both enforceable and unenforceable on the books that no truly legitimate cause is ever required, should an officer decide to make a stop), we were pulled over. He had little sympathy for bored US Air Force enlisted men and clearly possessed no sense of humor at all, but he did let us off with a grumbled warning to get ‘that blasted pumpkin’ off our car and go home. That was the extent of this real-life Washington Irving Halloween moment. Not half as dramatic as the one experienced by Ichabod Crane with his headless horseman pursuer, however. Someone had probably stolen his doughnut back at the precinct house.
Mike learns about ‘marital bliss’…
Not long after this, Mike met his first wife, Diane, who was a local townie and a cadet in the Minot Civil Air Patrol Wing and they soon married and moved into private quarters in town. Diane was very likely taken by Mike’s unique combination of Rasputin-like and saintly qualities and of course they didn’t grow them like Mike up in NoDak, so perhaps it is understandable that she fell under his spell quite rapidly. Besides, she understood the whole military schtick, being a CAP cadet and all, and read science-fiction a lot; for whatever the reason, they seemed to hit it off as well as anyone had a right to respect. For his honeymoon, Mike loaded Diane up into his beaten-up old Volvo 544 sedan and they amscrayed off to a small hotel in the nearby rural town of Max (yes, that’s its real name: beautiful downtown ‘Max’). Max had, in the last 2000 census, a population of 278 humans, uncounted numbers of cats and dogs, and probably several millions of prairie dogs claiming residence within its municipal borders. In 1966 it had to be at least a third less populous. Of course Frenchy and I felt we had to commemorate the occasion of Mike & Diane’s honeymoon departure for Max by smearing a huge hunk of ripe Limburger Cheese on the manifold of the Volvo’s engine, a rather large and almost unforgiveable lapse of decorum on our part (at least regarded as such by Mike and Diane, who had to live with the unbelievably TERRIBLE stench both up and back from their conjugal getaway).
Diane was also originally attracted to Mike because she read and enjoyed sci-fi almost as much as he and I did, so it initially seemed a match made in heaven. Geeks in love? Despite this shared interest, living with a saint has never been easy, however, and especially one with Rasputin-like overtones of mystic presence that tended to predominate at odd moments. Accordingly, the bloom soon faded from the blossom, so to speak; I later came to find out (after leaving for a different duty assignment) that Mike and Diane had parted permanently after only a couple of years together.
Minot AFB bids me a fond ‘adieu’…
Eventually, after nearly a full two years of similar misadventures and other post-adolescent experiential anomalies (of which this is a good example) that cemented our friendship and highlighted our mutual efforts to help bring the war in Vietnam to a close, I was finally given orders to report to a new duty station in Arizona (Davis-Monthan AFB, as part of that sprawling base’s 803rd Medical Group) and Mike, Frenchy, Russ and I all parted company. Still, given the close bonds we had developed during our time together at Minot, we remained in touch over the years and in 1969, after I had returned to the Peoples’ Republic of Berzerkeley in California, I shortly found Mike established in that city as well, it being the really happening West Coast place for peaceniks and radical fringers and all. Russ returned to New York City, where he was reabsorbed into Woody Allen’s alternate universe dimension once again. Of Frenchy, I heard no further word after I left Minot.
Not long after coming to Berkeley, Mike became involved with the Eastern Orthodox Church, soon becoming a priest in that religion and found his strong sense of rather eclectic mysticism quite at home within Orthodoxy's holy embrace. Although Mike and I lived in the same urban area, we really didn’t cross paths much and after a year or so Mike relocated back to Portland, Oregon, where his younger sister lived. I was devastated to learn that after leaving Berkeley Mike had been diagnosed with a form of fatal leukemia that claimed his life a few years after that disclosure. Mike was truly one of the most unique and genuinely good, caring human beings I have ever had the honor and good fortune of knowing and it seems ironic that his life was ended prematurely (doesn’t it always, when good people demise prematurely?). Sadly, I did not learn of his passing until a year after the fact and I greatly regret not having known of his condition until it was too late to get back in touch.
I remained in Berkeley, went to work for several hospitals in the East San Francisco Bay Area, and continued following my own path through life. But that is another (equally long-winded) story and probably good for at least another 50,000 word tangential excursion on paper. In summary, my introduction to Minot, to North Dakota, and to that entire Mid-West part of the United States, was an enormously rewarding and fulfilling one. I look back on those days of my earlier youth as part of a unique and richly memorable experience growing up to maturity. While I don’t claim to have ever fully matured (I’m still a kid in my 60s, but aren’t we all?), it certainly filled out a very important part of my attempt to grasp and understand a small portion of what the life experience is all about. 41 years later, I still have no greater clue about what matters most in life or what it all means, but like any good journey, the ‘getting here’ part of the trip has not been boring!
[Note: At this point, Porky Pig was supposed to pop up here and say “Bada-bada-bada that’s all, folks” but I think they sent him off to Afghanistan to entertain the troops in that unhappy war. Oh well. Considering the history of humanity’s perverse love affair with organized death and destruction, perhaps there really is no such aspect of war as “…that’s all, folks!” anyway. D’ya think?]