“What did you do
in the war, daddy?”
by Kalikiano Kalei
Doan wanna make war no more, no more….
When I was still a tender-hearted, rather sheltered young adolescent, someone in Washington DC decided to start a war. Again. It was 1966 and this time it was once more the Chinese Communists who were responsible for getting the American beehive all stirred up all over again (Korea was an earlier and related hive-shaking event, of course).
Actually, that’s not quite correct, since ‘the war’ didn’t start in 1966; it actually began back in 1917, when the Bolsheviks succeeded in overthrowing the last Russian (Romanov) Tsar. By 1966, however, 49 years of world-wide political foment and economic change had brought the Communist Chinese nation into being, along with all greater Communism’s smaller geopolitical ‘sputniks’, and the specter of Communism’s continuing appeal to the down-trodden masses cast a giant and rather unwelcome shadow on America’s cozy little materialist, capitalistic tea party. [Note: it may or may not be of passing interest to explain here that the Russian word ‘sputnik’, in actual fact the first Soviet earth satellite that was launched in 1957, translates roughly to ‘fellow traveler’. Thus, both terms (Sputnik and ‘fellow traveler’) have some bearing on this subject.]
Although rabid congressional Commie hater Joseph McCarthy had been deposed not long after having created a national witch-hunt in the 1950s for the purpose of seeking out and eradicating suspected (emphasis, emphasis) Communist sympathizers in America, many politically well-connected Sons of Freedom continued to fear anything that suggested America’s happy little socio-economic paradigm of democratic capitalism might not be as free from Commie taint as it was cracked up to be. In terms of political philosophy, the right-wing ‘domino theory’ still held ascendance, reasoning that America must intervene wherever possible in the world to prevent unaligned nations from falling over, domino style, to the threat of Communism’s avowedly expansionist aspirations. To far too many patriotic Americans, ‘John Birch’ was still a national hero and the sight of an American flag (any American flag) had a Pavlovian effect on those who fancied themselves as potential defenders of the Christian ‘free world’ in its fight against the dastardly Bolshevik atheists. Sigh!
Just my luck, then, to be in my sophomore year at the local college, an emotionally insecure, somewhat sheltered, and academically uninspired undergrad with no well-defined career aspirations of any sort. The French had recently bailed out of their Anamese colonial territories in SEA after being soundly thrashed by the Viet-Cong’s precursors, the Viet Minh, and by 1966 America had already long-since passed the ‘MAAG’ phase (‘Military Assistance Advisory Group’) of US involvement (wherein US military advisors were sent to work with the Vietnamese military forces in a strictly non-combatant instruction and training role). I was rather distractedly barely keeping my head above C-level in my studies at the time and my weekends were committed to passionately hedonistic wave-sets on the California coast, which my dilapidated old 1940 Chevy Deluxe Coupe could barely get me to without its radiator running dry. I fancied myself a surfer, despite persistent and hard to ignore evidence to the contrary. In fact, not only was I a complete ‘wipe-out’ at trying to stay balanced on a 10 foot longboard (for 10 seconds on a three foot curl), despite my wearing all the regulation gear (shades, baggies, a fake ‘Iron Cross’, Mexican huarache sandals, Woolrich shirts, and anything Madras-patterned I could get my hands on), regardless of my using all the then-hip surfing terms (‘bitchin’, far-out, ‘dude’, wahine, cowabunga, skag, gremmie, hodad, etc.), the chicks were absolutely, completely and categorically disinterested in me. It was therefore quite easy for me to retreat emotionally to embrace the cherished ‘lonely surfer’ (remember that wonderful old Jack Nitzsche song?) posture that the surfing stereotype hewed to in those days, since there was simply no reasonable alternative to my being the very personification of that image I had already spent an adolescent lifetime (a few years) cultivating…a romantic loner. Ah! Misunderstood, ignored, but secretly semi-heroic in my own mind, I fancied myself a sort of oceanside rebel in the James Dean mold, since we both loved Porsches and disdained the proletarian hoi-poloi (the main difference between us being as I saw it, aside from his being handsome and a movie star, was that Dean had been able to actually own Porches and it was all I could do to buy my $50 asthmatic 26 year old ’40 Chevy Coupe).
Me and my buddy James Dean…
Of course, my frequent weekend trips to the coast in that old Chevy took me west along State Route 46 (originally known as US Route 466), since I preferentially hung out at Pismo, Avila, and Cayucos beaches. Each time I passed the Highway 46/Highway 41 intersection (near Cholame, a small bump in the road surrounded by nothing for miles except dry fields) where James Dean had died in his Porsche 550 Spyder (in 1955, some thirteen years earlier) I would absently reflect on that incident, while keeping one eye on the Chevy’s temperature gauge. Dean’s fatal accident with Donald Turnipseed (the other driver’s real name, I swear it) was about as avoidable as my pending decision was about the war and it always made me a bit spooky, driving past that infamous site late in the day with the sun low on the horizon and full in my eyes, to think about it. Maybe Dean was my hero, and perhaps the good did die young as the old saying has it, but was I really willing to die prematurely because of someone else’s paranoiac sense of patriotic obligation? My youthful career as inept surfer dude and failed chick-magnet notwithstanding, the future might still hold better things in store for me and I was in no hurry to turn in my transit pass just yet for a 6 foot deep hole in the ground!
So there I was…failed surfer and self-styled misunderstood rebel. It was yet a comfortable fantasy with which to dress and bandage all my juvenile psychic wounds, however, and death (whether seated in a silver Porsche or slogging through a tropical rice paddy) is just so, well…final! One weekend, I actually stopped at the Dean crash site on the way to Avila and got out to drink a coke after filling the nearly empty radiator from the last three gallon plastic jug I had in the rumble seat. As I tossed the fizzy liquid down, the radio newscaster was saying something about how the Selective Service had just decided to start yanking ALL student draft deferments, making everyone prime draft bait! Mulling that unhappy news over under the hot sun, I spent a few minutes distractedly searching the ground for any overlooked small slivers of silver aluminum that might have been missed from the crash, but in the thirteen years since Dean had died, Dean’s legions of fans had long-since clean-combed the area for crash souvenirs of their iconic hero and all I found were a few cow pies and a dead bird. More death to think about. Hmm.
Shortly after this news about the change in draft deferments had been released, I found myself sitting in a political science class on campus when a vision of the possible personal consequences of what had just transpired hit me right between the eyes with the impact of an imaginary AK-47 bullet. Looking out the classroom window of my mind, I fancied I could see my holographic self slumped over quite dead in a flooded rice paddy, with a ragged edged red hole in my forehead. It was a scary and sobering flash to be sure, since I am by nature a pretty cowardly and timorous creature who hates to even step on an ant, let alone engage in fierce battles with some unseen enemy in a tropical outback region eight thousand miles from home. A little more thought about all this prompted me to formulate two possible alternative options. The first involved a daunting and somewhat longish trip to the Canadian border to seek asylum and the second called for a much shorter one to the local US Air Force recruiter’s office, since I reasoned that I could more safely safeguard my brain in that branch of the service than I would be able to as point man in a Marine platoon, dodging pungi-stakes, frag-grenades, AK-fire and mines in Vietnam.
The first option posed several complex logistical problems in that 1), I was still enrolled in college and my family wouldn’t approve of my suddenly bailing out without a very good reason, and 2) my poor old Chevy would surely give up the ghost entirely if I attempted an 800 mile run to the border in it. That pared the options down considerably, so shortly after that I opted to visit the local Air Force recruiter and took a hard look at the options open to me there. One thought remained upper-most in my mind and that was that Momma hadn’t raised her precious little fair-haired boy to rot away in some lonely rice paddy on the far side of nowhere.
For as many years as I could remember, I had abstractly dreamed of becoming an Air Force pilot and had in fact decided that once I finished my lower division work in college I’d join that service under the auspices of what was then called the Air Force Pilot Training Program. With my usual luck, I learned from the recruiter that this program had just been terminated and that in future all pilot applicants would have to furnish proof of a completed four-year baccalaureate for acceptance into flight training. Modern aircraft technology state-of-the-art had apparently progressed to the point where they figured you needed a college degree to fully understand how to fly military airplanes. Looking back on things, it was probably just as well (given my already admitted gentle nature), since flying 30,000 pound warplanes off into a hazardous hail of hostile anti-aircraft fire is not a task well-suited to ruminative, bucolic and highly reflective personalities like mine (I mean…what if I died doing something I fancied I loved, only to realise at that last gasping second that I’d much rather have been peacefully sniffing daisies somewhere?!). And that’s not even taking into consideration the very real possibility of having my nether aspect explosively re-sculpted by a well targeted SAM-2 and having to eject, perhaps seriously wounded, into a swarm of angry Vietnamese peasants below who would just as soon kill ‘Yankee Air Pirate’ foreign devils on the spot as allow the VC to cart them away into captivity. Nope, no implacably stoic John McCain was I, not even a Don Knotts younger-and-smarter-brother clone!
At any rate, since the officer corps option was closed off to me, I listened to what the Air Force had to offer its enlisted recruits. Although the Army was still letting recruits have their choice of specialties, there were so many Vietnam ‘escapees’ like myself clamoring to gain entrance to the Air Force that no promises could be made. It was clearly a buyer’s market, enlistment-wise. You signs on the dotted line and you takes your chances. That was it. At least the recruiter was honest about that unhappy fact, contrary to the usual vituperous practice (it’s still the norm today, by the way) of promising the moon and then pulling the rug out from under enlistees the moment they had been sworn in (“Sorry sucker, your sweet ass belongs to Uncle Sammie now….mwah-hahahaha!”).
Having given everything considerable thought after that initial encounter with the recruiter, I agreed to enlist and was scheduled for what the military calls the AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test), which was a sort of functionally dumbed down SAT exam. Varying slightly from service to service, its purpose was to determine what specialty one was best qualified for and yielded aptitude data in four primary skills and knowledge subtest categories that included 1) General, 2) Mechanical, 3) Administrative, and 4) Electrical. I recall having qualified highest in ‘electrical’ and ‘administrative’, but followed closely by the remaining two. However, that was a long, long time ago and the only thing that really remains electrifyingly fresh about the exam experience is that based upon my test results and subject to Air Force career skill areas open at that time, I was offered the choice of three specialties: 1) Medical Service, 2) Food Service, or 3) Air Police! As a person who has never ranked gastronomy high on my personal list of interests and as someone who has forever distrusted the integrity of law enforcement agencies, the choice of becoming an Air Force medic was therefore the only logical and reasonable option to avail myself of.
Off to Scout camp with the US Air Force…
Once my entry medical exam had been completed at the Los Angeles physical processing center, it wasn’t long before I was shunted off to begin four weeks of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in hot, humid and thoroughly uncomfortable Amarillo, Texas. As a California coastal resident used to cool Pacific Ocean breezes, the interior of Texas, with its swelteringly hot and humid Gulf Coast climate, was definitely not to my taste. However, the four weeks went by fairly quickly and about all I recall from the experience, some 44 years later, is an unending frustration with having to keep toilets clean enough to eat out of. It really seemed senseless to me at the time, but is was all part of the indoctrination process designed to cut the rough corners off a wildly diverse group of immature youngsters and reshape them into a new and useful uniformity of thought and action.
In the Air Force boot camp our physical conditioning was called ‘physical training’ or PT for short. Instead of hard-as-nails USMC-like DIs (Drill Instructors), we had somewhat more gentle TIs (Training Instructors) and our flight of post-adolescent enlistees were handed over to a certain Technical Sergeant Dawson. Although we lived in awe of Sgt. Dawson, he was actually more like an endlessly patient mother to us than a mean-hearted source of perpetual torment. I was actually quite surprised to find out how mild Air Force boot camp training was (compared to the Marine Corps version), but that’s just as well, since we were all just a bunch of little lost kids trying to get our rather puerile minds around this slice of the entirely new experience we had all signed up for.
Of course, some of our group were more ‘lost’ than others, since the individuals making up our flight came from all over the country. Two in particular I well recall as being particularly intellect-challenged. They frequently transgressed the limits of the Dawson’s concept of the acceptable and after one memorable breech of egregious behavior, Sgt. Dawson called them both into his office at the end of the barracks and said something on the order of “OK. From now on you two will report to me as ‘Dipshit #1’ and ‘Dipshit #2’ Do you understand?” They both yelled out “Yes SIR!”, while standing at attention and for the ensuing several weeks the rest of us were regularly entertained by the sight of them hitting a brace in front of a scowling Sgt. Dawson, using those names. This loses something in the telling, naturally. Suffice it to say you had to have been there to appreciate the full hilarity of the recurring spectacle.
At the end of the four weeks, during which we studied all the basics of citizen soldiers, and prancing around the exercise track in garishly yellow T-shirts and AF blue nylon shorts (yuk), I ended up considering two of our full complement of 60 ‘students’ as worthy peers. One, a heavy-set, pink-jowled Pole from Ohio named Dumbrowski, and the other, a lanky and laconic string-bean from Oklahoma named Robert Acton, were pretty decent guys by my reckoning, but I shuddered to think what terrible things the others might do to the carefully oiled machinery of the US Air Force, once they were turned loose in their subsequent specialties after a few scant weeks of training.
Looking back, several very important bits of knowledge acquired at Basic Training have remained with me through the years and proven quite valuable again and again. They are 1) never let anyone in a position of responsibility learn your name; 2) never volunteer for ANYTHING; 3) never try to substitute muscle power for brain power, and 4) adopt the simple tactic of keeping your mouth shut (since it makes one appear to be far more intelligent that one might actually be; the reverse is also true ).
Learning how to put Band-Aids on baby booies…
From Lackland, that great stamp-mill processor of fresh Air Force enlisted fodder, I was next sent to Sheppard AFB outside Wichita Falls (TX) for the next phase of my training: three months of intensive medical specialization that would qualify me to do everything from applying Band-Aids to slashed carotid arteries to sewing traumatically severed limbs back on with little more than barbed wire and spit. The medical course instructors were colorfully named Sgt. Mapp, Sgt. Rosebud, and Sgt. Levenson, each a fairly engaging individual (and all blessed with a great sense of humor, thank God, since one of my secret talents was that of cartooning and I skewered them all mercilessly in my multi-panel sketches).
Not having a car, I spent all my time on the base, although Amarillo was reported to have quite a scenic ambience, with its vine-entwined and flower-strewn canals and many lovely settings for tourists. My main pastime was reading and I haunted the base library while most others were off getting howling drunk downtown on their off-hours. Another of my recreational activities consisted of prowling around the base, seeing what there was to see, since Sheppard was also the Air Force’s primary A&P specialty training base and more than half of it was devoted to rows and rows of interesting older parked aircraft that student powerplant and airframe mechanics used to perfect their skills. For me walking around those areas was like dying and going to heaven, since there were at least a couple of examples of most of the airplanes in recent use (1966) by the Air Force to be found there. This included whole rows of older North American F-100A Super Sabres, ANG KC-97 Stratotankers (the military version of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser airliner), A Boeing B-52D or two, T-6 Texans, NAA B-25 Mitchells, and even a few Martin B-26 Invaders among many others. One sight I recall very clearly was the nearby fire and crash training area, where old airframes no longer useable would be doused in JP-4 jet fuel (essentially kerosene) and set on fire so that crash-rescue trainees could practice putting the fires out (and rescuing personnel). It was quite a show (and an unwitting taste of many similar future sights I would experience in future) but I remember feeling a bit sad to learn that classic old airplanes were frequently destroyed in this manner. I guess even at that early age, the ‘aviation historian’ in me was making itself known!
When we had time to talk in the odd off-moments, my classmates and I would occasional speculate on the present course of the war we were all being trained to participate in, wondering where we’d eventually end up once the training had been completed. The best guess of most, given our specialty as ‘medics’ was that we’d be sent off to the front line medical areas near the big US air bases in Vietnam (like Cam Ranh and Tan Son Nhut). Incoming hostile motor fire was the biggest concern there, although there were also occasional VC saboteurs to worry about. At least that sort of danger wasn’t in the same league as walking point with the grunts out near Khe Sanh or dangling out an open Huey door over a troop drop-zone!
Why not Minot?...
Came late September with our courses having been completed, all of us eagerly awaited our orders that would assign us to both our new commands and to our first duty assignments. Up to that time I had never even heard of ‘Strategic Air Command’, but that is the command I had been handed over to. My first duty station…a very far cry from the hot, sweaty environs of Southeast Asia…was at a base in North Dakota near some prairiedog city named ‘Minot’ that hosted a strategic bomber wing: Minot AFB. It had a strange sound rolling off the tongue. Little did I suspect that once arrived at that remote northern base, given the typical fourteen below winters the name of the base would promptly freeze on your tongue if you kept your mouth open longer than a split second to utter it!
Very soon after graduating ceremonies had been completed and belongings packed up in the OD duffels everyone had been issued, we were all on our way out of quaint, humid old Wichita Falls (TX) and off to new adventures we were at that point incapable of even dreaming about. My flight out found me crowded onto an asthmatic old TWA Convair 540 airliner that connected with another flight out of Bismarck (ND) which would eventually deposit me at Minot. The airliner ferrying me on the last leg of the trip from Bismarck to Minot was an equally elderly Frontier Air Convair 440 that shook, rattled and rolled more loosely than Elvis himself (so it seemed), but after a while we began our descent to Minot International Airport (formerly a grass landing strip for Piper and Cessna puddle jumpers…at least before the arrival of the US Air Force and their shiny new base, some 12 miles from town). Outside visibility was totally obscured by a driving snowstorm as dusk approached, but the pilot was apparently able to use a combination of VFR, IFR and an especially powerful lucky rabbit’s foot to find the field and set us down on solid ground with a resounding thump before the engines froze over. Once the door had been opened by the blonde stew, a frosty gust came howling through the doorway to remind me that this was truly another part of the world totally apart from my own cozy coastal clime. Looking out the door, my first actual glimpse of Minot was a large sign that said two things: ‘Only the best go North!’ and somewhat lower down, ‘Why not Minot?’ Why not Minot indeed? It didn’t take long to come up with a number of excellent arguments to counter that cock-eyed bit of Chamber of Commerce PR optimism (my personal favorite was “The freezin’s the reason”).
Minot, North Dakota, is presently a city of about 37,000 people and the 4th largest in the state. At the time I first arrived there, back in late 1966, it was home to about 33,000 people, the 40% white segment of which being comprised of mostly of Germanic and Scandinavian (primarily Norwegian) descended people. Minot sprang into existence back in 1886 when the Great Northern Railway pushed its part of the transcontinental railroad through the state and has since been supported by largely agricultural industries such as daily, cattle, and crop farming. In 1955-56 the US Air Force decided to build a huge new air base near Minot, eventually using it to host a Strategic Air Command bomb wing (the 450th, later the 5th) of B-52 intercontinental bombers and a tenant 5th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (Air Defense Command) flying Convair F-106A Delta Darts. Somewhat later a missile wing (the 91st SMW) was also established there consisting of several squadrons of thermonuclear warhead tipped Minuteman ICBMs. The base, with its many personnel and large positive impact on the Minot economy, has been a welcome and stabilizing influence on the region for many decades. At a mean elevation of about one and a half thousand feet, and located nearer the Canadian than lower state borders, the summers in Minot can be swelteringly hot, while the winters are severely cold.
Thus it was that I stepped out of that rickety old Convair 440 and found myself staring absently down at my snow-covered GI shoes, probably not unlike Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when it finally sank in that she and Toto weren’t in Kansas any more, and wondering what the immediate future had in store for me. Whatever it turned out to be, I reminded myself, it wouldn’t involve getting picked off by a Viet Cong sniper hiding in the paddies just off Provincial Route 1.
I am introduced to ‘Gomer Central’…
One of the interesting sidelights about the US Air Force’s presence in Minot is that although the main base is 12 miles to the north of the city, the Air Force agreed to take over and share an existing eight-story VA facility in downtown Minot named the ‘John Moses Veterans Hospital’. The VA hospital had originally been built back in the early 1950s to take care of the large number of disabled and injured vets hailing from the state, but having the Air Force agree to share operational responsibilities worked to the advantage of both the VA administration and the Air Force, which could use it as a large hospital complex to support the base. Technically, the vets benefitted from having access to the Air Force specialists and medical teams, but the John Moses facility also helped train new Air Force personnel (such as myself and our ’90-day wonder’ medical officers).
Out on the base, the 862nd Medical Squadron (which I belonged to) additionally maintained a large multipurpose clinic facility, with attached flight surgeon’s office for aviation medicine concerns, but the base’s dependents (and severely ill military personnel) could be accommodated and cared for in the extensive VA facility in town.
Since I had just arrived at the base and in view of my very junior status in the greater scheme of things at the field, it was a natural move to assign me to the John Moses Hospital initially. After I had been checked in at the medical squadron’s orderly room, I was taken to my new quarters in a large modern dormitory next to the hospital that was used to house enlisted medical personnel.
In contrast to the airmen’s barracks on base, the hospital’s dormitory was a luxury assignment, since it was divided into separate rooms, each holding from two to four airmen. Perhaps the best part of the deal was that because winter conditions would frequently isolate the base from the city (due to heavy snowfall and frequent blizzard conditions), those of us at the hospital in town had the place all to ourselves at such times and we were located only a few blocks from the Minot State Teacher’s College (now Minot State University). The first thing I learned about my new duty assignment from my roommates was that MSTC was just bursting at the seams (like a well-stuffed bra) with hundreds of gorgeous young women of Scandinavian ancestry! My notorious chick-repellant qualities notwithstanding, that still sounded pretty good to me!
Some SAGE reflections…
Before I was able to settle in to the John Moses Airmans’ dorm, however, I was whisked off to the base to complete routine in-processing. This took place in a huge, multi-storied, squat beige monster of a concrete blockhouse (measuring several hundred feet on all sides, as well as vertically) that sat somewhat out by itself near the flightline. This, I was told, was the SAGE Building, but no one offered any more information about exactly what the ‘SAGE’ in ‘SAGE bldg’ was all about. All I knew at the time was that the SAGE Building’s ground floor served a number of administrative purposes, including in-processing for newly arrived troops. It was only much later that I learned that the SAGE Building was the semi-hardened facility that housed what passed for the guts of two of the world’s most advanced (as of 1966) digital computers, together comprising a system designed to control and direct (via up links) our Air Defense Command fighters against airspace intruders. [Note: SAGE stood for ‘Semi-Activated Ground Environment’ and it has been dealt with in a separate article.] The many yellow and black framed security warning signs in the SAGE Building impressed me with the knowledge that whatever lurked unseen on the building’s upper floors, it must be something worth dying for, since ‘Use of Deadly Force has been authorised’ cautions were plastered all over the various elevators and stairways. Compared to security restrictions on other parts of the base where armed Air Police (known as ‘Apes’) with beady eyes and itchy trigger fingers roamed about with live rounds loaded in their M-16s, the SAGE signs were merely a teaser indication of the seriousness of the nuclear combat mission that Minot was tasked with. Serious or not, it definitely caught my attention, as an FOB newbie!
Once I’d been checked in as a new arrival for the 862nd Medical Group, my first duty assignment, and received my bulky N-3B arctic parka (and the rest of my cold-weather ‘bunny suit’, as we called them), I was returned to the city of Minot and John Moses Hospital in one of the base crash ambulances. The strange smell that permeated it was caused, I was told by a cheerful fellow medic who drove it, by a load of embalmed cadavers that had just been hauled in from the base’s small morgue. Then without skipping a beat, he asked me if I’d had lunch yet? "Um? Uh, no….thanks!"
John Moses Air Force Hospital is today no longer to be found in Minot, having been finally demolished (in the mid-80s) after decades of caring for crusty old Norskahoovian WWI vets in its salad days, but in 1966 it still presented a rather imposing sight to us new arrivals. Some eight stories tall, it held several hundred acute and long-term care beds, as well as all the usual hospital departments, specialties, surgeries, clinics, etc. On the typically clear, bitterly cold North Dakota winter mornings the smoke from its adjacent electrical power generating plant would send up a single vertical plume of smoke from its tall chimney several thousand feet above the small caldera the complex was sited within, before mild surface gusts began playing with it. The sight of that white plume, seeming to rise right up into the cold lower heights of the stratosphere in the frosty chill of early morning, never failed to arrest my thoughts as yet another winter day in Minot dawned.
Outlying buildings on the campus accommodated the hospital’s complement of female nurses, the powerplant, the airmen’s dorm and the Hospital Commander’s residence. Situated near the powerplant was a medevac heli-pad where one would usually find a parked Air Force blue and white Huey UH-1 helicopter on standby. One additional small building housed administrative officers and the two male nurses we had on staff, and a large morgue occupied still another.
My own digs, located on the second floor of the airmen’s dorm, had space for four corpsmen and there were two already assigned to that room when I got there. One was a compact, dark-haired fellow of Greek ancestry named Michael Zaharakis and the other, a smaller Airman named Francis Bouchard, was of French Canadian descent. His nickname, Mike explained to me, was ‘Frenchy’. These two would be my roommates in the coming months ahead and soon became my close friends, as well.
This late in the season, the snow would fall regularly in the Minot area and from inside the dorm you could easily discern the unceasing keening of the wind as it moaned around the sharp corners and sills of the main building. It was a curiously plaintive sound, not unlike the sinister sound effects version of wind in horror movies and it didn’t take much imagination to conjure departed souls hovering outside, perhaps those of old veterans who had died at the facility and were reluctant to depart. Considering a few stories I heard later about some of the old vets who had passed on at John Moses, it wasn’t that hard to imagine at all.
Life on the frozen plains…
As I settled into this new life on the North Dakota prairie, I began to find much of it almost enjoyable, since unlike the poor stiffs isolated out on the base, those of us at the hospital felt more like a regular part of the Minot civilian community. There were some parts of the daily hospital routine that definitely were not enjoyable (such as emptying bed pans, placing and emptying urinals, inserting urinary catheters, and….that most unpleasant task of digitally removing impacted faeces from crusty old vets who were in various states of advanced end-stage disease), but much of it wasn’t all that demanding. Since this ‘on-the-job’ training was the follow-up part of my clinical school studies, I was kept fairly busy learning proper medical and clinical procedures and there wasn’t much time to mope about.
The vets the Air Force had inherited in taking over the facility from VA consisted of about 180 individuals among the 300 bed population. Many were in terminal stages of various malignancies, most were quite elderly, and more than a fair number were crotchety, cantankerous and short-tempered old fellows, principally of Norwegian extraction. Given their extreme illnesses and hopeless status I can’t really say they weren’t entitled to their nasty, ill-natured outlooks, but it certainly didn’t gain them much sympathy from the young and relatively naïve young corpsmen charged with taking care of them. Many of the old vets had been ignored or poorly cared for at home before being admitted and many had toenails that had remained untrimmed for so long that they curled over on each other in a sort of Goat’s horn appearance. It was quite a sobering experience to encounter this grotesquity for the first time. Severe bed sores, of course, were almost a given.
A particularly sad incident…
One old vet in particular remains fixed in my mind, an extreme case among the many others. His name was Roald Pahl and at the time he was suffering from severely advanced (terminal) CA of the GI tract and throat. The CA in his throat had eaten away his larynx and upper respiratory tract to the point where he was left with only a tracheostomy stoma (an opening directly into his trachea through which he breathed) and no voice at all. Of course trying to understand his needs and intentions was substantially complicated by his inability to speak, and his usual nasty mood didn’t help the process along, either. Such was the severity of his condition that his stoma had to be repeatedly suctioned throughout the day and night to remove the accumulation of tenacious fluids that secreted into his airway, threatening to choke him.
Without meaning to be unkind to poor Mr. Pahl, such was his unfortunate overall appearance that he looked startlingly like the Lord of the Rings character Golum at first glance. It was clear to most of us that he was just barely hanging on to life, but tenaciously and with no perceptible intent to go unresistingly that last inch of the way towards drawing his final breath. It was disturbing to have to witness his progressive decline each day, let alone take care of him, but that was part of our duty, so we all coped with this unhappy vision of misery as best we could and did our best for him. I had to regularly remind myself that he was, like all of us, some loving mother's son...
One morning that I will never forget I came on the AM shift to find Mr. Pahl under my team’s care. After taking care of all the necessary shift-change tasks, I went into Mr. Pahl’s room to assess his condition, but found him strangely quiet and serenely reposed, as if sleeping: a most unusual status for him. Taking a closer look, it suddenly dawned on me that Mr. Pahl wasn’t breathing at all, but since he wasn’t red in the face or any evidencing signs of apparent dyspnea (difficulty breathing), I quickly guessed that he had somehow passed on in the night. Leaning over to inspect his trach stoma, I found to my dismay that it was stuffed full of small white puffy cotton balls!
Someone (one of the corpsmen?) had apparently taken it upon himself to end Mr. Pahl’s unhappy, painful life in the dead of night by suffocating him. I never found out who did this, nor had I wanted to at the time, since to me this was clearly and obviously an act of murder no matter how you looked at it and it was all simply too much to accept. At that early date in my life I hadn’t even heard of the phrase ‘mercy killing’ either, so I was simply shocked into numb silence. Removing the cotton balls seemed to be a logical thing to do at the time, however, so I did so, not thinking about any possible ethical questions arising from my attempt to determine whether or not he might still be alive, and nothing further was mentioned about this by anyone. As far as I know, Mr. Pahl was officially determined to have died in his sleep from ‘natural’ causes arising from his terminal illness, but I still occasionally look back on that moment with disquieting reflection. Fortunately, there were no further incidents like that while I was at John Moses Air Force Hospital.
Getting to know my new fellow-inmates…
My new roommates in the dorm seemed to be nice enough, but Mike, the dark haired Greek fellow had a most unusual and curious sort of charismatic affect about him that was as palpable as the static shock one might get from touching a brass doorknob. You might describe him as a sort of synthesis between the mad Tsarist-era Russian monk Rasputin and Mr. Rogers, since although Mike’s personality had a penetrating unworldliness about it, he also was as genuinely and believably well-intended as the Cardigan-sweatered children’s matinee host. I soon learned that Mike was a science fiction fan and given to deeply esoteric religious spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox kind. ‘Frenchy’ Bouchard, the other roommate, was a bit more amorphously engendered than Mike in terms of personality and can best be described as Mike’s devoted side-kick, his experiential mentor: a sort of comic relief Pat Buttram to Mike’s Roy Rogers, or Pancho to the Cisco Kid. Both were good people, fortunately, and being a bit of a precocious little nerd myself, we immediately hit things off perfectly. Not quite ‘the Three Amigos’, but close enough within the context of US Air Force ‘blue uniformity’.
That my new roommate Mike was a good natured and interesting person was quite fortunate for me, since as an only child I had always had difficulty making friends and usually ended up with only one or two truly close buddies with whom I could relax and interact. Mike and I seemed to share many similar affinities, but as science fiction fans who had both read the genre extensively (and also been involved in what we called ‘fandom’, which was what the organized sci-fi culture of sci-fi enthusiasts was known as), we got along famously from the first day. [Note: Science fiction fandom, for those who may not be aware of it, are what comic fans are to comic book art. ‘Fans’ (“fen” is the more popular plural) attend conventions, write their own sci-fi stories, publish fanzines (amateur magazines about sci-fi and sci-fi fan activities), and so forth. They were the original publishers of today’s popular amateur ‘fanzines’, long before comic fans and the youth mainstream discovered that form of self-expression, and have existed as a popular sub-culture from the earliest days of science fiction as a legitimate literary form since back in the 1920s.]
Mike was, as I already mentioned, quite an interesting person. He came from a family of Greek-Americans, had a younger sister, and had suffered a bit from the extremes of an alcoholic father as a child. Still, he had what can only be described as an angelic personae, if a man can ever be convincingly characterised by that term. In this, he shared the same sort of beatific affect enjoyed by bohemian hipster Jack Kerouac, who was frequently described by those who knew him as having an innocent, angelic aura about him. Mike was also a very sincere, entirely honest person who hated deception, deceits, and dissembling of any sort. As I shortly also came to understand, Mike was furthermore an ardent pacifist and war protestor. He had joined the Air Force for almost the same reason I had, as an alternative to getting caught up in what was to him a most unjustifiable and insupportable war he did not believe in. As a true pacifist of genuine conviction, Mike was against war in any way, shape or form.
One day, after all of us had been released from duty at the end of our respective medical shifts on the wards, Mike and Frenchy took me downtown and introduced me to the Minot USO, which was installed in the basement of a downtown Minot former bank building, located near where highway 83 through Minot crosses over the railroad tracks. It was to be quite a catalytic introduction for me.
Likely due to the outlying location of the base (12 miles north of town), very few airmen came down to the USO. In fact, as events turned out, we literally had it all to ourselves most of the time. It was a pretty bare-bones affair, actually, with a pool table, a few chairs, some magazines (The Lutheran Standard, Modern Scandinavia Digest, etc.), and occasionally some doughnuts to accompany the perpetually boiling coffee on hand that could keep you awake all night without half trying. There was an old mimeograph machine in one corner donated by the local Lutheran Church and a decrepit (but still functioning) typewriter that looked as if it had been used to help prepare Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Little did the USO realise that they had just helped establish another ‘underground GI coffeehouse’ in the growing covert movement to resist the Vietnam war!
The anti-war movement gains momentum in a bank vault…
Mike had already taken a whack at publishing an anti-war mimeographed magazine that he produced in small numbers and circulated around the hospital. Although a few copies made their way to the base, it really had very little success in reaching most of the troops out on the sprawling confines of MAFB. Still, it was a modestly well-prepared magazine, full of innocuous content, his usually trenchant (and cogent) editorial opinion, an occasional cartoon (by Mike, who used the nom de plume of ‘RAKI’), a few poems here and there, and less remarkable content. The USO ‘advisor’ who was appointed to oversee things at the Minot USO in a nominal way was the pastor of the nearby Lutheran church and LSA advisor (Lutheran Services of America), Pastor Bergans. Of course the American Lutheran Church (back in 1966 this Lutheran body had not yet merged with the Lutheran Church in America—a union that occurred in 1988) was opposed to the war in Vietnam, so there was an added and substantially reinforcing reflection of our already restive and resistive anti-war mood to be found therein.
That winter, and throughout the entire succeeding winter, when the streets were piled high with snowdrifts so large that cars were unable to travel on them, we would gather together in the USO’s ‘bunker’ and huddle over ways to get the anti-war message out. For all the really substantial effect we had on the war’s progress (it was negligible), it was still a great place to get away from the military mentality and uniformity of thought we were otherwise exposed to at the hospital and on base. It was also a very evocative setting for late night flights of poetic expression, fits of writing activity, and lots of daydreaming about how a world without war would be…if the US would just bail out of that god-forsaken patch of SEA turf America insisted on defending with such stubbornly dogmatic determination.
Christmas is only what you make of it…
At Christmas, not really much into the obligatory holiday mood that pervaded the corridors of the hospital, we had a Christmas dinner of pizza from the local pizzeria, tossed down with near-beer. Outside the former bank basement the city had erected a large if somewhat Charlie Brownish municipal Christmas tree that was bedecked with strings of short circuit prone lights, clumps of dingy tinsel, and a woebegone tinfoil angel awkwardly impaled upon the uppermost top of the tree. Finishing up the pizza, Mike grabbed a cheap Pakistani-made sword he had purchased at the nearby surplus store and struck a suitable Han Solo ‘Star Wars’ pose in from of it (Star Wars the epic sci-fi movie was still about 20 years off in the future, at that time), which I managed to capture on film (one of the few pictures I still have of Mike).
The snow was falling lightly and it was cold as day-old s**t as we goofed around near the tree and of course there was no traffic nearby, so the sight of three figures dressed in green Air Force arctic parkas chuffing madly about in the snow drew no attention whatsoever in the absolute dead of that dark night. To us it was just another unremarkable celebration of the erstwhile birth of the son of someone’s god (but a god that no one among us but Mike devoutly believed in) and any excuse to goof about and blow off steam was always welcome. The mood and atmosphere of that timeless moment recollected these 44 years later is still fresh. There was something enduring and eternal about it, even if we had we been aware of anything other than the fact that at the age of 20 one has no useful concept whatsoever of the fact that, ultimately and inevitably, eternal, youthful, exuberant life finally comes to an unspectacular end! Given the late hour and no Christmas celebrations to go to, after a while we ended up at a local all-night café for coffee. Three tough looking local NoDaks were sitting at the far end of the cafe and fortunately the fact there were three of us posed enough of a deterrent to forestall any inclination they may have had to do more than glower at us, conspicuous in our Air Force issue parkas as being some of those hated GIs from the base.
Interestingly, the N-3B 'arctic' parka we all wore were made distinctive in that each of our parkas had circles of reflective tape on the arms and a reflective cross (a target?) stitched to the rear. Although some of the townies wore these N-3B parkas as well (available at the nearby surplus store) due to their excellent suitability for Minot’s cold winters, the civilian versions lacked those reflective crosses (this had been mandated for all base personnel use, so that airmen would be visible on the flight-line and not get sucked into jet intakes by accident). As it was, any person possessed of a reflective cross on their parka might as well have been wearing a red bulls-eye on their back for the benefit of town folk who felt the need to express their irritation over some aspect or abnother of the base’s presence.
Saint Benedict’s Holy willie…
As we sucked hot java , staring out the frosted window at the late night snowfall, Mike was launching into a reflection on the fact that the town’s primary Roman Catholic Church had recently acquired a small relic of some saint or another that it was currently displaying. The thought of some macabre body part of a reputed ‘saint’ being proudly shown off in its little glass reliquarial box to the yokels made me shiver, but I volunteered the observation of how neat it would be if they managed to find the saint’s mummified willie and build a De Molay ‘Follow Holy Father‘s example: abstain from sex’ youth program around it. After all, the mental picture of sex-starved monks and nuns feverishly debouching each other in the dark corners of monastery basements had always held a certain grotesque fascination for me during my studies of Western Civilisation, since the discovery of the remains of dozens of infant remains buried deep under those monastic havens is a proven archeological and historical fact.
Looking across the table at Mike, I could see his eyes glazing over in that now familiar way as he got further and further afield in his esoteric musings. Mike clearly missed his calling, since he had always seemed to me to have had the makings of a good Eastern Orthodox Priest in his make-up. Rasputin with a tender and loving heart? But that bit of déjà-vu speculation come true would occur much later, after he left the Air Force. I was meanwhile wondering what Oswanna Bergdahl was doing that evening, out on her family’s snowbound farm and celebrating Christmas Eve in true old fashioned Norwegian family style.
A fine post-puberty howdy-do!...
Oswanna had come to my attention not long after I had arrived at the hospital, since she was attending the nearby teacher’s college and there were several extra-curricular student social organisations on the campus, one (LSA) operated under the aegis of the Lutheran Church our USO advisor belonged to. Since most of the student teachers were women, the local male-female ratio was—seen from the viewpoint of a horny GI—absolutely mind-boggling. And since the base would frequently be cut off from town by recurrent snowstorms, during those protracted winter periods we airmen practically had the attention of all those young women entirely to ourselves. The only real problem I could see was that they were all from good Christian (Lutheran) families and I (along with most of my airman cohorts) was most un-Christian in both intent and purpose! How to lure these clean living, sweetly virginal young ladies off the path of filial righteousness and onto the path to eternal perdition was the chief challenge of our off-duty lives, of course. The official SAC motto may have been ‘Peace is our profession’, but it became ‘Peace may be our profession, but pu*sy is our passion!’ to us.
Aside from a couple of high school crushes I’d had that never amounted to much, I couldn’t claim the experience of having had a real girlfriend before and Oswanna quickly attracted my attention. With short bobbed brown hair, a cute little snub nose, nice hooters and a well proportioned shape, Oswanna had all the requisite physical attributes, but she also seemed to possess a substantial intellect as well…always a plus on my score-sheet. One other airman at the hospital named Russ also had his eyes on Oswanna, however, and through our mutual interest in her we became good friends. Russ was from New York City and played jazz saxophone; he also tended towards depression, as I later found out. Russ and I initially became the best of enemies as we pursued lovely Oswanna in our off-time, but with neither of us gaining the clear upper hand. Given the prominence of strong rural Christian beliefs that prevailed at this time, augmented by the strict teachings of the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), neither of us ever got to first base in our intent to bed lovely Oswanna (which was probably just as well, since getting hitched and having to settle down in North Dakota that early in our lives even then had seemed an awful prospect to both of us).
Nevertheless, Oswanna remained high on my list as I also met a few others among the teachers-to-be and gingerly trolled the local waters. There were three others, actually, who caught my attention at the LSA meetings. One, named Robin, was a bit too angular and ectomorphic; a blonde, her manner was rather hyper-staccato and her affect slightly nervous. Another, a short-haired blonde named Lynn, was a bit too well padded and had these deep brown ‘cow-eyes’ that perhaps communicated too much to her already more than ‘willing’ nature; when I finally had the chance to drill for oil on Lynn’s plot, I just couldn’t bring myself to take advantage of her (probably more so because I didn’t relish the thought of getting married and hitched to Lynn forever). Then there was Carole-Anne Johnson, a vivacious blonde who had a sharp sense of humor and a set of perfect hips that promised absolutely no complications with future childbirthing whatsoever! Regrettably, Carole-Ann was a dedicated Lurtheran vestal virgin who was ‘saving her body’ for her future husband and, as already emphasised, nothing could have been more off-putting than the thought of marriage to anyone at that early point in my earthly learning curve.
Mike, Frenchy and I finally finished our coffee at about 1AM, grinned annoyingly at the tough locals in the cockroach café as we departed, and took our leave to return to the airmen’s dorm after slogging through the deep snow piled up on the Souris River (French for 'Mouse' River) that meandered back to the hospital from downtown. Actually, this was a pursuit I regularly delighted in, crunching along in the snow on that river’s frozen surface. Since North Dakota’s cold dry snow was so much different from California’s moist and heavy Sierra Nevada snow, walking in it late at night when the temperature was fourteen below was an exotic and personally delightful experience. To my reckoning, nothing could beat getting totally encapsulated in our full arctic paraphernalia and going out for a stroll at midnight, during those dark winter nights. The stars were so bright and clear it almost seemed as if they might hurt your eyes looking at them too long, and the sharp dry cold enhanced the scent of everything with a unique piquancy that made even the creosote on telephone poles seem like a sublimely exotic perfume. Quite often, when the solar wind from sunspot outbursts of radiation was strong, the Aurora Borealis danced across the sky like a procession of fitful insomniac ghosts. Moments like those remain as fresh in my mind today as any over the entire course olf my six and a half decades of life, and I still love the scent of creosote on cold days.
Thinking back on those singularly unique nocturnal winter walks, all I lacked was a faithful sled dog by my side to imagine I was somewhere up in the Arctic Circle wasteland, captured by the ancient Native American spirits’ magic in those timeless frozen nights. Unfortunately, my reveries quickly came crashing down to reality once I was at the hospital dorm’s door again and the exotic natural perfume of frosty North dakota nights was quenched by the stink of stale heated air that rushed out through the doorway as I entered.
(Continued in ‘Part 2’)