August 25, 2018 – This week I had another one of those Jungian dreams in which I am still in the Air Force.
In the dream, I am dressed in baggy fatigues, wearing a one-size-fits-all combat helmet, standing wearily in front of an F4C Phantom fighter jet. The aircraft is fully uploaded with tactical nukes (this being a dream I trust I’m not compromising national defense secrets). I am holding an aging World War II vintage M1 carbine. And, although the angry looking Phantom seems quite capable of defending itself, my orders are to protect it at all cost.
I always wake up before these orders are put to the test and, oddly, I never think of these dreams as unpleasant or nightmarish. The only thing remarkable about them is their tenacity. I have not been in the Air Force for 50 years. My last day of active duty was August 23, 1968.
The odd thing about this particular dream is that it invokes memories of something I did relatively rarely during the three years I spent at RAF Stations Bentwaters/Woodbridge, England, from 1965 to 1968. But out of all the things I did in the Air Force, this seems most evocative of actual Cold War duty.
I was 18 and had one stripe when I arrived at the Bentwaters chapel in late January 1968 to take up my duties as a Chaplain Services Specialist. The NCO in Charge was Master Sergeant Ray Williams, a genial Mississippian whose personal objective was to protect the hard spit shine on his low-quarter shoes. There were three chaplains. Lt Colonel John Donnelly, the senior chaplain, was a plump, bespectacled man with a healthy patch of steel gray hair who liked to have his blue uniforms cut from expensive gabardine wool. Major Lou Evans, whose gut protruded several inches over his belt, was almost too short to qualify as an Air Force officer and he often scowled when taller airmen stood to acknowledge his presence. The Catholic chaplain was Captain Leo Lyons, a genial white-haired man who possibly evolved into Barry Fitzgerald when he retired.
There were three other airmen, one who arrived only a month before I did, and I was by far the junior member of the chapel staff.
“You know what that means,” Ray Williams told me, folding his feet beneath his chair so I wouldn’t accidentally step on his shoes.
“What does that mean, Sergeant?”
“Call me Ray. And it means the squadron will have little odd jobs for you from time to time. Have you ever been on KP?”
Of course every airman who matriculates through military training had spent many long days on Kitchen Police, sweating while washing dishes, pots, and pans for three meals at a GI dining hall. At Bentwaters and Woodbridge, every airman with two or fewer stripes pulled KP once a month.
“The other is Augmentee Guard,” Ray said. “When the wing goes on alert, there aren’t enough Air Police to handle the expanded security. That’s when they call out the clerk typists – people like you – to help out.”
“Okay,” I said, a little too eagerly. Actually, it sounded like fun.
I spent the following three weeks orienting myself to work in the chapel. This included setting up altars for Protestant or Catholic worship, typing chapel correspondence, counting and depositing chapel offerings, preparing worship bulletins, filling out forms and reports, and even typing the chaplain’s sermon. It was not onerous work and, looking back, the job limited my contributions to the long twilight struggle of the Cold War. It was wonderful experience for me long before I knew I was preparing for a lifelong career as a church communicator and journalist. It’s hard to consider it a sacrifice for my country.
February is cold and the days are short in Suffolk, England, and I was usually in bed before 2300 hours, grateful for the warm GI blanket. One Saturday night it seemed I had just placed my head on the pillow when a shrill announcement shrieked through the barracks public address system:
“ATTENTION. ATTENTION. THIS IS THE EMERGENCY ACTION OFFICER ANNOUNCING A CUT-BATE EXERCISE, WHITE DELTA ALPHA, FOR THE 81ST TACTICAL FIGHTER WING. ALL PERSONNEL REPORT TO YOUR DUTY SECTIONS IMMEDIATELY.”
Five decades later I can quote that announcement verbatim and I still have no idea what it meant. It was a cryptic proclamation of a war game in which the base – and probably other bases in the U.K. and Europe – would respond as if war was real.
It was Sunday morning so I assumed my duty section was the chapel, and I began to pull on the blue slacks of my uniform. But my roommate, many months senior to me, interceded.
“No, no, no,” he said. “What are you doing, Mate? Put on your fatigues. There’s a GI bus waiting outside.”
I quickly pulled my fatigues out of my laundry bag and was still hopping into my pants as I followed my roommate out the door.
The bus was already filled with sleepy, grumbling GI’s, all senior to me in rank and all veterans of many earlier alert exercises.
“They always do this on goddam Sunday,” said one.
“Pearl Harbor was attacked on Sunday,” said another. “They’re always fighting the last goddam war.”
“Where’s Kimmerling?” asked a third. “He was still in that pub in Ipswich.”
“Sarge already sent a truck for him,” someone explained.
The bus had only a short distance to get from the barracks to a large Quonset hut on the edge of the flightline. The hut was filled with a half-dozen GI bunks draped with blue wool blankets. We filed off the bus and looked for places to sit on the beds.
“Don’t get comfortable,” a stocky staff sergeant said as we milled around. Sergeant Saxon was not a large man but his huge dimpled jaw and Claude Akins baritone gave him an aura of authority. “Fall in outside.”
We formed a line and Saxon gestured us toward a long row of M1 carbines leaning against a wall. “You will each give me your ID card and I will give you a weapon and a clip of ammo in exchange. You will get your card back when you return the gun. If you lose the gun, I keep your card and your ass is grass.”
Still sleepy, we each picked up a carbine.
“Keep it pointed down, goddam it and sling it over your shoulder,” Saxon shouted.
A blue pick-up truck appeared out of the darkness. I was standing next to Saxon and he slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Get in.” He slapped the shoulders of four airmen standing behind me. “Get in.” We climbed into the back of the truck and sat roughly on the cold metal floor. Saxon jumped in with us.
The truck lurched forward and we moved toward brightly lit parking areas where fighter jets were being feverishly attended by perspiring airmen. As we approached one jet I could see the airmen were attaching an ominous looking long white tube to the bottom fuselage.
Saxon glanced at my name tag and shouted, “Jenks!” I looked at him quizzically and he waved a notepad in my face. “Jenks!” he repeated. “Get off!”
I jumped off the truck as the GI’s working on the jet turned to look at me.
“Guard this aircraft,” he said in his gravely Claude Akins voice. “The enemy will do anything to keep us from launching it. Guard it with your life.” He scribbled a note in his pad and the truck rumbled off to another brightly lit parking area.
The mechanics surrounding the jet lost interest in me and went back to work. As soon as the pencil-shaped tube was secured to the aircraft, a sergeant with seven stripes on his green sleeves walked around it. “Okay, then,” he said. Another truck drove up and the mechanics jumped aboard.
The bright lights were suddenly extinguished. It was so dark it took my eyes several minutes to see that the jet was still standing there. I hoisted the carbine to my shoulder and stood awkwardly. What was I supposed to do? Stand at parade rest? March around the airplane? Hide in the bushes so I could catch any interlopers by surprise? I continued to stand. And stand. The sun was rising four hours later when Sergeant Saxon’s truck returned with my relief. It was Kimmerling who had been carried out of the Ipswich pub. He staggered to where I had been standing and stared dumbly at the plane with red rimmed eyes.
This was my first experience with Augmentee guard duty so I remember it in considerable detail. I would pull this duty about once a month over the next two years until I earned my third stripe. I taught myself many ways to pass the time when mighty jet fighters looked to me for protection. I wrote rock songs in my head. I repeated Bob Newhart monologues aloud, once attracting quizzical looks from a groundhog. I fantasized about Julie Christie and Jane Fonda (years before she became Hanoi Jane). I taught myself how to sleep standing up.
For most of the time I was in the Air Force, I worked at a desk in a chapel, setting up altars, typing Sunday bulletins, organizing airmen’s pilgrimages to Rome or to the Armed Forces Retreat Center in Berchtesgaden Germany. It was good experience, and working with chaplains of many denominations prepared me well for my future career as an ecumenical bureaucrat. It was a great time of my life.
But nothing in the chapel really seemed like Cold War duty. The only time it felt like I was on the front lines of that struggle was when I was facing down fighter aircraft with my little M1 carbine. It was then that I felt I was doing my part to prevent the spread of the Evil Empire. It was then when I felt I was giving to the Air Force more than it was giving to me.
And now that 50 years have passed, I think I can be forgiven for boasting:
I never lost an airplane.