January 12, 2020 – On 12 January 1968, I climbed aboard a chartered Boeing 707 and flew from Royal Air Force Station Lakenheath, England to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
In each of the 49 years since then, January 12 has been a private holiday for me. I had lived on the U.S. Air Force’s twin bases – RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge, England, for three years. I left home in January 1965 and didn’t return, not because I couldn’t but because I chose to spend my allotted leave time exploring Europe. I was 18 when I left and 21 when I returned home. It was a period of major formation for me, and it was a significant moment when it came to a close.
I kept a detailed record of those years by making carbon copies of every letter I typed. I was a chaplain’s assistant and the tool of my trade was an old GI typewriter on which I typed chapel correspondence and chaplains’ sermons. When I was off-duty, I typed personal letters home. The carbon copies are hidden somewhere in the attic, but I have never consulted them. Part of me hopes they will never be found because they must be an excruciatingly detailed record of my pre-lobed adolescence. I wrote blandly reassuring letters to my mother, flirtatious letters to would-be girl friends, and salaciously fictional accounts of my love life to high school buddies. I probably also told unvarnished truths about persons who are still alive. The longer those letters stay lost, the better.
But every January 12, memories of those years wander randomly in my head.
I arrived in England on January 28, 1965, just hours after the death of Sir Winston Churchill. My first day on Bentwaters base was a Saturday, and Ray Williams, the master sergeant in charge of the chapel invited me into his family’s quarters to watch Churchill’s funeral on the telly. Ray’s home was, well, homey, like my parents’. It was my first experience with the Air Force as a family-oriented organization in contrast to the despotic training programs I had recently completed.
Ray was a patient Mississippian whose drawl was diluted by his close association with non-Southerners in the Air Force. He seemed free of Mississippi racism, or so it seemed to my 18-year-old white boy radar. The branches of the military had been desegregated by President Truman’s order in 1948, so the Air Force was sixteen years ahead of most American institutions in living into integration. Blacks, whites, and other persons of color worked and lived together. There were, to be sure, racial tensions in 1965 and sometimes they exploded in open animosity. But the military is well equipped to keep people under control, and by 1965 many high-ranking officers were African American whose presence made equal discipline more likely.
One of those black officers was Colonel Daniel N. “Chappie” James, famous in 1965 as a hotshot jet jockey. James was a big man who barely fit in the cockpit. “I don’t get into an aircraft,” he’d say. “I put it on.”
James would go on to become the Air Force’s first African American four-star general, but his charisma was not based on rank. He was the base’s deputy wing commander and he occasionally came to the Airman’s Club (a recreational bar) to mingle with the enlisted troops. He would sit at the bar with airmen and swap ribald stories. Once, I was told, a well-oiled airman overestimated the colonel’s comitatus and poured a flagon of beer over his head. The bartender quickly threw him a towel and James gritted his teeth in a frozen smile and walked out silently. Or so the story goes.
Looking back on the three years I was at Bentwaters/Woodbridge, I remember there were many things I hated.
For example, I hated KP. I’ve noticed the term – “kitchen police” – has to be interpreted to the younger generation who must have missed the skits in old war movies.
KP was a monthly duty for all junior airmen. It involved getting up at 4 a.m., reporting to the mess hall, and working until 7:30 p.m. to help the cooks prepare food, wash the dishes and pots, clean tables, and sweep and mop the floors.
The first time I was assigned KP duty, in February 1965, I was told to report to the mess hall at 5 a.m. I showed up at 4:45 to demonstrate my enthusiasm and was surprised to discover I was the last one on the roster to come in. Other more experienced troops had arrived at 4 a.m. to get early dibs on the easier jobs, like wiping tabletops. The worst KP job, reserved for laggards, was the pot and pan room. GI pots are huge and heavy, about 40-gallons in size, and when the used pots come in for cleaning they are so encrusted they need to be soaked for long periods in scalding water in an Olympic-sized slop sink.
On my first KP day, the cook gleefully hauled one filthy pot after another into my area, each time singing in a sadistic tenor, “Do you love me?” It took me a half-century to think of a proper response:
For thirteen hours
I’ve scraped your pans,
Scrubbed your pots,
Seared my hands.
For thirteen hours
My ass is yours,
If that’s not love
Needless to say, I was never foolish enough to arrive late for KP again. Most times after that I was the first to arrive at the mess hall, often before the cooks.
The other duty I hated was Augmentee Guard Duty. That happened when the base was under theoretical attack and the security police squadron needed to be augmented by clerks who became temporary security guards.
These theoretical attacks – actually alerts or Operational Readiness Inspections (ORIs) – took place every six weeks or so, although they seemed more frequent. The base sirens would wail in the middle of the night, security police would pound in the door of our Quonset Hut to order us to get dressed and board a rickety blue bus that would take us to the command center. There we would be issued a clip of ammo and a World War II vintage m1 carbine (actual security police carried M16 automatic rifles). Then a jeep would take us to the flight line where we would be posted to guard a fighter jet already uploaded with a tactical nuclear weapon.
I don’t remember an alert when it was not dark or freezing. We augmentees would stand for hours in front of the armed jet, which always seemed perfectly capable of defending itself. I would hunch my shoulders against the cold, pace back and forth, admire the spit shine on my boots, fiddle absent-mindedly with my weapon, and sing Stones songs to the gulls.
There was never a possibility that I would have to defend the jet against Russians, although officers never allowed themselves to think like that. Years later it occurred to me that the greater menace was the Baader-Meinhof Complex, a terrorist group known to plant bombs at military installations. Wherever the threat was supposed to come from, I spent hours pacing in miserable and frozen boredom. But I’m proud to say I never lost a plane.
KP and augmentee were dreaded but infrequent inconveniences during the three years I was in England.
Most of the time I loved it.
My duty section was the base chapel. I had a desk, a typewriter, and a warm place to sit. My supervisor was Staff Sergeant Bill Dodge, who became a good friend.
The two chaplains at RAF Woodbridge were Joseph McCausland, the Catholic chaplain, and Harland Getts, a Southern Baptist.
Father Mac was the senior chaplain who was in charge of the chapel facility. One night, after I had spent late hours at my typewriter writing letters home, I walked sleepily across the street to my Quonset hut and left the chapel door unlocked. At about 2 a.m., a security police airman knocked on the door and told me I had to get up and lock the door. I shuffled back across the street with the airman following closely, locked the chapel door, and signed the airman’s report that I had threatened the aerospace mission by leaving a facility unsecured. And I went back to bed.
The next morning when I got back to my desk it was obvious the base commander took the open door incident very seriously. Father Mac was evidently chewed out for running such a slip-shod operation and told to do something about it.
That afternoon Bill Dodge reluctantly handed me a letter he had been told to type: a letter reprimanding me for leaving the chapel unlocked.
I realized it would be foolish to pretend the letter was meaningless – which it was because I had no intention of making the Air Force my career – so I accepted it with a straight face and promised to do a better job in the future.
I might not have thought about the letter again but years later, which I was a Baptist magazine editor, I discovered that Father Mac remembered it with chagrin. In one of his Christmas letters he wrote, “I am always sorry to remember that letter of reprimand (cringe, cringe).” I’m sure I told him the letter had made a better man of me.
Harland Getts was the chaplain I worked with most directly. Harland was a soft-spoken Southern Baptist who generously included me in the chapel program wherever possible. I joined Harland and his spouse, Ann Lindsay, on retreats to Berchtesgaden, Germany, to Billy Graham crusades in London, and other chapel meetings around the United Kingdom. Harland and I met controversial Episcopal Bishop Jim Pike at a crowded Protestant Men of the Chapel meeting and I watched as Pike moved up and down the rows of tables shaking hands with everyone. When he got to Harland, Pike beamed and reached out to muss his hair. Harland flushed redly, and I loved it.
My chapel experiences were invaluable in many ways.
One mission of the base was to establish good relations with the host population, and virtually all chapel functions – worship services, choir rehearsals, fellowship dinners, and more – were open to the British public. Harland was particularly good at these kinds of diplomatic efforts and they were good learning experiences for me and very helpful as I began to move toward positions in international ecumenism. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if we overestimated our effectiveness in Anglo-American relations. Decades later, I noticed that one of my World Council of Churches colleagues – Simon Oxley, a British Baptist minister – had been less than appreciative of the overly assertive American presence in his homeland in the sixties. In a Facebook exchange, I confessed to be one of the airmen who had been present. Simon responded, graciously, “You may well have been one of the polite ones.”
In 1965 I had no idea that I was headed for a career in church and ecumenical communication, but the chapel could not have been a better preparation for it. I learned how to set up worship centers and altars for Catholic, Jewish, and a variety of Protestant services and rituals, and also observed the efforts of chaplains from different religious families to cooperate theologically and get along personally.
I made some great friends in those years in England and am grateful I am still in touch with Ann Lindsay Getts, Ray Morgan, who succeeded Ray Williams as the sergeant in charge of the chapel, Doug Green, a fellow chaplain’s assistant, and Jon Oliver, a security police airman who I knew barely a year before he returned to the states. May they live long and prosper (to coin a phrase we would not have thought of in 1965).
It probably goes too far to say my years in England, which concluded on a January 12, were the greatest of my life. I’ve had many great experiences ands singular blessings since then.
But these years are important to me because they played such an important role in my formation as a human being.
And I will continue to celebrate January 12 as a personal holy day as long as I have the breath to do it.
Over the years I’ve written several earlier essays on my Air Force experience. They’ve been therapeutic for me and part of the therapy is to share them. They include an earlier commentary on my January 12 holy day; an account of an adventure I had with another chaplain’s assistant in Berchtesgaden, Germany; an account of my visit to Rome in 1967; and a tongue-in-cheek record of imaginary chaplain’s assistance looking back on their lives.