My father, Benjamin Cruzan, passed away in October, 1986. In 1988, I came across the diary he kept while he was a young soldier serving with the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I and in occupied Germany after the armistice.
I never kept a diary, but having read his, I came to realize the value of recorded memory and experience. We learn more from the mistakes of others than we do from our own. What is never said or written, whatever lesson that could be learned from the experience of others, is lost.
This is not a diary. Instead, it contains the experiences, thoughts and reflections on a transitional and very significant time in my life. It covers a time that in many ways defines who I am and perhaps why so many people I know think of me as excessively serious, intense and introspective. It's a testament and a confession; and it's a catharsis.
The Air Force
By the early spring of 1958, I was tired of school. I had been going year round since the start of my junior year at Kansas City's Paseo High School in 1954 and on into college. Now I wanted a job and some independence. I had dropped out and been trying unsuccessfully for weeks to get a full time job. When IBM turned me down for a job because of my 1A draft status, I decided that fulfilling my military obligation would solve all three problems. I enlisted in the Air Force for six years, four years of active duty and two in the reserves.
I chose the Air Force because I didn't like Navy uniforms or relish 20 mile marches in the Army or Marine Corps. I also scored high enough on my AFQT to have my choice of career fields. Since I had taken a radio theory course in high school and was generally curious about things scientific, I decided on electronics.
April 6, 1958, the evening of my departure for San Antonio, my girlfriend Juanita Clark and I drove to Union Station. We were sitting on a bench waiting for the train when my parents arrived. They clearly didn't appreciate my not telling them about my departure. Mom was hurt but Dad was angry and we had an exchange of words. He had no objection to my going into the military but he didn't want me to leave school without first getting my degree.
Since I was the first in my family to go beyond high school, he had high expectations for me. Especially since I had a full tuition, four year academic scholarship. I understood their feelings but I didn't think that they appreciated the stress that I had been under for the past four and a half years. We had our differences. Now, things that I had set in motion were beyond our control.
However, it was fortunate that they had come to the station. Nita was only fourteen and, although she knew how to drive, she didn't have a license. Dad drove the folks' car home while Mom drove mine and dropped Nita off at her house.
The ride on the MKT was right out of the popular ballad, "City of New Orleans". It was dark when the train pulled out of the station and we rode south all night. There were several of us destined for the Air Force at Lackland AFB or the Army at Fort Sam Houston as the case might be. We talked a little but mostly we watched the moon-lit countryside from the coach windows. Occasionally, the lights of a small town would flash by. The train stopped a few times to pick up or leave off passengers. Altogether, the train ride was pleasant. It was also the last time I ever rode a passenger train though in later years I would spend many hours commuting on the Milwaukee Road between Elk Grove Village and the Chicago Loop.
When we arrived at the station in San Antonio the next morning, depending on which papers we had signed, we were met by the appropriate Army or Air Force bus for transport to our respective base. It was exciting and exhilarating. Good-bye school and parents. Hello pay check and independence. I was on my own at last. At least I thought I was.
At Lackland, I was assembled with the other new enlistees from around the country. I also discovered that we now had a new name. We were called Rainbows because of the varied colored civilian clothing we wore. We stood in line for haircuts and then we stood in line for our issue of uniforms. After that, we were told to strip and we stood in line for another medical check. Then we were allowed to put on our uniforms and stood in line for another issue of equipment. Finally, we were assembled, introduced to our Tactical Instructors, or TIs, and marched off to our barracks.
The TIs told us that we were now in the 3701st Basic Training Squadron, Flight 298. The rest of the day, we spent packing our civilian clothes for shipment home and getting acquainted with the Air Force. That night, as I lay in my bunk, the impact of what I had done struck home. It was a sudden feeling of being alone and among strangers. I thought to myself, "My God, what have I done?".
Considering the mission of the Air Force, basic training was as easy as I had expected. In short time, we became acquainted and formed friendships. We learned how to drill and were qualified on the 45 automatic pistol and the M1 carbine. There were also the field exercises, over-nights and gas mask drills. As the time went by, we assimilated the required military discipline and demeanor.
And there was humor. One fellow struck us as somewhat arrogant so we decided to short-sheet him one night. He was good natured about it. He got up in the dark, laughed and remade his bunk. We expected more of a response so we did it again the next night. Again, he got up and remade his bunk but this time he didn't laugh. Now it was a contest. We short-sheeted him for the third consecutive night. After lights-out, all we heard was the sound of a sheet ripping and then all was still. Job well done.
Area policing was a constant activity and rows of recruits walking across the open areas was a common sight. When we were ordered to police around the barracks, we learned that crawling after any imaginary stray piece of wind blown paper under the crawl space allowed for an extra cigarette.
The only real physical pain came during a field exercise which included a tear gas drill. That morning, some of the troops were a little too loud to suit the TI. In retribution, he informed us that we would shave with cold water and without soap before entering the tear gas chamber. The exercise consisted of entering the chamber without masks after which the tear gas would be introduced. After what seemed to be an eternity, we were told we could put on our masks. The pain was excruciating.
On May 1, after three weeks in the 3701st, Royce Haley, Billy Wilson and I were given orders assigning us to the 3276th School Squadron. We would complete the final seven weeks of basic training there and, after some elementary electronics training, go on to cryptographic machine maintenance and repair.
The 3276th had just been moved to Lackland from Scott AFB, just east of St. Louis. We were among the first Lackland students to go through the school though students from Scott had been transferred along with the school. The squadron was separated into two functional units. The technical training was conducted under Maj. Virgil Wollum while tactical training and personnel administration was the responsibility of 1st Lt. Eddie Young.
Generally, we referred to the two entities as the "school" and the "squadron". The school itself was divided into equipment operator training and equipment maintenance and repair training. There was always a sense of rivalry between the "operators" and the "maintenance" students. The operators turned out to be better pinochle players but the maintenance students had more fun.
Basic training in the 3276th was a breeze. We pinstriped the road guard helmets and marched to cadences we composed ourselves. Bob Sandberg was especially good in leading the cadences. He was a dropout from MIT and probably the brightest among us. There was John Harden, whose father was in the insurance business in Atlanta. Obdulio Calderon was from Puerto Rico and Dave Cameron was the first of the bachelors among us to get married. There was Donn Crissinger from Ohio, Jack Fukamizu from Hawaii, Calvin King from Louisiana and Doug Matthes from Arizona that I would later room with. Joe Metzger was from San Antonio and had never been out of the state of Texas. He had enlisted in the Air Force just to get out of Texas. There were many good men that I had the pleasure of meeting.
Classroom training was conducted in old World War II barracks in the southeast corner of Lackland near the NCO base housing. The wooden buildings were long, single story, uninsulated, and had been divided into three classrooms each. They were enclosed in a compound surrounded by a ten foot chain link fence topped with barbed wire. On the perimeter were six guard towers, each manned by an armed Air Policeman during the day and a student detailed at night.
Entrance for staff and instructors was through a single guardhouse with two guards. There was one external door, an internal electrically locked gate and another electrically locked gate to the compound. Students entered in formation through an adjacent guarded gate that also allowed for vehicle access. Inside the compound, only military id cards, one personal photograph and cash for the vending machines were allowed. Classrooms were always locked when empty of students and instructors, even during the fifteen minute coffee breaks. This was at the height of the Cold War and security was always very tight.
Students were separated into training for specific pieces of equipment. My first one was electro-mechanical and already obsolete. I suspect that this was because we were still undergoing background checks for our clearances. It allowed time for the CID to do their work. In my case it was pretty extensive because of the number of addresses my family had lived at and the fact that we had been to Mexico and Canada on vacation many times in the years before.
Beginning August 27, Billy Wilson, Bob Sandberg, Royce Haley, John Harden and I got twelve days furlough. While I was at home, I spent most of my time with the guys I had run around with in high school. I wrote to my folks very little but I hadn't written Nita at all. I didn't know that Nita was pregnant.
On September 10, 1958, I was granted my top secret clearance. That month we also began training on current equipment. The TSEC/KO-6 was a monster the size of three large refrigerators. It had over 1500 vacuum tubes and required constant attention and calibration. It was in SAC's inventory as the primary device for secure communications and supposed to be used in airborne command aircraft. It was installed at various ground locations throughout the United States, Europe and Asia, but I'm not sure that it ever became airborne.
Until now all of the earlier machines were electro-mechanical such as the first one we had been trained on. The TSEC/KO-6 was all electronic and represented a new generation of encryption devices. It was capable of encrypting voice, facsimile and teletype simultaneously. Actually, it was three separate machines in a single cabinet using a common power supply. You could almost say it was six different machines because each function had independent send and receive sides. It could be doing six operations at once.
These machines, and others in development, were becoming too bulky and heavy to move quickly. Since it was impossible to evacuate them if the need arose, they were installed with thermite devices mounted on top of them for quick destruction. These thermite devices could reduce a TSEC/KO-6 to a puddle of molten slag in just a couple of minutes. Our feeling was that the TSEC/KO-6 was going to be short-lived because of its complexity. It was a Model-T but it was a sign of things to come.
The unbreakable rule for the TSEC/KO-6 was to never reduce the power below the level needed to keep the filaments warm. This was because the pulse driving circuitry, consisting mostly of 5814 dual triode power amplifiers, was sensitive to the characteristics of the individual vacuum tubes. Powering the tubes on and off caused them to age faster. It also caused them to explode.
The TSEC/KO-6 power supply also generated a considerable amount of heat. Normally, each of the equipment bay drawers would be left ajar to relieve as much heat as possible. The exception was that drawers were closed and locked during fire drills or other very rare occasions when the classrooms might have to be left unattended and unlocked.
Each of the three class rooms in the two buildings dedicated to the TSEC/KO-6 had four of these monsters. During a routine fire drill one day, someone threw off the circuit breaker to one of the buildings. I'm glad my classroom wasn't in that building. When the drill was over and the power restored, it sounded like popping corn as the tubes exploded inside their cabinet drawers. We spent two days on extra detail cleaning glass shards out of the bay drawers, replacing tubes and re-calibrating the equipment. Just before Thanksgiving, we graduated from the TSEC/KO-6 course.
Next came the TSEC/KW-26A. It was a formidable piece of new transistor technology manufactured by the Burroughs Corporation. This machine relied heavily on miniaturised circuitry and used magnetic core memory similar to the new IBM computers being introduced at the time. This was a real step forward because of its reduced physical size and power requirements. It was only a third the size of the TSEC/KO-6 and without the heat problems. But troubleshooting was more complex because the circuitry was digital instead of analog and a new experience to us.
After six weeks of training on the TSEC/KW-26A, my class, the one prior and the one following were told that we would be retained for instructor duty. I was disappointed because I had always wanted to go to Europe. But, effective on December 4, Billy Wilson, John Harden, Royce Haley, Bob Sandberg and I received our orders assigning us to instructor duty. The 3276th was now our home.
After completion of the TSEC/KW-26A course we were given Christmas furlough for two weeks. When I got back to Kansas City, I looked up Nita. She had taken a one room apartment on the second floor of an old six-story walk-up in mid-town Kansas City. The rent was fifteen dollars a month. The apartment was long and narrow with bare wood floors. It was not very well lit and sparsely furnished with an old threadbare sofa and a worn dinette set. There was a kitchenette at one end and an alcove for sleeping on one side at the opposite end. I saw my son for the first time, I held him and I changed his diapers.
Nita and I had long talks about little things. We shopped, went to some movies and we did some other things together. The last night of my furlough, when we were in her apartment, I told her I had to leave to go back to Lackland. Nita asked me to wait a minute and went down the hall to a shared bathroom. She changed into an off-white cotton night-gown and returned. I was stretched out on the sofa, she smiled at me in her little girl way and sat down on my stomach. I knew what she was trying to say to me but I wouldn't listen. I told her again that I had to go. She got up and went to the bed. I tucked the blanket around her and my son, kissed her and said good night. Then I left. I never saw her or my son again.
I just wouldn't come to the realisation that I should have any responsibility for them and I never told my family. Dad was very proud of the family name and I was afraid he would never speak to me again. Mom was always a kind and caring person and this would have crushed her. To this day I don't know what became of Nita and my son but now I spend much time thinking about them. The old phrase does turn; time wounds all heels.
When I returned to Lackland in January, 1959, I began thinking of a career in the military. The Air Force was short of pilots and over the previous several months several of us had received requests to apply for pilot training. They began "Your records have been reviewed and you have been found..." but they never got to the part of my record that showed I needed glasses. I never considered training for navigator or electronic weapons officer. I would have easily qualified for either. But, had I done so, I might be just a pile of bones somewhere in North Viet Nam today. One never knows these things. It was another path not taken.
Bob Sandberg and I applied and were accepted for Officer Candidate School. This would be the last scheduled OCS class for the Air Force since they had decided to require a college degree for future applicants. The Air Force was going to re-designate OCS as OTS or Officer Training School. I felt that this would be my only shot at a military career acceptable to me. Then, a roster was circulated through the school asking for twenty volunteers to go to Keesler AFB at Biloxi, Mississippi.
The purpose was to attend their basic electronics course and bring the course material back to Lackland. Bob and I both declined because we were scheduled for OCS. But, because my surname was the first on the roster with a "no", and there were only nineteen volunteers, my "no" was changed to a "yes" and I was volunteered. I had wanted independence but again I found how little I had to say about my life in the military. Now my budding military career would end with my enlistment.
Off we went to Keesler. I had bought a 1951 Mercury with overdrive on my last furlough. The overdrive solenoid was bad and I had driven the car from Kansas City to Lackland and then to Keesler in high gear. The high rpm wound the engine up like an eight-day clock and it was more than it could take. During the first week at Keesler, the engine blew up while I was driving down the Gulf Highway. With the help of TSgt. Calvin "CC" Lawrence, I was able to replace the engine with a 1953 Ford flat head I picked up in a junk yard between Biloxi and Gulfport. The Ford engine was so worn that I had to use STP "engine honey" instead of oil just to get enough compression to keep it running. That wasn't the last of my trouble with that engine but at least I had transportation.
We started classes in a completely different environment. No guards, no fences with barbed wire, no classified documents. The classrooms were in modern air-conditioned buildings, Wolfe Hall and Allee Hall, named for two World War II Army Air Force pilots who had been killed in Europe. We marched in formation to and from class daily in Commander's Review complete with march music provided by the base band. It was really inspiring. I suspect it was intended to be. In the evenings, we usually went to a bar on the Gulf Highway that featured a live band specialising in progressive jazz.
One day when I was walking back to the base I stopped at the bar that was just outside the back gate to pick up a local newspaper. As I picked up the newspaper from the rack outside the door of the bar a passing deputy sheriff said "Hi". On the front page was a story about out-of-state liquor that had been confiscated from some people returning to Biloxi hoping to sell it locally. Mississippi was a dry state at the time and good liquor brought good prices.
Biloxi had quite a night life and was a big tourist attraction. I don't know how it is now but the liquor and entertainment were plentiful then. The White House hotel has since burned and the lighthouse was later destroyed by a hurricane. But I know why the sheriff of Harrison County would spend so much money campaigning for a job that paid so little. The sheriff was also the local liquor distributor and his suppliers were the unlucky folks who got caught bringing it in on their own. He even had deputies stationed in Louisanna patrolling outside of New Orleans liquor stores looking for Mississippi license tags. On February 20, twelve of us were called into the squadron commander's office. We were briefed on a TDY, but we were not given any details except that we were not to discuss it with anyone. The next day we boarded a Navy transport and flew to Hawaii and then to Saigon. After we touched down in Saigon, we were issued helmets, M2 carbines, other field gear. Then we were transferred to a large helicopter and flown to a remote site occupied by American MACV personnel.
We didn't know it at the time, but we were in Laos just south of Ban Vat, an old temple city. The site was situated just below a large rock outcrop. A river meandered down the valley past the site and the tree line ran just above the rock outcrop. Sometimes it rained and sometimes it didn't, but altogether, the weather wasn't as bad as the insects. In many respects, it wasn't much different than the Missouri Ozarks. We were told not to leave the site area.
Our job was to set up and calibrate communications equipment for their use. The MACV people didn't avoid us but they weren't very talkative either. We never had much to do with them except for a captain that operated as liaison and took care of whatever we needed. This was probably because the Army personnel knew more about purpose of the site than we needed to know.
Besides the MACV personnel, there was a Vietnamese woman and her son, who was about nine or ten, who lived nearby. She did laundry and the boy was sort of a "go-fer" and boot-shiner.
Except for the communications shack, everything and everybody was housed in old Army tents. The communications "shack" was a secure van, the type usually mounted on a deuce-and-a-half, and the generator was along side. The van was sandbagged.It was pretty primitive by our standards but we went about our work.
The equipment they had consisted of Army field radios, teletypes and TSEC/KW-7's.It wasn't what we had been trained on but with the manuals and test equipment they had, we didn't have much difficulty. We were surprised to find the KW-7's out there in the boondocks but they were field portable and ours was not to wonder why. I think the KW-7 had originally been designed for use aboard Navy ships. At any rate, the KW-7 was a fairly new piece of equipment and hadn't been in the military inventory very long.
There were no roads or trails so supplies were brought in via helicopter. The food consisted of lots of K and C rations which tasted like they were left over from Korea. But sometimes we were surprised with canned fruits, vegetables and even meats. The Army people were pretty inventive with what they could do with a few cans of meat, vetetables and a sack of potatoes. They also brought in cans of gasoline for the power generators.
Another treat was when the supply flight brought in a couple cases of American beer. No hard liquor though. And no mail. The helicopters took the trash when they left.
Eventually we learned not to touch the inside walls of our tents when it rained. That made them leak. The air mattresses would invariably go flat sometime during the night. The mattress cover, stuffed with grass, proved to be more practical though not that much more comfortable.
This was not a battlefield but more like a forward base camp. Things were generally pretty quiet and everyone got along well.
Working in the "shack" was a little different. The radios and crypto equipment generated a lot of heat and the working area was small and the door always locked. No more than three or four of us would be working in there at one time. Rivers are nice to swim in but in no way can be a substitute for a soapy tub bath. Despite the air-conditioning for the benefit of the equipment, the air was always pretty rank. There wasn't much point in complaining about body odor when not much could be done about it.
The river (I can't remember its name) had its order, too. Beginning upstream from the camp was the source of water for cooking and drinking. It was always boiled first. Then, downstream, came the "swimming pool" or bath. Next was the "laundry" where the Vietnamese woman would wash our fatigues and other clothing. Then just above the tree-line, came the slit trench. I've always felt that if someone can use a slit trench, they can do almost anything. The trench had been dug deep enough so that when the odor became bad enough, a layer of dirt could be shoveled in and it could serve for several weeks before another one had to be dug.
The KW-7s, teletypes and radios had already been installed in the "shack" before we arrived. Our task was to study the manuals so that we could operate and, if necessary, repair the KW-7s to ensure their operation. Then cable up the KW-7s between the teletypes and the radios. Some already had experience on the KW-7. The rest of us weren't so lucky. Finally, we trained two of the MACV radio operators how to operate the KW-7s.
A couple of the MACV radio operators then checked out the connectivity but we never found out who they talked to. That wasn't our business.
There was one radio located outside the "shack" which apparently was used to communicate with other sites within Laos, helicopters and other aircraft in country. Nobody attended to it very often.
One night, about a month after we arrived, while I was just falling asleep in my shelter, I felt something strike me in the middle of my back. What I expected to find was a rock tossed in by some joker. But it was a grenade. I threw it through the shelter flap, grabbed my carbine and scrambled out as fast as I could. The grenade exploded and one small piece of shrapnel grazed my side. I fired a burst at a figure I saw running up the hill past the rock outcropping. It turned out to be the son of the Vietnamese woman.
One round had caught him in the back of the head and probably killed him instantly. I'll never forget the feeling I had when I got to him. There was no way to be sure that he was the one who threw the grenade into my shelter. It haunts me now because I'll never find out. The boy's mother disappeared and I think the feeling of the MACV people was that whatever we were doing there had been compromised. But our work went on.
The episode scared me because I had never thought that we would be in any danger. We discovered that we had to be more cautious and aware of our surroundings. And we never saw another native. The thought that I could take a life never occurred to me then. I was afraid for my own and at the time I only saw it as a job given the circumstances. To this day I have never lost sleep over it although I do think about it often. I do feel remorseful.
When we finished we were choppered back to Saigon. Helicopters didn't have protective armor then, and as we crossed the border into Vietnam, we took some ground fire. When you hear the cracks and pings as the rounds came up through the hull, you can only hope to hell that you're sitting in the right place. Nobody got hurt, but there wasn't any relief until we set down in Saigon.
At Saigon we boarded another Navy transport and it was on to Hawaii and Keesler. After three months and six days, we were back in the classroom.
In early June we started back to Lackland with the course materials from Keesler. Throughout the trip I had trouble with the car. After running for a while, it would sputter and die as if it wasn't getting enough fuel. Then, after sitting for fifteen minutes or so, it would start and run for a while until it died again. In Beaumont, Texas, I stopped at a Ford dealership where they replaced the fuel pump and fuel line from the tank. I was off again and thought I was doing well when it started the same cycle over again.
Since I knew it would restart after sitting for a while, I decided that I would just limp along until I got back to San Antonio. At one point, two Mexican truck drivers stopped and offered to help. I told them that there wasn't really anything that they could do and they drove off. Some time later, I came across them setting out flares. They had had a flat on one of the rear dual wheels but didn't have a spare. I recognised the truck so I stopped to see if I could repay the favour they had offered me. They accepted a ride to San Antonio now just less than a hundred miles away.
By now, because of the car trouble, I had been on the road continuously for more than thirty hours. Around three in the morning, about fifty miles from San Antonio, I dozed off at the wheel. Suddenly I was awake. We were headed down into a ravine that looked to be miles deep and the Mexican truck driver sitting in the front seat was wrestling the wheel to steer the car back up and onto the highway. An act of kindness to repay another act of kindness saved my life.
A few days after returning to Lackland, I went to downtown San Antonio to Bexar Engine Exchange and had a rebuilt engine put in the Mercury. That still didn't end the problems with the engine.
July 29, some of us who had been selected for instructor duty were sent to the Technical Instructor Training School across the base. I thought that by flunking out of the course, I could still get to Europe. But the course instructors saw through the ruse and after some "counselling", I was convinced to complete the course. In September, I received my Instructor Wings in a very nice ceremony and became an instructor.
Doug Matthes and I were roommates in the squadron's permanent party barracks. At night, we attended San Antonio College. I was fortunate because Doug was a good friend and roommate. Bob Sandberg was in OCS that summer and I had agreed to paint his Vespa motor scooter in exchange for being able to use it in his absence. Against regulation, I painted it in the basement of the barracks. Well, somebody found the paint cans and reported it to the commander.
1st Lt. Harold Johnson, the new squadron commander, was on just about everybody's list. Rumour had it that when Johnson's commander in Europe was transferred stateside, the colonel brought him along just to torment him. Nobody liked the man and he wasn't particularly competent. Still, he was able to attach my name to the paint cans so he called me into his office. With my straightest face, I lied and said that I didn't know anything about the paint cans. In an empty gesture he threatened to have me take a lie-detector test, so I called his bluff. I wouldn't confess. The matter ended there.
When Bob graduated from OCS, we threw a party for him at the Casa Mañana Motel coffee shop just east of Loop 13 on Highway 90. We presented him with a box about two feet on a side. Inside that box was another, smaller box. And inside that box was another yet smaller box. All told, there were more than half a dozen boxes before he got to the prize, an engraved Zippo lighter. He still has that lighter. We also gave him a walnut desk name plate. On one end was the open "US" collar insignia of an officer and on the other was a shiny second lieutenants bar. I still have the other "US" insignia of the pair. I don't remember who collected the dollar for the first salute, but we all had a very good time. Bob later retired from the Air Force with the rank of Lt. Colonel.
When Christmas, 1959, came around I took a thirty day furlough. Usually, I signed out at midnight so the afternoon before my furlough started, I drove to a service station off the base to get a lube and oil change and to fill the gas tank. Just off the base, the engine sputtered and died. This hadn't happened since the return trip from Keesler in June but I felt that it was still the same old problem. This time I was going to be methodical and do it by the numbers.
I opened the hood, removed one sparkplug wire and jumped the starter. No spark. So much for the money I had wasted fixing what I thought was a fuel line problem. Next I pulled the distributor cap and there the problem stared up at me. The ground wire from the vacuum advance plate to the points was frayed and broken. This was the distributor that came with the motor I had picked up to replace the engine I blew in Biloxi. The mechanics at Bexar Engine Exchange simply transferred it to the rebuilt engine. In five minutes I had the wire replaced and was on my way. When I left the base after midnight, I felt like kicking myself all the way back to Kansas City.
Back at Lackland, things settled down into a daily routine at the school. The TSEC/KW-26A's had been replaced with model B's. We were getting promotions, spending weekends at the Airman's Club and many were attending night classes at the several local colleges. We took in movies and occasionally ate out at some civilian restaurant. Sometimes there was even some excitement. One night, a student detailed to guard duty in the compound was playing "quick-draw" with his 45 automatic and managed to shoot himself through the knee.
And tragedy. A tech sergeant who was cross-training from some other field took some of his class notes back to his barracks to review before a test the next day. Even class notes made by the students were classified and stamped "TOP SECRET". He was arrested the next morning as he entered the compound. Later, he was court-martialled and sent off to Leavenworth. The saddest part was that he was a good student and probably wouldn't have had any trouble passing the test. He was married, had children and nineteen years in the Air Force.
Sometimes we would get all night pinochle games going. The favourite game was at the home of an airman who had suffered a disabling accident and was confined to a wheel chair. He was a good player. At a penny a point and a quarter a set, he was able to supplement his disability check quite nicely. We didn't mind because we felt we were helping out a buddy.
1st Lt. Johnson, the squadron commander, was really a pretty mean man. He court-martialled an orderly room clerk on the charge that the clerk used his official position to further his personal gain. Technically, I suppose that this was true. But it was a real stretch. Because the clerk, an A/2C, processed the orders for outgoing personnel he knew whether graduating students would ship out on bus, plane or train. For two dollars he would take them to the bus or train station or the airport. For the students it was convenient and a bargain. Johnson had him reduced to A/B.
Johnson, who had failed every previous promotion board, was finally promoted to captain just before his age would have required mandatory retirement. He was replaced by Captain Arthur Goldsby, Jr., a young man who had just transferred stateside. Capt. Goldsby was an enterprising man and immediately opened a hamburger stand in the back of a trailer parked just off base on Loop 13. His wife tended it during the day but in the evenings he put on an apron, cooked french fries, grilled hamburgers and wiped the countertop, too.
It always seemed strange for him to command us during the day and for us to order up "...cheeseburger and fries with a coke to go..." from him in the evening. But the food he and his wife served was good, his hamburger stand was clean and the men respected him. He had a good attitude and work ethic, was honest and straight-forward with the men, and a relief from Johnson's martinet style. I now see just how much I learned from just watching this man go about his ordinary daily work.
During this time, my attitude toward school also changed. I began to apply myself to the studies, and more importantly, to compete with my former attitude. The courses that I took weren't that particularly interesting or challenging, but I wanted those A's. I studied hard and I got them. This change in attitude helped me years later when I finally got my degree under the GI Bill.
One untoward thing did happen to me in 1960, however. When I arrived at the compound one morning I was told to report to the school commander. He informed me that a security violation had occurred in my classroom. A classified TSEC/KW-26B punchcard was missing from my classroom and could not be accounted for. Since I was the only instructor holding classes in that particular room, it must have been my fault.
The military operates under the Napoleonic Code where you are guilty until proven innocent. Even though I professed innocence, my name was pulled from the next promotion list. I was due for my third stripe and it made me feel helpless and victimised. But there was nothing within my power that I could do to defend myself.
Then I was rescued by circumstance and TSgt. Lawrence who had helped me with the engine replacement while we were at Keesler. We were in the school compound's coffee shop one morning when we heard some Burroughs employees at an adjacent table. They were joking about how they had accessed another classroom for a remote test. They failed to properly account for a TSEC/KW-26B punchcard they used from that classroom and some poor GI got blamed for it. We immediately went to the commander's office.
With TSgt. Lawrence's testimony, things were straightened out. I got my third stripe and was promoted to sergeant without even having to meet the promotion board. After that, almost everything I did warranted a letter of commendation. Those letters were invaluable later in civilian life when applying for jobs. I'll always remember "CC" with fondness and respect. This incident taught me another lesson. Never, never, never let anyone gain complete control of your life or affairs in a manner that leaves you defenseless.
1961 was more routine so occasionally we would take weekend trips to the Mexican border towns across the Rio Grande from Texas.
Nuevo Larado, across from Larado, and Ciudad Acuņa, across from Del Rio, were our favorites. There, we would spend a couple of days of revelry in the "boy's town" or red-light district. Food, drink and other forms of entertainment were cheap and plentiful. Since the G.I.'s were a big source of income for these small towns, the local officials always saw that the girls were clean and had regular medical check-ups.
But the girls were a tragic story. Most were from further south in Mexico and still in their early teens, some as young as ten or eleven. Generally, they had been sold into prostitution by their families who couldn't support them.
There were also Anglo girls there; probably run-aways from Texas although some of them claimed to have been kidnapped. They were all so terribly young.
Sometimes strange things happened. One morning while I was walking down one of the dirt streets I heard a commotion in an alley. It was a fist fight between two nationals. Apparently, it was over one of the girls. She was beating on the back of the man who was getting the better of the fight. Soon, the police showed up with a paddy wagon. When they tried to put him into the back of the wagon, the girl changed allegiance and began to beat on the policemen. The man refused to get into the back of the wagon but allowed himself to be pushed into the front seat on the passenger side. The girl then went back to the man who was now on the ground. Then, as the paddy wagon drove off, the victor waved to the cheers of the crowd that had gathered. It was hard to tell just who was the "good" guy and who was the "bad" guy.
Our TSEC/KW-26B's were replaced with model C's and the routine continued.
On pleasant evenings we would sit out on the lawn in front of the barracks and just talk. Sometimes we would surreptitiously pass around a bottle of tequila.
By late summer, most of us were marking our "short-time" calendars, some in months and some in weeks.
One evening on the way back from college, as Doug Matthes and I were approaching the interchange between Highway 90 and Loop 13, we encountered a car in the wrong lane. It was headed straight for us. We were in Doug's car so I told him that he ought to move over. Doug said, "But he's the one in the wrong lane." So I said to him, "If we don't move over, we'll be dead wrong!" It was a close call but we made it. Doug was like that.
He had a reel-to-reel stereo tape player. He also loved classical music as much as his opinion. When some of the guys complained that he played his music too loud he put the tape deck against the louvers of our room door. Then he draped a towel over it and played his train stereo demonstration tape at full volume. For almost an hour they got to hear a train race up and down the hallway. Finally, we called a truce.
That September, one of my evening college courses was in world history. In the class was a loud, coarse and obnoxious gentleman who always had something to say about everything. He didn't hesitate to contradict the teacher. Some in the class, myself included, were tired of his behaviour so we started defending the teacher's side, right or wrong, whenever he opened his mouth. I sat next to him and once I even told him to just shut up.
One afternoon, near the end of the semester, I was sitting in the base library. He walked by in front of me, stopped, turned and looked directly at me. He was wearing the gold oak leaf clusters of a major and I was sitting there with sergeant's stripes on my sleeves. I don't know if he was angry or embarrassed and I didn't really care.
At Christmastime, I took my annual leave. I usually stopped at Big Cabin, a small town in northeastern Oklahoma, for coffee but I was tired so I decided to stop at an all-night cafe in Muskogee instead. It was about three-thirty in the morning. I always travelled in my class A uniform and when I walked in, I noticed two high school age girls sitting at the U-shaped counter. I sat down opposite them and soon I noticed how they kept staring at me. I think it must have been the uniform. The girls kept playing "Those Old Cotton Fields Back Home" on the juke box. The thought crossed my mind that they may have been run-aways. It has always struck me as strange how the sights and sounds of the scenes we pass through in life linger on for many years.
I had been putting some money aside and planned to enter the University of Missouri at Kansas City after I was separated from active duty in April. But in early 1962, the building of the Berlin Wall intervened with my plans. The armed services were ordered to staff up. Most of the increase in the military was accomplished by extending the tours of active duty service personnel. While the Army and Navy simply extended all active duty personnel by three months, the Air Force policy was to extend everyone in certain critical career fields for a full year. Cryptography was deemed to be a critical career field.
Even though this upset my plans I never had any difficulty in saving money. I decided that, with another year to go, I could get a newer car and still save up enough for the first year's tuition. This turned out to be the wrong decision because just sixty days after we were extended, we were told the extensions had been cancelled and we would be out June 1. Now I had a nice '56 Pontiac Star Chief Catalina the size of the Queen Mary but not enough money to enter the university. School would have to wait.
Still, I was glad to be going home. In four years, one month and twenty-five days, I had grown as an individual and learned much from and about people. The boy who had left home was returning as a man. I still have my Instructor Wings and other memorabilia from those years. But more important is the deep sense of pride I have in the service I was able to give to my country.
Immediately after separation from active duty on June 1, 1962, I was transferred to the Air Force Reserve in the recently formed Missile Command. On April 7, 1964, I received my Honourable Discharge from the Air Force.
A few years later, a small package arrived in the mail. It was the Expeditionary Medal for Laos. In October, 1998, another small package arrived. It was another set of medals for my service in the Air Force. It reminded me that, in 1948, my father received a similar small package. It contained his Victory Medal and the Occupation Medal - twenty-nine years after his Army service in World War I.
Later, I served in the Missouri Army National Guard. In 1981, I received an Honourable Discharge from the Army.
In recent years, I've been able to learn more about what was happening in Laos in 1959 and why we were there; about Operation Ambidextrous, Operation Hotfoot, Operation White Star and the CIA. But forty years later, much remains secret .
Years have now passed since these events. I'm retired from a long career of installing and maintaining IBM mainframe computers for various agencies within the Federal Government. When IBM finally offered me the opportunity to work for them, I declined.
Now, in retirement, I spend a lot of time reflecting on the good times and regretting the bad. Again and again I think back to the events in Laos and to Nita and to my son. I had abandoned a son and taken another from his mother. And I had deserted someone who needed me.
There are things that we do in life that cause us shame and remorse; things that can never be revisited so that we might change them. I hope that some of my accomplishments and the intensity that I have tried to apply to my life since these events have managed in some way to atone for mistakes that I have committed and the pain that I have caused others.
My greatest pain will linger all my life; I can't remember my son's name.
I leave this thought with you:Life is a journey down a long and winding path. Along the way, when we come to a fork, we choose which direction to go. Then, having made our choice, we can't turn back. Wish as we might, there's no return trip for the traveler.