This is really long because it is the full Chapter Five from Screen Saver.
One of the not very many – from my point of view – disadvantages to writing a non-linear memoir is that chapters become both long and – from a subject matter viewpoint – out of control.
So be it.
This is Itazuke.
After the experience in Vietnam – the people part of it, not the war part of it – there was no way I would have considered spending 20 or more years of my life pursuing the military as a career. When my DEROS had finally arrived, I had exactly 13 months left on my obligation. Short of some sort of extension of obligation due to some national crisis like the Soviet missiles in Cuba, nobody could make me stay in the Air Force after 21 December 1968.
As luck would have it, the next duty assignment I got made vacillation on that conviction impossible.
They had sent me to Omaha.
I had been assigned to Headquarters Strategic Air Command. At that point in history, an ambitious career officer could not have gotten a better assignment.
I had no idea why they were wasting it on me.
I came very close to never finding out what the mission of my assigned organization was. To be briefed on that mission and then to be assigned to support it required one of the highest security clearances in existence.
The background check necessary to deliver that clearance often took many months.
I was not cleared for duty until July. I had arrived at Offutt in January.
December was only six months after that clearance.
So I was again, as I had been at Goodfellow, at an Air Command Headquarters assigned to a “casual” status waiting for a clearance.
It turned out that the only stateside non-casual experience that I was ever to have was during my year at Cannon.
At Cannon I had been in the backwater of the Air Force. At Offutt I was at the center of the Air Force universe. Attitudes and activities that were accepted or ignored at a backwater were completely unacceptable at the naval of a universe.
At Cannon I had been one of several junior officers and mostly first term enlisted men assigned to an intelligence unit which supported the Tactical Fighter Wing that was resident at Cannon.
The Major in charge of my duty station had retired soon after I had gotten there.
He was actually retired and still on active duty for a significant period of time before I had gotten there.
A captain who had been a pilot until he had developed diabetes became our senior officer.
Two senior sergeants wielded the real power in our little group. This was a group of people all of whom were really smart, creative and funny.
Since we had little to do, except wait for orders to Vietnam, we talked a lot.
Several of us read books in between the infrequent needs to do anything for the Air Force.
Frequently we would end up having impromptu book discussions when one of us was reading a particularly interesting book.
Somewhere during this time I had started reading Catch 22.
I had heard of it while I was in college, but I hadn’t ever gotten around to reading it. At Cannon, it turned out to be one of the most amazing and funny things I had ever read. I not only discussed this book in our impromptu discussions, I also frequently read passages that were particularly outrageous, funny, pertinent, sinister or all of these.
The parallels to the life we were all living were too obvious to ignore.
The book became the center of our daily Air Force working life.
Then I finished it.
The minute I had finished it I loaned it to one of the others to read.
And then they loaned it. The loaning continued until we either had the book memorized or it had disintegrated from use.
I was never sure which.
In the process of all this reading, discussing and loaning, one day someone had segued off a particularly ridiculous real incident-of-the-day and had started acting out a skit, including characters from Catch 22, and cross referencing and merging real incidents with incidents from the book. Immediately others of us chimed in. The first time this happened we went on for the better part of an hour until hilarity overtook and undermined any chance that a thread of sense could have continued through the sham. But a new form of recreation had been born. In infrequent moments of seriousness we discussed with some degree of concern what would happen if someone from the “outside”- a word that we began to apply to officers and enlisted men who were not a part of our little intelligence/theatrical group – came in during one of our performances. The intensity of the performances was so closely mated to our mutually perceived reality that it was hard to stop until a scene had played itself logically to a conclusion.
If some pilot had come in during of one of these performances it would have been very likely that we would have been unable to cease and desist.
We probably would have tried to include him in the story. After all, the main characters of Catch 22 were pilots.
The odds of that turning out well would have been low.
We probably would have had to kill him.
We never concluded what to do about this possibility. Fortunately it never happened. But we enjoyed several months with an amazing amount of self-generated entertainment.
But Cannon was a backwater. Limbo at Cannon, which is what occupying space and time until being sent to Vietnam really was, could be filled with activities such as our Catch 22 theatrical group, and time could be made to pass fairly quickly and enjoyably.
Offutt, on the other hand, was a center of the Air Force universe.
Limbo at Offutt required a serious demeanor and intense military bearing. I was assigned to a big room full of other officers of varying ranks intermixed with an equally heterogeneous group of enlisted men. There was a desk set off from the rest where the most senior officer was put in charge of the room. We all had nominal duties. We sat, stood up, milled around, went to the base cafeteria, came back, sat down, stood up and milled around. We even occasionally talked.
After several days living in this state of suspended animation I had seriously considered showing up with a new copy of Catch 22. The problem with this idea was that most of my fellow inmates lacked even rudimentary senses of the absurd or humor necessary to appreciate the book. I was pretty sure many of them were unable to read anything but Air Force regulations. So I spent a lot of time in the Officers’ Club. Vietnam had actually taught me something of value.
One day I finally performed a key act of Offutt in-processing. It was a visit to the commander of whatever section it was that I was assigned to. This person was a full Colonel. He was obviously important because his office was not in one of the several basement floors of the headquarters building. I was assigned to the floor just below ground level. When I had been cleared for the mission, I was going to be assigned somewhere below that. No one was really sure, or willing to tell if they did know how many sub-basement levels there were. That was highly classified. The security of the nation would have been seriously compromised if anyone who knew the number of levels told what that number was. Or maybe national security required that no one ever find out the number. There was an elevator without floor numbers.
Due to the colonel’s above ground office he had windows, which let in light. Through one of them one could see the missile mounted in the front of the building. The missile was the symbol of our motto, which was “peace is our profession”. No one could answer my question as to whether it was possible to launch that missile. That was also classified information, the release of which would seriously affect the national security.
The colonel was at his desk. I entered to room and reported “Lieutenant McKeehan reporting for duty, sir” and I finished it off with a salute. By that stage in my career I had perfected the salute such that it was quite snappy and proper. I had acquired the skill in lieu of actually giving a shit about what we did in the Air Force. I had decided early in my career, not long after my encounter with Captain Cochon that it was easy to act like I gave a shit. If I did the interrogators would probably leave me alone, even if I allowed myself to frequently externalize what I really thought about things. This artifice worked surprisingly well. I never was court-martialed for insubordination. A snappy salute, it turned out, covered a multitude of errata.
The colonel then stood up and offered his hand, and we went through the more normal formal greeting endorsed by most of western civilization, the handshake. He asked me to take a seat. He told me a number of things about what is was that we did there at SAC headquarters, or at least what we did in his part of it. Then he asked me if I had any questions. I actually had one question. The word “software” had come up several times in his description of our duties. I had never heard the word before. Having a college degree in History with a secondary emphasis on Literature and Political Science I had a natural interest in words. Totally new words were not at all alien to my experience. However, compound words made up of two fairly mundane other words, both of which I knew the meaning of, but which when joined, yielded a new word of which I had no idea as to its meaning were not an everyday occurrence in my life. In fact this might have been the first time.
So I asked him what software was. The colonel gave me a long explanation. Software he said was all the reams of paper that had to be kept around as a consequence of having a computer on the premises. It was needed to keep the machines going. Sometimes it was the result of keeping the machines going. When such paper resulted, it needed to be stored with its predecessor paper. The composite cache of paper was “software”. I thanked him and felt elevated by my newly found technical knowledge.
This meeting was not at the immediate beginning of my time at Offutt. I had been showing up for work in the Limbo room for several weeks. My family and I had settled in a rented house in a neighborhood in Omaha. We had avoided living in the proximate Air Force ghetto of Bellevue. We had chosen to live in a normal middle class civilian part of Omaha. So I had been there long enough for my wife to have attended some welcoming events for newly arrived officer’s wives. My wife’s name was Ruth. She was my first wife.
After telling me about the mission and telling me what software was the colonel leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, extending his arms at right angles to his ears and took on a sort of pontifical air. I felt as if he was going to share with me some of the secrets of the universe, or perhaps the code word for launching the missile in front of the building.
“You know a junior officer’s wife is one of his most important assets” he said. Wanting to be agreeable, but having no idea what he was talking about I said “yes sir”. “In fact an officer’s wife is one of his most important assets, no matter what his rank.” “Yes sir” I said. “You might think of it as a kind of parallel rank structure.” “Yes sir” I said. “Take my wife for example”, he said. For me this was getting tricky, so I didn’t say anything, although I was reasonably sure that there was a degree of risk in silence. He looked at me, taking his hands from behind his head and folding them on the desk in front of himself. This added a thick air of confidentiality to his already pontifical tone. “My wife was telling me about an absolutely delightful young woman she met at her last welcoming tea for newly assigned officers. It was your wife.” That was easy. Without any thought, I said, “I also find her to be delightful - most of the time.” He laughed. I had made points. I didn’t care. But I had made points. “This illustrates what I was saying. You will get a lot of mileage in your career out of your charming wife. The wife of one of your superiors can have a lot to do with your advancement, based on her reaction to your wife.” “Yes sir” I said.
I now was in a quandary. I had in the breast pocket of my dress blues a document that the Air Force had generated. At approximately a year from the potential separation date of a first term junior officer, some machine somewhere disgorged a document saying that this officer was scheduled for separation under honorable conditions on such and such a date. There were two signature blocks for the officer so affected, one saying “I wish to stay in” and one saying “I wish to depart on the date stated”. Those were not the exact words, but that was the gist of the document. There was a third signature block for the commanding officer of the named first term officer. This block acknowledged witnessing the signature of the officer named in the document.
I had wondered about the etiquette of meeting my commander and then saying, “sir I need you to witness my separation acknowledgment.” Now that I had been told that Ruth was paving my path to untold career success it seemed especially tactless. But I did it. I never saw that colonel again until the dining in.
So I went back to Limbo.
By the time I was finished with four years in the Air Force I had been assigned to six different Air Bases. All these assignments had been Intelligence assignments, even the training assignment at Lowry. All of them had involved reading copious amounts of classified material. With three exceptions nothing I ever read was very interesting. Most of it was common knowledge. A lot of it wasn’t even accurate, or based on any rational conception of reality.
When I was in Saigon I had been a briefing officer. A briefing officer’s job was to “sell” the air operations people (the pilots) on various targets. We were in charge of identifying all potential targets and learning everything we could about them and working them into a great strategic mélange of information that could be accessed tactically in support of winning the “war effort”. The interlock between the strategic mélange and the tactical execution of air sorties (sortie meant something like “mission event” or “transaction” in Air Force parlance, not “exit” as it does in French) was the briefing officer. We “sold” the air operations liaison intelligence officers on various targets. In actual fact, there was no real relation between the targets we tried to “sell” and winning the war. We just had an untold number of things that could be bombed and we needed to bomb as many of them as possible, as often as possible. We talked about strategic/tactical results, but the reality was, there were a bunch of guys running around in black pajamas causing untold trouble, and if we put enough airplanes in the air every day over enough targets we would probably kill some of them. It was an elegant and macabrely massive application of the random walk theory.
The only systematic violation of the application of an ongoing random walk approach to dropping ordinance on the enemy was a brief two or three month period in which the Mu Ghia Pass was bombed around the clock. At the Mu Ghia Pass there was a confluence of a number of trails that the enemy used to bring men and supplies into South Vietnam. The roads came from a variety of countries. That confluence at Mu Ghia was seen as a concentration point which the enemy had to traverse. “If we are willing to expend enough ordinance over a long enough time, without letup, we can stop them,” thought the warriors-in-chief. After several months there had been no measurable decline in men or supplies from the enemy in South Vietnam. The project was abandoned.
Since the components of our strategic mélange lacked any actual strategic or tactical value, and since all the vast hoard of classified material supporting the creation and “sale” of the mélange wasn’t even accurate, or based in any rational conception of reality, I had turned to another source.
I had noticed that Time Magazine (I had my Time subscription delivered to me in Saigon, albeit a version with very thin paper compared to the domestic magazine) had much deeper discussions of many of our targets. And Time’s discussion of the conduct and results of many of the missions with which I was familiar was much more in-depth, interesting and insightful. At first this irritated me. Why were my classified sources so boring, irrelevant, wrong and, basically, useless? Why couldn’t we do a better? Why couldn’t we do a competent job of gathering and disseminating intelligence?
Then an idea occurred to me. Why not use Time as my source wherever possible for my briefings? Who would know? I read the classified stuff. Nobody would know that I was only using it as a fact checker where that was possible against what Time had to say. Where the facts were absent and Time had information so much the better. There was no way to question me.
My briefings, which had been up to that point encounters my audience bore up under as a professional duty requirement, quickly became lively well-attended events. I suddenly gained the reputation of being a young officer on the rise. And, best of all, I was assimilating and purveying information that was actually interesting enough to keep everybody, even me, awake and paying attention. But I had already made the career decision not to let anybody or anything make me really care. That was probably a good thing.
On the strength of my vastly improved briefing skill I was chosen to replace a departing lieutenant whose primary function had been to brief every morning the brigadier general who was commander of the entire 7AF HQ intelligence function. The subject of these briefings was everything that had happened overnight. The problem with that, in addition to an aversion I had toward generals, was that the information available for preparing them was only our useless, boring, inaccurate classified information. Time magazine was weekly. Its information was a week old, not overnight. So I was back in the soup. The difference this time was that the general really thought he was winning the “war effort” and wanted to know “what” and “why” and “who” and a bunch of other interrogatives about every subject. That information was either not readily available or was totally unavailable. Without Time Magazine I was dead meat. As a result my answers very quickly transmitted the impression, which was fact, that I didn’t give a shit and, in any event the interrogatives were so trivial as to be ridiculous. I was quickly replaced with someone who gave a shit.
There were only three things that I ever learned from classified material in all my exposure to reams and stacks of it that made having a clearance worthwhile. There were only three things that were interesting enough to make me say, I’m glad I got to read this. One of them was in a document marked “Top Secret Air Force Eyes Only”. I only saw that classification once in my time in the Air Force.
The document told a story about a Sunday morning at the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor. It was a Sunday morning typical of Sunday mornings to be found anywhere on US military bases anywhere in the world. Everyone was in a state of near civilian Sunday morning relaxation. Church services were being conducted in various denominational gatherings on base, and some base personnel were, presumably, attending services off base at churches of their choice. For those who eschewed church, or had already attended, there were brunches at the various personnel clubs: officer, NCO or enlisted. Since it was Hawaii there were all sorts of outdoor activities commencing.
The military had a tradition that every day a junior officer was put into a position called Officer of the Day (OD). That function was designed to put someone in charge of worrying about the myriad mundane details and occurrences that go into the daily life on a military base. This off-loaded a degree of clerical, administrative and just plain humdrum activity from the base commander. The OD acted on behalf of the base commander in relation to everything that typically occurs every day on a military base that doesn’t require the attention of a relatively, or actually, high ranking officer.
On the day being discussed the OD was an Air Force Officer from the nearby Air Force base. The “Eyes Only” document didn’t mention why an Air Force Officer was performing OD duties on a Navy base. I assumed that it was some kind of affinity program, or cross service development program, or some other idea hatched by the folks in USAF personnel and BUPERS USN.
After a completely uneventful several hours of duty wherever it was that an OD was required to reside during the conduct of his duties, he had decided to go to breakfast at the Officers’ Club. On the way he happened to meet a friend of his, a Navy officer, who was going the opposite direction. They stopped to talk for a few minutes. His friend asked him how the tedious and boring job of OD was going, and he said it was going well. Then he remembered something that had been occurring intermittently for most of the morning. There had been radio transmissions, apparently from northeast Asian waters, in the vicinity of the water off North Korea. There hadn’t been any coherent or understandable message in the transmission, but there had been a recurring nonsense word. He mentioned the word and his Navy Friend turned white. He said, “we need to get back to base operations as quickly as possible”. “Why”, his friend asked. “I don’t have time to tell you. Just come with me,” said the Navy guy.
It turned out that the nonsense word was a Navy code word that the Air Force guy hadn’t been briefed on, and which indicated some sort of dire incident as having occurred. The Pueblo crisis was on.
The Pueblo crisis involved a small US Navy craft named USS Pueblo, which was an intelligence gathering ship. The intermittent messages heard by the OD were from the Pueblo. They were notifying Pearl that they were under attack and in imminent danger of being captured. The encounter of the OD and his friend occurred in time for them to notify people who were in charge of doing something about it, something like sending airplanes to bomb the shit out of the North Korean attackers, but problems kept any rescue and attack response from happening.
Those problems were two and they were inter-linked. Air power assets were substantially below requirements in Northeast Asia due to the requirements of the ever-escalating Vietnam War. The assets that were available were armed with nuclear weapons. Sending nuclear armed aircraft aloft for any reason other than second strike response to an attack on the US or one of its NATO allies or Japan was a way to cause a catastrophic diplomatic nightmare for the US. With just the wrong turn of the cards, such an action could even have started a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. Attacking a North Korean ship with that sort of weapon – obviously only with the auxiliary conventional cannons – but with nuclear arms on board - had equally undesirable geopolitical implications. And there wasn’t time to re-arm the available inventory with conventional weapons only.
So we did nothing. And the Pueblo and its crew were captured.
This was a bad thing for the captain and crew of the Pueblo. But it was a good thing for me.
The immediate reaction of the United States was to send a Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron of F4s from Kadena AFB in Okinawa to South Korea. They called themselves the Cotton Pickers. The deployment had the code name Combat Fox. This unit was equipped with a variety of photographic and high-resolution radar devices for the purpose of gathering visual intelligence from the air. They were sent to South Korea to take pictures of the North Koreans. That took place in early February. By early March it was obvious that there were too many Americans or two few beds in South Korea, so the Cotton Pickers were sent to a nearly abandoned Korean War era US Air Force base in Japan. In 1968 it was a Japanese Air Defense base. It was near the town of Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu. The base was named Itazuke.
Since this was an intelligence-centric reaction, the Cotton Pickers had need of intelligence support. As luck would have it the Captain who was in charge of the Squadron Intelligence Unit was separating from the Air Force to open a dry cleaning store. He felt there was more opportunity in dry cleaning than in Air Intelligence. His departure left an opening to fill and the Squadron put a request for a temporary billet to fill the slot vacated by the imminent One-Hour Martinizer.
I began to hear rumors of a temporary slot for an experienced briefing officer being available in Japan. Even though I had only been back from the “war effort” for about 90 days, life in limbo was driving me over the edge. Anything would be better than milling around every day with a bunch of people waiting for security clearances. I got lucky. I got a temporary duty assignment – TDY - to Itazuke.
I had my usual pre-flight layover in the Travis Officers’ Club, but this one was enjoyable. I was going to a civilized place. Japan had real cities, real people, real transportation and real restaurants and bars. This was a completely different sort of experience than I had had previously. This wasn’t going to be Texas, or Eastern New Mexico, Nebraska or Vietnam. This was going to be a real place, a successful first-world country. I might learn something worthwhile. I might enjoy myself.
A sort of pall nonetheless hung over the trip. It had been only a few days since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Things seemed pretty bleak. I was reading On the Beach, which made its own separate contribution to the bleakness of the trip. For me the descriptions of events in the book were so real that I couldn’t convince myself of their fictionality. The complete decimation of the northern-hemisphere by all out nuclear attacks and counter attacks, and the existence of a small remaining vestige of humanity in Australia waiting for its own doom seemed somehow to be real and have something to do with my trip. The fact that Itazuke was a nearly abandoned facility contributed to the end-of-the-world feeling that had descended upon me. The nearly empty Bachelor Officers’ Quarters in which I was lodged made the feeling even deeper. The gloom that had enveloped me for the entire duration of the trip quickly dissipated, however. And it was people who dissipated it.
Unlike my early experiences with my fellows in Vietnam, at Itazuke I was immediately welcomed by a variety of one-of-a-kind people. I had never had any experience with aircrews even though I had been in the Air Force by the time I got to Itazuke for over 3 years. I had heard some legends and stories, but I had discounted any truth or reality to the stories. I very quickly discovered that the stories I had heard were not only probably true, they had probably been understated.
After partially unpacking in my BOQ room, and after reading some more On the Beach, which, along with my somber surroundings moved me to the brink of becoming suicidal, I decided that I needed to find the Officers’ Club. It was early afternoon in Japan on a beautiful April day. I descended the steps of my lodging and stepped onto a gravel path. The air was slightly warm, with a hint of a breeze and a touch of a flowery perfume. Everywhere between the various BOQ buildings there was grass. The grass was a beautiful spring-like green, and it was newly mown. There were small trees and large bushes all with flowers. In the distance were small mountains or very large hills. They looked like the Oregon Coast Range. The ambiance and the view felt and looked like home in the early summer. This similarity sent me into a reverie miles and years away.
During high school, summers had always been a problem. There was never enough work available to my age group and skill set to take up full time for the 12 or so summer vacation weeks. In fact, picking strawberries was usually all that was available, and that only lasted for a few of the early summer weeks. So my friends and I were always looking for something to do. Since we all had bikes we could try things like finding a place to fish, but even in a relatively small city like Portland most fishing places had long ago faded into the realm of myth, fiction or history. But some interesting bike trips that took a day apiece resulted from the quest for a fishing hole.
Eastmoreland Park was several miles from where we lived and had a creek running through it that was thought to have trout in it from time to time. So we took a day one summer and went to Eastmoreland Park. One of us, my friend since the fifth grade, Joe, actually had a small trout on for a short time before the trout figured out how to get away. That was the sum total of the fish we encountered on that trip, but the encounter was the beginning of a legend surrounding Joe as a master fisherman.
Toward the Columbia River there were some sloughs that were thought to have catfish and various sunfish in them. So we took a day one summer and went to a slough by the airport. We caught quite a few fish, but they were about the size of the residents of a good-sized tropical fish aquarium, and looked quite a bit like fish that might have been in such an aquarium, so we let them go. None of us had a large aquarium. We didn’t encounter catfish at all. We subsequently learned that catfish were normally caught at night. Biking at night wasn’t an option.
What was an option at night was going out with friends and walking around the neighborhood talking about whatever teenage boys talked about in the late 1950s.
One such night, Joe, Robert and I were out walking around after dark in the rain. It wasn’t a heavy rain; it was a light summer rain. We had absolutely nothing in mind to do, so when Robert, who was an extremely proper sort – he played chess, drank tea, had parents who had a Capehart phonograph complete with a side flipping record-changer, and spoke with a slight non Portland accent – suggested an idea Joe and I jumped at. It was not the sort of thing I would normally want to do, and Joe felt the same way, but we were desperate.
Robert said that the Hollywood Theater had back alley access. There was a door up a couple of flights of stairs that was always unlocked. We could walk to the theater and get in for a free movie via that door. We asked him how he knew this and if he had ever done it himself and he said no, but he had it on the highest authority that it was true. He couldn’t say who had told him. Joe and I concluded that this was the same sort of truth that surrounded things like the trout in Eastmoreland Park and the Tooth Fairy, more of an urban myth than an actual fact, so it seemed like a low risk way to spend the evening. We would walk to the Hollywood – a substantial walk from where we were – look for the stairs, not find them, mill around in that neighborhood for awhile and head for home having filled most of our pre bedtime evening.
But there were steps, there was a door, and it was unlocked. What wasn’t part of the plan was that there was also a cop on the other side of the door waiting for people like us. The minute we touched the door it popped open and we spent the rest of our pre-bedtime evening explaining to our parents why we were trying to “break in” to the Hollywood Theater. I had had one of what by then had become a series of unpleasant cop experiences. This one I had brought on myself.
I was roused from my 1950's reverie by a second lieutenant approaching me from the opposite direction. He saluted me, I returned his salute, and I said, “can you tell me where the Officers’ Club is”? He told me and I introduced myself and told him that I was there as temporary officer in charge of the intelligence shop and that I needed a drink. He introduced himself, Joe was his name, and he told me that I must be his new boss because he was currently temporary officer in charge of the intelligence shop, but he was waiting for a replacement. He said that he also needed a drink. We briefly discussed the fact that it was only mid afternoon, and perhaps it was unseemly to drink at that time of day. After a little discussion we agreed that the round the clock demands of being an intelligence officer made any hour a potential cocktail hour. I knew I was going to like this guy.
The Club was on its own plot of land. It was fairly large and had several entrances. It was some sort of Japanese design, and didn’t have the generic USAF look that most clubs had. Joe obviously knew the layout. We headed straight for one of the doors and entered a dimly lit bar. Behind the bar was a rather stout, prosperous looking Japanese fellow. I was immediately introduced to him. His name was Archie. At least that was his name for interaction with Americans. He spoke fluent, although pleasantly accented English. The jukebox was playing “If You’re Going to San Francisco”. There were several guys in flight suits seated at the bar. Apparently the round the clock demands of being part of an aircrew made any hour a potential cocktail hour. I knew I was going to like it there.
Joe introduced me to the pilots. Actually some of them were pilots and some were navigators. The RF4s that the Cotton Pickers flew were two-seaters. The front seat was for the pilot and the back seat was for the navigator. Among the men I met were Paul, a pilot and Rocco his navigator. I remember their names because they both became bar room friends of mine. In my time at Itazuke I was to spend quite a bit of time listening to their life stories and sharing with them mine. Inevitably dreams and aspirations entered the conversation also, as did politics, religion and favorite drinks. Of course we had to sample in depth all of each other’s favorite drinks. They were perfect friends.
The rest of those that I met in that first encounter were equally hospitable. Unfortunately their names were lost in translation.
So Joe and I addressed the needs of the moment. Two double scotch rocks apiece and I felt I was pretty well versed in the intelligence support requirements of the Cotton Pickers. By then it was later in the afternoon and more of the air crews were drifting in. I was introduced to all of them, and uniformly welcomed by them. They bought me drinks; I bought them drinks; Joe bought me drinks; I bought Joe drinks; they bought Joe and me drinks; Joe and I bought them drinks. And then they started to pour beer on the bar. It was a long bar and it took quite a lot of beer to wet it down. “What are they doing?” I asked Joe. “Wetting down the bar,” he said.
Then they got some of the potted candles that were on all the little cocktail tables that were in the vicinity and put them at one end of the bar. It was the far end of the bar, toward the entrance. At the opposite end of the bar in an adjoining space there was a large anteroom where there were some dining tables and quite a bit of vacant space. “What are they doing?” I asked Joe. “Putting out candles,” he said. “Why are they wetting down the bar and putting out candles?” I said. “So they can make night landings,” he said. “What are night landings?” I said. “Watch” he said. They turned out the lights in the bar.
So I watched.
One of the guys, it was Rocco, went fairly deep into the dining table room end and turned around. This put him some distance from his end of the beer dripping bar. By this time everybody else had moved the bar stools into the middle of the fairly narrow bar area so they could stand flush with the bar. They all had lighted potted candles in their hands. Archie had moved back into the bartender’s area as far as he could get, leaning against the shelf that displayed the various liquors on offer. The lights of the line of men with candles connected with the lights of the line of candles at the end of the bar. This line of bar bordering lights was the only source of illumination in the darkened room. Rocco was making preparatory sorts of movements in the anteroom. “Preparatory to what?” I wondered. I found out quickly. Rocco took a sort of runners stance and rushed at his end of the wetted bar, jumping airborne at the last minute so that his chest would hit the bar. The combination of his forward motion and the slippery wetness allowed him to slide down quite a distance. A cheer went up. Archie measured the distance from the end of the bar to the tip of Rocco’s head. Rocco got off the bar and was replaced in the anteroom by another carrier lander. This went on for quite a time with occasional breaks for wetting down the “carrier deck” or getting refills of drinks. Naturally I had to try it. I came close to crashing in the ocean.
Later I must have had dinner because there was a dining room at the club – not the carrier landing staging area, but a real dining room with creditable food; I never denied myself creditable food. Sometime after that later assumed act of eating I departed for the BOQ. By that time it was dark and a light rain was falling. It reminded me of the night Joe, Robert and I tried to get into the Hollywood Theater and spent most of the evening in the custody of a cop.
The Hollywood Theater experience had been a particularly distasteful one for me because I had never liked cops. The probable reason for this feeling, like so many attitudes, preferences and aversions I had in my life could be traced to my mother. Sometime about the time of the birthday party I had been with my mother in our car. She was going to pick up my father. My father’s arrival at the car must have been imminent because my mother had stopped outside the place that he was going to come from. There were cars filling the curbside locations where she would have parked, but since my father was apparently going to be right out, she had stopped in the street parallel to one of the parked cars to wait.
Suddenly there was a big fat guy in a blue suit and with a red face outside my mother’s side of the car motioning for her to roll down the window. When she had rolled down the window he started yelling at her. I was probably between four and five years old. One of the things he was yelling was “double-park”. I have had a horror of both double parking and cops ever since. I had had my first unpleasant cop experience.
I also had some adolescent unpleasant cop experiences.
By the time I was a junior in high school Sputnik and some of its children had gone into orbit, as had at least one Explorer. Before the US had finally gotten Explorer I successfully into orbit there had been a whole series of embarrassing, very public, failed attempts at launching our first earth satellite. This included Vanguard zero, which blew up on the launch pad. (Since official histories mention only Vanguard One which was finally successfully launched in March 1958, its failed predecessor must have been number zero.) The whole spectacle of the germinating space race between the Soviet Union and the United States caught my undivided attention. Rockets fascinated me. All the factors involved in getting something into orbit fascinated me. All the factors involved in getting something into deep space fascinated me. I started reading everything I could find on the subject. Information such as the fact that the Vanguard rocket was really just a remanufactured German V2, and that the V2 was really only a bigger version of Robert Goddard’s rocket fascinated me. Robert Goddard was an American and he had had the first documented launch of a liquid fuel rocket. The Germans adopted his rocket motor and wrapped it in a sleek artillery shell like package and might have won the war if Hitler had really understood the thing, or if the Germans had had enough of them, even without Hitler’s understanding.
All of this interest quickly metamorphosed into a development project. I wanted to build a rocket. My friend Jack got interested. We both wanted to build a rocket. By the time we had abandoned the project I had learned a great deal about getting a metal tube to shoot into the air. I had learned what proportional mix of zinc and sulfur could be readily ignited with a heated filament. I had learned that a heavy duty 1.5 volt dry cell – a lantern battery – didn’t have enough power to travel down a section of electrical wire long enough to allow the human at its terminus to be a prudent distance from the rocket and heat a thin copper coil. I had learned that the battery did have enough power to heat a piece of filament of steel wool twisted between my thumb and forefinger into a consolidated filament. I had learned that the most certain way to ignite the zinc and sulfur was to put the steel wool filament into a shallow container of match heads cut from several books of safety matches, and to place this container under the terminal orifice of the rocket. The filament ignited the match heads and the match heads ignited the zinc and sulphur. I had learned that igniting a zinc and sulfur filled open ended aluminum tube created a spectacular green flash of fire and a lot of smoke. I learned that to make the spectacular green flash of fire cause any upward thrust it had to be concentrated in some way. I had learned that no matter how strong a tape you used to attach fins to the rocket it would not keep them attached in the event of a successful liftoff. I had learned that the level of rocketry I was indulging in didn’t even require fins. I had learned the same lesson about taping a nose cone onto an aluminum tube. I had learned that, like fins, the level of rocketry I was indulging in didn’t even require a nose cone. I had learned that a blunt cap on the tube would suffice as long as it could contain the force of the sulfur and zinc ignition. I had learned that an empty CO2 cartridge made a beautifully aerodynamic container for rocket fuel. I had learned that filling one of these cartridges with zinc and sulfur mix and igniting it tore the cylinder to pieces. I had learned that filling one of these cartridges with match heads cut from several books of matches and igniting it created a force sufficient to send the cylinder a long way in some direction, but not sufficient to tear it to pieces. I had learned that putting the cylinder in one end of an open-ended aluminum tube could control the direction in which it went. I had learned that I could use my battery/wire/filament/match heads-in-a-shallow-container technology to ignite one of these devices. In short, by the time I was a junior in high school I had built a working model of a mortar or a bazooka. Whether a mortar or a bazooka depended upon how you pointed the aluminum tube.
One early spring evening of my junior year in high school I found myself bored. My friends Joe and Frenchy were also bored. Frenchy’s real name was Patrick. He had been a transplant to Portland from The Dalles where his father had worked as an engineer on The Dalles Dam. He had come to Central Catholic High School in his sophomore year. He lived in the same neighborhood as Robert and Joe and I, and several other friends from school, so he took the same bus. In fact most of the Central Catholic bus takers started out at the same bus stop when going home from school. Several parts of the city were served from that one bus stop. So Jack was at that stop also. So Jack and Joe and Robert and I met Pat at the same time at the bus stop. One of the things Pat had told us about himself was that he was taking French. To the rest of us who were all taking Latin this seemed like an extreme oddity. As a result when we were talking about “the new guy” later, and none of us could remember his name, somebody referred to him as “Frenchy”. It took him several years to get us to call him Pat. At one point even his mother was calling him Frenchy.
Anyway, during the Frenchy-era the three of us had found ourselves together one evening and mutually at loose ends about what might be fun or interesting to do. The mortar was a device known to all three of us because all three of us had participated in varying degrees in the rocket development project. I had been more of the research and development component and they, along with jack had been more the launch observation and recovery component, with me supplying the ignition technology.
We had decided that it would be fun to go shoot some projectiles at Madeleine, the grade school Joe and I had attended.
We had gotten ready at Joe’s house prior to departing. Preparations had included making several steel wool filaments, making sure that the 150 feet of electrical wire was not tangled too badly and putting the battery and launch tube in an athletic bag. It had also included cutting the heads off numerous books of safety matches, enough to fill four empty CO2 cartridges with enough left over to use with the ignition pan, and populating several additional empties and ignition pans if we wanted to go beyond four shots. Since there was some noise and a flash of light associated with each launch we thought four might be the upper limit of launches that prudence would allow. We always shot the device with prudence, or so we told ourselves.
So when we got to the school we were almost set up. The only thing left to do was to walk around the perimeter of the whole wooded launching area to see if there were any late night strollers on the sidewalks below the hill or any other type of activity that would affect the prudence of our intended launches. The launching area was a sloping vacant lot with a stand of Douglas Firs across Klickitat Street from the school. Everything was clear.
It was too dark to see where the cartridges were going to land, and they were too small to see in any event if they got as far as the intended target, which was the school building. But the initial explosion, the flash and the metallic “bing” “bing” ‘bing” of the cartridge hitting something, even if we couldn’t be sure it was the school building, was sufficient entertainment. We launched all four cartridges. We were standing there discussing the merits of populating a couple more projectiles with fuel when a car rounded the corner on 24th and Klickitat. We moved forward a little bit from our equipment to shield it from view. The darkness was already doing a good job of being a shield but we just wanted to be sure. The car was moving quite slowly. As it came opposite to us it stopped. At this point one of my companions said “George”.
George the Cop was a combination urban legend and bane of teenagers. He was not a real cop because he was on somebody’s private payroll - some neighborhood association probably. He did wear a cop uniform. It was blue and he had a badge, and most of all he had a flashlight. As the car stopped he rolled down the window and pointed his megawatt cop flashlight at us. We stood our ground taking the deer in the headlights approach to the situation. My indignation quotient was rising at an alarming rate. That indignation was fostered by my self-serving view that all George could possibly see was three guys standing in a vacant lot looking out at street and, probably, talking. It was a nice spring night and kids ought to be able to do that without having cops shine flashlights in their faces. It helped my indignation that the car had come into view several minutes after the last projectile launch.
He didn’t say anything, turned off the flashlight, rolled up the window and started moving up Klickitat toward 23rd. Somehow, that was more than I could stand. He had invaded our space without justification, and then hadn’t even said “good evening” when he decided we were OK, or at least not a problem. Something snapped.
He was about half the distance to 23rd when I started following. Joe and Frenchy asked me what I was doing. I just started walking after the car, which was traveling at a cop crawl and started shaking my fist at him and yelling. Afterwards I never could remember what I was yelling. I may not have known at the time. That state of affairs lasted a surprisingly long time. I was in pursuit as the car turned right on 23rd and up until it stopped somewhere adjacent to the middle of the land parcel. When it stopped I didn’t. I caught up with the stopped car yelling and shaking my fist. George shined the mega-beam on me again and I came down the bank to the street and the car. I had no idea what I thought I was going to do, but I was not going to yield. I was convinced that this pseudo cop had wronged me.
When I got to the car my lack of agenda was pre-empted by George. He had a companion who jumped out and pushed me up against the car and frisked me. At this moment Joe and Frenchy appeared and fairly aggressively called their bluff. “What are you doing?” they said. “Noel is just a little excitable – his mother was scared by a cop once” they said. “We have rights,” they said.
The specifics of their defense of my behavior probably didn’t matter very much, but the fact that there were two witnesses who would obviously not have been pro-cop in the event things went much further downhill probably helped calm the situation. We agreed to mutually disengage. When George had been gone for a suitable amount of time we gathered our equipment and went back to Joe’s house. I had had yet another unpleasant cop experience.
In one of life’s little ironies, Frenchy became a cop later in life.
Another unpleasant cop experience occurred not long after the lightning flash that I had thought to be a nuclear attack.
The duplex we had lived in at the time was on the edge of civilization. Across 17th Avenue, to the east of us, there were normal houses and yards. My mother’s friends Bob and Rhea lived directly across the street from us, along with their kids Loa, Mark and Mike. They had several cats. The blocks east of them all had similar, normal, occupied American neighborhood single-family dwellings. They had mostly been built in the 1920’s or before. It was a great neighborhood.
To our immediate west between 17th and 16th there were also normal, old, big single family houses. In the one on the corner of 16th and Clackamas there was a family with two kids. There was a boy about my age and his early teen-aged sister. The sister’s name was Lolly. She was about 13 and really pretty. But the thing that attracted me and that I always remembered was her singing. She could sing like Lilly Pons. I had no idea who Lilly Pons was, but my parents said Lolly could sing like Lilly Pons, so I was sure that it must have been true. From my young viewpoint she could certainly sing with amazing sophistication, whether it was like Lilly Pons or not. I didn’t really care. I just worshipped.
To the west of their house and on for and extending for many blocks was open grassland. There was only one sign of civilization. City streets with street signs intersected the grassland. In a couple cases there stop signs. It looked like the African Veldt with streets.
The reason for this grassland had been a dream. Mr. Lloyd, a Portland developer, had decided in the 1920s to build a huge shopping center. He had bought a great number of residences between Multnomah Boulevard and Weidler and 7th Avenue and 16th Avenue and torn them down. This cleared land was to be the new home not only for The Lloyd Center, but also for the inevitable commercial buildings and multi-family dwellings that would follow such a massive enterprise as the Lloyd Center was planned to be. Before he could buy and tear down all the houses he needed for his land requirements the Crash of 1929 intervened. The land that had been cleared lay unused for the next three decades.
From my viewpoint, even though I had heard the story of the aborted Lloyd Center told as a tragedy, it had been an extreme boon. An eleven or twelve year old kid with acres of open land to play in was, in those days, a happy kid. And the happiness just got better. By the time we lived in the neighborhood somebody had decided to complete the Lloyd dream and buy and tear down the rest of the houses in the original plan area. Now not only did I have acres of grassland, I also began to have multitudes of abandoned old time houses in various stages of demolition. They all had multitudes of fascinating debris to examine, gather and take away. This was before the realization that old stuff was worth saving. No one cared what my friends and I carted away. We even populated every goldfish bowl in the neighborhood from the captives we took from a house with a fishpond. My father even got into the act. He and I built tiered flowerbeds on each side of our front steps from the large granite slabs that we somehow got from their demolition site to our duplex.
Sadly, Lolly’s house was one of the houses torn down.
And there was an unexpected boyish windfall beyond the obvious advantage of having what we called “elbow room”. The lots had become the dumping-ground for empty soda bottles. A day’s scouring of all the lots by a couple of kids could gather enough pop bottles to yield $10 or $15 from deposits. In the early 1950s $10 or $15 was a lot of money, even when considering the cost of transistors and variable capacitors. Every three or four months the bottles were there, a mature crop ready for the harvest. My first lesson in investing came from this activity. One of the fairly common bottles was a large coke bottle, probably a quart. It had a five cent deposit on it. The others were worth two cents, so we prized the big coke bottles. On one occasion, just after turning in our quarterly crop of bottles I read an item in the newspaper. Quart coke bottles had just had their deposit raised to ten cents. There was no “transition plan”; if you had turned them in when we did you got five cents. If you had waited a day, you got ten cents. If I had waited one day I would have been twice as rich. That phenomenon and others like it haunted me ever after.
Another use of the great Lloyd Grassland was for sports. The lot that had been Lolly’s house was at the other corner of the block where I lived. It was totally flat and had become after her house’s demolition, grown up with clover instead of grass. This had meant that its ground cover never got crotch high like the lots with grass, and that characteristic had made it an ideal candidate for a baseball diamond. All we needed to do was mow the clover.
Not far away from the incipient baseball diamond there was a tavern. It was at 17th and Broadway. It was named the BX Tavern. It was only three or four blocks from where we lived which was within easy walking distance of our home. When I looked back on that fact from the viewpoint of an adult I considered that to have been a major amenity. My parents liked to go and socialize at this neighborhood pub. Based on the people that they brought home at various times for dinner or drinks and conversation I realized later in life that it had been a real life version of Cheers.
There was Jack who was supposedly an actor who had supposedly had a part in a well-known TV show. Look as we might when Jack’s supposed episode came on, my parents and I could not identify him in it. He was a charming sort. He practiced being charming. That was probably the sum total of his real acting: being charming to the denizens of the BX Tavern. It was from him that I learned what a bad check was. He had charmed my parents into loaning him five dollars at a time when five dollars was still money. It was especially money to our family because my parents were in the process of recovering financially from their divorce and the medical bills associated with Annie’s illness. Jack had given them a check to cover the five dollars they had loaned him with the understanding that they would hold the check for a couple of weeks while he built up his bank account. When they tried to cash it, it bounced. It bounced several times after that. Then they quit talking about it so I don’t know if they ever got their money. Jack was no longer a guest at our house however. He probably continued charming the denizens, my parents excluded, of the BX Tavern.
There was Barney who seemed to be a good sort and never did anything to alter that opinion of him. During the time we knew him he had open-heart surgery and lived. At that time the surgery was new, somewhat experimental and survivors were not the norm. We celebrated the event.
There was another Jack who supposedly had been a professional, big league, baseball player. He was a nice guy who took an interest in getting me interested in baseball. He was recovering from some mysterious, unnamed malady that caused him to be bald and not have eyelashes.
There Al. Al was recently divorced and was either bitter or glad about it depending upon how many drinks he had consumed. He had a mother in California whom he visited fairly frequently. When he came back from visiting his mother he always had quantities of homemade pepper hash, some of which he gave to us. That was my first encounter with really hot food, and I liked it. He said his mother had the shelves in her fruit room labeled for three flavors of the hash: “hot” “hotter” and “damn hot”. I had thought this to be a fairly clever vignette and had tried to figure out where to use it ever after. Al had a 1950 Hudson Hornet. The first time I ever really went fast in a car was in Al’s Hudson. It was on highway 26 on the way to Gearhart to dig razor clams. Razor clams had become a quest for my father and me. It had seemed to my father that digging razor clams would be a good father and son enterprise. It took up time, got us out into the sun, wind and rain, and didn’t cost very much. All you needed was gas in the car and a couple of clam shovels a couple burlap sacks and some kind of old, warm clothes. We had gone to several places to dig several times and had never seen a clam. We were going to Gearhart with Al because he claimed that he knew how to dig them. He knew the secret. “They don’t just sit there like potatoes,” he said. “You have to be alert; you have to be fast, and you have to be willing to get wet.” That was more than we had known previously so my father signed us on to one of Al’s trips to the clam beds of the Oregon Coast.
En route I was regaled by a variety of what I would subsequently come to recognize as ribald tales. Al would have been a good starting point for a study of Chaucer. Actually Al’s remarks were supposed to be confined, I suspect to my father, but even in a Hudson Hornet the back seat wasn’t far enough away from the driver’s seat to make what the driver was saying inaudible, especially if the person in the back seat listened intently. I listened intently. The stories mostly centered on women friends of his that he had met subsequent to his divorce. They were all quite close friends apparently.
The car had kept going faster. It had probably been due to the nature of the driver’s conversation. When I peeked over the back of the driver’s seat at the speedometer we were going just over 80 miles an hour. It felt good. I silently prayed for faster. The radio was playing non-stop country music. I wouldn’t learn to like country music until the early 70s, but on that day, the conversation, the speed and the music all seemed perfect. I doubt if many eleven-year-olds are ever privileged to have that kind of experience. The car didn’t even have seat belts.
The rest of the day was pretty much a bust. The clams didn’t show up for Al any more than they had shown up for my father and me previously.
Mac and Pauline completed the group of BX Tavern denizens that my parents had befriended. They remained my parents’ friends for the longest time of any of the other denizens. They were married. Mac had supposedly been a highly successful builder in Walla Walla. He and Pauline had moved to Portland because there was a psychiatrist in Portland who specialized in Mac’s unusual sort of psychological problems. It had something to do with his inability to conserve his energy. They had two sons, Gerald and Danny. Being of Irish heritage, and being brothers and being close in age Gerald and Danny spent most of their time trying to kill one another. When they weren’t trying to kill one another they were trying to kill anyone who had disrespected them. Being Irish they perceived quite a few sources of disrespect, so Gerald and Danny were fairly busy most of the time either plotting one-another’s demise of that of someone else or some other group. For a variety of reasons I became friends with them and kept them from killing one another or, alternately, killing me. It was an exciting relationship.
Gerald and Danny were two of the workers I had enlisted in the baseball diamond lawn mowing exercise. Gerald had asthma and fancied himself to be a baseball player of some note. He had a pair of baseball shoes. The other person was Mark one of the kids from across the street.
Gerald and Danny lived about ten or twelve blocks away. We all got lawn mowers and went to work. The lot that had been Lolly’s house was a corner at the intersection of Clackamas and 16th. Next to it at the intersection of 16th and Halsey was a big, old three-story house that up to that point had eluded being a part of the Lloyd demolition plan. Back on Clackamas was the house that sat between the duplex I lived in and the about-to be baseball diamond. That house also was being spared from demolition, as was our duplex. We didn’t think to contact the residents of either of these properties to tell them that we were going to use the lot between them as an occasional playground. We looked upon the lot as having been a net new addition to the total kids’ property of the Veldt.
It was on a late Spring Saturday that we commenced the project. Although the clover was low to the ground, it was dense. It required a lot of effort to mow it. And there was a lot of it, since the lot was quite large. So we worked well into the afternoon.
In the process of the work we had had contact with the residents of both adjacent houses. They had both made joking, friendly allusions to how hard we were working, and had asked us what the objective of the work was. We had told them about the baseball diamond, and they had seemed to think the whole thing was a grand idea. The conversation was wrapped in the semi demeaning tone and demeanor that adults take with children not directly under their control, but overall, they seemed to be friendly encounters. Then we mowed on.
It was late afternoon – still light, but just beginning to show the tinges of a late springtime sundown – when we finished. We had been admiring our work and discussing how we would lay out the baselines and place the bases when a black, white and red car slid up the street and stopped alongside our diamond. The car was black, the front doors were white and there was a red rose in the center of the white. There was a red bubble protruding out of the roof. It was the cops.
I would have said that I was ambivalent about cops, since my only experience with them at that point had been as a four-year-old. That had made me on the slightly hostile side of ambivalent – having a cop yell at my mother had not been pleasant – but I still could have been described as ambivalent. I knew Gerald and Danny were not ambivalent. As young as they were, they had already formed an aversion that I had heard them discuss in a fairly heated manner more than once, so I knew I had to keep them away from the car. I didn’t know what Mark’s views might be, but he was a couple of years younger than I. Therefore I was, by default the senior rational person in charge.
I didn’t go over to the car immediately. I tried to look cooperative from a distance to buy time and see what they might be going to do. Maybe they just thought we had done a good job and had stopped to admire our work.
But that wasn’t the case. The cop in the passenger’s seat rolled down his window. “Do you have a permit?” he asked. “What’s a permit?” I responded. “You need a permit to conduct activities on a vacant lot” he rejoined. “We’re just going to play baseball,” I responded. “We’ve had complaints from the neighbors,” the cop said. “Which neighbors?” I said. “The ones on both sides,” the cop said. “About what?” I said. I could see that the cop was getting rapidly annoyed. He apparently wasn’t accustomed to conversations of this length, especially not with a child.
“They don’t want all that dust kicked up and blowing in their houses,” he said. This was probably my first encounter with a situation about which I would have sworn that I knew what was going on, but which suddenly took a turn where all the data points didn’t add up to anything like what appeared to be going on. The people he was saying were complaining had been having jovial conversations with us intermittently all afternoon. What had I missed?
Since the clover was dense and lush even after being mowed I had no idea where dust might be going to come from. “All what dust?” formed in my mind, but it never got said. Luckily my father was coming down the street. He had known what we were doing and had dropped by a couple of times during the afternoon to offer encouragement and he was coming back again to see how it was going. Seeing the cop he apparently realized how it was going. He went right over to the open window and had a conversation. When he was finished, he came over to us and said, “I guess you can’t play ball here. The neighbors have complained and there are enough city ordinances that the police can keep you from using the lot.” “What are ordinances?” I said. “Laws,” he said. I had had my second unpleasant cop experience.
I had also learned something about the duplicity of people. Apparently letting us mow the lawn adjacent to their property was acceptable to the residents of the two adjacent houses, so there wasn’t a dust problem until we had worked all day mowing the clover. We were free labor making the lot look nice.
Another unpleasant cop experience took place in the same general area on an early winter evening, about 5:30. It was already dark. I was at the house across the street from mine - Mike, Loa and Mark’s house. My mother worked and she had an agreement with her friend Rhea that I could go to their house after school until my mother came home. Mark and Loa and I had decided to go out for a short walk. Since it was dark we had taken a flashlight. It was a large flashlight with three D cell batteries. A couple of blocks away from their house, out in the Veldt, there was a lot with one huge old brick house at one corner. Otherwise the whole block was a vacant lot. We had wandered off in that direction and when we got to the lot we had decided to go into it. We were walking around the lot and had turned the flashlight on when a dog joined us. We recognized it as the dog belonging to the old lady who lived in the huge brick house. Since we used the lot for a variety of activities including a sort of proto motocross track for our bikes, we knew the dog and he knew us. What we didn’t know since we had never seen him in the dark was that he liked to chase the light of a flashlight spotted on the ground. We flashed the light around on the ground and the dog gleefully chased it, barking enthusiastically. All four of us had been having quite a good time with that discovery for about fifteen or twenty minutes when the police showed up. They got out of their car, came into the lot and told us to halt. Then they started questioning us. I was probably eleven, Loa was probably eight and Mark was probably nine. I couldn’t imagine what they thought we were doing wrong. I couldn’t think of anything.
“Where is the fire?” one of them said. Even at that early age I had already heard the cop quip “where is the fire?” as a snappy entrée to dealing with a speeder, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to apply it to the situation I was in. So I remained mute. “What are you burning?” he said sternly, and with an obviously mounting level of annoyance. I realized that he was actually talking about fire. That made as much sense to me as what I had initially thought he was talking about. So I continued to be mute. “Look. I want some answers! The lady in the house there called in and reported kids setting fires in the lot. Where are the fires?” Suddenly I understood. “She must have seen the flashlight,” I said. “That’s a likely story,” he said. “Where are the fires?” “No, I’m serious. The dog likes to chase the light on the ground and we were flashing it around and he was barking and chasing it,” I said. “Cruelty to animals?” the other cop said to his companion. I could see that we were going to be guilty of something no matter what. “Look,” I said. The dog had been lying at our feet panting and following the conversation with great canine interest. I turned on the flashlight, did a quick whistle, and shined the light in front of the dog. He jumped to his feet and tried to grab the spot in his mouth. He barked happily and chased it around as I moved it across the ground. “Good boy, good boy,” I said, hoping to diffuse any thoughts about animal cruelty. I continued this for a minute or so while the cops stood and watched. “Stay here,” one of them said. They moved off out of earshot and had a quiet conversation. Then they came back. “Look,” one of them said. “We were called out here having been told that someone was setting fires in the lot. I see what you are saying and I believe you and I will advise the lady that things are all right. But you need to consider: she is an old lady who is living alone in a big house and she probably can’t see too well, and she really thought you were lighting fires.” Even at my age I could tell that he was trying to cut off before it got started any kind of revenge activity on our part after he left. I had had my third cop experience. This cop experience, on balance, was one of two positive encounters I ever would have with the cops.
The other one was an encounter with the Bellevedere Police Department at Mysti’s father’s wake at the San Francisco Yacht Club which is actually in Bellevedere. Mysti’s father’s name was Ken.
Ken had been a career army officer. He had retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. He had three purple hearts and two bronze stars. He had served in World War Two with a commission from ROTC from the University of Washington and had stayed in the army to serve in Korea. One of the bronze stars was for heroism when caught behind enemy lines for a week in Korea. He was on a mountaintop with a sergeant and they couldn’t get out. The North Koreans were everywhere and Ken just stayed on the mountaintop, kept quiet and kept himself and the sergeant alive until they could escape to their own side. Most would have surrendered. Many did. Ken didn’t. He must have pissed some high ranking people off fairly fully to have three purple hearts, two bronze stars, service in two wars and a miraculous survival and escape from behind enemy lines to retire only a Lieutenant Colonel. He also had a little black lacquer and mother of pearl box from Brigadier General H. S. Pak, ROK.
Among Mysti’s family pictures was a picture of her father with Singman Rhee. We had a lot of fun with the fact that the first time I saw the picture I asked, “which one is your father?” But we didn’t think much about it except to offer it as a humorous story to friends on those occasions when humorous stories about our families seemed to be required.
Ken and Mysti’s mother had lived together long enough to inhabit an officer’s house at Fort Warden on the north Oregon Coast. Mysti’s mother was named Louie. She was the youngest of three sisters: Lee, Bobye and Louie. There was a family picture of the three of them taken when they were all in their late teens or early twenties. It was an astounding picture. If I hadn’t vaguely recognized the women I knew looking out from those young faces I wouldn’t have thought that they could possibly have been anyone I could have ever known. It looked like a Hollywood promotion photo for three upcoming starlets. They were absolutely beautiful. That was probably why when Louie crossed the parade grounds on her way from her job on the base to her home in officer’s housing, on parade days, the band struck up “Lovely Lady Lou”. Mysti and I visited that house many years later. It was a museum. Museum or not, I could almost see Ken and Louie in the shadows.
Ken and Louie lived together long enough to bring Mysti into the world. In those days Mysti was actually known as Patti. Mysti was a name that she chose later in life.
Ken and Louie lived together long enough, before he went to war, to decide that they didn’t really like one another. Or maybe they lived together shortly enough because Ken had to go to war not to be able to decide that they liked one another. For whatever reason, they divorced. Mysti never had much contact with her father.
A few days before he died Ken told Mysti he had something important to tell her but not right at that moment. He would do it before he died. What it turned out to be was that he was half-Japanese. His mother, Mysti’s grandmother, had married a Japanese American when that sort of thing just wasn’t done – even in Seattle. The marriage didn’t go well and divorce and re-marriage had occurred before Ken was old enough to go to school. His mother had him keep his father’s name however. The first day of school changed all of that. Ken came home with a report of rough treatment based on his Japanese surname. His mother took him out of that school, put him in another school and changed his name to that of her new husband. He kept that name the rest of his life.
Now we knew why I couldn’t tell him from Singman Rhee in that picture. I had to wonder just how hard it must have been being a half Japanese second lieutenant in the United States Army in 1941. Three purple hearts and two bronze stars and an escape from the enemy seemed to me to be even more heroic.
Various pictures documented the fact that the young Ken was quite handsome in a somewhat exotic way. He looked a little like Robert Taylor. Those good looks may have had something to do with the fact that he was married a number of times after Louie. One of the few times I had the opportunity to meet him was in San Francisco in the bar of the St. Francis Hotel. Mysti and I were there because we were attending the IBM Hundred Percent Club. Ken was with a woman he had been married to twice, but wasn’t married to any more. They stayed friends partially due to the fact that she liked to have Ken advise her when she bought clothes. We had a great time. I always regretted the fact that I didn’t get many more chances to spend time with him.
Ken had retired in the Bay area and had had a second government career with the IRS. He had bought a house in Bellevedere and had joined the San Francisco Yacht Club.
So we had his wake at the San Francisco Yacht Club. I joined Mysti for that. I was never one to miss a wake. Most of Ken’s surviving ex wives and one ex girlfriend were in attendance. They were all grieving. Apparently he had the ability to leave them laughing.
Ken was at this point in his life married again. Her name was Helen. She was not in attendance. Actually no-one even knew where she was. She had needed to take drugs to control a serious schizophrenic condition. When she took the drugs she began to feel so well and normal that she would decide that she didn’t need to take the drugs to control the schizophrenic condition and she would slip back into the schizophrenic condition. She had recently slipped back during the time that Ken was dying and was somewhere on the roads of America living in her car. She felt quite close to one of the Justices of the Supreme Court – she assured anyone willing to listen that he was an insider in the know concerning a plot to poison selected Americans with strange gases, emanations and waves. The only thing we knew about her whereabouts at the time of the wake was some credit card charges in the Washington DC area. Apparently she was pleading her case in person. One of the more interesting results of her belief that she was the victim of a plot to attack her and her home with rays, gases and waves was that she had had the furnace of the house in Bellevedere removed. Bellevedere isn’t that warm.
Most of what we knew about Helen at that point had been learned from the Bellevedere Police. The Bellevedere cops were a completely different sort of police from any I had ever encountered. When I talked to one of them I felt that I was talking to a smart, interesting and articulate human being who didn’t have any hidden, secondary or tertiary agendas, and who seemed just to be interested in helping people. I had never encountered that in a policeman.
We gave that impression the acid test when, toward the end of Ken’s wake, the ex girl friend was found to be the possessor of several too many martinis. We asked for help from the Bellevedere PD. They drove the woman home in a squad car, with one of the wake entourage following in the woman’s car and brought the wake attendee back to the wake. And the girlfriend didn’t even live in Bellevedere.
The memories of cops and cop encounters were broken by a voice. “Noel, how about a drink to celebrate your first day at Itazuke?” I had found my way back to the BOQ and the voice was coming from the common area immediately inside the entrance. It was Joe. I couldn’t remember seeing him since the night carrier landings. “What time is it?” I said. “Drink time,” he said. This reinforced the fact that I knew I was going to like this guy.
That was pretty much the pattern of life at Itazuke. We got on a bus every morning to go through town from the residence base to the operations base. The actual airfield was a half-hour bus ride in another part of town. The bus took as long as it did due to some fairly complex winding streets and some fairly bad traffic. It may have been a shorter walk, but we weren’t allowed to be off base in uniform. That apparently was one of the conditions of the status of forces agreement we had signed with Japan once they had migrated from being “occupied” to being a real country again after World War Two.
In the evening we got on the bus again and went back to the residence base. In the hours in between Joe and I presided over an extremely competent staff of Airmen and Sergeants. Our office was within a few feet of flight operations. In the more than three years I had been an Air Intelligence Officer, this was the first time I had gotten anywhere near an airplane, other than to travel to or from an assignment. After the initial introduction to most of the guys actually responsible for flying the missions, being close to the nerve center that controlled and tracked their activities, and being responsible for the management of one of their vital operational functions actually put purpose into my daily activities. A feeling of purpose was a novelty in my Air Force experience.
The Squadron Commander was a Lieutenant Colonel. He was on the Colonels’ list, which meant that he had made full bird colonel, but just had to wait for a future date to arrive before pinning on the eagles. Making full Colonel was a pretty big deal. Full Colonel is only one rank away from Brigadier General. And three more stars were available beyond Brigadier General – theoretically four in time of war – so making full Colonel got an officer to a significant place in line for potential future promotion.
I had made the Captain’s list while I was at Itazuke. That meant that I had made Captain, but just had to wait for a future date before pinning on the silver tracks. Making Captain was not a big deal. All it signified was unplanned attrition of Captains due to the Vietnam War. In the Army and the Marines the attrition had to do with a high fatality rate. In the Navy and Air Force the attrition had to do with common sense: no one was staying around after their initial indentured obligation to see if they made Captain (Lieutenant in the case of the Navy). Four years was about all the fun any of us could stand in one lifetime. The Air Force solution to the attrition problem was to make Captain automatic at three years. Most Air Force Junior Officers had a four-year obligation so that pre-empted the problem. First Lieutenants with more than three years at the time of this announcement got put in some weird algorithm to establish their promotion date. Perhaps the Air Force didn’t want a whole population being promoted on the same day. Perhaps either the budget or the payroll system, or both, couldn’t handle it. So I hadn’t been at Itazuke long when I was promoted to Captain, since I had been an over three year First Lieutenant.
The morning after my introduction to the Squadron at the Officers’ Club I briefed the Colonel – we called Lieutenant Colonels “Colonel”- for the first time.
The briefing was about missions scheduled to be flown and the results of the missions that had been flown the previous day. The basis for this presentation was an ingenious single foil that told everything. It had been devised by my predecessor. It was held in high regard by the enlisted men that now reported to me. Joe had felt it was a work of genius. I couldn’t understand it. If we had had personal computers in those days, this form would have been a spreadsheet. It would have been one of those incomprehensible spreadsheets that have made careers and destroyed careers. Like those future spreadsheets that foil was incomprehensible.
But I struggled and finally understood it. I could have let Joe do the briefing because he said that he understood it, but I felt that that would have been a bad precedent. I was on a short temporary assignment and I didn’t have time to be the new guy. I had to take over from day one. Or so I thought. It was amazing what one evening of being accepted by some aircrews had done to my attitude. I had begun to wonder if I was starting to give a shit. I also had made a mental note of how I was going to change the presentation so a normal human being could understand it.
The Chaplain opened the meeting with some Chaplain words. The supply officer discussed fuel usage and air borne tanker availability. The Executive Officer covered the details of the discovery the previous day of the wreckage of one of the Cotton Pickers’ planes on a Korean mountainside. The plane and crew had gone missing several days before and the squadron had been looking for them ever since. The day before I got there they had discovered the wreckage. There had been no survivors. When the weather officer was finished, it was my turn.
I introduced myself to the Colonel since he had not been at the night landing event of the previous evening. He asked me a couple questions about what I had done career to date, and my answers seemed to satisfy him. So I put my foil on the projector and started in. It was amazing how long that foil allowed you to talk. It would normally have taken ten foils or more to purvey the same information, or to generate the same amount of elapsed time involved in explaining it. But I was on a roll. The more I discussed it, the more it made sense to me.
I had a habit of looking the person or persons I was briefing in the face. For most of the briefing the Colonel had a passively attentive expression indicating that he was conscious and probably hearing what I was saying. We were in a darkened room, so the foils on the projector could be seen on the screen and he was on the other side of the foil projector from me. The projector was between us. I could see his face illuminated by the light of the projector. The rest of the squadron members were spread out more or less behind him; their faces were indistinguishable blobs in the gloom.
I was coming to a key point when it happened. The Colonel’s eyes opened much wider than normal, seeming almost to roll back in his head. His head began to slowly rotate in a counter clockwise circle. My first reaction was that he was having some kind of a fit. I was immediately transported back to grade school where I was kneeling at mass with the rest of the school on our first Friday Mass observation. I was kneeling next to a classmate named Lyle. Lyle was not a friend, I didn’t have many of them in grade school, but he wasn’t an enemy. I had lots of enemies in grade school. Lyle was about average height, and seemed to be of average weight for a fifth grader. Playing touch football against him was a surprising experience. I had no athletic ability at all, and less interest. But, since we played touch football at every recess, I had to play touch football. I was always assigned, after being the last guy to be picked for every team, to the line. In touch football that doesn’t require any skill or interest. All you had to do was block if your team had the ball or rush if the other guys had it. Lyle was usually also in the line. He was about my height, which wasn’t tall, and appeared to be about my weight, which was –at that time – not very much. The first time he was opposite me I was ready to block him vigorously – we had the ball. What happened instead was he almost knocked me down; and my right side, including my right arm and shoulder, which were what I was using to block with, felt as if they had been hit by a large very heavy hammer. Lyle was a ferocious defensive lineman.
As I was kneeling next to him at Mass that First Friday, Lyle made an eerie wailing noise. I looked at him and saw his eyes roll back and as that was happening he flipped over backwards landing mostly on the kneeler and the floor with his head banging against the seat of the pew. He had fairly long wavy red hair. I tried to help, but was superseded almost immediately by Sister Superior who always sat at the back of the church so she could watch us. On this occasion I was glad that she did that. She got Lyle out of the pew and Mass went on as if nothing had happened, but I was badly shaken. Later somebody said that Lyle had had a fit. He was back the next day, apparently his normal self, but that scene of him flailing around on the floor of the church in a pew always stayed with me just below the surface.
So when I saw the Colonel rolling his eyes and rotating his head I couldn’t help returning to a pew in the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Portland.
But the Colonel spoke.
“I’ve never understood this foil, and I’m tired of looking at it,” he said. “Since you are new with no vested interest in this thing, I want you to come up with a replacement that I can understand.” “ I already have, sir”, I said. “Great,” he said. “First drink’s on me tonight,” he said. I knew I was going to like it there.
The Cotton Pickers liked to have parties. By Wednesday of most weeks the Colonel had appointed the OICTWP – the officer in charge of this week’s party. A competition quickly arose: each OICTWP wanted to one-up his predecessor. The competition peaked with the party with the theme “it only costs a little more to go first class”. The invitation specified attire: “Coat and Tie”. Making a literal interpretation of the invitation, several of the pilots came to the party in a coat and tie. They weren’t wearing shirts. That party was one of our most successful: when the last of us were breaking up and going back to the BOQ we found one the shirtless ones happily asleep under a tree outside the door of the Club. It was raining. We took him to the BOQ with us.
Parties also happened on the spur of the moment. The morning after the “Coat and Tie” party, was a Sunday morning, and Joe and I were having breakfast. We weren’t talking much. We both had monstrous hangovers. So we were slowly eating our food and reading “Stars and Stripes”. The dining room was about half filled. There were some other Americans assigned to Itazuke, besides us transients, and most of them had their families with them. So there were quite a number of families having breakfast. There was a comforting, low decibelled family sort of sound wrapping the dining room.
Suddenly that ambiance was broken by a disturbance coming from the entrance of the dining room. It was Paul and Rocco who had not been at the previous night’s party. They had been on alert all night. Now they were off alert and ready to make up, as much as possible, for having missed the party.
One of them was shouting to the wait staff “steak and eggs, steaks rare, eggs over easy. And break out one of the champagnes you iced for us.” Joe and I both hid behind our “Stars and Stripes”, hoping that they wouldn’t see us, and ask us to join them. The thought of any form of alcohol, champagne included, stirred an uneasy churning in my stomach. Paul and Rocco took a table at a forty-five-degree angle from where we were sitting with a couple of tables between us. We hoped that the tables and the families sitting at them would act as a screen. It wasn’t to be. They saw us. “Hey, guys. Come on over and have a glass of champagne.” Shouting something about being too hung over to drink, with decent families between them and us didn’t seem like an option. So we went over and had a glass. Then we had another. It was amazing how well a couple of glasses of champagne on a Sunday morning could make one feel. Then I bought another bottle. By this time other members of the Squadron had begun to drift in and were joining us. They each had a glass, and then another. The wait staff began dragging additional tables to add to ours to accommodate the group, glasses and additional bottles. At the point that there were about fifteen or twenty of us I decided that this must be my promotion party. I had just a few days before put on the silver Captain’s tracks. So I welcomed them to my promotion party and ordered a case of champagne.
At this point the ever-present creativity of the Cotton Pickers surfaced. One of the guys asked for a punch bowl and a bottle of brandy. We got a silver punch bowl and a bottle of Courvoisier cognac. It only costs a little more to go first class. The guy who ordered these items poured the bottle of cognac into the punch bowl, followed by three bottles of champagne. That filled the bowl about three quarters to the top. Then he took it in both hands, brought it to his mouth, and took a couple of gulps. Then he passed it to me. “French Seventy Five,” he said. I took a couple of gulps and passed it left. “French Seventy Five,” I said. The bowl went around the table being replenished as needed.
To say the conversation became animated is an understatement. Sunday turned out to be a great day for a promotion party. Monday turned out to be a really grim day after a great promotion party. About half way to the operations base I tried to get off the bus because I thought I was going to be sick. The driver wouldn’t let me get off. I was in uniform. I got to the base without being sick, but only barely.
A really early memory of mine was that of going from my grandparents’ house – they lived in the Madrona district in Seattle - a few blocks away to a drug store on 34th Street. I had gone with Bobby, which was what I called my mother’s father instead of grampa or something. He had shopping to do at the little Safeway store which was across the street from the drug store, and when we were finished with Safeway he took me across the street to the drug store. The drug store had a fountain. He ordered a small coke for me. I had never had a coke. The icy bite of the carbonation made an impression that lasted for my entire life and could be called up any time on command something like the roar of the birds at dawn. If I had been a more poetic child, I might have shouted, “I am drinking stars”.
The Monday after my promotion party coke made another equally significant impression on my life. Actually it was more like a significant contribution. My mother had an expression, “I feel like death warmed over”. That Monday that was how I felt. Intermittently, I felt even worse. When I had finally gotten to the base it was close to lunchtime. I had checked into the intelligence shop to let them know I was there, but I didn’t think going to work, even though work for the Officer in Charge constituted little more usually than being there. So I found Joe and suggested that we go to lunch. I didn’t want lunch. I just didn’t want to die in front of my enlisted subordinates. So Joe and I went to the Officers’ Club. There was an Officers’ Club at both of the bases.
Joe ordered lunch. I ordered a coke. Something deep in my being was telling me that coke was going to cure me. My coke came with a straw. I had never been a straw drinker, but I was too weak to take the straw out of the glass. As it turned out, the straw served as a metaphor for the effect the coke had on my health. As I saw the brown liquid slowly rise up the straw into my mouth, and started swallowing, I felt a magic tingle of life rise through my body. It started with my feet and quickly rose to my head. The sick, stomach twisting headache just disappeared. I had been cured. I could go to work. I could eat lunch. I was never able to get coke to work like that again, but once in a lifetime, having it serve as an antidote to a near-death experience was enough. I said to Joe, “I am drinking stars”. He just looked at me. I didn’t elaborate.
One afternoon toward the end of my time with the Cotton Pickers the missions of the day were running late. The missions had been longer than usual because they had required mid-air refueling. The crews had been over their targets for most of the day and it was getting to be mid evening when they had started returning.
Someone had jury-rigged a transistor radio into the communication system. That radio in flight operations made it possible for everyone to hear the air controller talking to the crews as they returned. As each crew approached the runway the stream of words were basically the same. “Range 10,000 feet, on glide path. Range 9,000 feet, 5 feet above glide path. Range 8,500 feet, on glide path. Range 8,000 feet, on glide path.” This chant-like stream of information would continue with each plane until the words “on runway, and taxiing” had brought each plane home. A palpable tension accompanied each inbound. A palpable sense of relief accompanied each “on runway”. The Colonel and Ernie, his navigator, were the last inbound. “Range 10,000 feet, on glide path. Range 9,000 feet, 5 feet above glide path. Range 8,500 feet, on glide path. Range 8,000 feet, on glide path. Range 7,500 feet, 5 feet above glide path. Range 7,000 feet, on glide path. Range 6,500 feet, on glide path. Range 6,000 feet, 5 feet below glide path.” Range 5,500 feet, 5 feet below glide path. Range 5,000 feet, 10 feet below glide path. Range 4,500 feet, 15 feet below glide path.”
Then there was silence. We all looked at each other. Nobody said anything. Suddenly we must all have had the same idea. We all ran to the door and out to the parking strip on the runway. Looking down runway, where the planes came in and touched down, toward Kyushu University, there were all kinds and colors of lights flashing, blinking and just shining. It looked as if there had been assembled a convocation of emergency vehicles.
Back in flight operations the phone rang. The Executive Officer answered it. After a moment’s silence, he burst out with relief “Ernie, you’re OK? Yeah. Yeah. OK. Yeah. What do you mean, not too healthy? You are in a phone booth? There are a lot of civilians outside the booth? They’re not too happy? We’ll be there in a minute.” And he got into Ops Able, one of the cars and sped down the runway in the direction of the lights.
When all the evidence that could be gathered was gathered, what had happened had a sort of Keystone Kops aspect to it. The F4 was a two engine aircraft. The Colonel and Ernie had experienced a two-engine flame out on final. They had deployed their rocket ejection seats, which put them high enough in the air for their chutes to deploy, and they both got safely to the ground. The plane continued for a short distance until it encountered an unoccupied building under construction on the campus of Kyushu University where it came to rest lodged between the second and third floors. Ernie had found a pay phone and called Base Operations. Angry students surrounded the phone booth. Everybody in Fukuoka was convinced that the belly fuel tanks on the planes were nuclear weapons, so the Squadron had not been a popular addition to Fukuoka, especially with the students. Partially demolishing one of the students’ buildings apparently had become the last straw.
When I left the Cotton Pickers several weeks later the plane was still in the building. The Japanese wouldn’t give it back. This was good for the Colonel’s career. Without the plane the cause of the flame out couldn’t be identified with certainty. Everyone knew that the only