Experiencing basic training was a mixed bag. I enjoyed the exercise and I was able to stay in great shape for about 10 years after my discharge. (Then my joints started failing me and that was all she wrote for serious physical fitness.) After putting up with my mother for most of my life so far, there was nothing the drill instructors did that phased me.
My loneliness didn’t go away. The other guys couldn’t think of what to make of me. I definitely did not fit in. I was the second oldest guy in my squadron (the oldest guy got the nickname of “fossil”) and thought and talked about stuff they had no interest in. I didn’t relate well to blue collar teens when I was one and now I didn’t even have the age in common. I made honor grad with a perfect score on the academic test but had a couple too many gigs on inspection to get the honor grad ribbon from basic. (Ribbons are never from what you know but rather what you do.) But then we moved from basic to technical school, a whole different environment.
Having made my dramatic, unpredictable and life-changing decision to join the military, my next decision was which specialty to select. My ASVAB scores were thru the roof and my recruiter had stars before his eyes. I could literally pick anything. My first choice was meteorology but I let the recruiter talk me out of it and into electronics. So of course, I picked the one with the longest, hardest technical school component. What else would I do? I was back to going with the flow again. Wide Band Radio Relay Specialist was 6 months and the most demanding. Naturally, that’s where I went.
At tech school, there was a lot less pressure. There were four different six-hour shifts for school. A-shift and B-shift (6am-noon and noon-6pm) got all the attention. I was on C-shift, 6 to midnight. We didn’t get much attention. Training office was closed as well as the admin office (the CQ desk) and we were pretty much left to our own devices. There was a system of student leaders (called “ropes” because of the coil of colored rope on their shoulder than denoted rank.) Since the way to become a “rope” was to catch a sergeant’s attention and get referred to the captain, we didn’t have many. Didn’t even have much PE. Summertime highs and humidity at Keesler AFB (in Biloxi, MS) were often deemed too unsafe for vigorous physical activity. (LOL!!!!) This left a lot of free time.
The academic demands were trivial. I would graduate top of the class and an honor grad easily and never have to crack a book. I managed to share a room with the only other man on the base as lazy as I. We competed to see who could be the most outrageous in avoiding work. (It was called “skating”.) My greatest accomplishment was to have a minor surgery that required a couple stitches after which I managed to talk the doctor into giving me a sweat waver. I couldn’t be allowed to do anything that might make me sweat until the stitches came out. My entire floor was in awe of this. However, he beat me in the end.
One fine night, roomie didn’t bother coming back at all. (He was off base in a motel with a girlfriend.) This was duly noted in the bed check that gets performed in the wee hours of the morning. The next day his name was on a roster to see the Captain. AWOL is taken very seriously in the military and, at the minimum, he was in for some Article 15 action.
Roomie walked into the CQ office as boldly as you please, crossed his name off the list and left. We never heard a thing about it again. I had lost my crown and could never get it back after such incredible heroism. If I was a Master Skate, he was the Cheif Master Skate of the Air Force.
Tech school was also where I met my third great love of my life and felt my greatest heartbreak. Eventually, C-shift filled up and they moved some of the computer and electronics classes to D-shift, midnight to 6 am. I met her one evening as we were forming up to march to class. (Groups of any significant size had to form up by the dorms and then march to the class building.) We had been issued flashlights with yellow wands for this because one had to be visible at night while marching. I was holding mine high with the wand pointing down, like a lantern, as I was trying to figure out where in the formation I should stand. A lovely Irish lass appeared out of the dark and I said the first thing that came to mind, something about feeling like Diogenes. I think we were both in love instantly.
Tech school is notorious for the intense relationships that form. So far from home and for so long, you yearn for the closeness. We were not exceptions to this.
What a catch! A brilliant mind, we could discuss literature or science or philosophy or music or art endlessly. Perfect face and a figure the dumpy uniform could not hide. She was into the theater and singing and drama, activities I’d also enjoyed. Even had no problem with casual nudity.
We burned bright! Putting in for weekend passes and hoping neither one of us would get weekend details. Making out at every opportunity and going wild on Saturday night. We were soon engaged and she came back with me over Christmas to meet my father and her parents. I floated along, buoyed by a sea of endorphins.
However, heaven was not to last. At one point she had mentioned that she had a history of backing out of relationships. We both dismissed this at the time. Nothing either of us had experienced had been this intense. It was a mistake.
She had gotten out of tech school before me and was posted to her active duty station near St Louis. I was working with my California Guard unit to transfer my enlistment to her airbase where I’d eventually join the regular Air Force. That way we would get base housing together. Upon completion of my course, I drove up to her as quickly as I could.
While we were separated, the anxiety had set in. Her inner demons came to the surface and revealed all my flaws – and probably added a few I didn’t even have. Her own insecurities about herself also came to the fore. All the little things I was quite blind to about her. Focusing on this, she decided she could not marry me.
For all I knew, it might have been the correct decision for her. My own decision had simply failed in the worst possible way. There was nobody to blame but myself.
There never is.
I went into a depressive spiral again. I dreamt about death, yearned for it. The first time in my life I had been truly happy and it was gone. Ironically, Don Henley had released a song not long before about a lost love and, for a while, it became the soundtrack of my life. In his song, he swears that someday he’ll prove his love and get her back. I knew no such thing would happen for me. I imagined taking an overdose of downers washed down by whiskey. Then I’d close my eyes and imagine her while listening to that music and drifting off. Maybe I’d meet my old friend, Lady Death, and it would be her.
Obviously, I didn’t. It wasn’t cowardice that kept me alive this time, but love. If I died right after our breakup, it could well make it back to her. I could not do that to her. I had fallen in love and offered her everything I would ever be. That love didn’t stop just because our paths would diverge. That love is still there today.
To be continued…