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Sad Leavings

The war in Vietnam was heating up, half the people in the country were smoking dope, and the Flower Children were sprouting peace and free love all over the place.

I was only vaguely aware of it.

It was 1968, and I was leaving.

The Air Force never said goodbye, but I didn't love them either. I'd made a few good friends in the service, but Chris was in the guard house again, SelfCheck had been discharged the week before, Crazy Mormon was on leave, and Johnny Sleewa was on duty at the time. No one was there to see me off. I finished up my paperwork, gathered my few belongings, and walked past the dead trees in front of the squadron area.

They were my one lasting accomplishment in the United States Air Force.

It happened like this. Last fall, I'd gotten a whole weekend off, and I figured to make it with this girl I knew in Toronto, which was a little outside of the hundred mile limit they had us on. I'd put a fictitious address on the official checkout sheet, but left the chick's phone number with Johnny, so if something really important happened, he could get in touch with me.

Around one-thirty on a Saturday morning, I'd just gotten to her place when a sergeant phoned. He asked for me, and said that I was scheduled for "special duty" at eight that morning. He didn't know what it was all about, but I'd better be there.

Well, I thought it must have been important or Johnny wouldn't have handed out the number. See, I was one of only three techs who were trained to fix the Alert Transmit Console, and it was about the only piece of equipment at The Notch that wasn't duplicated.

The machine had a keyboard on it that was used to send messages like "fire all of your missiles," but it wasn't a QWERTY. The keys were arranged in alphabetical order.

None of the officers could type, since among our masters, such abilities were considered unmanly.

The ATC had two Chevrolet ignition keys, mounted ten feet apart, so that it took two men to operate it, at least from the front. They used it for calling practice alerts, scrambling the bombers, and starting wars.

The controls inside the back of the ATC were a different matter. Once, Chris got to playing with the buttons back there and managed to scramble the 99th Bomb Wing. Those guys were over Hudson Bay, fueled up and with bombs ready, awaiting orders from the President, before anybody else knew they were gone.

Nobody got on Chris's case for it, though, since none of the brass would believe that an airman had enough brains to pull a stunt like that. Me, I knew that Chris had an IQ in the 160's, but it would never occur to them to ask me about it. To them, I was just another dumb trooper, too.

What got Chris thrown into the guardhouse this time was sweeping dirt under the floor. Not under the carpet, you understand, but actually under the floor. Chris was very strong, and he had a penchant for doing things the hard way.

Well, what with Chris in the guardhouse and me gone for the weekend, that only left Johnny Quest qualified to work on the machine. If something happened to Johnny and the ATC went west, SAC's third alternate Combat Operations Center would be out of business, and you never could tell when they might want to start a war.

And while I hated the Air Force, I still loved my country, so on the girl's phone, I admitted to the sergeant that I was me.

I had to turn around and leave. I tried to kiss the chick goodbye, but she wasn't the understanding sort. She screamed a lot about my wasting her whole weekend and told me not to come back.

That night, I drove all the way back to Massachusetts without sleeping and got on base with seven spare minutes to change into fatigues, report, and find out what was happening.

What it was, was that the colonel had decided that the squadron area needed some beautification.

Having a full bird colonel in command of a squadron was strange, but then a nine hundred man squadron was pretty weird, too. The guy had been a hot fighter jockey during World War II. He'd made all his rank during his first three years in the service, and hadn't been promoted since. This made him an unhappy man, and he didn't lead a happy squadron.

Boots were new troops who had finished tech school and were now idle for three months, awaiting their security clearances before they were allowed to work on the equipment that they had just spent a year learning how to fix. Why these clearances weren't obtained while they were still in school, saving fifteen percent of their useful careers, was one of those little unexplained military mysteries.

Our colonel's beautification plan was that I should drive ten of the boots out into the nearby woods, have them dig up nine likely looking trees, and drive the trees and boots back. We would then plant the trees about the squadron area at the points specified on the enclosed sketch by that evening. Why we couldn't do this during the week, when all of those guys were idle, or doing useless make-work, was also not explained. Neither was why this qualified as an emergency sufficient to pull me in from a weekend pass, but then the Air Force never bothered to explain things to an airman.

So I did it, making the boots do all the work.

Then I showered up, and, too tired to sleep, I went to a blind pig hidden below its neon sign in the basement of a Baptist church just outside the gate. Sensibly, I got stinking drunk while mulling over the injustices of the world. I was still unhappy when I returned to the barracks at three in the morning. The colonel wasn't available to hear my suggestions, so I ripped the newly planted trees out by the roots and threw them halfway to the parking lot.

Feeling much better, I found my room and went to sleep.

I'm bigger than most people.

When I got up late on Sunday afternoon, the sun was setting, somebody had replanted the trees, and the girl in Toronto wouldn't talk to me on the phone. It was thus reasonable to get drunk again, and wandering back, I came across the replanted trees.

I ripped them all out again, and this time, using a hammer-throw technique, sailed one of them all the way to the parking lot, narrowly missing somebody's fifty-seven Chevy.

The same thing happened Monday night, too, since by then somebody had once more replanted the trees. Actually, it happened almost every night for about a month, and after a while it got so that I didn't even have to get drunk first. I had found a certain relief from tension and a deep-seated satisfaction in ripping up those trees and giving them a good toss.

The strange thing is that nobody ever saw me do it, or if they did, they didn't talk about it, but then most people don't realize that I'm really a very gentle person, if you give me half a chance.

In a month or so, I was pretty sure that the trees were dead, what with the way the bark was falling off, and after that I left them alone.

That had been six months ago and they were still out there, because the colonel hadn't given any orders about them. Likely, he hadn't noticed.

My mark on the Air Force. Nine dead trees.

I carried my belongings to the garage outside of the gate and settled up with the owner of the place.

Motorcycles weren't allowed on base. They had the wrong image by Air Force standards, although they were allowed up at the Notch, since civilians weren't allowed within sight of the place. They'd give you a sticker for one to let you past the Elite Guard, through the gate, and to the small parking lot. From there it was a short walk past more guards, past the thick steel blast doors, and into the generator-packed tunnel that led deep into the hollowed out mountain.

I packed up, kick started her with one hand and rode off. I never put a foot on the kick starter, my theory being that if hand cranking wouldn't do it, she needed a tune up. Electric starters, of course, are for wimps.

I stopped a hundred yards outside the Westover Field gate and peeled the SAC sticker from the Wixom Ranger faring on my BMW R-60. I no longer felt any hate. I just didn't want it there, defacing my bike, now that I was free.

I had joined the Air Force for many reasons. Without the money to finish my degree, I needed a trade, and they'd promised to teach me electronics, the one promise they'd actually kept. Mostly, though, I'd wanted have some adventures while I was still young, to spread my wings a little, and see a bit of the world.

Instead, they'd stuffed me under a mountain for the duration.

More than anything else, I'd wanted to do something†.†.†. significant. To do something important for my country, and maybe even for the world.

But there's nothing glorious about fixing machinery, especially when the stuff almost never broke down. Ninety percent of my actual work time had been spent cleaning floors, dusting equipment, and trying to look busy. Most of the rest of it was spent filling out paperwork, an occupation that took six times longer that the actual repair work did.

Mostly, I just sat there at a grey metal desk. The lighting was cool, efficient fluorescent. The temperature was kept at a constant 70.4 degrees fahrenheit. The relative humidity was at 48.6 percent The floors and ceilings were white. The walls were beige. The equipment was a uniform dove grey, with small, unblinking colored lights.

The silence was deafening.

You sat there for eight hours every day, forbidden to read anything but technical manuals, staring at the walls and waiting for someone up in the cab to tell the heavy bombers and all the land-based missiles to go and blow up the world.

Off duty, you drank a lot, but it didn't help all that much.

My outfit had a suicide rate that was higher than the casualty rate of most combat outfits in time of war. And it wasn't just the young kids who "took the pipe." Old, balding sergeants would somehow get sort of listless, and then you'd hear, unofficially, that they'd put a bullet behind their ear. You never heard a word officially, of course, not even a notification of the funeral service. It didn't fit the public image the Air Force wanted everybody to believe in.

Soon, you learned to hate the bastards.

The hate I'd felt for years for the organization that had kept me in useless bondage had become a bigger part of my life than I had imagined, and now that those bonds were finally parted, I was left with a vast hollowness inside of me.

I'd sold off almost everything I owned except my camping gear. Even my uniforms were gone, which wasn't precisely legal since I was still supposed to be a member of the inactive reserves. But I didn't have any family or anyplace to send that junk for storage, so if I couldn't fit it into my saddlebags, I couldn't see keeping it.

I really didn't know what I wanted, but I had a strong handle on some negatives. Like I never wanted to see another officer again in my life. Mostly, I needed to get way far away from petty rules and silly regulations and people who outranked me, which in the Air Force was just about everybody.

I wasn't the kind who got promoted.

My BMW sort of automatically took me to the Mass Pike and just as naturally pointed west, which was fine. There isn't much east of Massachusetts that you can get to on a bike.

Well. My motorcycle was paid for. My savings and accumulated leave added up to just under $2,000.00. It was springtime and figured I could live for six months without the need to reconnect myself to society. Then, maybe I'd go back and finish my degree. Or maybe not.

The Mass Pike dumped me onto the New York Thruway and a green-and-white sign read "Rochesteró231 Miles."

That got me thinking about Jim Hasenpfeffer, since he was working on his Ph.D. at the University of Rochester and this naturally got me thinking about Ian McTavish as well.

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