Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Back to the World with "Guarding Freedom's Frontier"

What I did for my year in Korea: I ran a lot, between five and ten miles a day. Sometimes I'd go run by myself early in the evening and then go again with Holliday and his buddy Jerry Aiken. I'd been warned to stay out of the fields around the perimeter road because they were mined. When I was out there, sometimes I could hear the click of the Vulcan cannons overlooking the weapons storage area as the gunner sighted on me. One night I ran right through a ROK patrol, weapons at the ready, bayonets fixed, moving quietly through the fog. Occasionally, passing the women's dormitory, I'd smell the pungent odor of marijuana.

I read a lot, too, and wrote letters. The base library was excellent, and I was able to read pretty much everything I'd been meaning to but hadn't for ten years. I was a somewhat adequate orderly room clerk, which meant I could get shithoused on squadron members' generosity any time I set foot in the NCO Club or the squadron's hooch. I knew a lot of guys in Korea that were basically functional alcoholics. It was cheap and available, and your other recreational options were pretty limited. One kid used to carry a bowling bag with a gallon of vodka in it everywhere he went off-duty. He had such bad DT's I saw him take a full minute to open the door to his room in the barracks.

I bought a $50 acoustic guitar and used to jam around the barracks a lot. A guy called New York Jay gave me an electric guitar to join his band. He could play about five instruments and figure out any arrangement after hearing it once. My job was teaching the material to the other dipshits in the band. There were three bands on base; we were the only one that couldn't play gigs downtown, because most of us were using borrowed equipment from the base rec center. The other bands played rock; we were supposed to be a super-slick R&B showband. We wound up getting roped into playing the Black History Month banquet at the Officers' Club. Our squadron commander was the project officer. He wanted us to play for four hours. With the schedules we were working, that wasn't going to happen, but we gave them an hour and a half -- two sets. A few weeks later, I quit the band because I was getting too far behind at work. A week later, they took the base talent show and got to go TDY to Japan for the Fifth Air Force finals. The story of my life: bad timing.

I thought a lot about my wife and baby Kimie, who'd been born in Fort Worth when I was in-country almost a month. She was born on Thursday back in the world, but because of the time difference, the Red Cross notification didn't come through until I was off duty on Friday. When I walked into work on Monday morning, Sergeant Bo told me to get my ass to the Red Cross office, which was halfway across the base. I ran all the way to get the news. It was the happiest day of my life. Kimie's mom sent me pictures every week, and I planned to take leave around the holidays to go back and see her.

Sergeant Bo was my NCOIC in the orderly room. He was born in Panama; his dad had been in the Army. He was a cop before he cross-trained into admin. He used have a cup of coffee, a cigarette, a toothpick, and a wad of chewing gum at all times: a very oral individual. His boss was Lieutenant V., a chunky, church-type woman from somewhere in Maryland. I had a roster which listed, among other things, all of the officers' college majors. Hers was elementary education -- no surprise. She insisted on calling me "Shikamoko," which I thought sounded like the name of a pet monkey in a movie about the Amazon, and saying things like "Bring me a PACAF Form 58 -- prompto." PACAF Form 58 was a counseling form. In the Air Force, "counseling" means "getting your ass chewed." Lieutenant V. used to administer all the disciplinary actions for the squadron. When some troop who'd fucked up was ushered into her presence, she'd say, "Airman So-and-so, do you know why you're here?" When they responded in the negative, she'd say, "You're here for disciplinary actions." When Lieutenant V. left, her replacement, Lieutenant M., seemed like an improvement -- almost anything would have been. I was telling her about some kid who'd had the book thrown at him on the Kun -- Article 15, correctional custody, the whole nine yards -- who'd gone PCS to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina before the squadron thought of something else to charge him with, so they wanted to bring him back to court-martial him.

"It's like something out of Kafka," I said.

"Who's Airman Kafka?" asked Lieutenant M.

I was the bailiff at the court-martial of a kid from my squadron who got busted for calling his girlfriend at a phone booth in Brooklyn on a government phone. The funny thing was, I knew another guy in the squadron who used to call his wife, who was a GI stationed in Alaska, on a government phone every night. If they wanted to fuck with you, they would fuck with you. It wasn't exactly front-page news.

Kunsan could be a stressburger. It was really interesting seeing people I'd known there when we were back in the world. One of the senior NCOs in the squadron was famous for stuttering and saying things like "Mek-mek-mek-mek-mek-mek-mek-mek-mek me wanna p-p-p-p-p-put on a p-p-p-po'k chop suit...a-a-a-and run through the lion's den!" When I ran into him at Carswell, he was getting ready to retire and running the section that was responsible for base housing inspections. When I asked him if it made him wanna put on a pork chop suit and run through the lion's den, he looked at me like I was crazy. "What the hell are you talking about?" he said.

Another NCO, Sergeant Greene, was famous for an incident that occurred when the Chief of Air Force Security Police was visiting Kunsan. Everyone in the squadron who wasn't on duty was told they had to be at the Officer's Club at a certain time to meet with the general. After he made his remarks and expressed his appreciation for the "Wolf Pack Peacekeepers -- Leaning Forward In Our Foxholes and Ready Now," he asked if there were any questions. Greene piped up: "What it be like, General? You the reason why we all here."

Something similar happened when a visiting two-star walked up behind this Italian kid from the East Coast who'd been standing cordon guard for a weapons movement for several hours, in the rain. "How's it going, son?" the general asked.

"How the fuck do you think it is?" the kid said, without turning around. "Some fucking asshole general comes to visit, and we all get to stand out in the fucking rain all day."

There were a few malingerers or people who gamed the system. I heard one kid in tears one night at the hooch, telling the first sergeant that he was a sole surviving son, so he had to be evacuated if any shit came down. Another one, a military working dog handler, convinced everyone that he was this super-sensitive religious kid who couldn't do his job because he was afraid of dogs. A couple of guys from the squadron said they saw him in the airport in Japan after he got his assignment curtailed. They claimed he was in the bar, drunk, laughing about how he'd pulled one over on everybody at the Kun. Then there was the married couple that convinced the wife's brother, who happened to be a doctor, to write a phony letter saying there was a family medical emergency that required their presence back Stateside immediately. Knowing people like that made me more tolerant of people who were stupid or brutal or venal but otherwise pulled their weight and did what they were supposed to do.

I went home on midtour in December. I had $700 in my pocket in case I needed to buy a commercial airline ticket back. I spent four days in the terminal at Yokota trying to catch a military hop back to the west coast, getting bumped by every GS-12 civilian and retiree in the Pacific. There was a Japanese Elvis Presley impersonator at the NCO Club. Compared to Kunsan, Yokota was so clean I didn't even want to spit on the streets. I'd almost given up when I finally caught a flight back to Norton Air Force Base in California, and from there to Carswell. I got home right before Christmas. Kimie was six months old then -- a big, healthy baby. She slept ten hours a night for the ten days I was home, which is more than she's ever done, before or since. Leaving was even harder than it had been the first time. I wound up spending four days bouncing back and forth between Oakland Airport and Travis Air Force Base, trying to catch another hop. At Travis, I hooked up with an ARFCOS courier, Captain Tucker. He was prior enlisted, had been in the field artillery in Vietnam. Now he was carrying a bullshit Confidential package, but he was still authorized a guard, so he had me added to the manifest of a C-141 that was going all the way back to Kunsan.

The problem was, the aircrew was milking their per diem, stopping every place they possibly could to get those 12 important hours of crew rest. From Travis, we flew up to McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, where it rained the whole time we were there and I watched Tony Dorsett run 99 yards on TV while talking to my wife on the phone and eating a hamburger I'd bought at the base bowling alley. After timely pause, the aircraft commander called and it was back out to the ramp again.

Captain Tucker had a routine he followed. As soon as the plane was airborne, he'd take sleeping pills and crash. Upon landing, he'd go out to party. When we got to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, though, something wasn't right. The guys from the courier station were supposed to meet him at the aircraft and secure the package so he could go do his thing. After waiting for 45 minutes on the freezing cold ramp (it was near zero Fahrenheit and I was wearing nylon socks and a light poplin jacket), he was pissed. We took a taxi to officers' billeting and he checked us both in, the idea being that I would stay in the room and guard the package while he went out to the club. At the front desk, I saw a guy I'd known in basic training, and I was shooting the shit with him when two Army E-6s from the courier station showed up, apologetic as hell. They took us to their office and locked up the package, then over to the NCO Club, where they bought us steaks the size of your life and lots and lots of booze. Captain Tucker must have drank a fifth of Napoleon brandy all by himself, on top of all the sleeping pills he'd been taking. Willie Nelson was playing in Anchorage that night and they offered to get us tickets, which were going for fifty 1983 dollars. We passed and went back to the room, where the captain crashed. No sooner had we arrived there than the phone rang: the aircraft commander. "Can you meet me at the aircraft in one-five?"

"Affirmative," I said, and proceeded to pick up our luggage and the unconscious captain for the trip out to the ramp. Somehow, we made it back to the aircraft. The weather was bad over Taegu, so the pilot overflew it and landed at Osan. I considered taking my chances, but decided that it wouldn't be good to get stuck in Japan for another four days while my leave ran out, so I jumped off the plane and got on the bus for Kunsan. Sergeant Bo was there. He was supposed to be gone by the time I got back, but he'd gotten drunk and left his plane ticket in his room back at the Kun. Bye-bye, Bo. A couple of months later, I saw Captain Tucker on the road to my squadron at Kunsan. I popped him a salute. "Cap'n Tucker," I said. He gave me one of those "Who in the hell are you?"-type looks and I realized that whole week was probably a blur to him.

I had about two months left on my tour when Lieutenant M. sent me TDY on a bogus out-of-cycle ration control run to Seoul. It was thirty minutes worth of work, dropping some papers off at the computer center at Yongsan Army Garrison, but the real reason for the trip was something Entirely Other. My friend Mac was the NCOIC of ration control (the office responsible for preventing goods from the BX from winding up on the black market) at Kunsan before he got fired for saying on Armed Forces Radio that it was OK to leave your Korean girlfriend a crock pot, refrigerator, or TV when you left the country. Mac had some carpets on layaway at the BX in Osan, and he needed a vehicle to pick them up. So I rode up there with John McClusky from Simi Valley, California, dropped off the docs and spent my entire advance TDY pay on the steambath and massage at the Naija Hotel. The masseuse was a pro -- she found muscles I didn't even know I had and made them all feel _guuuud_. After that, I was supposed to meet Mac and McClusky at one of the clubs in Itaewon, but I wound up crashing as soon as I got to my room and sleeping the sleep of the dead for 16 hours. After picking up Mac's carpets from the BX at Osan, we stopped at the steambath there for another massage. The woman there wasn't nearly as skilled as the one at the Naija, but she asked if I wanted "special massage."

When I declined, she asked, "You homosexboy?"

"Yes, ajima, I homosex every day."

"No problem -- I have little boy for you."

I left the steambath and waited outside for 45 minutes before Mac finally showed up.

"Sorry I'm late," he said, "but it takes a long time to get that baby oil out of your hair."

Our squadron commander extended everyone's tour as long as he possible could, and I was no exception, even though my replacement was there for two months before I was scheduled to rotate back Stateside. As a result, I left one day after my 26th birthday, which is why I tell people that I aged two years in a one-year tour on the Kun. When I got relieved of duty, I hid from my squadron for a week because I wanted to avoid being the recipient of the typical ritual of abuse short-timers had to endure -- being hogtied and covered with various condiments. Instead, I sat at the base swimming pool with four or five worthies from my squadron who'd gotten there after I had but were leaving at the same time. There was an alert one morning and we stood out in the rain in our skivvies with a gallon of vodka, laughing at the guys who were loading their equipment on trucks and getting ready to go to the armory to draw weapons.

At the airport in St. Louis, I kissed the tires of a red Corvette and a friendly bartender agreed to serve us, even though he was supposed to be closed. A couple of the guys from my squadron, whom I'd always known to be hard drinkers, had to sit outside and watch us because they weren't 21 yet. Later on we hooked up with some Army MPs who were coming back from Germany. One of them stole my camera while I was sleeping on my duffel bag outside the USO.

I got back to Fort Worth (where I'd somehow managed to get an assignment to Carswell) and Kimie walked for the first time about three weeks later. One night I took her outside her mom's grandparents' house where we were staying and showed her the full moon.

"Look, Kimie, it's the moon," I said.

"Muhhhhhhnnnn," she agreed.

It felt good to be home.


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