When I arrived at Wurtsmith AFB on December 8, 1978, I remember expecting a crack bomber unit embodying steely-eyed discipline, Spanish Inquisition-level devotion to regulations, and a certain sunglasses-silk-scarf-and-grin panache that would indeed tell you that you were an elite, entrusted with the Nation’s Survival In It’s Darkest Hour.
What I found was snow. Dear God, SO much snow. I thought growing up on the south side of Lake Erie would have prepared me for this, but I was wrong. It’s not that there was physically that much more than back home, but rather that it started falling in September (a fact that led me to meeting my first wife) and stayed there until late May. In fact, at the time I was there the only month it had never snowed was August…and I was at a concert at Castle Farms in Charlevoix the night it almost did. But I digress. The point here is that the snow and the cold and the dark and the childishly easy (and indeed, encouraged) access to spiritus fermentii could do things to people, and did so on a terrifyingly regular basis, and those who were already constitutionally inclined to bad behavior followed that path all the more easily. My introduction to this took all of about twenty-four hours after arrival, when I met My Sponsor. A word of explanation: when one goes from Base A to Base B in the USAF, you are assigned a Sponsor. This is a person from your new duty section who is supposed to set things up for you as far as possible so as to make your transition easy-peasy, don’t ya know. The trouble is that not All Sponsors Are Equal – I had some who worked very hard to get you started and cover every possible problem you may run into. The rest figure that hey, you got yourself into this mess, you get out of it.
My first sponsor was one of those. He shall be callsigned here Eightball, because I remember thinking when I first met him that it was exactly what my former Marine father would have called him…and it was no compliment. Eightball wasn’t that much older than me, in his early twenties, married with a child and devoted to what (at the time) seemed to be the Four Tenets of the Ammo Lifestyle: Drinking, Smoking, Fornicating, and Swearing – not always in that order, but often at the same time, and in apparently superhuman quantities to boot. He was a fireplug of a guy with a mustache that looked like badly severed broom bristles with just a hint of nicotine stain that had somehow embedded themselves in his upper lip, just above a cigarette that never seemed to go out. He didn’t so much speak as brayed just about everything that came out of his mouth, usually followed by an often inappropriate and high-pitched, cackling laugh that could send a shiver down your spine, and indeed, Dear Reader, still does. And as a finishing touch, I cannot ever remember being in close proximity to him without smelling alcohol – alcohol in such great quantities that I was convinced if you put a wick in his mouth, he’d burn for three days. (A Marxist phrase – Groucho’s – not mine.) He may not have been the worst of the Ammo troops in that dank, cramped little building, but you could see it from there. And – most disturbing of all – the United States Air Force, after spending three hectic months training me, entrusted me to Eightball’s tender mercies. And it scared the hell out of me. But, since by that time, changing my mind about the whole thing wasn’t really much of an option, I soldiered – or airmaned – onwards.
It was about a year later – late ’79 – that things began to subtly change. Say what one will about President Carter (and one would probably be right), but credit must be given where it was due – arresting the disintegration of the US military after the Southeast Asian unpleasantness actually started with his administration, and SAC jumped on it with gusto. After all, this was a time when multiple DUIs were not unknown in one’s career, and the use of certain herbs for other than medicinal purposes was common and as long as it didn’t impair one too badly, the worst you could expect was a letter of counseling…IF you were caught. (That problem – on someone else’s part – led to one of the truly Bad Days of my life, but that’s another story for another time.) And over time, it became clear that drinking was, if not actually on the list of things to rein in, something that would be Watched Very Closely. Which, in turn, led to Eightball and a couple of the other old hands in Conventional Section being Watched Very Closely.
Now, by this time, I was under the direct supervision of another Senior Airman, but I still worked with Eightball daily. He had not done well under the drinking crackdown, and it was quietly assumed that indeed, he Had A Problem. And it was getting worse, quite likely (but never AFAIK proven) buttressed by the use of certain controlled substances. His off duty behavior had disintegrated – domestic spats and public displays, don’tcha know – and on duty he was withdrawn and barely functioning at an acceptable level. But, as so often happened, as long as he was functioning it was allowed to slide…until one evening when the slide broke, and proceeded to take the swings and merry-go-round with it.
We assumed that there was a Second Female involved in his life, and this was not an incorrect assumption as it meshed well with the Four Tenets. The trouble here was this: first of all, Wurtsmith then, for all its power, was a VERY small base and everybody knew everybody else. Secondly, drinking and self-administered pharmaceuticals in combination not only sap one’s self control, they make it pretty damned hard to handle the moral and functional juggling that keep Mrs. Eightball and the Small Base from finding out about the Second one. And in Eightball’s case, he had apparently engaged the Second Female in a remarkably indiscreet case of PDA during one of those impaired moments…while telling Mrs. Eightball he had in fact been Doing His Duty. Bad Show, indeed. Mrs. Eightball, faced with incontrovertible evidence – or more likely, simply unable to ignore it any longer – threw him out of their quarters and prepared to lower the boom. Eightball apparently dimly realized he had well and truly screwed the infamous Pooch, and was willing to leave the premises – but then discovered that thanks to his recent behavior, absolutely no one was willing to take him in. And regs at the time prevented him from even getting a bunk in Barracks 514, so the poor lad was stuck. It was a Mexican Standoff – she wanted him gone, but he couldn’t leave, so the two decided on an uneasy cease-fire until things could get worked out.
Things, however, came to a head a couple days later. Mrs. Eightball was confronted with evidence (and my memory clouds here) that either the relationship with the Second Female was far more complex than she had been led to believe, or that there was, in fact, a Third Female. Now, this would not have been unknown – one of our NCOs there at this point was juggling three, and evidence pointed to a fourth – but it required a level of social awareness and time management that Eightball was simply incapable of. Be that as it may, it apparently ignited a Biblical-level meltdown on the part of Mrs. Eightball.
Now, having been through a divorce (and one that I am assured was far less unpleasant than most), I can assure those who have not that it ignites passions and furies in both parties that would do justice to the greatest of the Greek tragedies. Love, romance, shared parenthood, friendship, common decency, and the shared experiences of even a short time together give way to an attitude that can best be summed up in two words: Going Nuclear. And brothers and sisters… Mrs. Eightball decided not only to turn both keys herself, but to sing along with the air-raid sirens. Leaving her home, she went to a friend’s and made…an Accusation. I shall not go into detail here, for it is at best a horrifying one, and IIRC, was not proven after a thorough investigation. But the Accusation itself was sufficient to start the wheels of military justice turning, and that was where things went completely off the rails.
A friend of his at the Law Enforcement side of SPS found out what was happening, and gave Eightball a heads up. What this dimwit was thinking, I do not know – the Accusation itself would have been enough to unbalance better men, and when he got the call Eightball was already three sheets to the wind and ready to request takeoff clearance, pretty much his default mode by then. So at that point – faced with a career that was literally imploding around him and criminal accusations that could have landed him in Leavenworth to this day – Eightball disintegrated. He knew he couldn’t stay where he was at, for the Forces of Justice Descending were saddling up their ’75 Plymouths and preparing to land upon him like avenging angels. Mrs. Eightball had taken their car and child and fled, so he was left, most definitely not sober and on foot. The main gate was out of the question, and hiding was probably not an option. So, facing all this, Eightball stood up and decided to go out in glory. He staggered to his feet and reached for the two things he thought he would need to cross over – a BB pistol, and his pet iguana, Ivan.
Now, I’d met Ivan on a couple of occasions – he was a fairly good sized, bright green iguana having a calm, phlegmatic attitude, as do you and I. Never knew exactly what he ate – Eightball suggested on a regular basis that the source of Ivan’s diet was somewhat more sinister than the insect life that abounded up north – but he seemed happy and well-cared for enough, so much so that on occasion we suspected Ivan was indeed a lot happier and well-cared for than Mrs. Eightball and their son. However, that night Eightball looked around the wreckage of his life and came to the conclusion that the only source of love, unquestioning devotion, and comradeship unto the end was Ivan, and Ivan, in unspoken eloquence, would share that end. Or maybe Ivan was just too damned cold to argue, being where we were, but never mind.
The Law Enforcement troops apparently missed Eightball by mere seconds, and immediately started asking the other residents if they had seen anything. And promptly disbelieving what they were being told. The gun – quickly confirmed as a BB pistol – made a certain amount of sense…but a lizard? Aw, hell no. Gotta be something else. This serene conclusion lasted mere minutes before an exponentially increasing number of calls came in from a few blocks away that someone was shooting out windows on parked cars. While raving incoherently and carrying what appeared to be a fluorescent green cat/dog/stuffed toy/unknown animal. The LE guys looked at one another, and their blood ran cold as they realized the awful truth: a nutcase with a BB gun was loose…and El Lagarto walked by his side.
Or, more properly, was carried. But you get the idea.
Military law enforcement does not now, nor did it then have many of the cultural imperatives and impediments we see on the civilian side of the house – the rule and directive at that point was simple: GET HIM. (And his little lizard too, it went without saying.) Within minutes, the LE force was coming down like the wrath of God, aided and abetted by the far more serious firepower of the Security Police. The blue berets deployed around a cul-de-sac where screaming, popping noises, and busting glass was heard, and sure enough there was Eightball, drawing down on any expanse of car window that caught his fancy, and Ivan was firmly by his side. I was told by witnesses on both sides – SP/LE and in the houses – that it was a thing of tactical beauty to behold as the cops came out from between the houses just as Eightball and Ivan found themselves dead center in the middle of the cul-de-sac proper and cop vehicles, gumball machines blinking to beat the band, came roaring up the street. Even in his seriously altered state, Eightball knew the game was up – there was no escape, and although everybody knew it was a BB gun, this was a SAC base and these were SAC security troops. If he made a run for it, it could turn terminal right quickly – the men with the guns were angry and embarrassed, and the guy with the lizard had nothing to lose.
Which is why I’d like to think that in some part of Eightball’s disintegrating brain, a couple of synapses misfired in just the right sequence to explain what happened next…for Eightball looked at El Lagarto….and El Lagarto looked back with an expression of quiet understanding…an imperceptible nod…and an unspoken pact passed between them at that moment. It would have been that look that Butch and Sundance passed between each other that warm afternoon in Bolivia as their adventure came to an a close, and it spoke more eloquently than any words could ever do: If this was the end, then let it be so. One would sacrifice for the other, even if to buy just a few more seconds, and however it turned out, was how it would be. So, before anyone could move, Eightball swung up the BB gun, placed it to Ivan’s head, and cried, “Back off or I WILL SHOOT THIS FECKING LIZARD!!”
There was utter, complete, and total silence for a few heartbeats, not even the birds chirped, nor did a single sound from the flightline echo down through the trees and the houses. No one spoke – no one could speak – until one of the SP Lieutenants said, quietly, “…Guys….I think he’s serious….”
This apparently had two effects – first, everyone turned to the ell-tee with a “What the hell did you just say?” expression, and then one of the senior NCOs present gave that timeless expression known as the facepalm and ordered his men to rush Eightball. They tackled him with the ferocity of an NFL line defending their end zone with one second left on the clock, and I understand there were some minor injuries on Eightball’s part before he was wrestled into a LE cruiser and taken off to Building 180, SP HQ on Wurtsmith and a place with the same terror and dread that Winston Smith’s Room 101 inspired.
We never saw Eightball again; his gear at work was quietly boxed and sent to the squadron, his home emptied of the things that had once belonged to a family and sent elsewhere. I do know there were no courts-martial, but there was a very quick discharge, and the matter was dropped. Some quiet inquires some time afterwards were answered with long faces and reminders of the Privacy Act. Whatever happened to him happened fast, and he became as much an unperson as one of those poor Stalinists who is airbrushed out of a picture after the People’s Courts have their way. He was perhaps to a certain extent a victim of circumstances – a remote assignment, a personality disposed to problems to begin with, and easy/semi-tolerated substance abuse – and in the end there may have been no way around what happened. At the very least, I hope that this was as much of the bottom as he hit. I know Mrs. Eightball later married another one of the Ammo troops, and at last report (many years ago) had done well. In the meantime, Eightball’s Run became a legendary – and cautionary tale – in the 379th Munitions Maintenance Squadron.
Oh good heavens, I almost forgot – there are two versions of Ivan’s fate. The first was that he was scooped up by one of the SPs and eventually found his way to a pet store downtown – Mrs. Eightball wanted NOTHING to do with him. Hopefully, he found another owner to care for him, and he settled into a warm, well-fed retirement. But others tell a different tale…how, in the tumult and shouting, Ivan escaped that day, and lived out a short, defiant remainder of his life in the lush woods until The Snows Came and enshrouded him in silent white Death.
Legend, though, told around missile stands and entry control points, whispered over pool tables and pitchers of beer at the Club, told of a silent, almost unseen form who walked a certain cul-de-sac, seen only fleetingly from the corner of your eye – then GONE – leaving odd footprints in the snow, and an alien hissing sound that you could never quite lock in on. You’ve seen that too, Newbie? Then count yourself fortunate that El Lagarto has passed you by…..