…A brief word of explanation: my friends at a couple of other sites have already seen this story and the others that shall follow, but it was suggested that I share them here because the more people who understand just how out of plumb I am, the better.
I have always said, Gentle Reader, that the United States Air Force tried hard to make our lives at Wurtsmith AFB, MI, as pleasant as the realities of budget and practicality would allow, and in the main they did all right. The trouble is – and one should sit down for this, for it may come as a shock – young men in their teens and twenties tend to create their own amusements regardless of what may be provided, and not always for the better. A story from a lovely summer Saturday should suffice.
Now, perhaps I should begin by explaining that 514 was inhabited by three groups of people:
· The 461s, – Ammo to the rest of you and the true reason that SAC wasn’t just another unscheduled airline, thank you very much.
· The 462s – loaders (or, somewhat more indelicately, ‘muzzlefeckers’) who spend all their time breaking the toys we 461s so lovingly and selflessly provided for the safety and sheer fun of the Buff crews, and
· The 463s – the Nuke Pukes – whose primary job seemed to be smiling and saying, “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you.”
As a rule, we all got along well enough despite the occasional flare-up of professional jealousy, though in fairness it was easy to understand why the other two would be jealous of the 461s. Based on sheer physical attractiveness alone we were in the lead by a wide margin, but I digress. The jealousy really tended to come into play when it came to what we euphemistically referred to as ‘function checks’ – i.e.; that is, and to wit, setting some of our goodies off.
Now, as a rule we did not pop these things in daily operations. That tended to bother people at Higher Headquarters as well as annoy the taxpayers, not to mention the whole death, injury and damage thing. I was front and center for one such event in August of 1979 and sorry, but no. I’ll simply say that it was bad enough that even though I was uninvolved save for being present, grim and taciturn men with eagles on their shoulders were deciding whether or not I should remain in my career field or instead take up the thrilling and demanding world of Civil Engineers groundskeeping. Unpleasant memories, and damned so.
Now, where was I? Oh yes. We were allowed, on occasion, to set off – under extremely controlled conditions – various and sundry of our toys when they got too old or developed some sort of flaw that rendered them even more unsafe. Burning, functioning and occasionally and most reverently desired, explosive demolition was a routine function of the 461 field. If we were really lucky, the SPs would invite us to sit in on a training session where such toys like M60s, M203 grenade launchers (which, if I say so myself and I do, I was pretty good with) or even the revered Ma Deuce were available to try one’s luck. During my year’s sojourn in the Land Of The Morning Calm, I was asked on one memorable occasion if I wanted to try my hand at such apocalyptic goodies as the 90mm recoilless rifle (immense fun but a little difficult to handle when you are, like me, devastatingly handsome but a tad on the short side) and a few minutes later, the piece de resistance, a lovely and amusing piece of high tech death known as the M163 – a armored personnel carrier with a Vulcan rotary cannon where the personnel used to be. The 462s, however, had no such opportunities save for their once a year trip to the range where they qualified on the trusty M16. They got to handle and load weapons of unimaginable destructive power, but had to hope and pray that the damn things never went off. The 463s, being the keepers of the secrets of the Atom, couldn’t even talk about the fun they’d have letting one go lest some wet blanket deny PRP clearance unto the seventh generation of their offspring. For instance, there was one occasion where a few 63s, feeling unjustly maligned (and with SOME slight basis in fact, if not justification), allowed Higher Authority to believe that they had done…. something…to some weapons.
On an alert bird. Or birds, actually. Five of ‘em, to be precise.
Imagine the fun that ensued from that, Dear Reader, and all the more so since we were told to erase the incident from our memories, as the leadership may or may not have gotten around to telling HQ SAC about it. But anyways, they had the same problem as the 62s – look all they wanted, touch on a regular basis, but set off? Weren’t happenin’. So, being relatively smart and inventive chaps, as well as being marginally disturbed, they invented their own high explosive fun. For starters, they – and the 62’s were especially bad for this – would obtain garden-variety firecrackers, light them, and then throw them beneath your door, ideally in the middle of the night for maximum effect. (I solved this particular problem by nailing a piece of steel weatherstripping to the inside bottom of my door. When they bounce back out and explode on your bare feet, it tends not to be anywhere near as much fun any more.) Firearms – officially banned in the barracks – tended to be another popular diversion, and for quite some time there was an arms race of terrifying proportions underway. The 62s, being more practical than the cerebral 63s, ran away with this one just about every time. However, you can only carry two weapons at a time, and despite a couple actual attempts to do so, that idea ran out of steam surprisingly quickly. In addition, despite something resembling actual military firearms training, these lads had a tendency to be…well…less than accurate when handling said weapons, and stories of near misses and unintended impacts were legion.
So, in any event, the denizens of 514, being nothing if not imaginative, searched for more effective ways to recreate the Big Bang in their own living spaces, and one day did so. The persons responsible shall be callsigned here as Jake and Ski (no, not me, honest), a couple of 62s who had spent a gorgeous Saturday afternoon enjoying brewed Pilsner products and trying to figure out a way to blow shiat up. Now, Jake was a decent guy, normally of the Firearms Are Cool! faction whose only potential cause for concern that comes to memory was an intense dislike of squirrels. This in turn dated from an incident when Jake and some others had gone deer hunting (a cultural ritual in northern Michigan more than deserving of its own story) and a squirrel’s sudden chatter had chased off a buck whose size and point count increased with every telling of the story. Furious, Jake whipped out a pistol – after all, one never knows when Bambi is going to throw down on you – and blew the little rodent straight to Squirrel Heaven. A witness later assured me that after the echoes died away from the Michigan forest all that remained was “a hole with four paws and a tail.” Ski, on the other hand, was somewhat more hard-edged – he and I got along well for quite some time until for reasons I was never clear on, he decided I was a Class I Enemy, and that was it. He was also of the gun faction, and at the time we got along so being on the wrong end of said guns wasn’t a concern.
I was heading back into 514 from the south door at about four in the afternoon, and the day had gone well. I’d slept in, enjoyed the bill of fare at the Chow Hall (never a bad meal there) and then spent the afternoon in blissful, silent contemplation of the printed word and image while at the base Library – someplace, Dear Reader, where you went to learn and research things before the age of the Innertubes or whatever we call it. And best of all, I had a date that evening. The lady in question will be callsigned hereafter Mags, for such is a reasonable diminutive of her Christian name. Mags was a remarkable young woman raised on an honest to God ranch out west, as such inexpressibly exotic to this city boy, and a true and genuine free spirit (in the finest sense of those words) who taught me a great deal about Life, the Universe, and other imponderables. In addition, she was a Fire Control tech – responsible for the radars and quad .50s that defended Miss Buffy – and in all honesty, it’s hard not to be attracted to a woman in a tight t-shirt and a belt of .50 API draped over her shoulder.
At least it wasn’t hard for me, but your mileage may vary.
She was also slightly – ever so slightly – OCD about being on time for an engagement. This was reasonable enough, as she had enough friends/admirers/entourage to have no problems lining up other diversions for an evening. And as we were going to dinner early before an evening with friends, my plan was thus: get back to the dorm, shower, shave, meditate upon the human condition, dress to kill and then escort Mags to dinner down in the bustling metropolis of Tawas City. Four o’clock now, collect her at five, dinner at six. If you learn nothing else in Strategic Air Command, you learn precision in planning.
Except I couldn’t get to my room. Between my room –two doors in from the south entrance – and I were Jake and Ski, and a rocket. Nothing as wicked as the SRAMs we worked with, or as lethally dignified as the Minuteman III ICBMs our cousins in arms kept beneath the golden prairie. No, this was a pretty much typical Estes model rocket about a foot long, hanging off a launch pad hanging parallel (more or less, which is relevant later) to the floor, having been duct taped to a chair. By Jake and Ski. They were rigging some kind of box – a transformer, as I recall plugged into the wall – with a truncated cord and two bare leads into the rocket motor, in-between swigs of whatever beer had been cheapest at the Class 6 store that morning. They were not necessarily inebriated, mind you but I’m quite sure they could see it from there. And most frightening of all, Dear Reader, this wasn’t fazing me in the SLIGHTEST. I was, however, curious as to exactly what the feck these two had in mind.
Jake enlightened me, and upon reflection the plan was simplicity itself. They were going to fire said rocket down the hallway – Ski belched and motioned down the hundred and something feet of tile and concrete block – and out the doors on the other end. Now, in terms of pure physics, this wasn’t at all impossible – My Beloved Service had, in matters of research and institutional violence, been doing this sort of thing since 1947, more or less. But we did not as a rule do it for purposes of sheer recreation and we sure as hell didn’t fire them down a 8’x8’x120’ tube with people in it. Admittedly, there were no high explosives involved here so there was that, but the fact was that my comrades in arms were about to fire a seriously ballistic device inside their home. At this point however my curiosity not only won out over my professional training, it dragged it into an alley, mugged it, and stole its wallet. I WANTED to see how this came out.
Thing was that time was becoming a factor – I had just a few minutes left to get to my room and begin preparing to meet my social obligations, so whatever devilment was going to take place here had to happen quickly, a point I made with no little urgency. This information was accepted with surprising equanimity, probably because Mags was well known and liked within the 514 community (although there was affectionate but general bewilderment as to exactly what she saw in me) and equally likely because nobody wanted to see me get on her bad side, which was indeed Formidable. In addition, a small crowd had now gathered behind me, and was watching the proceedings with intense interest to the point where it is possible that wagers were being taken on exactly what this operation would accomplish in terms of damage and injuries. But on the whole, we were rooting for our guys. The countdown was of necessity short, and only one hold was required when someone pointed out that there were a few room doors open down towards the other end of the hall and that perhaps we should suggest that those good souls batten down the hatches and with that Ski jumped at the suggestion and headed downrange to warn the innocent.
It was here that things went just a touch pear-shaped.
One of the assembled multitudes picked that moment to ask Jake exactly how they were going to ignite the rocket motor. Jake, after one final swig, was more than happy to explain: the leads coming out of the transformer were in the rocket motor, and would ignite said motor when one threw the switch on said transformer LIKE THIS –
There was a simultaneous cavalcade of sights and sounds – the pop of a spark, the smell of ozone and the SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH of the rocket fulfilling its short spectacular destiny, followed by a seemingly solid wall of brownish gray smoke and the acrid smell of solid rocket propellant. Jake staggered out of the hallway, coughing and laughing hysterically at the same time…until someone asked WHERE THE HELL WAS SKI???? We all had the same thought at the same time, and plunged into the smoky maelstrom, caroming off the walls and each other, screaming Ski’s name and wondering just when we were going to trip over a still, silent corpse harpooned by a little red rocket. Fortunately, after what seemed like forever, we heard a squeaky voice say, “I’m right HERE, you (body part that everyone has)!!!” And sure enough about three quarters of the way down the hall was Ski, safe and sound….and flattened into the 2” deep space between someone’s door and the hallway wall, a feat of contortionism that I would defy even the greatest fakir to repeat.
Now that Ski was confirmed among the living, the next question was what had happened to the damn rocket? Whoops of laughter and glee from outside the north entrance gave us our answer: the little bird had indeed performed its mission with flawless precision, having apparently cleared the door quite nicely and sailed with unerring accuracy into the side of the next dorm over….the better part of another hundred feet past 514. All that remained of the proud little rocket was a small pancake of plastic and cardboard flattened against the outer wall, about three feet off the cool green lawn, with the one remaining intact fin twitching slightly in the breeze. We gathered around it in silent respect and awe for a few moments, as the smoke drifted steadily out of 514 as banners in formation to honor a fallen comrade. Without a word spoken or command given, all of us snapped to attention and saluted our little friend…following which we quickly gathered up the wreckage and got it safely to the dumpster before anybody else saw this.
Much laughter and discussion followed the last rites for the rocket, much of which centered on Ski’s remarkable ability to get out of the line of fire. But it was only as we got back into 514 that we saw what turned out to be the true cost of the experiment. It seems that the first and most important finding of our scientific effort was this: Gravity works. As the rocket left the horizontal launch rail – only about three feet long – it didn’t have quite enough thrust to deny Isaac Newton’s siren call and the little sonofabeachball dropped like a rock, leaving a scorch mark about two feet long in the tile. But as the thrust built up, it apparently did so…somewhat asymmetrically. The Little Rocket That Could turned to starboard after skidding on the floor for a few feet, and proceeded to climb UP THE WALL, in an abbreviated corkscrew before getting as high as the ceiling and apparently dropping back down to about four feet off the deck and exiting 514 at extreme speed. We deduced this from the exhaust stain that stood boldly out against the white paint. More laughter ensued before it was pointed out that somehow the damage was going to have to be made good, and right quickly at that. Some paint was found, and that took care of the wall, but the floor was another matter entirely…because the rocket motor had, in fact, started to burn through the tile. Jake and Ski broke out the buffers and wax, and put their backs into it. (They tried hard, but the scorch mark was never completely erased, and remained there until the dorm was carpeted some time later.)
All things considered, an amusing afternoon and a grand lead-in to what I hoped would be a glorious evening and HOLY CRAP LOOK AT THE TIME. It was now, according to my Timex with about half a dozen different dials and knobs, four thirty-eight. I don’t believe that even in basic training did I ever get myself cleaned up and dressed as quickly as I did right then and there, leaping nimbly through the damage control parties as I did my best to get mission capable. It was close, but all was well at 1655 when I went upstairs to collect Mags. She, of course, was ready – all sunglasses and jeans and boots and attitude, and I was silently congratulating myself on having overcome such an unusual hurdle to be ready on time when
– She wrinkled her nose.
This was no ‘Bewitched’ wrinkle, friends, this was a wrinkle that I was at that moment sure she had learned back on that ranch when one of the local fauna had obeyed Nature’s call in a particularly unpleasant way. And as it turned out, I didn’t even to ask why the wrinkle – I suddenly got a whiff of acrid rocket motor exhaust. You see, when the rocket hit the ground, it did so right in front of my door – and since this was before the weatherstripping refit, a great deal of that exhaust went right under it and managed to attach itself to the clothes I had hanging out for the evening.
I was about to explain, even as my brain told me that there was no possible way to logically explain this, when Mags strode past me, gave me a pat on the shoulder and headed down the hall to the stairs, looking back at me and saying, “You coming along? Oh, and lose the cologne.”
I, of course, promised with stout heart and complete honesty to never again use Eau de Estes.