Sunday, July 31, 2011

The British Invade Illinois

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Hear Pat read this entry 

Chanute AFB is located just outside the Rantoul, Il city limits. Established in 1917, it was a training base throughout it's existence and exists today as a kind of Air Force museum and tourist attraction for the good folk of Rantoul, who are so proud of their long association with the Air Force.  I guess that's why the first thing you saw when you came off base were a Pawn Shop and Shylock loan joint.  They were just so PROUD to be there for us lower grade airmen should we need some cash at 20% interest!  Funny, the Pawn Shop and loan joint aren't part of the exhibit as far as I know.  More about the good folks of Rantoul later.

During the first 3 weeks, I was in school pretty much all day finishing up my basic training.  Unlike Lackland, these T.I.s had little stomach for the constant drilling and yelling.  They just wanted to get this thing over with and get us into our tech schools.  Also unlike Lackland, after classes we were pretty much free to do whatever we wanted including a stop by the Exchange Cafeteria where they had 3-2 beer on the menu.  It was more like water than beer, but at that point nobody cared.  We were all under 21 and drinking beer legally... HOT DAMN!!!

Tech school turned out to be quite a challenge, much more so than I thought.  There were classes in electronics, pneumatics, hydraulics’s and jet engine theory.  Although I still didn't know a wrench from my mama's rolling pin, I did quite well, especially in jet engine theory.  I aced that! There were extremely high standards in appearance and barracks cleanliness.  Our loose fitting fatigues wouldn't cut the mustard here.  They were expected to look like the T.I.'s at Lackland, heavily starched, tailored and form fitted.  Ladies from the USO would tailor the uniforms to order, then we'd spray them down with starch and press the dickens out of them.  Some guys went so far as to have piano wire sewed into their pants at the crease.  Our shoes weren't just shined to a “high gloss” as specified in the Airman's Guide, they were spit shined to the extent that you could actually use them as a shaving mirror.  We'd use Kiwi polish, a cotton ball and water and polish those things for hours. We'd buy an extra pair of dress shoes, paint them with black spar varnish and stick them under the bed for inspection purposes, then just toss them out after graduation. In terms of recreation there were plenty of opportunities on base.  There were movie theaters, bowling alleys, skating rinks, and I even had a chance to jam a bit with some pick-up bands from time to time.

One chilly, Fall day after returning from chow we noticed something very unusual.   All the T.I.s were wearing black ropes around their shoulders.  Now we'd seen plenty of these uniform adornments before, student leaders wore green and red ropes, but we'd never seen a black one before.  Also, their demeanor had changed, normally they were a fairly boisterous bunch but for some reason today they were downright subdued.  We were ordered into formation and called to attention. The lead T.I. Climbed onto the podium... I'll never forget what he said:

Thirty minutes ago the President of the United States was attacked in Dallas Texas.  He is being attended to at Parkland Hospital in Dallas.  We have no further information.  At this time we are closing the base and implementing Red Alert, nobody comes in... nobody goes out.  Some of you will be charged with guard duty, If someone tries to enter the base and refuses your order to halt... I don't care if he has 4 stars on his shoulder... you are to shoot to kill.  All classes are hereby canceled until further notice.  You are to assemble in your respective barracks and remain there until further notice.  Gentlemen, this is no drill, it's the real thing.  Dismissed!”

I was stunned, Kennedy was the first President that most of us had felt a connection with.  He had stared down the Soviet Union and won.   He had set the country on course to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  He had inspired the nation on Jan. 20, 1961 when he said “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”  Frankly, I'm not sure I'd have gone into the Air Force at all had Nixon won, but Kennedy's enormous charisma was an inspiration to all of us.

Later in the day the word was passed, President Kennedy was dead.  They had arrested a suspect, and were holding him in custody.  Three days later we all watched the funeral on television.  I saw the now iconic images of Jacqueline, Carolyn and little John John bravely saluting his father's casket.  It was horrid, none of us knew what was going on.   Were the Russians responsible?  The Cubans?   Were we about to enter World War 3?  What in the hell is going on here?  We all needed something to take our minds off this horror.  A couple of months later that something came along.

One day in January, 1964 one of my classmates brought in an album.   I remember a strange looking cover, with four faces on the front.  It was in black and white, what kind of album cover is that?  Were they too cheap to shoot a color picture?  He played some of the songs on his stereo.  They sounded somehow primitive to me, just some guitars and drums.  Pretty good harmonies but nothing to write home about, any Doo-Wop group sounded better.   I wasn't impressed.

The rest of the world was however, The Beatles had arrived!

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