Friday, August 26, 2011

The Mother Of All Farts

The Summer of 1968 turned into Fall, then Winter.  Throughout I was constantly on the run promoting shows and dances, and pocketing the cash.  I'd have several appearances every week, and collect a hundred or two for each one.  That's 1968 money folks, today that hundred dollars would buy $627 worth of goods or services.  Serious money by anyone's standards.  We had some great times too.  All of the groups were easy to work with, especially The Pack and The Amboy Dukes.

Everyone in the area knew that The Pack would eventually make it big, but nobody could ever have guessed just how big they would become.  When I booked them for shows, they were a 4 piece, pseudo R&B band.  Don Brewer was easily one of the best rock drummers I had ever seen, how Rolling Stone could ever have concluded that his playing would “drive you up the wall” is beyond me.  Mark Farner possessed an enormous charisma, he was a handsome, muscular young guy with long, flowing hair.  He'd perform shirtless, and go into his “riding the microphone” routine, hair flying and girls screaming.  They were the show closer every time, but we just couldn't figure out how they'd make it big given their repertoire.  When they latched onto Mel Schacher, they became a hard rock power trio and as Grand Funk Railroad, became the most popular band in the world.

Nugent was another pro.  As wild and crazy as the guy can be onstage, he was quiet and business like off.  He would go to any extent to give a great performance.  I can vividly recall him standing in front of a huge bank of Fender Dual Showman amps playing the feedback from his guitar.  He was such a great performer, I imagine he must've lost 20 lbs from the sweat alone.   I recall a show at the local college when he cranked up those amps and blew the power out.  He sat on the stage and threw a temper tantrum, sitting cross legged on the floor banging some maracas until the lights came back on.  When Ted was in the middle of a show, he was in a different world!

The MC5 were a special treat.  They were the baddest, fire breathin'est band on the planet.  Managed by John Sinclair, they traveled with a coterie of handlers, groupies, roadies and various hangers on.  Their “spiritual adviser” "The Prophet Of Zenta Brother J.C. Crawford" would make the opening invocation.  “You must choose brothers and sister. Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?  I give you a testimonial... THE M...C...5!!!!!!!!!”  At which point Rob Tyner would run up to the mike and scream “KICK OUT THE JAMS MOTHER %$#@ERS!!!!!”  I vividly recall the first time Deb and I booked these guys into a show in East Tawas.  When Tyner let out the “F” bomb we just looked at each other in disbelief.  Moments before we'd been backstage with them, and they were as polite and agreeable as you could imagine.

I'm bettin' the little, old ladies that chaperoned THAT show never did another!

The Frost was the band everybody thought would make it big, though somehow they never did.  They could pack a venue and whip the crowd into a frenzy.  Dick Wagner would later team up with Steve Hunter and tour with Ursa major, Lou Reed and finally Alice Cooper.  Dick wrote many of the Alice classics including “Only Women Bleed."  Dick and Don Hartman would trade guitar riffs making for some of the best rock guitar I've ever heard.  Bob Rigg would send the place into overdrive with his extended drum solos.  Bob was easily  one of the best drummers in the world.  It was a good thing I wasn't playing professionally anymore, I'd have been seriously out of my league!

Superstardom was still a couple of years away for these performers, and I could still book them for $400 per show.  A couple of years later you couldn't have touched Grand Funk for less then $100,000, that's nearly 700 grand in today's money!

But as I mentioned earlier on, radio has a tendency to kick you in the rear just as things are going as smooth as can be, and that's exactly what happened at WKNX.  Part of what made the job at 'KNX so great was the unlimited plugs we could give out for our appearances.  My salary at the station was only $125/wk, even back then that wasn't much.  It was the several hundred I'd get for appearances that made that job worthwhile so as you might expect I was greatly discouraged when the station manager announced that, heretofore, our access to this benefit was to be greatly reduced.  Apparently my dances were cutting into HIS business, and that was seriously unacceptable!  To add insult to injury, I was on the air when he came into the studio to tell me.  Now I was pissed, really, REALLY pissed!

I'd stopped off for lunch a few minutes before I went on the air, and whatever I'd eaten was not agreeing with me at all.  This of course made matters even worse.  I was contemplating what my next move should be.  I'd gotten good ratings up to now, and a station in Detroit had recently contacted me about working there.  Detroit was a top-10 radio market, and would be a real asset to my resume.  I'd done OK in Saginaw so maybe it was time to leave, but not without a grand gesture of some kind.  The indigestion was starting to become painful by this point, something was going to give... if I could just hold on for a couple of moments to allow maximum pressure.  Finally the record ended and I cracked the mike:

In my best radio DJ voice I announced “I quit!!!!!” then placed the mike within' fallout range of my rear-end, and let 'er rip.


It was without question one of the loudest, rudest incidents of crepitation in the history of the world.  Indeed THE loudest and rudest.  Not only that, but the aroma was beyond anything Dow Chemical could have ever put into the air back in Midland.  To make it worse, the thing was being amplified and carried across the airwaves by 10,000 watts of pure, unadulterated radio horsepower.

The manager came running into the studio as I was walking out. “What in the hell was..” then he caught a whiff  “JESUS....” he screamed as he turned around and headed out of the studio.  By this time I was at the door, headed for my car. That was my last show at WKNX.  

Then again, maybe not.  

Radio signals leave our atmosphere and travel, unencumbered throughout the universe.  I'm told that solar systems similar to ours exist about 40 light years from here, which means that my gargantuan fart from 40 years ago is just now arriving there.  Now suppose there's intelligent life on those planets.  What if some little green folks are riding around in their anti-gravity cars right now listening to that show and they hear that fart?  Don't you know the guy in the back seat is yelling “Oh MAN, open the window for cryin' out loud!!”

The Credanian, interplanetary warships are probably being loaded with negative ion anti-matter cannons right now!

Wheel Of Mis-Fortune!!

To say the WKNX gig re-energized my radio career is a vast understatement.  Let's just say that if it hadn't come along, I'd probably still be stamping out spark plugs (or whatever they do to make them) somewhere.  It was a perfect collusion of timing and opportunity which, when you think of it, is the real definition of luck.  You're lucky if you're in the right place at the right time, which means you had to have been in the wrong place every other time.

I began to exploit my situation shamelessly, promoting dances and concerts whenever and wherever I could.   Working with local promoters, I'd line up Dick Wagner and the Frost, The Fabulous Pack, The Cherry Slush, Bob Seger, The Rationals and any other Tri-Cities based group I could find for shows throughout the immediate area, and later throughout the east side of Michigan.  Deb and I would jump in the car and head up to East Tawas where I'd make an appearance with, say The MC-5 then zip up to Alpena for a show with ? And the Mysterians, The Pack and, maybe the Amboy Dukes.   We had no dearth of willing promoters who would happily give me whatever I wanted in exchange for the unlimited advertising I could offer.  We could pack any venue we chose given the popularity of the acts, and the enormous reach of the station.  Life was seriously GOOD!

Within a short period of time I decided I needed a much more appropriate ride, so I went out and bought a T-Bird and some custom pillows which matched the leather interior, that I could use to nap on while Deb drove from gig to gig.   The schedule was exhausting, especially since I had to do the morning show on Saturdays, but extremely rewarding.  Financially, we did just fine.

My personal life was going through some rocky times however.  It had become emphatically clear to me that my marriage was doomed.   Teenage marriages rarely last, and mine was no exception.  My life and Judy's had been going in different directions for years.   In radio I would always be a Nomad, never staying in one place too long.  

Here's the dirty secret about that business.  When you walk in the door for the first time the clock starts ticking, one way or another you WILL leave that job.  Whether they get you or you get them is a matter of timing.  The very first thing you do upon accepting a new radio job is to update your resume because you never know how long the thing will last.  If you've ever wondered why your favorite DJ is no longer on the air at your favorite station, chances are that he/she is wondering the very same thing.   It's a brutal industry, and extremely unfriendly to families.

On the up side when things are going well they're REALLY going well, and things were really going well for me at WKNX.  I had a four hour air shift and one hour of production...recording commercials, station promos etc... plus I often did the booth announcements for WKNX-TV.  On occasion I was called upon to fill in for one of the TV folks to do a weather cast, or something such as the daily prize wheel game.

The prize wheel was a lead in segment to the afternoon news cast.  As I remember it was a 5 minute segment that ran at :55 past the hour... I believe 5:55PM.  The idea was the host would reach into a barrel and pull out a postcard, then spin the wheel.  If the prize on the card matched the prize on the wheel, the contestant won.   Simple right?

Not always.

When I did the show I had to grab a WKNX jacket and run like hell down the hallway to the TV side, where the floor director would hang a mike over my head.  The camera would already be focused on a tight shot of the spinning wheel while I got into position behind the barrel.   I always thought that prize wheel was fastened onto the hub a little to loosely, but I never gave it much consideration.   On this one particular day, while I was getting the mike set up, they must've spun the wheel a little too hard when they set up the tight shot because the damned thing came off it's axle and rolled off to the side of the room, all on live TV.  The director hustled me into place behind the barrel as the crew chased the wheel down.

“No sweat guys, while you rig the wheel back up, I'll draw the card”

So they cued me to start my opening rap.  As I was delivering the lines I began to turn a the crank on the end of the barrel to mix up the cards, the idea being that I'd then dramatically reach deep into the barrel to bring up the postcard.  Only this time someone had forgotten to fasten down the door, so when the barrel turned over half the cards fell out in a heap on the floor.  By this time the entire crew was laughing their asses off, which got me to laughing too.  As we contemplated our situation... prizewheel rolling across the room... postcards all over the floor... we laughed harder and harder until all of us were completely dysfunctional, roaring our fool heads off.  The director... incapacitated as well by laughter... tried to get the news guy (I think it was Dick Fabian) set up for the cast.  Needless to say, The Prizewheel Game was pre-empted on that particular day!

Ah yes friends, live TV.  Just like I'd remembered from the Howdy Doody days!!!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The 1210 Music Men

Dick Fabian, one of the best morning men to ever crack a mike!
Hear Pat read this entry 

 The Fall of 1967 found me packing up family, belongings and pride and heading to Yankton, SD, I'd managed to find a job at KYNT.  I arrived on Thanksgiving, and was put to work immediately tracking beautiful music albums and running religious programs, about as far as one could ever get from where I wanted to be in radio.  It didn't get any better either, my shift consisted of playing some records, running the board during an afternoon talk show, reading the occasional news cast and... most importantly... the Daily Rosary.  If I had been Catholic, I'd have put in an extra prayer for the good Lord to get me out of there!  It didn't take long for that job to go south.

So I decided to return to Michigan, at least there I'd be able to take a job at G.M. and make enough money to live on.  Maybe this radio thing wasn't really worthwhile after all.  When we arrived I stashed Judy and the girls back at her parents place... boy were they happy about THAT... and accompanied my dad to the A.C. spark plug division of G.M., where he was sure I could get a job immediately.  Who knows, in 10 years I might even make foreman. 


Much to our surprise, however, there were no jobs available at the moment.   The kindly interviewer assured me that he could get me in fairly soon, as they were always looking for veterans to fill the assembly line ranks.  I can't say I was disappointed, the last thing on earth I ever wanted to do was to work at G.M.  Just for the hell of it, I stopped by WTRX in Flint and inquired about a job.  Nothing there, but the P.D. Knew of an opening in Midland, about 20 miles up the road.  I spoke to the manager of WMDN, and he hired me right away.  After assuring my dad that I'd grab a G.M. Job as soon as possible, and hearing him tell me for the 1000th time, “radio is a low paying field, there's no future in it” I lit out for Midland.

Midland was the home of Dow chemical, and back in the late 60's was the closest thing to Hell on the planet.  There was an omnipresent cloud of toxic, chemical gases which made the whole place stink to high Heaven.   The station was a tiny, 1000 watter which featured a mix of programming based on daypart.  I signed the station on in the morning and ran transcriptions of the Grand Old Opry for an hour, then did a morning newscast followed by some light, pop music and a talk show from 9-10.  Not a Rush Limbaugh style talk show, mind you, but one in which I was to remain completely neutral so as not to offend anyone, such as the John Birch Society loony that called every day ranting about the creeping socialism that was destroying our country.   I was actually hoping that G.M. would have an opening after all.  

Fortunately, the end came quickly.

On June 5, 1968 I signed the station on as usual and started tracking The Grand Old Opry.   While the show was running, I went to the newsroom to clear the wire.  In those days we used A.P. And U.P.I teletype machines.  The paper was a cheap, porous kind of newsprint which had a tendency to jam, when that happened all you could do is clear the mess and wait for the next feed.  It was jammed big time that morning.  I had about 5 minutes left in the Opry so I hastily searched the garbled up mess of paper, about 20 feet of it, and cobbled together enough copy for a news cast.  OK so it was from 5 hours ago, who's going to notice right?  In my most stentorian news voice I confidently read that Robert Kennedy had delivered his victory speech for the Democratic presidential nomination and signed off.  Within seconds the station manager was on the phone... “He was shot. What's wrong with you, didn't you read the copy?”   I tried to explain that the wire was jammed, but he was hearing none of it.  One more radio job down the tubes.

I should probably say that I was sorry, but I wasn't.  I was seriously ready to kiss the whole radio thing goodbye and do my time as a shop rat.  Just before I set out for Flint to check on an opening at the A.C., however, I decided to call Dave Kushler at WKNX.   WKNX was a 10,000 watt monster located in Saginaw.  I loved the station and listened to it constantly.  They had Dick Fabian, a brilliant morning man who was funny, informative and irreverent. They had Bob Dyer, a tri-cities institution for years and Jim Bauer, one of the most knowledgeable air talents around.  Although the station was licensed to broadcast in the daytime only, during those hours it boasted 35 share ratings in the tri-cities (Saginaw, Bay City and Midland) and could be heard from Detroit all the way to the Straits of Mackinac, nearly 300 miles.  When Kushler told me they had an opening and to hurry down with a tape, you couldn't have caught me with an F-106!

I was hired on the spot and became one of the 1210 Music Men.  I took over the highly coveted afternoon shift... easily the best job on the planet, at least from MY point of view.  It meant that in addition to my salary from the station I'd be able to promote dances and appearances from which I'd make far more than my radio salary. That's the way it worked back then, the radio salary was secondary to the money one could make from dances and appearances.   I could pick up an easy $400 on a weekend without blinking an eye.

We were all expected to attend the station's functions such as the weekly dances at the Bay State Park Roller Rink, an outdoor roller skating facility which became a huge teen dance on Friday nights.  At the time, Michigan was the epicenter of a rock-n-roll revolution.  There was a local music scene second to none,  I daresay even L.A. Or San Francisco.  Just consider the level of rock royalty that we could book into our dances; Alice Cooper (at that time there was no Alice character, just a lead singer named Vince Furnier), The Bob Seger System (Bob could put 20,000 people into Cobo hall, and no one outside of MI and OH ever heard of him), The Fabulous Pack (later Grand Funk), The Amboy Dukes (featuring a lead guitar player named Ted Nugent), The Popcorn Blizzard (with a lead singer they called Meat Loaf), The Psychedelic Stooges (featuring a weird cat named Iggy Pop), the list goes on and on.

I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven, but it got better... Deb wanted to join me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

King of the Road

Beautiful, boomin', bouncin' Grand Forks N.D.

When it came time to leave Minot for Grand Forks, I felt that I could best deal with the packing and moving by myself so I sent Judy and the girls back home for awhile until I could get established.  I stuffed everything we owned into a rented U-Haul, hooked it up to the car and hit the road.  With the help of Leslie Maupin, the station manager at KLPM, I'd managed to line up a job at KILO in Grand Forks.  When I arrived, I was put to work immediately as a mid-day host on the station, this consisted of playing a few records and running the board for CBS news feeds and local programs that had been pre-recorded.  Not exactly an action packed, top 40 show but it was a job.  Meanwhile I signed up for classes at U.N.D, I'd decided to major in Journalism with a minor in radio and TV.

For living quarters I'd managed to find a month to month rental on what was essentially a store front that someone had equipped with a kitchen, and turned into a makeshift apartment.  It was priced at the same level as a regular apartment but there were none of those available, so I took what I could get.  I figured I could find a regular place later, once classes had begun.  The station paid next to nothing, but I thought I could pick up some gigs in the local bars as well.  Unfortunately, unlike Minot there were no gigs available.

I'd like to say that everything worked out tremendously in my first, full-time radio job, but nothing did.  I didn't get into radio to ride gain on some grain futures feed or some hillbilly playing guitar and belly-aching old country songs for all the “sick and shut-in friends.”  I still hadn't learned the first rule of radio... that you program your show for the local audience.   I recall one day we had a huge storm in Grand Forks, which made some of the roads virtually impassable . I mentioned how much difficulty I'd had getting to work that day, and the phones immediately lit up with calls from people who'd had a similar experience.  If I'd had half a brain I'd have put those calls on the air immediately, but it went completely over my head.  To me radio was rock-n-roll songs back to back, and that was it.  I still had a LOT to learn, but you couldn't tell me that!

I was similarly disappointed with my classes at U.N.D.  On the first day, I attended my radio/tv class and was shocked to find out that the class project for the first semester was to produce a radio play.  A radio play?   Radio drama had disappeared from the face of the earth years ago; there was no more Lone Ranger.  These people were so far out of touch they might as well have been in suspended animation for the past 10 years. In addition, my wife and in-laws were bugging me to hurry up and get a place.  The fact that there were no suitable places available was of no consequence to them whatsoever, all they knew was that it was crowded back at the old homestead.  I was beginning to think I should never have left the Air Force.

When competing station KNOX offered me a job to do a night-time rock show I didn't hesitate 10 seconds, I took the job.  The two or three months I'd spent at KILO weren't completely wasted however, I'd met someone there who would change my worldview completely.   Her name was Debbie Strutz, and she was an enlightened and gregarious young lady.  She possessed an enormous level of self assurance and charisma.  She was a close friend of Rick Kelleher, a U.N.D, student working part time at the station.  He introduced us, and we instantly became inseparable.   It was a platonic relationship at first, but on every other level it was very intimate.  One thing was certain, she was quite unlike any woman I'd ever met.

The KNOX show gave me an opportunity to try out my rock-n-roll chops.  It was supposed to be a no holds barred, full bore rock show with all the bells and whistles.  I got to select the music, decide what contests to run, and provide all the programming elements.  I thought I'd died and gone to Heaven, but a few weeks into the thing I began to get calls from the Program Director.  “Was that record a hit?” “Do you have to talk so fast?” “How about mixing in some stuff from non rock performers?”

Once again I hadn't thought about what the audience wanted to hear, only what I thought was good.  I remembered listening to “John R” on WLAC in Nashville, and tried to emulate him.  He'd pull out some R&B tune from the Jewel or VJ or maybe Duke labels, plop it on the air without even auditioning it first, and when the lyrics would get a little raunchy he'd break in and say something like “welllllll, ah think this here is jus' a leetle bit too much.  Ah think I'll jus' play somethin' from my old pal Rufus Thomas right heah!” 

Here's the problem, I wasn't John R.  John R knew his audience, and they knew him; he'd been a Nashville institution for years.  I was the new kid on the block, and should have limited the playlist to the hits.  The show was off the air in a couple of months.

Judy and the girls arrived only to find that I'd screwed up the radio job and dropped out of college.  The nomadic life of a radio DJ was about to claim yet another victim.

Marriage #1 was about to go down the tubes.

Friday, August 12, 2011

FIGMO (F*#K It Got My Orders) at last!

 FIGMO, or "Short Timer" ribbon from a Seagrams bottle
Hear Pat read this entry 

1966 proved to be a pretty easy stretch for me.  I'd gotten used to North Dakota winters by the time Fall rolled around, and knew how to deal with the weather.   First and foremost, you had to get the car ready.  That meant you had to check the block heater... that's a heating element that you install on the engine to keep the oil warm, if it got too viscous the starter wouldn't turn over.  When you see cars with electrical plugs hanging out the grill, that's what they're for.  You actually plug your car into an electrical outlet when you park it.  You made sure that you installed your snow tires, or checked your chains.  Proper tire inflation was a must too, otherwise in the really cold weather you'd have flat spots on your tires until they warmed up.  You bought little, clear, plastic ovals that you stuck on the windows so that when the window was frozen over, you had a place to see out.  On the coldest days the radio speaker would freeze, until it warmed up the thing sounded like you'd blown a transistor.

Dressing for the weather was the most important thing you could do for your own safety.  Getting frost bite was a Courts martial offense, so you made damn sure you wearing Bunny Pants, Mukluks, 3 layers of gloves including heavy mitts, insulated underwear and a gigantic parka with fur around the hood.  If you had to walk more than ½ mile in that weather the moisture from your breath would freeze and ice up the fur, your eyebrows and your nose hair.  I kid you not, your nose hair would freeze!

On numerous occasions we'd hear of a farmer somewhere who went outside, grabbed a pump handle with his bare hands and froze to it.  Someone would have to come out with hot water and help him.

Driving in that weather wasn't as difficult as it might seem since the snow was so cold it never got wet and slippery.  It was just like driving on pavement, but people did get stuck from time to time and that could kill you.  You ALWAYS carried an emergency pack in your car consisting of food, some blankets and some long lasting candles.  Lighting one of those and setting it in the ashtray could warm up the interior of a car enough that you could survive until someone dug you out.

One reason that North Dakotans are so friendly I suppose, is because of the harsh environment.  People have to rely upon one another, you always looked after your neighbor.  If you were going out for instance, you told your neighbor where you were going, the route you planned to take, and how long you thought it would take for you to get there.   If you hadn't checked in within a reasonable time limit, they'd head out to check up on you.  That's just the way it was, you got used to it.

1966 was also the year that the war in Vietnam was starting to ramp up to the point that it became a national obsession.  In March 20,000 people took part in a protest in New York City.  Also that year, numerous war vets attempted to return their decorations to the White House but were turned away.

The musicians of the day were turning out songs protesting Viet Nam, and war in general.  Barry McGuire's “Eve Of Destruction” was the first of many.   I began to sense a change in the usually, friendly attitude of some Minot residents.  There had been reports of scuffles between fly boys and locals at drive in restaurants, bars and other locations.  It got to the point where many of us refused to wear fatigues off base.  I changed into civilian clothes before I left work, and once I cleared the gate I pulled the identification sticker down from the windshield.   Better safe than sorry.

I was beginning to sense an ugly truth about our country's leadership... they had no clue what they'd gotten themselves in to.  The North Vietnamese weren't about to concede defeat to an invasionary force.  They were more than willing to fight to the death, and with Soviet and Chinese help, were a formidable adversary.  They were NOT about to give up, we all saw that but our leaders did not, and consequently nearly 60,000 US soldiers died in a war that never had to happen.

These guys never seem to learn do they?

Now even though I was a fully trained engine mechanic, and even though I was trained on the same inertial guidance system used by the F-4 fighters I was never in any danger of shipping to Viet Nam.  Minot was where I was, and Minot was where I would stay no matter what.  That meant I couldn't get a transfer if I wanted one, none of us could.  If you were a missile tech, you were stuck.  You couldn't get a stripe either, rank was frozen in our career field.  I saw squadron clerks getting stripes, but none of the techs could.  There was seriously no future in the Air Force.

Also I began to see another nasty side of the Air Force.  It seemed like every time one of our senior NCOs was approaching retirement, he'd be called in for a medical exam.  They'd inevitably find some medical issue and kick him out on a partial disability, thereby cheating him out of his full retirement benefits.  It was one of the sleaziest things I'd ever seen.  I understand that today's Air Force has changed completely.  That's nice, but what I saw was enough to make me sick.  I'd had it with the Air Force, I knew I was getting out!

By the time the Spring of 1967 arrived I'd taken several trips back to Michigan to scout out colleges.   I'd receive a generous veteran's benefit which would pay my entire tuition and most other costs.  I needed a school in a town where I could pursue my radio career as well, I had a family to support and needed full-time employment.  I looked into Michigan State, but couldn't be sure I'd get hired.  Same situation with The University of Michigan.  My last choice was the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, but with a job waiting for me when I got out U.N.D it was.

The retention officer saw the "Short Timer" ribbon... the ribbon from a Seagrams whiskey bottle... on my fatigues, and rhetorically asked:

“How do you want it, hell no, shit no or f%#k no?”

“Ummm, hell, shit f%#k no has a nice ring to it, just say that!”

I got my discharge papers on July 5, 1967.   I thought about making some kind of statement when I left, a grand gesture of some kind... maybe take a pee on the AP Booth or something. When my front wheels hit that gate all I could do was put the pedal to the metal, and get the hell out of there.  I kept glancing in the mirror, afraid that I'd see a blue AP truck following me with it's lights flashing and some guy yelling out the window “There's been a mistake, you have to stay in!!!”

After my discharge I was to serve several years in inactive reserve, so I was supposed to keep all my uniforms in good repair.

That night I started a nice bonfire and burned every one of them.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ride That Floor Buffer Flyboy!

A fellow idiot takes the buffer for a spin

By the end of the summer of 1965, things had improved significantly for me.  The Messengers proved to be the kind of band that could play anything, anywhere, anytime.  We we well versed in Jazz, R&B, and Rock-N-Roll.  Don Johnston was a tremendous piano player, and could arrange any song to fit any genre.  He could turn a jazz tune into quasi-rock and vice versa, consequently we could play everything from Brubeck to Beatles on any given night and usually did.  There were 3 clubs that used live music on a regular basis, The Holiday Spot, The Dutch Mill, and the North Main.  We alternated between them, and on off weeks we'd play parties, dances etc.

We also made the Winnipeg run from time to time this time focusing on the bars rather than the teen clubs, but we did manage to squeeze in a couple of gigs at the Hungry I.  On one trip to “The Peg” we checked out Arbuthnot Recording Studios.  Bill Arbuthnot had recorded several Winnipeg bands including the original Guess Who, and had a good reputation.  We decided to record our first album there.  “The Two Sides of the Messengers” was a clever idea, one side consisted of our normal, jazz oriented arrangements, the other of Beatles tunes arranged in a Ramsey Lewis jazz style.  On the cover was a picture of a white wall.  They took a shot of us peeking out from one side of the wall, wearing our normal hair cuts.  Then they took a shot of us with Beatle wigs and shot the same pose.  They reversed one of the pictures so it looked as if we were peeking out from both sides of the wall at the same time.  Cute!  I'd like to say that the album was a huge success, but it stiffed big time.  Soma, the label that released it decided to drop us from the roster and that was that.  No matter though, we were playing every night, and making good money.

In November our second, little bundle of joy, Patty arrived.  With two little ones at home it was time to get a proper car so I took some leave, headed back to Michigan and purchased a shiny new 1966 Plymouth Satellite... a seriously fine ride.  In addition, I'd renewed my interest in radio.  During one of the Winnipeg runs I'd gotten acquainted with Jim Christie at CKRC.  He and I discussed the radio biz and he encouraged me to keep at it, so when I got back to Minot I took a part time gig at KLPM working the odd weekend shift just to keep my fingers in it.  Other than the insane hours, things were going along just fine as the winter of 1965 sat in.

By this time I'd been transferred over to the AGE shop.  AGE is an acronym for Aerospace Ground Equipment: trailers, test equipment etc.  As a mechanic I was seriously challenged.  I could handle the servicing chores, engine adjustments etc, but when it came to troubleshooting a missile I was completely lost.  I couldn't figure that stuff out for the life of me.  I guess the Air Force assumed that, since I showed a high aptitude for mechanical things, that I had experience with it.  I'd been a musician, and had NEVER worked on a car or anything mechanical in my life.  To say I was frustrated is the understatement of the year.  In the AGE shop I'd work on much simpler equipment which suited me just fine, I just wanted to skate through the final year of my hitch anyway.

Now the head NCO of the shop was... hmmmmmm, how do I put this?  He was a brilliant mechanic when troubleshooting, but sometimes the smallest, simplest stuff seemed to get by him   On one occasion we were to strip the paint off a service cart.  We used an acidic wash to soften the old paint, a gelatinous mass of glop that we applied with string mops.  We sloshed the stuff on the cart and proceeded to head out to lunch, the idea being that by the time we got back the paint would soften and we could just wash it off.  As we were piling into my car Sarge said “You know what?  That stuff is gonna dry on there, we'd better wash it off”   OK, out we got and washed the cart down.  As we were piling back in the car he said “Awww hell it'll be alright, let's put it back on.”  One more time we sloshed the stuff on with mops and one more time as we were getting into the car he had us wash it off again.  Finally, after several such escapades Sarge was convinced the glop wouldn't dry after all so we left it on and went to lunch.  

It dried!

On another occasion we were painting a flight line tug.  Sarge was watching us, carefully considering every move we made.  You could tell Sarge was thinking, and not sleeping because when he was thinking he'd rub his chin and go "hmmmmmmmmm."  Sarge was rubbing his chin and going "hmmmmmmmmm."  I was working on the wheel when Sarge piped up,  “You don't have to paint the under side of those wheel hubs Berg, they don't show anyway”  I looked at Dana Stoker my AGE partner, and he looked at me.  We did as Sarge said, started the tug, drove it about 3 inches and sure enough there were 4 big unpainted spots on the hubs pointing straight up in the air!

Sarge started rubbing his chin, "hmmmmmmmmm..."

Occasionally, when I wasn't working on some piece of ground equipment, they'd assign me "coffee shop detail."  It was a strictly make-work detail consisting of making coffee and cleaning up the squadron coffee shop.  "Cleaning up" entailed breaking down the floor and applying fresh wax every day, just typical Air Force chicken shit.  I learned that I could get on top of the motor housing of the floor buffer, lean over and grab the handle and if I shifted my butt just right I could ride the thing around the room.  So that's how I broke down and polished the floor, riding on top the buffer.  Once the commander poked his head inside and saw me chuglin' around on the thing.  He just rolled his eyes and closed he door, no doubt thinking to himself "well, we knew he was an idiot when he got here."

I may have been an idiot, but at least I got to ride around on a floor buffer!  How cool is that?

The Scariest Job In The Air Force

A Pratt And Whitney J52 engine

The Weeds and Seeds detail lasted most of the summer of 1965, what had started out as hard labor turned out to be a nice break.  At AMMS there would always be “busy work” to take up down time, at Weeds and Seeds I pretty much defined my own day.  At one point they lost track of me for 3 weeks.  I'd been assigned back to AMMS for one day in order to participate in an exercise.  The next day I reported at Civil Engineering.

“What are you doing here, you've been reassigned back to AMMS?”

So I schlepped over to AMMS

What are you doing here, you're still on detail?”

So I schlepped back to Civil Engineering

Hell man, I don't know. Take off for awhile until we figure it out.”

I spent 3 weeks at home.  Oh, I went in from time to time to check on my status.  They sent me home each time, until one day the First Shirt at AMMS called me “Hey you're off detail after all, c'mon back in."

During my time at Weeds and Seeds I met a fellow musician who hooked me up with an R&B group called “The Jades.”  We played the Officers, NCO and Airmen's clubs, plus we did dances in the area.  We also traveled up to Winnipeg, Manitoba from time to time to play at The Hungry I”, a teen club downtown.  Winnipeg was a serious hotbed of musical inventiveness at the time with Randy Bachman, Chad Allen, Lenny Breau and other first rate Canadian musicians creating some fantastic rock.  Every time The Jades played Winnipeg, we got a lot of attention.  Now I was a married guy, but I couldn't help but notice how friendly those Canadian girls were.  Had I not been married, I'd have taken full advantage of the situation believe me.

But here's the thing... I was surprised they even noticed me, they never had before.  I was what you might call a “late bloomer”, and now as I was getting older I guess I was becoming more attractive to women.  Maybe it had to do with the fact that I was beginning to develop that split personality that entertainers have.  I was still reticent as ever as Pat Bergin/Missile Tech, but quite outgoing as Pat Bergin/Musician.  I could back-slap and BS with the best of them as long as I was wearing the musician hat.

And son of a gun those Winnipeg girls were friendly!

I'd quit the radio job before hooking up with the Jades.  It wasn't going anywhere, and didn't pay squat anyway.  I made a few bucks more with The Jades, and had a hell of a lot more fun.

Back home, there had been some changes at the Bergin household.  Little Laurie Sue had come along a while back, and was walking and starting to talk now.  We'd rescued a little dog, and when she saw it she was thrilled. “Buppy... buppy” she called it, so “Buppy the Puppy” became part of the family.  There was another little one on the way, so I began to think we needed some reliable transportation.  I'd bought a '56 Chevy from another fly boy, but it was a junker and couldn't be trusted.  I needed some new wheels, and in order to get them I needed additional income.

The most popular group around Minot at the time was The Messengers.  Consisting of Don Johnston on piano and vocals, “Red” O'Connor on sax and Frank Longo on bass, they dominated the club scene in Minot.  One day I learned that their drummer had left so I got in touch with Don.  That same day I quit The Jades, and joined The Messengers.  It was a 6 night/week gig so the schedule was brutal, but the money was excellent.   In one day, I'd gone from a low income fly boy making a couple of bucks on the side, to an income level on par with a Colonel.   New car, here I come!

Back at AMMS, I'd been assigned duty in Combined Systems.  My job was to stand in the bay, and trim the engine.  Now for those of you who've never been close to a running jet engine before, let me tell you that sucker is loud!  I'd hook up a starter collar to the power take-off on the engine, and run the hose over to an MA-1A “Start Cart” which had it's own jet engine inside.  Once I fired that up, I'd stand back as the crew inside hit the switch which sent high velocity air into the hose spinning the spline inside collar, and subsequently the engine's compressors.  Eventually the engine would start, and I would crawl back underneath to remove the collar.

Then came the “fun part.”   The J-52-P3 had been designed to run at full-bore for an hour, that's it.  In an hour it would've reached it's target and blown the hell out of whatever it was programmed to hit, with a 1.5 Megaton weapon on board it would've flattened anything it was aimed at.  The engine had to be trimmed at nearly full power, a setting known as “Max Continuous.”   I had to get down under the running engine and install a small metal stop to prevent the fuel control from going to “Max Power” which would've caused an over heat condition.  If that happened the engine would have to be rebuilt.   Once the stop was on, they revved her up.  I could see 30 feet of blue flame coming out the end of the engine, the noise was beyond description as 7500 lbs of power strained on the test stand.  I could actually see the bolts trying to pull out of the floor as I got next the the thing and adjusted the fuel flow with my little Allen wrench.   Seriously scary stuff!!

The next time you settle in to a seat on an airliner, take a look outside at the wing and give a thought to the guy who had to crawl under it with an Allen wrench.  I'll bet he changes his underwear a lot more than you do!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Never Give An Idiot A Power Tool!

It's evil I tell you... EVIL!!!

As the “Weeds and Seeds” detail dragged on through the spring and into the summer, I wondered if I'd ever be reassigned to my squadron.  To be honest I hoped not, since I'd been given the opportunity to drive some seriously cool equipment.  As I mentioned, in addition to the 5 ton International pick-ups I got to operate a power road roller and build a potion of road, a front end loader plus a grader and now... oh man, this was the ULTIMATE man toy... I was gonna get to operate a pneumatic road hammer!

Hot damn, aint we havin' fun now!!

The idea was that myself, some jailbirds and a couple of flyboys from Civil Engineering were to tear up a portion of the road leading from the main gate, and put in a sidewalk.  Now normally I'd drive the truck and the Civil Engineering guys would do the work, but I seriously wanted to get my hands on that hammer.

“OK, what do I do?”  

“You lean over it, get a real good grip and squeeze the handle.   Whatever you do don't let it get away from you!”

I gave it a try on a piece of road close to the edge.  “BLATTA, BLATTA, BLATTA, BLATTA, BLATTA,...”  It jolted the hell out of me, but I seemed to get the hang of it right away.  My Civil Engineering buddies had to run back to the squadron for some supplies. 

“OK, just follow the chalk line and run it to the end.  We'll be back with some more guys to help bust up the rest of it.”

“OK” I said, relishing the thought of busting up all that concrete.  As soon as they left I pulled myself up to my full, 5'10 stature, and sauntered over to the hammer... jailbirds looking on with intense interest.  I self assuredly picked the thing up and let her rip.


What was it they said about “Whatever you do don't let it get away from you...”?  Not only did it get away from me, but it made a beeline for the center of the road.  Not the nicely laid out chalk line that marked the edge of the proposed sidewalk mind you.  Nope... the CENTER of the road!!


With me hanging on for dear life it took off in an approximate 20 degree tangent...


I finally had the presence of mind to let go of the handle, but the damage had been done.  There was now a 20 degree tear in the concrete angling toward the other side of the road.  By the time I got the damned thing shut off I'd gone off course about 2 feet.  When the crew got back they had heart failure. “Oh my Gawd, what happened??!!   Now what are we gonna do!!??”   We gave it some sober consideration.  The damage had been done, no fixing that.  

"How about we just cut it back in and pave it, maybe they won't notice."

So, with the pros safely back in charge of the hammer that's exactly what we did.   We finished the side walk, and left a 20 degree piece of it jutting out to the road.  We never heard a word from anyone.

Years later, when I was returning to Toronto from Saskatoon, my wife and I took a ride down to Minot.  She wanted to see where I'd gotten in to all this mischief, and there it was... the sidewalk was exactly the way I'd left it.

As far as I know, it remains that way to this day.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Weeds and Seeds

A typical U.S.A.F. SAGE building
Hear Pat read this entry 

 I reported to the base Civil Engineering squadron the following Monday for detail.  I was surprised to find that only a select few of my fellow detailees were wearing stripes, the rest had dark outlines where their stripes used to be.  They seemed a surly bunch and kept to themselves, not wishing any social interaction with the rest of us.

Do you think this should have tipped me off?

It seems that the vast majority of the group were serving time in the brig for various infractions... serious infractions.  These guys were assigned this detail because it constituted HARD LABOR according to Air Force guidelines.  That's right, they had been convicted and sentenced to hard labor, and guess who was about to “hard labor” right along with them!  First I was shocked, then I was livid.  “Just plant some flowers and take a 2 hour lunch” huh?

The head NCO of Civil Engineering came storming out of the office.  “I want to see every one of you humpin' on a shovel, you will not be dismissed until every tool and every vehicle shines like new!”  It went on and on. Those of us with stripes were astounded.  We'd been put in with a bunch of jailbirds, and were about to go out on a friggin' Cool Hand Luke style chain gang with some Civil Engineering clown watching over our every move.

On Minot AFB there's a huge, concrete building that used to house the old SAGE system, an early air defense command and control system network.  When SAGE was deactivated they renamed it PRIDE which was an acronym for “Professional Results In daily Effort.”  I supposed that I was expected to proudly “hump on a shovel!”  A truck arrived and we all climbed in.  Once we arrived at the building we were let out by the brand spanking new sign that they'd installed.  The 810 Aerospace Division, and 5th Bomb Wing insignias had been freshly painted on it.  It was sure a pretty sign!

Yes sir a really, pretty sign.

Soon several 5 ton dump trucks showed up loaded to the brim with fresh dirt.  We were to climb in the trucks, shovel the dirt all around the pretty sign, spread it all out neatly and plant grass... all of this before lunch, or there would be no lunch.  We jumped in and started shoveling.  It was hot, dirty and difficult, but we managed to get it all done by lunch time.  My fellow non-offenders and I stumbled over to the BX cafeteria while the jail birds had sandwiches delivered at the work site.  I grabbed a burger, took a look around the BX and lo and behold, there in the garden section, I spotted something that caught my attention.  They had racks of seed packets for housing area residents who planted their own little gardens.  I don't know why, but virtually all that was left were packets of pumpkins and beans.  Maybe housing area residents didn't care much for Halloween.  At any rate I bought up every packet I could find.

Heh, heh, heh...

As soon as I returned from lunch I surreptitiously started dumping the seed packs all around the sign.  I was careful not to allow myself to be noticed, those jailbirds would've snitched in a heartbeat if they thought it'd get them a little favor with “The Man.”   Soon we were whisked away and taken back to the squadron where we began to clean the tools and trucks.  I actually got to go home early that day which was great because I seriously needed a shower, I looked like the “Swamp Monster” and smelled like him too.

Then, a wonderful thing happened.   It turns out that my squadron commander had no clue that I was going to be placed on what amounted to hard labor.  When he found out he went ballistic and called the base commander.  “These guys are in critical career fields, they are not supposed to be used for this purpose.  I was told this was to be a simple, flower planting detail, not some chain gang.”  The base commander raised holy hell with the Civil Engineering commander, and when I arrived the next day a subdued and... dare I say... friendly Master Sgt greeted us.  Out of earshot from the jailbirds he told us “You guys are to drive the trucks to the various sites and supervise. Just keep an eye on those guys and bring them back here at lunch OK?”

So I was to drive a truck, and stay in the cab... an AIR CONDITIONED cab... while the jailbirds did their thing.   SWEET!  Later I'd get licenses for everything from a 5 ton dump to a front end loader to a power roller.  Ever see a 5 ton dump do a wheelie?   Put the bed up, drop it in “granny gear” and pop the clutch!  I figured that one out.

Oh, and about the seeds.  A few days later some green started to appear around the pretty sign.  All the Colonels and all the Majors and all the Captains and Master Sergeants looked it over and were pleased.  Then, a few weeks later the green started to sprout little buds.  All Colonels and all the the Majors and all the Captains and Master Sergeants looked it over and were pleased again... “ahhh, flowers!”   Then about a month later the vines began to crawl up the pretty sign, and there were pumpkins and beans all around the base of it.  All the Colonels and all the Majors and all the Captains and Master Sergeants looked it over and were NOT pleased!

Heh, heh, heh...

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Cloud That Ate Minot

 Well, it seemed this big at the time!

As Winter dragged on in Minot I began to get more and more frustrated with my radio job.  You see I hadn't begun to appreciate the most important thing about being a radio personality... that it's all about the audience, not you.  I had an intense interest in these new performers, and assumed that my audience did as well.   When it was 20 below outside the listeners were more concerned about the weather.  When grain prices were down, the farmers (who comprised 80% of the audience) were more concerned about that.  The rock-n-roll bands of the day were irrelevant to them.

As Spring arrived I began to sense a new chattiness among my fellow hitch hikers at G.I. Corner.  As soon as we went from parkas to field jackets, everybody lightened up.  The foreboding of Winter was over for another year.

On day I was called upon to do an Ammonia service on a missile, Anhydrous Ammonia was used in the missile cooling system.  Now this was seriously dangerous stuff! At 99.8% pure, Anhydrous Ammonia is highly toxic and corrosive, it'll burn you instantly on contact.   We were required to wear a full coverage rubber suit with gloves, boots and a huge headpiece under which we wore a Scott Air Pack consisting of a mask, hose and oxygen tank.  When you suited up in one of these you could hardly move.  The Ammonia line was encased in woven steel, at the end was a quick disconnect fitting which was described in tech school as “absolutely foolproof.”   It had three, spring loaded ball bearings located at 120 degree intervals around the circumference.  When, and only when the fitting was perfectly mated to the receptacle, would the bearings be depressed fully.  That allowed the disconnect to turn, lock into the receptacle and the valve to open.

Fool proof!

There were to be two, fully suited techs on station at all times so Johnnie P came along to supervise.  Now as I mentioned previously, John had been in the Air Force for 956 years.  He'd performed hundreds of these services and never had a problem.  He had no issue wearing the suit, but he was damned if he was going to wear that lousy head gear and that was that!

I climbed up on the wing as John opened the NH3 valve on the service cart.  We always had a hell of a time seating that disconnect just right so the hose valve would open, especially with that suit on.  I struggled with it for several minutes.  I could tell John was getting antsy, “C'mon Berg, get it hooked up will you?” he said.   “I'm trying, the damned thing won't connect” I shot back.  I gave it a good shove and turned the valve. HEY it was opening up, success!!”

Not quite.

The “fool proof” valve wasn't seated after all.  I heard a “pppppppppppttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt” as the valve opened and the Ammonia started pouring out in a thick, white cloud of gas.   There was no way of closing the hose valve without it being seated to the receptacle, so all I could do is watch helplessly as 160 gallons of the stuff escaped into the air

Now Johnny P was a black guy, but the last thing I saw before the gas cloud enveloped me was his face turning white.  His eyes got as big as saucers and away he ran, making a straight beeline to the hanger.   I could hear the clomp, clomp, clomp of those huge, rubber boots as he ran.  For my part, I was just fine, the suit protected me perfectly and the Scott Air Pack enabled me to breath with no problem at all.  I climbed down from the wing, stood under the shower to wash off any Ammonia residue from the suit and sloshed up to the hanger.

When I got there I went straight to the control room where I encountered Johnny P  yelling “Berg's out there, we got to get him, he's in trouble...”  All the while I was standing right behind him, dripping water all over the nicely polished floor.

Once it was determined that I was, in fact, alive and well we all went over the the hanger door overlooking the service pad, and there it was... a HUGE, white cloud of poisonous Ammonia slowly making it's way across the field as a light wind carried it away.  The tank was completely empty now, so this cloud consisted of 160 gallons of pure NH3.  If you've seen the movie “The Blob” you'll get a sense of what this thing looked like as it made it's way toward the end of the flight line, and the 3 or 4 Air Police trucks parked there.  I've never seen AP trucks move so fast!  Those guys high-tailed it out of there RIGHT NOW, leaving their doughnut boxes behind!

The cloud dissipated as it left the confines of the base.   Two days later all the vegetation in it's path died.   A week later there was 2 feet of grass in the same path.  Ammonia is used as fertilizer you know, that's what the “N” in NH3 is for... Nitrogen.

But the damage had been done.  Even though it wasn't my fault, somebody had to pay for the incident.   I began to appreciate a nasty, little fact about the Air Force.  The higher authorities would always demand a scapegoat, and 9 out of 10 times that scapegoat would be a lower grade Fly Boy... in this case me.  The commander called me in his office. “Listen Berg, we have to give them their pound of flesh.  I've gotta put you on detail.  Starting next week you'll be on the 'Base Beautification' project.  It'll be easy, plant a couple of flowers, take a long lunch... nothing to it, OK?”

“OK sir”

So this is how the Air Force worked, cover your own ass first.  To say I was disillusioned was the understatement of the year.  I lost all respect for the Air Force right there and then and to make it worse, I still had nearly 3 years to go in my hitch.

Oh, and about that “fool proof” valve... I guess it all depends on the fool.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Winter Comes To North Dakota

 A typical Winter scene in North Dakota
Hear Pat read this entry 

By the late fall of 1964 we'd moved into the apartment in town, and I was commuting to the base every morning.  Well, hitchhiking was more like it.   There was a place about 2 blocks away called “G.I. Corner” where car less Fly Boys like me could stand, and some Good Samaritan heading into the base would pick them up.  Same deal coming back home.   I'd grab a bite after work, change my clothes and cab it over to the station for the 7-12 shift a couple of days a week, or when someone took the day off.

The program director described the station's format as “Top 40 with an adult approach.”  In later years we'd refer to that as Adult Contemporary.  The night shift though was basically rock, which suited me fine since I got to play all the great new stuff coming in from the Brits.  By now the list of invaders had grown significantly.  There were Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, Chad & Jeremy, Peter and Gordon, The Animals, Manfred Mann, Petula Clark, Freddie and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Herman's Hermits, The Rolling Stones, The Troggs, Donovan, Dusty Springfield, and many others.   I played every one I could get, and usually the “B” sides too.  I began to notice some American groups fighting back.  Groups like The Four Seasons, The Beach Boys, and Paul Revere and the Raiders were recording some seriously great music as well.

One of those groups is particularly memorable to me.  The Shangri Las had a huge hit out at the time with “Leader of the Pack.”  They were appearing in Minot when one of the Ganser sisters came down with a throat infection of some kind.  I was asked to run the lead singer, Mary Weiss, over to the hospital.  After the visit, I took Mary over to a downtown coffee shop to grab a sandwich.   Mary went on to become THE “rock n roll bad girl” icon that 80's punk rockers such as Pat Benetar and Joan Jett tried to emulate.  I get a kick out of telling people about my “date” with her.   They inevitably want to know what she was “really” like . What she was “really” like was a typical 15 year old girl who was worried about her friend's health!

I started to peruse some of the other albums too. I remember being knocked out by “The Wham of that Memphis Man” Lonnie Mack's seminal album, still considered one of the greatest guitar works in history.

I was getting used to being on the air now, but as much as I tried couldn't seem to get much response from the community.  Meanwhile my old pal Terry had become known as “The Sixth Rolling Stone” as a result of his close association with Brian Jones and Andrew Loog Oldham.  He was tooling around Detroit in a red Sting Ray lovin' life, and here I was in Minot, N.D. hitchhiking to the base and hardly making a dent as a radio personality.  No matter what I did, no matter how much I tried to make my show interesting and entertaining, I got zero respect.  The community didn't seem to care one way or the other, and all I ever got from the PD was “play some more Dean Martin and Eddy Arnold, we're an ADULT station you know!”


As Fall dragged on I began to notice the weather changing.  Now being from Michigan I'd seen some seriously cold weather, but there was something ominous about the way the weather changed in N.D.  The winds would start to build, always from the North or North West.  The humidity would disappear, and the sky would take on an eerie appearance.  It seemed as though the sun would get smaller and smaller day by day.  When I'd walk over to G.I corner I'd see the same guys standing there every day, and every day they'd have less and less to say.  One time one of them said to me “The Hawk's comin' I can feel it. Won't be long and The Hawk'll be here.”  I knew what he meant, The Hawk was the Winter wind!

October is the month that winter really sets in in North Dakota.  The first part of the month is fairly pleasant, by the end of the month The Hawk had arrived.  I suddenly learned to appreciate that 50 pounds of gear I was issued.  By mid November it was winter.  I'd suit up in a parka, bunny pants, long johns and gloves.   The snow was starting to fall, or “travel” I guess is a better term since it usually didn't fall in the strictest sense, it flew in a perpendicular path to the ground with 30 MPH winds behind it.  By December it was deep freeze time in Minot.

I don't know if you've ever heard the phrase “Painfully Cold” before, but that's what it was.  Cold so intense it hurt.  And the ever present wind made it practically unbearable.  In spite of all the gear...parka, long johns, mukluks, bunny pants... I might as well have been standing there in my Sponge Bob boxer shorts.  You walked outside you froze your tail end off, that's it!  Working on the flight line in that weather was the worst job in the world.  It could get to 40 below with a 40 knot wind, and there you'd be, trying to upload a missile onto a B-52.  I learned what the satin glove liners we'd been issued were for.  They were to be used when you had to make some minute adjustment to the missile and needed to take the heavy gloves off.  They prevented your hands from freezing to the metal.  We worked no more than 10 minutes outside, and were required to return to the truck to warm up while another crew went out.  To call it miserable is the understatement of the century. 

I'd always been told that Hell was all fire and brimstone.  I can tell you first hand that Hell is standing on a flight line, next to a B-52 in 40 below weather with The Hawk roaring in at 40 knots.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

910 In Minot KCJB!!!

 A Gates "Yard" console similar to the one at KCJB
Hear Pat read this entry 

Now lest anyone get the notion that military discipline went completely out the door at Minot, let me dispel that idea right now.   Just because the personnel at AMMS were a tad lax on some of the “chicken shit” aspects of Air Force life, didn't mean they were lax when it came to the unit's mission, just the opposite.  To a man we took this responsibility very seriously.  My instructors at Chanute had always said “in SAC you work hard, but you play hard.”  I learned immediately how true this was.  Many was the time when we'd spend our lunch period sitting at a console while we tried to work out a “No Go” condition on the bird.  Our normal workday was 7:30-4:00, but if there was a bug in the system we'd be expected to stay until we worked it out no matter how long it took.  On the other hand, when we partied we REALLY partied!  Everybody looked out for everybody else so there was rarely any backlash.

I'd arrived at Minot in the late summer, the best time of the year there.  The hottest part of the summer had passed... believe me, it gets REAL hot in North Dakota... and the weather was clear and temperate.  I was summoned to BEMO (base supply) to obtain my winter issue.  I was amazed at the amount of clothing they gave me.   A huge, thick parka, insulated “bunny pants” several pairs of insulated long johns, numerous sets of gloves... leather shells, a wool liner and satin glove to wear under all that... gigantic “Mukluk” boots etc.  The issue must've weighed 50 lbs.  “Trust me, you'll need it” I was told.  I was not looking forward to finding out!

One day at lunch I met up with a guy who had a part time job at KCJB, the local radio station.   He told me that they often relied on Air Force guys to fill the part-time slots, and that he'd be happy to introduce me to the program director if I was interested.  If I was interested?  Of course I was interested!  I took him up on the offer immediately.

The program director was a friendly enough guy, he seemed impressed with my limited credentials and introduced me to the general manager of the place.  “It's a pretty simple job” the manager told me, “doesn't pay much, but it's yours if you want it.”  Simple job!  I'd been just introduced to the kind of attitude I'd see time and time again in the industry.  On-air personnel were just “having fun,” it wasn't a “real job” at all.  I'd like to see them run the place without us.  I shook off the insult and took the job.

My first night on the air was pretty straightforward.  Dan Brannon showed me the board (the control console, or nerve center of the station) and told me “good luck. See ya!”  OK, now what?  For those of you who've never seen the inner workings of a radio station let me run through a typical sequence of events:
  • Cue up the next song on turntable #1
  • Cue up the spot for Hamms Beer on turntable #2
    Load up the cart decks (a tape machine similar to an 8 track used to record commercials, jingles and other programming elements) with the rest of the commercials in the break
  • Dig into the copy bin for the tag to read after the Hamms spot
  • Crack the mike and backsell the previous record while “slip cueing” (holding the record with your finger while the turntable spins below it) the Hamms spot.
  • Whip the TT#2 pot (volume control) open and let go of the record.
  • At 20 sec, crack the mike and read the tag
  • Hit the first cart
  • Remove the Hamms spot from the turntable and cue up the next song.
  • Hit the second cart, and load #1 with a jingle
  • Slip cue the next song.
  • Hit the jingle and crack the mike
  • Whip the mike and TT#1 pots open at the same time
  • Intro the song.
  • Do it all over again.
This sequence was repeated over and over, dozens of times per air shift.

It took awhile to get the hang of it andI had my share of “dead air” during the first hour, but by the second I had gotten the hang of it.  By the time my shift ended 5 hours later I felt like a seasoned pro.  I'd successfully completed my first, real shift on the air and hadn't done anything to put the station's license in jeopardy.

I felt that was a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why Not Minot!?

 Main Street, Minot ND
Hear Pat read this entry 

As I neared the end of my tech school, I began to appreciate how difficult life could be for lower income people. I recall one time when dinner consisted of a can of beans covered with ketchup.  We had completely run out of money 2 days before payday, and as soon as I got paid we high-tailed it to the base commissary to buy as many groceries as we could.  I remember, once we got home I ripped open a box of Cheerios and gobbled down a huge bowl of them.  It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon, but breakfast cereal never tasted so good! Living in the barracks had been pretty much stress free.  I had a nice, warm bed and three excellent meals a day.  I can't tell you how many times that damned oil tank ran out, and we had to scramble to find enough money to fill it up just so we could stay comfortable.  The dealer didn't care a bit if you froze, and the owner of the cottage wasn't about to insulate the place properly.  We were just Air Force... second class citizens.

If you've ever lived in a GI town you'll know, the townies resent military families as much as they rely on them.  It's an uncomfortable dynamic, and pretty demoralizing to the GIs. Should anything occur, it would have befallen us to put our lives in jeopardy protecting their right to resent us.

I must admit that when graduation arrived, I was more than happy to bid Rantoul goodbye.  After a week leave I'd be transferred to Minot AFB ND for assignment with the 450th Airborne Missile Maintenance Squadron.  In Tech School we'd been given the opportunity to choose which base we'd like to be stationed at, the caveat being that we'd get the assignment only if the Air Force would accommodate it. I chose Wurtsmith in MI.  Yeah, fat chance I'd get what I wanted!   The one base where NO one wanted to go was Minot.  All through tech school I'd heard from instructors who'd spent time there what a Hell hole it was.  40 below winters, unfriendly townies, no on-base accommodation for lower grade families and once you got there, no way to transfer out.  I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when my orders for Minot arrived.   The way things had been going lately, it was just another kick in the pants.

I spent a pleasant week at home in Lapeer and caught up with some of my old pals.  By this time Terry Knight had become a HUGE Detroit radio star at CKLW in Windsor, ON.  It was a 50,000 watt blowtorch that could be heard all over Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and, when the skip conditions were right, at the North Pole.  I kid you not, years later when I worked there, I got a hit line request from a ship at the North Pole!   My old band mates were soldiering on, playing bar gigs and making fairly good money.  We got together with Dude Newton and played at a Flint dive one night just for old time's sake.  I must admit, once the leave was over, it was not without some trepidation that I boarded the plane to Minot.

I don't know what I expected, maybe some old west style settlement with dirt roads and clapboard shacks, but what I found was a pleasant, little community.  Geeze, it looked like any small town I'd ever been in. Who've thunk it?  I had a couple of days before I was required to check in at the base, so I took a look around.  Far from being unfriendly, the townies here were downright accommodating.  So much so that you practically had to fight them off!  As soon as they saw my uniform, and my two measly stripes... I'd been promoted when I graduated... they bent over backward to show me around, suggest places where I might rent an apartment, and suggest the best restaurants.  I located a nice apartment building with a well appointed, clean flat for about the same money I'd been paying in Rantoul.  Where were the “unfriendly townies?  I only met extremely friendly townies!

I'd been warned about the base too. “It's SAC (Strategic Air Command) all spit and polish. They'll toss a Courts Marshall or an Article 15 at you so fast it'll make your head spin.”  “There's nothing there, just a tiny commissary and a crappy base exchange."  Imagine my surprise when Staff Sgt Bishop came to meet me at the front gate.  “You're Pat Bergin, right? Great, jump in and I'll take you to the squadron.”  He'd called me by my first name, I hadn't been addressed by my first name since I was back at Ft Wayne!

Once I arrived at the squadron I was led into the hanger.  The floors were polished to a high gloss and spotlessly clean.  There were techs in fatigues and whites conferring over a line of consoles and there in front of my eyes was a real, AGM 28-B missile, all 40 feet of it, with hydraulic, pneumatic and electrical lines snaking out of it's innards and running to the consoles.  I'd never seen a “Hound Dog” missile actually hooked up before, it was like something out of a science fiction movie.

Eventually I was led in to the squadron commander's office.  Up until now Air Force officers, especially ones with silver oak leafs on their shirts, were something to be feared.  If you came in contact with one, it usually meant you were in deep shit.  I Saluted and handed him my orders.  “Geeze Pat, at ease for cryin' out loud, you're making me nervous. OK, let's see... oh yeah you're the systems tech we've been waiting on, BOY AM I GLAD TO SEE YOU!!”

I was thinking “that went well!”

Then he told me to go across the hall to see the First Sgt and get everything squared away.  Now next to an officer, the most feared guy on the planet was the “First Shirt.”   He was usually the last enlisted person you saw before they dragged you in front of the C.O.   In tech school these guys were NOT the friendliest people you'd come in contact with.

“Hey Bill, here's our new Systems Tech, square him away and make sure he gets everything he needs will you”   I heard a muffled “OK” from the room... no “yes SIR” or “right away SIR”...  just “OK.”  I began to get a sense of “loosey goosey” about this place.   “Bill,” a Sr Master Sgt with 30 years in the Air Force asked me to take a seat. “Hey Pat, how ya' doin?  Si-down will ya'”  I believe is how he put it.  “We've got a temporary room all set up for you at the barracks.  I see you're married, have you looked for a place yet?”  I advised him that, yes I'd found a place and had made a deposit.  “Well GREAT, that means you'll be a single guy for awhile.  We have a little get together for the squadron every Friday after work, wanna come?”   I think I must've scared the crap out of him when I piped up “YES SIR”   “Geeze Pat, don't call me sir. You nearly scared the shit out of me!”   I heard a chuckle coming from the commander's office.

That night the squadron gathered in a field behind the hanger.  We had Kentucky Fried Chicken brought in, and beer by the case.   I met “Sgt D" Dzenowagis an E-9 with 30 years in the Air Force.  I met Lt “Don't Call Me Sir” Blackburn who bitched consistently about how “you guys have all the fun, I have to sit here and shuffle papers all damned day!”  I met Sgt Johnnie Pruitt who'd been in the Air Force for 956 years.  When he joined they were flying Pterodactyls.  John liked to take a wee nip from time to time.  He'd be working on a missile and fall asleep right there, with a screwdriver in his hand, until someone would walk by and yell “JOHNNIE” at which time he'd wake up and resume what he'd been doing.

I Heard stories about the tricks they'd played on Blackburn when he arrived.   Sgt Douglas had apparently asked him to take a flight line tug, and go to the Field Maintenance squadron to pick up some “Prop Wash” which he dutifully did.  They sent him back with a bucket of JP-4 jet fuel, and the entire squadron was there with stupid gins on their faces waiting .

“You're all a bunch of assholes, you know that right?” he howled as the rest of the gang laughed their tail ends off.

So this was the horrible Minot, the base that everyone feared.  In North Dakota, the place where everybody was unfriendly.   Minot was the best kept secret in the Air Force, it was just the opposite of everything I'd been told.

Everything except the 40 below part that is.