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.

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