Air Force Days, Part 5: Engineering and Installation in San Antonio and Elsewhere

November 30, 2015 by  

palaceI arrived just before New Year’s Day and was assigned a room in the beautiful combination dormitory, dining hall, personnel office, and post office, built in 1939, and named, at the time, The Palace. This naming was at least in part to counter the impressive tower at Randolph AFB, across San Antonio from Kelly, and named the Taj Mahal. The Palace had not gone through much in the way of renovations. The windows, I believe, were original to the place with metal frames with countless coats of paint making sealing from the elements (and flying insects) almost a joke. I can remember waking in the middle of the night to wasps crawling on my arm. Fortunately (for me), it was wintertime and the wasps were in near hibernation and were very sluggish. I found a small nest of them in my overhead light fixture which I dispatched with an extremely liberal application of insecticide. I also taped over all the gaps in my window which lasted until the dorm underwent an extensive renovation while I was out on the road; the renovation including modern, well-sealed, energy-efficient windows.

My two years and a few months at Kelly were a blur. I was on the road about ten months out of the year. I went on my first deployment, six months at the Air Force Communications Service Prototype Test Facility at Richards-Gebaur AFB, near Kansas City, MO, where a young airman Bill Wiskeman, and I worked on a major project prototyping the replacement of the Air Force’s old analog telephone system with an all new digital system, called DEB (Digital European Backbone). As Kansas City was a locale steeped in musical culture, I had the opportunity to see a number of great performances, including Benny Goodman, Peter Schickele doing his P.D.Q. Bach shtick with the Kansas City Philharmonic, a free concert with Joe Pass, and a concert by acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke and his opening act (the one I really wanted to see), musical comedian Martin Mull. I also had sufficient time on my hands to get my amateur radio license, which helped combine my love of radio technology and jazz guitar music, when I met, on the air, Howard Findlay, and his patient wife Betty. Brash Floridian that I was, I all but invited myself to his place to borrow some records of his so I could tape them. We would up as fast friends, and attended several Kansas City area concerts together. We maintained our friendship up until his death a few years ago.

A few months after our return from Kansas City, Bill Wiskeman died from a tragic motorcycle accident. It was the only time anyone died who also reported to me. Because I was deployed elsewhere at the time, my boss at home station took care of the letter to the parents and all the rest.

Following that wonderful trip to Kansas City, I worked on deployments at Ellington AFB, near Houston, TX; Castle AFB, near Merced-Atwater, CA; Engineering-Installation Team Chief Academy at Tinker AFB, near Oklahoma City, OK (the only place I ever saw strippers—with pasties and g-strings—working at an Air Force non-commissioned officer (NCO) club, more schooling at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS; and two extended trips to Davis-Monthan AFB, near Tucson, AZ.

My time in Arizona was the most significant event from my assignment to Kelly AFB. The team I was working with was responsible for overhauling the Intrasite Radio Communications System (IRCS) equipment at the 18 Titan II ICBM sites surrounding Tucson, including a relay site at the top of Tucson’s Mount Lemmon. I was welcomed with open arms into the Tucson amateur radio community, where I truly enjoyed the weekly Saturday morning breakfast event at a local JC Penney snack bar. They even threw a big going-away party for me when I left. I didn’t know at the time, but I was sent back there a few months later, and when my time was up for good, they threw me ANOTHER going away party! Great friends, great times.

Being a jazz guitar nut, I was thrilled to find that one of my guitar heroes, Johnny Smith, was going to do a clinic at a local music store. I brought my camera and took a few shots. One turned out to be good enough to appear in the New York Times with Johnny’s 2013 obituary.

Life at the 1827th E&I (later merged with the base communications squadron, becoming the 1923rd Communications-Installation Group) was strange. Because of the constant travel, usually with different people (mostly civilians) on each deployment, it was really hard to make friends, so I really didn’t. I barely saw my roommate, and as mentioned, I never met the individual who was supposed to be my immediate supervisor, until I happened to see him one day while he was processing out, getting ready to take a new assignment far from San Antonio.

For this reason, I have few memories, good or bad, about the job. I liked the people I worked with, though they really were strangers, for the most part. While still at Davis-Monthan, I filled out a new “dream sheet,” a form where military members can tell their career advisors where they might like to be sent for their next assignment. Within a month, I received my assignment, to the 1st Combat Communications Squadron, Lindsey Air Station, in Wiesbaden, Germany. Great…another mobility assignment. I contacted my career advisor, as it was an Air Force policy to not send people to consecutive mobility assignments. He told me this was true, and I could turn down the assignment to the 1st. I then asked him what were my options. In a nutshell, limited. I was hot, hot, hot for an overseas assignment, and the only immediate openings were to the Philippines or to Turkey. I told him, “Hello, Germany.” He dryly replied, “I thought so…”

I drove my AMC Pacer back to Florida to visit with the folks for a few weeks, put the car up for sale, and sold it within a week to a Broward County Sheriff. I figured it might be tough to get parts for it in Germany.