Saturday, May 31, 2014

In Memory of a Fallen Hero

I originally published this a while back, but some things are worth repeating....

I was twenty-one and stationed at a small Air Force hospital in the city of Bitburg, then part of West Germany. As a medical administrative specialist, part of my job description was to provide on-call, after-hour support to the Emergency Room.

It was late one night, about 11:30, when my beeper went off. It was cold and wet as I left my warm, comfortable apartment to walk the quarter mile to the rambling, one-story hospital with its endless black and white tiled floor.

Even in my half-sleep state, I was aware that the emergency room was not in it's usual chaos. There were two reasons my department was called in at night, the emergency transfer of a patient or if a patient dies. It occurred to me at that moment, no one was being transferred. The sergeant behind the desk smiled at me as I walked into the room, he probably saw death all the time. I didn't, especially not after being asleep for an hour.

In silence, he led me down the corridor with its flickering incandescent lights. As we entered the large room, the sergeant pulled back a curtain and the other med tech nodded to me.

The sleep in my eyes quickly disappeared. Before me lay a man, really a boy younger than myself, his army uniform in tact, his eyes open, a look of surprise on his gray face.

"Do you want me to tag him?" The sergeant interrupted my stupor.

My eyes not leaving the boy's face, I nodded, "Thanks." Until that time, I had never seen a dead body except at funerals.

"Okay,  but you have to witness." The sergeant nodded to the other tech as they began to search pockets for personal effects.

Thinking I needed to do something besides just stand there, I moved closer to the body. He had sandy hair, his eyes were green and by then, glassy. I couldn't resign myself to his being dead, that is, until I saw it, there in his chest, where his heart would be. It was an open chest wound, about the circumference of a softball, already congealed with blood.

"He didn't feel a thing," the sergeant reassured me. "No," said the other technician. "The missile hit his heart and he died instantly."

"What happened?" My eyes still transfixed on the gaping wound.

"It was an accident. The guy was operating a crane, moving hawk missiles when one of the brackets broke causing the load to fall. The nose of the missile slid into his chest."

"Oh my God," was all I could say.

"That's nothing, you should have seen him..." but he paused, no more words came as he pulled a folded piece of paper out of the boy's pocket.

"What is it?" the sergeant asked.

"It's a letter," was all the technician said as he unfolded it.

As the sergeant and I waited, he read over the letter, a sudden sadness shadowing his face. "Oh no."

"What?" A sudden, solemn respect seemed to fall over the room.

"Serg, check this out," he said as he began reading the letter.

"Hi Gina, I've missed you, too. Hey, don't worry about the baby. We'll figure it out when I get home. Just don't let Bobby give you shit about it. We'll have a long talk, him and I. Can't believe the way he's acting. But listen, it's only a few more weeks and then I'll be home. Just don't do anything stupid, okay? Hey, gotta go. Tell Mom and Dad I said 'Hi.' Love you, Michael." That was it, the end of the note.

As I wiped my eyes, I noticed the technician quickly turn away. The sergeant's eyes were misty as he handed me the paperwork.

"Here you go, Ingrid. Is that all you need?" I nodded and went to my office to type up the death certificate, five copies interlaced with carbon paper. Tears falling respectfully down my face, it took everything I had to complete that document.

As I laid in bed, my job done, sleep was a long time in coming. My thoughts kept returning to Michael and Gina and I wondered what she would do now without her brother's help. But most of all, I thought how terribly sad it was that such a nice guy should die so young.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My New Adventure Begins...

Better known as, what the heck was I thinking??

As I lay there on my bed, that first night, in an open room full of other women, I'm not exactly sure what I was thinking. But one thing's for certain, I was more concerned about survival than deep, introspective thought. 

As the sound of sniffles reached my ears and I realized someone a few beds over was crying, my first thought was that she was going to be eaten alive. I don't know how I knew, but somehow I did, that crying was not an option, not here, not in this foreign place. 

Every instinct inside me was set on one thing and one thing alone, making it through the next six weeks. I knew that if I could do that, I could face anything the Air Force had to throw at me. I just had to get through basic training and believe me, that was harder than you think.

From the moment we arrived, the Military Training Instructors (MTIs) or TIs as we called them, were using that loud, authoritative voice. You know the one, it's the one your parents use on you when you've done something really bad. But this yelling was continuous and repetitive and the very last thing you wanted was for that person, male or female it didn't matter, to focus in on you. 

Aside from the uniforms, this could have been the room I lived in for 6 weeks, and, yes, I promise you, my bed really did look that good.
A typical dorm room and yes, my bed really did look that good.

We had two TIs, one male and one female. She was tall with platinum hair and her heels clicked when she walked. I still cringed at the sound those heels make within my head.

But I also remember her fondly, because about midway through, when she could have booted me out, she pulled me aside and our little chat, not more than a few words, made all the difference. As for the other TI, he was a total and absolute egotistic jerk, but I'm getting ahead of myself. We're still on that first night.

Aside from the urgency of getting ready for bed as quickly as we possibly could, what I think left the biggest impression on me that night was what would become a nightly occurrence, "Taps," being played over the loud speaker. That was the signal that it was time for lights out and we better be in our beds or there was hell to pay. Maslow had nothing over the Air Force, the first notes of "Taps," both instilled fear as well as commanded us to sleep, no salivating necessary.

The other immediate and lasting impression came the next morning at 5 AM, "Reveille." Imagine that insistent bugle playing full blast over the speaker above your bed. To this day, that damn tune brings back the urgency to get moving and the humid smell of early mornings at Lackland. Bottom line, by the time that song was done, you had to have gotten dressed and downstairs into formation. If you were lucky, you might even have a few seconds to relieve yourself first, but being late for formation was bad, really bad.

And that brings to mind the dreaded AETC Form 341, we had to carry three of them at all times with our name, squadron number and flight number already printed out. Getting one pulled by anyone in authority either caused immediate, unrelenting fear or absolute elation. "Three-forty-ones," as we called them were the forms used for either positive or negative recognition.  And the worst part, as soon as you got back to dorm, you had to tell your TI what happened. It was sort of like telling Mom and Dad what you did wrong and making sure you told them before the mean lady next door paid them a visit.

I'd gotten at least one three-forty-one pulled for an infraction, but for the longest time I kept a copy of the only one I ever had pulled for praise of performance. Silly, huh?

This is the type of building I stayed in during basic training. It's a squadron building. Each squadron is made up of flights and each flight had their own dorm. My squadron was the 3700th, but I forget our flight number.

Each flight, or group of trainees, consisted of four squads. The level of authority within the flight consisted of a Flight Leader and then each squad had their own Squad Leader. If we had twenty-eight girls in our flight, each squad consisted of seven girls. Confused yet?

This will be important later, especially when it comes to marching in formation. Marching is something that I repeatedly had trouble with the first three weeks, but not for the reason you think. :)

Okay, enough for today. I hope you're enjoying my visit down memory lane, I know I am.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Review - Autumn in the Abyss by John Claude Smith

John Claude Smith never ceases to amaze, delight and shock me as he pushes the limits of both his ingenuity and his ability to see the world through unique eyes. Autumn in the Abyss, John Claude Smith's newest collection of dark stories, is a perfect example. I found each of the five stories compelling and entertaining though in ways truly as unique as the stories themselves. 

The first story, Autumn in the Abyss, about a recluse obsessed with a reportedly dead poet by the name of Henry Coronado, aroused my love of mystery while, at the same time, I wasn't sure whether to be revolted or feel sorry for the character's seemingly forced lifestyle. I think if anything I was intrigued by each new passage, wondering where the story was going and, as usual, I was not disappointment by the outcome. 

The second story, Broken Teacup, as despicably immoral as the main character and his amoral buddy were, I was compelled to keep reading simply because I wanted to see what happened next. Again, though I felt the need to shower my mind afterward, there was a sense of justice in the end. So, on some level, I did actually find that story strangely entertaining. 

The third story, La Mia Immortalita, about an artist obsessed with his own immortality reminded me of something you might see on the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. Truly an interesting and enjoyable piece. 

By far, my favorite story with the fourth, Becoming Human. The main character, Detective Roberto "Bobby" Vera, was easy to relate to simply because he was so real, which is ironic given the title of the story. 

As for the fifth and final story, Where the Light Won't Find You, is a fitting way to conclude the collection. The main character, angry twenty-something Derek Jenner, reminds us of how our self-inflated egos can push us to make decisions with sometimes deadly consequences.

Having been a fan of John Claude Smith's writing for a while now, Autumn in the Abyss is a great collection to have on my shelf, but his other collection, The Dark is Light Enough for Me is still my favorite.

Monday, May 26, 2014

And Into the Fire...

Braniff Airways (now defunct) flew us from Philadelphia to San Antonio, Texas. It was an interesting flight. I somehow managed to sit between two guys. Mind you, I had lived the majority of my life in the same house, a farm house, on an extended family farm surrounded by relatives. I had gone to the same school district my entire life, grew up with the same kids and been stuck in the same social hole, never able to quite figure out how this enigma called small-town society worked.

Then, all of a sudden, I was on a plane, surrounded by strangers and placed between two attractive guys who both wanted to talk to me. Quite frankly, it was weird. And so describes most of my military life, weird. To be honest, I don't think I ever quite understood any of it. I used to joke that when I passed my E-5 Staff Sergeant exam, any answer I didn't know, I picked the least logical answer. Yes, I passed the test, but it was just another example of how I never "fit."

But I digress, the plane ride. This picture gives you an idea of what the interior looked like, though when I sat in them, the seats were faded and the model was long gone. As for my flight, to my right, the window seat was taken by a mundane college-graduate, tall with dark hair and glasses. He was nice, but hid behind his shallow intellect.

I guess I found him boring, because after minutes of conversation, I turned toward the other guy, on my left, isle seat. He was cute, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, made me laugh, and in the world I just came from, I don't think he'd have even given me a second glance. But in this world, this new world, I was the focus of his attention and quite frankly, I was scared too death.

I didn't know how to act. I'd never been popular in school. Had always been a wall flower, the only boyfriend I'd ever had was an older man, a summer love. So, not knowing what else to do, I followed my instincts and completely enjoyed the flight down to San Antonio. Later I would find out that my new friend was just as nervous as I was, surprise! But, yes, he was a good kisser.

So, we arrived in San Antonio and that wonderful plane ride was over. The next thing I knew we were all unloaded and somehow managed to claim our baggage. Don't ask me how, that part is a blur, but what I do remember was suddenly finding myself in this big room, low ceiling, and it was jammed full of strangers, not only the kids from my plane but a zillion others. Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but it sure felt that way.

Oh, and there was a bus ride in there somewhere, I think between the airplane and baggage claim. I only remember the bus ride because I spoke to a girl about my age who had just enlisted into the Marines. She looked tough, but in those days few women entered the Marine Corp. I remember thinking, why on earth would she want to be a Marine? But I think my Marine Corp readers could respond to that better than I can.

Just a side note, on the test that everyone takes before they enlist, the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery), my scores were high. I had chosen the Air Force because my older brother had enlisted years before and he seemed to enjoy it. The only other branch I had considered was the Navy, but decided against because I wasn't strong swimmer. Interesting, how we make our choices in life.

Anyway, back to the sardine-can-like dark room with its fluorescent glare. The nervous energy of all those people was palatable. It seemed to hang in the air like mist surrounding the lights or maybe that was the humidity. San Antonio in July is hot and humid, but I got news for all you Texans, it's got nothing on southeastern Pennsylvania where the humidity levels usually stay in the high 90 percentile.

As I stood there, just as nervous if not more than most of the people around me, I took comfort in the presence of my new friend, let's call him Cherry Hill, to protect his anonymity. He was nice and made me smile, but all too soon, that was yanked out from under me as people in uniform seemed to explode into the crowded room taking charge and reminding us in not so polite terms why we were there.

The next thing I knew names were called and we were all separated into buses, more buses, old, school buses painted blue. The sky was dark on the way to the base. It was like being dump into a new world, very foreign with it's wide open space, palms and sage bushes.

I found this link online, yep, pretty accurate, though we arrived at night... Arrival at Lackland Air Force Base.

Thanks for reading and more to come...

Saturday, May 24, 2014

From the Frying Pan - Philadelphia

As I emerge from the sleep of early morning, taking eager sips from my coffee cup, the one with an antiquated Mickey Mouse waving on the front, seriously, that mouse is far too happy in the mornings, my mind wonders back to the post of yesterday. Now, please keep in mind, my memories of my adventures in the US Air Force are not necessarily happy ones, so fair warning, these tales at times will be dark.

My first recollection was of the Military Entrance Processing Station in Philadelphia. Now I'd only been to Philly a few times in my life, all as a small child either going to Germantown to see relatives or on a school field trip. Never on my own and never as an "adult," and the other thing to consider is growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I had never experienced racial discrimination, at least not to my knowledge. Well, the first people my own age that I encountered in this massive, government building took an instant dislike to me and since I was friendly and had good hygiene, the only thing I could think of was they didn't like the color of my skin. You see, they were black and they made it very clear that I was not their "kind."

Talk about a rude awakening. These girls were mean, especially in the weeks to come, as you see during the next twenty-four hours, most of the girls in civilian clothes like me, that I came across, was going to the same place, Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonia, Texas. And worse, these particular four girls, were to be living in the same open-bay dormitory with me for the next six weeks. Fortunately, their existence would mean less and less to me as the weeks went by, especially as my survival became more questionable during the first three weeks.

Oh, I forgot to mention, the last words out of my father's mouth when I left home, "If the Air Force doesn't want you, we don't either." Not a particularly kind send of, and those words truly set the stage for my start in the USAF. For me, a country bumpkin, and an insecure and socially-awkward one at that, succeeding in the Air Force, indeed meant survival. I had nowhere else to go. As far as I was concerned, it was either make it in the Air Force or end up on the streets. No pressure there.

And so, I did it, me and a handful of other high school graduates, stood inside a dark, faux-wood paneled square room, under the glare of florescent lights and before a flag of the United States, and swore to serve and defend the United States and it's Constitution. It was July 14th, 1981, and it truly was a day of firsts for me. First plane ride, first complex relationship (yes, sat next to him on the plane,) first negative racial encounter and first time I'd ever been yelled at by people paid to yell at me, but all that's for another day.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned. :)

Friday, May 23, 2014

A New Adult Novel??

This morning while dressing, it occurred to me that since young adult novels seem to be "it" right now in regards to book sales, maybe I should be working on that "great" young adult novel I still have inside my head. But, of course, being ADHD, my brain went in a multitude of directions from there and when I finally sat down to write, what came out was more "new adult" than "young adult."

One of the adages that writing teachers readily preach is "write what you know or know what you write." So, with that in mind and being that my "new adult" experiences began when I left home and enlisted in the Air Force, this is what came forth from my cranium this morning....

In June of that year, I graduated high school, less than two weeks later, I turned nineteen and more than a month after I graduated, my new life began, or at least that was the plan. In retrospect, I never should have enlisted. I should have figured out a way to go to college and become this great, amazing writer, the one who lays dormant inside me.

But that wasn't my life; mine was about surviving and getting away from the hell that was “home.” It wasn't always that way, one upon a time I was surrounded by people who loved me and wanted me, but then not all fairy tales have happy endings and when my “wicked” stepmother married my father, she truly was not a very nice person. So like all fairy princesses, I needed to escape and my escape was the United States Air Force. Who knew the proverbial jumping from the frying pan into the fire actually existed? I soon found out.

I was a farm girl in rural Pennsylvania, my graduating class was 265, actually I don’t think every one of them graduated. We were poor, no way around it. My father’s get-rich-at-farming attempts just never panned out, so if I stayed in PA (my favorite abbreviation for Pennsylvania) it was either flip burgers or marry a farmer. Somehow neither was very appealing. I wanted to travel, to see the world, so for someone like me, the best option was the Air Force." 

In truth, not a bad start. BUT, I write fiction, not creative nonfiction and isn't my reality incredibly boring? So, here are my thoughts...perhaps, as I siphon through my memories of what my life had been like back then, maybe I can come up a few kernels of research to use in a fictional novel. With that goal in mind, I'll keep writing and share whatever remotely clever bits I come up with here, on this blog... Or, at least, that's the plan today. Of course, being ADHD, I could have a new plan tomorrow... ;)

To All of You Who Are Motherly!

Happy Mother's Day to all of you who are motherly! Mother's Day has always been an enigma to me and every year I am puzzled as to...