December 02, 2003

Air Force Blue (part 4)

Parts one, two, and three.

Last time, I talked about the serious side of Camp Bullis, Texas, which is where Air Force Security Policemen get sent to be trained in Air Base Ground Defense. They tried to keep you as busy as possible because there wasn’t a whole lot to do with the inevitable spare time. This go-round I’ll tell you about the trouble we got into fun we had.

The days and weeks spent at Camp Bullis ran together, so the bits and pieces recounted here are in some vague chronological order. The time frame is autumn, just when it starts getting really cold at night, especially in the Texas foothills around San Antonio. This all happened in the late 70’s, so if I get details wrong it’s not in exaggeration, it’s just fuzzy memory.

There were twelve of us assigned to the tent. I won’t use names, partly because I don’t remember them all, and partly because someone may contemplate running for public office some day. We were an eclectic mix of big and small, white and ethnic, country and city, rich and poor, even an honest-to-God Devil worshipper for our devout Christians to interact with. Among us, we had one thing in common, our surnames all fell in the range of starting with ‘P’ to starting with ‘S’, which is how we came together as a squad. Three ‘fire teams’ of four, and it was drilled into our heads constantly that your squad is your family. You can mentally insert your favorite dysfunctional family here, we sure as hell weren’t the Waltons.

Camp Bullis itself wasn’t small. Besides the huge acreage that we played Army in, the base camp proper consisted of five or six dirt ‘streets’ of tents laid out in parallel rows. At the head was the chow tent which was more like a huge circus canopy, and the classroom building which was a permanent structure. Up the hill to the left was a tiny Base Exchange store, the ‘BX’. As small as it was (the average 7-11 is bigger), it sold all the essentials like uniform parts and beer and long underwear and beer and snack foods and beer. At the other end of the rows of tents was the aforementioned latrine, with seating for plenty, and showers. Each ‘street’ of tents were populated by a class going through the course, a class graduated every week. The course was five weeks long, and the sixth row was for officers. The officers were a mix of brand new ‘butterbars’ (second looies) who were getting their first taste of combat command, and more experienced officers headed overseas who needed refresher training. There were also more senior sergeants in each class (same refresher training – same reason) who were grouped together in a tent or two at one end of your ‘street’.

The tents themselves were fairly big, holding six sets of bunkbeds (three to each side), associated gear for twelve, along with two card tables and folding chairs, and a kerosene stove in the middle. There was a wooden floor underfoot, and a real wooden door at either end of the tent. Add in the electric lighting and it still wasn’t home, but it wasn’t bad.

We settled in that first week, getting to know each other. Things looked like they were going to go smoothly for us, because we didn’t have any obvious assholes in the group. One neighboring tent had already collectively beat the shit out of one of their bunkies because he’d sneak around and try to catch the guys jerking off at night. I couldn’t see the point myself (beating off, not sneaking around), because I was too damn tired and I shared a room with eleven other guys. Live and let live, and don’t rattle the bunk enough to wake me up dammit.

We also met our – I don’t remember his exact title – primary instructor. He was a short skinny guy who was the military equivalent of a yappy little dog. He was constantly in your face, trying to prove how intimidating he was and failing miserably. We nicknamed him “Billy Badass”.

An aside: Being tiny does not automatically render you non-frightening. I spent one memorable (miserable? It was both.) day paying for the sin of laughing out loud while being chewed out by a Technical Instructor in basic training. This little cannonball of a Mexican sergeant, wearing his Smokey-the-Bear hat stood toe to toe with me and screamed at me about the shine on my shoes. Since I was supposed to be staring straight ahead, all I could see of him was the emblem on the front of his hat, the brim at about my lip level hid his face. He yelled at my throat. That wasn’t was got me though, it was when he said this (it helps a lot if you say it out loud):

Your choos! What’s wrong wit chore choos! Dey look like chit! How come your choos look like chit? I want to see a chine on your choos! I want your choos to chine like mee-ors! Do you hear me? Chine like mee-ors!”

I couldn’t help it. That was the funniest thing I’ve ever heard, and to this day I can’t help but laugh when I think about it. What happened afterwards was not funny, nor fun. Damn, that sonuvabitch was mean! If you were paying taxes back then, you were getting your money’s worth out of him.

Back to Camp Bullis. By day, we’d bust our asses doing training. After chow, we’d take care of personal business and play Spades until lights out. There was always a game going on (this is where I learned the game), and if you weren’t writing letters or visiting with friends in another tent, you were either playing or bullshitting with the guys that were.

On weekends, we’d make a run to the BX for beer. Usually three or four of us would go and we’d haul cases of it back to the tent. We weren’t alone either, there were plenty of other squads doing the same thing. Then we’d drink beer and play Spades.

On the Friday leading into our third weekend, things started going to hell. We’d gotten real close as a squad, and we were all comfortable joking and messing with each other. After a long day working, we quickly got cleaned up and fed, and the beer run was accomplished. Much drinking was being done, and cards played. When it started to get chilly, it was time to light the stove.

The guy closest to the stove said “uh oh”, which got everyone’s attention. We looked at him, and he was examining the stove. Now these looked like smallish pot-bellied stoves, made out of rusty-colored iron (I’m guessing), and you slid a circular lid on a pivot at the top to light it. At the base was a small valve that you used to turn the flow of kerosene on and off. Someone had forgotten to shut off the kerosene flow this morning when they put out the stove. There was about a two-inch deep lake of fuel in the bottom of this thing.

Only one thing to do. We cut cards, and the loser had to light the stove (you dropped a match into it from the top). The rest of us collected up the beer and stood outside the door to watch.

FWOOF! Well, that was anti-climactic. He closed the lid and we returned to beer and cards. Maybe a half hour later, we started to sweat, because that damn thing was throwing off some heat! We moved the table a little farther away and kept on playing and drinking. By now, we’re all about half lit anyways.

Suddenly the door flies open and the ‘Officer of the Day’ is standing there, wide eyed and hyper as hell. He’s actually just another troop like us, but he gets to wear an ‘OD’ armband and white helmet. His main job is to run for help if the shit really hits the fan. He points to our stove and his lips are moving, but no words come out. It’s glowing that dull cherry red that’s almost subliminal. No wonder we were hot.

He finally points up and then back at the stove, and after a few repetitions we think we’ve got him figured out. We stumble outside in a group and sure enough, the spark arrestor at the top of our stove pipe is shooting flames out of it. No doubt about it, we have to put it out.

OD has a fire extinguisher that he’d brought along, so we cut cards again. Loser plays fireman, the rest of us gather the beer and stand in the street to watch and see what happens. The lid gets slid aside (wire coat hanger tool we’d had) and our friend sticks the nozzle into the hatch and pulls the trigger.

There’s a huge hiss and that’s about it. The fire is out, and it stinks to high heaven as the foam evaporates from the heat. We opened both doors to air the tent out, and wandered around talking to friends (we were celebrities!) for a while.

An hour later we’re back into the cards and beer. It’s still cold outside, so after checking the stove again (about ˝” left in the bottom) we once again cut cards. Being conscientious young men, we grabbed the beer and stepped outside. Another FWOOF! and it’s back to the game.

It wasn’t too much longer before the OD was back, this time with a real instructor who read us the riot act. By this time, the last of the excess kerosene was burnt off and the stove became nothing more than a heater again. The flames stopped coming out of the chimney, and it wasn’t hot enough to use as a crematoria.

Later that night, we all gathered around and watched as an officer tent burnt half to the ground. Great merriment was had as we realized that even drunk we weren’t as dumb as they were sober.

So ended Friday, and our weekend was just beginning.

Posted by Ted at December 2, 2003 01:06 PM | TrackBack

"Great merriment was had as we realized that even drunk we weren’t as dumb as they were sober.

Chances are, they weren't sober. They were officers you know, and officers often drink like fish. I didn't, but I was unusual. Only time I ever got drunk was at our pre-commisioning party. (AFROTC, U. Nebr. Lincoln, 1973)

Really enjoying your "Air Force" tales. I now live about 2-3 miles from Lackland, and work closer yet, at SoutWest Research Institute, which is right under the approach to Lacklands' Kelly field. Which is great when you are an airplane nut like me.

Posted by: Joe Sylvester at May 9, 2004 02:08 PM
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