Authors: Doug Beason
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #war, #Contemporary Fiction
Seeing an ATO, Rod slowed to attention, called out, “Good morning, sir!” and continued on his way. With less than five minutes to First Call, and after the experience of being late to the morning formation, he didn’t want to be late again. And with missing breakfast, he couldn’t imagine anything worse that could happen to him.
A voice called out to Rod. “You man, drive over here!”
Rod immediately stopped, causing the line of basic cadets following close behind him to run into each other, like a twenty-car pileup on a narrow mountain road. He stepped out of the line, allowing the basics behind him to continue to the dorm.
It was Lieutenant Ranch, but he looked as though his mind were elsewhere. He returned Rod’s salute. “Mr. Simone. You’re minute caller today. Uniform is gym clothes, USAFA t-shirt, black sneakers, white socks. Get going.”
“Yes, sir. Good morning, sir.” Popping off a salute, Rod turned and sprinted off, determined to get to the dorm in time.
On the way, he told himself he just had to stop thinking that things wouldn’t get any worse.
O O O
Rod discovered that although the ATOs may have been given the power to withhold food, personal gear, civilian clothes, cards, radios, hi-fi’s, and just about everything under the sun that had not been issued to them, that someone, somewhere up the chain of command, had ordered that the basic’s mail would not be withheld. Just before shower formation, Flight B-2 marched to the admin building and were issued a mailbox at the same location where a hundred years ago they had in-processed and obtained their clothing.
The basics practiced opening and locking the mailboxes several times before Lieutenant Ranch was satisfied they could do it right. “Don’t ever forget your combination,” he said, “you’ll quickly learn this box will be your lifeline home.”
Rod didn’t have any mail, but for the rest of his time as a cadet he’d check the mailbox at least once a day—and sometimes twice.
“Hard to Get”
July 12, 1955
Air Force Academy Construction Site
Colorado Springs, CO
Mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery.
, Vol. IV
Colonel Stoltz held out a hand to help Mary McCluney make the final step up the dirt rise. She wore hiking boots, grey tweed pants, and a green plaid jacket that highlighted her red hair. Wearing a brown corduroy suit and matching fedora, Hank McCluney puffed behind them, slowly but steadily using his cane to negotiate the mule trail and join his wife and the Director of Academy Installations.
They paused for a moment at the crest, surveying the site. The Rampart Range jutted up in front of them, a contrast of colors with green pine, scrub oak, and red soil dotted by the white bark of aspen groves. The deep blue Colorado sky was unbroken except for wisps of cirrus.
“Who would have thought when I was here last year we’d be starting to build it?” Hank said. He turned to Colonel Stoltz. “How long before you begin construction?”
Stoltz lit a cigarette. Shaking out the match, he took a long drag. “With your help, we’ll be on a train that’s not going to slow down for anything, General. Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill was awarded the construction contract last July 23rd, beating out 340 other architectural firms. Their final design was presented on the first of this month, and construction is scheduled to commence upon release of funds by the Congress. That’s why we need you out here as soon as possible.”
Mary spoke quietly, breaking the Colonel’s soliloquy. “I thought Frank Lloyd Wright had derailed that train of yours, Colonel.”
Stoltz reddened. “Wright is a horse’s rear-end, ma’am. If you’ll excuse the expression.”
“I also understand that horse’s rear-end has managed to convince the House Appropriations Committee to withhold nearly a quarter of a billion dollars from the supplemental appropriations bill, which will not only escalate your cost, but will delay construction. And if you don’t have any money, then what’s the hurry for us to move to Colorado?” Mary smiled sweetly.
Stoltz coughed smoke.
Hank raised his eyebrows. “Good question, Colonel. What’s the rush?”
Stoltz crushed out his cigarette and drew himself up. “You’re right, Mrs. McCluney. The House is going to withhold some money, but our legislative liaison assures us they’re working hard to get the American Institute of Architects to back the Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill design. We believe things are firmly in hand. The reason we need you out here is that we expect the logjam to break any day, and when it does, we’ll be scrambling for help.”
Turning his full attention to Mary McCluney, he said with admiration, “Not too many people would have spotted that flaw in our strategy, ma’am. If your son has half the intelligence you do, he’ll excel at the Academy.”
Hank turned to look out over the mesa that would soon hold the Academy area. To the north and south a series of ridges extended east from the mountains like the fingers on a hand. “My wife did my legislative research when I was on the site commission, Colonel. In some ways, she played a more important role than me.”
“It helps to keep up with my contacts,” Mary said, slipping an arm through her husband’s; she gazed over the vista. “It would be nice to live close to Rod.” She studied Hank’s face. “But Colorado Springs is still quite a drive to Lowry Field.” She turned to Stoltz. “Could we live here, on the Academy grounds? It would be closer to Denver and Lowry than living in Colorado Springs.”
“We won’t be able to house you on the base, ma’am, but there is some undeveloped land just east of here, overlooking the campus.” Colonel Stoltz pointed to the eastern plains. A forest of dark trees covered the hills to the north, and the hint of several canyons wound just south of a ridge. “I think we’d be able to get you a good price if you’d like to build out there. I know it’s out in the sticks, but you’d be close to campus. And when the Academy is finished, you’d have a place that overlooks the cadet area. I don’t think you could get any closer than that.”
Hank nodded. The remoteness didn’t concern him. Compared to the farm he’d grown up on in Tyler, Texas, this was a metropolis. And it would be even more so once the construction started. In addition, it was only 60 miles south of Lowry. It would be a lot easier to spend time with Rod if they lived here. Perhaps he could turn things around with the two of them.
He turned to Mary. “What do you say we think about it?”
She patted his arm. “We already have.” She looked at Colonel Stoltz. “When can you arrange for us to see the land, Colonel?”
“Probably within a week. A local real estate magnate, Mr. Delante, is the developer. He owns a thousand acres east of here in partnership with Jim-Tom Henderson, the owner of Pine Valley airport, and has been very helpful coordinating the construction companies. In fact, he’s made himself indispensable.”
Hank froze, his face emotionless, but inside he boiled. “George Delante?”
Mary frowned. “Is that a good idea, husband?”
Colonel Stoltz looked from Hank to Mary. “Do you know him?”
“Yes. Yes, we do.” Hank thought for a long moment before continuing. George Delante, the reprobate who’d tried to blackmail him with that prostitute in an amateurish attempt to influence where the Academy would be built. Hank had discovered that Delante had amassed thousands of acres south of Colorado Springs, probably thinking he’d make millions selling the land to the government, but the fool hadn’t realized that the southern site was located much too close to Fort Carson and didn’t have enough airspace for flight training the cadets. Delante had probably lost money when that southern site was rejected in favor of the current site, but that wasn’t Hank’s concern; this site northwest of Colorado Springs had the land area and remoteness needed for preparing future generations of Air Force officers.
He should have known that Delante would have inserted himself into the construction phase. Hank didn’t have any hard evidence that Delante had been connected with that blackmailing shenanigan—but there was no doubt in his mind. Nor in Mary’s; at the time she’d demanded that Hank bring up charges, but he didn’t have enough proof.
He should just forget it, not involve himself in Delante’s land business.
But where else could they live that was so close to the site? And where would that leave the Academy if he just walked away? If they really needed a general officer to run interference for them, whom else could they get?
After spending the last decade of his life working so hard to establish the Academy, walking away wouldn’t be the right thing to do.
Hank said carefully, “Colonel, have you told Mr. Delante about asking me to work here?”
Stoltz frowned. “No, sir. May I ask why?”
Mary said curtly, “No concern of yours, Colonel.
Stoltz’s face turned red.
A moment passed and Hank said, “Do us a favor.”
“Yes, sir?” Stoltz said.
“Please keep our name out of this. We’ll have to return to Colorado to see the land, and I’d like to consider several locations. But whatever we decide on, we’d prefer to work with Jim-Tom Henderson and do it through a third party. I want to remain anonymous.”
“That’s a very unusual request, sir—”
Mary cut him off. “Those are our terms, Colonel.”
Hank said, “If you want us here in Colorado, our purchase will go through a third party, working with Jim-Tom, not Delante. Our name will not be mentioned. Understand?”
Colonel Stoltz looked from Hank to Mary. Neither one said anything.
Stoltz shrugged. “Very well, sir, ma’am. I’ll do as you say.”
“Ain’t That a Shame”
United States Air Force Academy
Lowry Field, CO
CRETIN (n)—That person ill-disposed at doing acts of nominal coordination or acts requiring minimal thought.
Rod lived each day as a lifetime, surviving from minute to minute.
So he wouldn’t waste time dressing and making his bed each morning, he slept in his uniform on top of the covers and woke just before reveille. Before the doors were kicked in, he and Sly scurried around the room, dusting, ferreting out dust bunnies underneath furniture, straightening, cleaning their sink, re-shining their boots, cleaning their rifles, and ensuring a hundred other small details were taken care of, from dusting the top of the door frame to lining up their shoes in the closet.
When the wake-up whistle blast reverberated down the hall, they timed things just right so that when Lieutenant Ranch kicked open their door, it appeared that they were waking up and simultaneously putting on their clothes and making their bed.
Once Lieutenant Ranch had caught them out of rack before reveille; Ranch had ordered the two to disrobe and get under their sheets: “You gentlemen need your sleep!” thus defeating any advantage they had gained by waking up early. That morning they were late to morning formation and had caused all of B Squadron to do squat-thrusts.
They had quickly figured out the strategy: it was impossible to get ready in the allotted time, even working at light speed. So the basics gamed the system by also working after taps, cleaning what they could in the dark, then waking early to complete their chores.
Half the time, after returning from shower formation, an evening meal, or the nightly air power lecture, their room would be destroyed by Captain Justice. Their clothes were thrown from the closet, or their underwear drawer was dumped on their bed: “Haven’t you dumb doolies figured out how to put your clothes in order? Try it again until you get it right!” Or they would find their beds turned upside down, the sheets torn from the mattress, wadded, and kicked into the corner, because the bed wasn’t taut enough to bounce a quarter that had been dropped on it. It seemed that for every inch forward Rod managed to crawl, he was drop-kicked back a mile.
And so it went on for eternity; throughout the endless, changeless Colorado summer of freezing cold mornings, unbearable noon heat, rain showers starting precisely at 1400, and chilly, clear skies at sunset, without fail, and without end.
O O O
Staggering into his room, Rod collapsed from holding an infinite brace. Sly entered the room moments later, gasping for breath. The two leaned against the corners of the closet, out of sight from the hallway, not speaking, but eyeing each other as sweat beaded on their forehead and trickled down their face.
Rod’s body screamed for him to lie down, to get some rest—but that violated a rule so sacrosanct that it stood just below the holy “only five responses.”
Sitting down was nearly as bad of a sin. Rod couldn’t move the chair far enough out of sight from the hallway as to not draw any attention.
“What next?” Sly whispered.
Rod shook his head dully. “I don’t know. And I don’t want to know.” Times like these, when they had a few minutes respite, made Rod suspicious. Captain Justice must have been dreaming up something especially sinister for the ATOs to be so quiet.
A whistle blew in the hallway. “All right, you dumb wads! You’ve got two minutes to get outside to the assembly area for a uniform formation.”
Sly frowned and mouthed, “What’s that?”
The answer came instantly. “Uniform is flight suit, shower clogs, and raincoat!”
Rod and Sly scrambled to pull the unusual combination of uniform parts out of their closet. Rod hopped on one leg, pulling on his “bunny suit,” as they called their unusual-colored powder-blue flight suit. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Sly moaned. “Justice must have hit the Officer’s Club bar during the break. He can’t mean it. This doesn’t make any sense.”
Rod shrugged on his raincoat, then shower clogs. “It doesn’t have to make sense. All we have to do is not wear the correct uniform, or worse, be late, and they’ll fry us.”
“I knew there was a catch.”
They quickly checked each other off before heading out the door. They had learned to watch out for each other and had found that it was harder this way for Lieutenant Ranch to find discrepancies. Once in the hallway, they turned into automata: chest out, shoulders back and down, chin in, arms to the side.
An ATO walked toward them, ready to rip off their heads.
They slammed against the wall. “By your leave, sir!”
The ATO said, “Two, smack!”
“Yes, sir! Good afternoon, sir! Bravo squadron dominates, sir!”
With their shoulder pressed against the wall, they tapped down the stairs one at a time and sprinted to formation. Slowing to a walk, they saluted and bellowed, “Good afternoon, sir. Bravo dominates!”
Justice glared as he inspected the troops. “One of your classmates didn’t wear his raincoat. Unbelievable. What’s going to happen when you don’t put on a parachute and your airplane crashes? Can anybody tell me?” His words hung in the air, but no one dared to answer the unusual question.
Squashed strawberry jam,
Jumping out of an airplane without a parachute; what else would happen if you fell 20,000 feet? And all because he forgot to wear his raincoat.
The incongruity almost made him laugh. From the corner of his eye the squadron looked ridiculous, dressed in the outlandish combination of uniform parts.
“You doolies make me sick,” Justice spat. “Now get down and knock out fifty. Maybe that will help you pay attention to detail.”
Once through, they stood sweating in the Colorado noon sun, the heat trapped inside their plastic raincoat. Justice put his hands on his hips and surveyed the basics. “Let’s see if your puny little brains can remember another uniform combination by the time you get back to your rooms. First Call for the next formation is five minutes from now. Uniform is: swimsuit, khaki pants with jock on the outside, t-shirt with winter parka, and combat boots under arms. Now move. Dismissed.”
“Good afternoon, sir!” They took a step backwards and broke ranks, scrambling for the dorm rooms, while ATOs ranged throughout the assembly area. It looked as if Justice had stirred up a pile of ants.
Back in their rooms, Rod and Sly gasped for breath while changing into the next outlandish uniform. “What’s going on?” Sly asked, stretching his jockstrap over his pants. “Just when I thought I figured out the system, Justice throws this at us.” He adjusted the clothing around his crotch. “Look at this: Clothing issue didn’t think I needed a large!”
Rod told him about his strawberry jam vision and they both burst out laughing.
Sly lowered his M-1 rifle from the stand and wiped a tear from his eye just as they headed out the door. “I wish you hadn’t told me that. Now every time Justice bawls us out, I’m going to think of a blob of jam.”
“Then think of something else.”
“Toast,” Rod said, as he prepared he leave the room.
“Yeah, something to divert your attention.” Rod slapped his weapon to his side and stepped smartly into the hallway. “You know, toast and jam.”
They made it to formation without being stopped, having mastered the art of passing officers both in- and outside the dorms.
O O O
“Squeeze the trigger, son. Gently—”
An explosion went off next to Rod’s ear. It felt as though his eardrum had popped as the rifle banged back into his shoulder. A hundred feet down range the paper target fluttered in the wind as a burst of dirt sprayed from the berm.
The master sergeant rifle instructor continued speaking in an unhurried, patient voice. “Put the next round in the chamber, son. This time, just gently squeeze your right hand. Don’t jerk it, squeeze.”
Rod clacked the mechanism, and another round rotated into the firing chamber. He wet his lips and brought the rifle up.
On either side of him a row of cadets cracked off rounds, most hitting the paper targets. Some drilled the center of the target in a perfect bull’s-eye, using the heavy M-1 rifles. Rod brought his rifle up and concentrated on his target.
“That’s it,” the sergeant said. He squatted next to Rod. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
Rod kept the rifle pointed downrange and glanced up with his cheek still on the stock. “Excuse me?”
“A girlfriend. Do you have a girlfriend back home?”
“Yes, master sergeant,” Rod said, zeroing in on the target.
“What’s her name?”
“Sandy. Sandy Allison.” Her latest letter was folded neatly in his pocket; he’d take it out when sitting in the john and re-read it.
“Okay,” the crusty old sergeant lifted Rod’s rifle minutely as he scrunched next to Rod on the dirt. The
pop pop pop
sound of bullets being fired drifted down the firing range. “Now close your eyes for a moment.”
Surprised, Rod released his hand from the trigger and shut his eyes. He’d learned to never question an order, and although this didn’t rate with conducting a uniform formation, it was still pretty weird to be closing his eyes on the firing range.
The sergeant’s calm voice spoke over the sound of rifle fire. “Can you see Sandy’s face?”
“Yes, sergeant,” Rod nodded, his eyes still closed. Shoulder length brunette hair, the ends flipping up at her shoulders, a perky nose, and a small mole over her left eye.
“How’s she look?”
“Fine,” Rod said. “Swell.”
“How’s she look in a swimsuit? Nice?”
“Yeah,” Rod smiled, his eyes still closed. “Real nice.”
“That’s good. Real shapely I bet. She’s got a good figure?”
“A great figure. A real looker.”
“Just what I thought. Now imagine you’ve got your right hand on Sandy’s tit. Nice and gentle. You wouldn’t jerk your hand, squeeze too fast, and upset Miss Sandy, now would you, son?”
“So just squeeze slowly, real gentle. Can you imagine that?”
“Oh, yeah.” The thought of being anywhere else but Colorado, and being with Sandy brought the point home for Rod.
Rod heard the sergeant straighten. “Now open your eyes, son. Sight in the target, caress that breast with your hand and squeeze—this time gently, understand?”
Rod detached himself from the firing range, the surroundings, and the incessant popping of the controlled explosions of rifle firings, and in one, continuous fluid-like motion he closed his hand, the recoil barely bothered him when the rifle fired.
The master sergeant brought a pair of field binoculars up and gazed downrange. “That’s it! Good shot, son. Try it again.” He brought down the glasses and squeezed Rod’s shoulder. “Nice and gentle. Never forget Miss Sandy.”
Rod brought up the M-1. “You got it, Master Sergeant.”
O O O
At the evening meal Lieutenant Ranch held up a white Air Force Academy form that measured five by seven inches on a side. “Listen up. This is a Form O-96. You smacks need to fill this out at the end of every meal so the Mitchell Hall staff can see what we think of their food and service. The approved solution is to mark the categories: fast, neat, average; friendly, good, good. Do not forget! Do you understand?”
The table answered as one. “Sir, I do not understand!”
Ranch turned red. “The first category is for the waiter: was he slow, fast or average? Get it? The other categories are similar. Unless you have a real beef with the meal, mark down the approved solution. Understand, cretins?”
O O O
“All right, listen up.” Flight B-2 sat on two wooden benches inside a canvas tent. Little light made its way inside, and the smell of wet sandbags permeated the darkness. Pinpricks of light peppered the top of the canvas. A raw bulb burned by the canvas door by the side. Dust from the dirt floor was on the benches and the side of the tent.
An officer paced the space between the benches. Although apprehensive about what was to come, Rod still felt grateful for the chance to finally sit in the dark, something he had not had the chance to do during the hectic early days of BCT.
One of Rod’s classmates started snoring softly, validating their classes’ reaction to the arduous pace: lights out, eyes shut. They were so tired all the time it was difficult to stay awake.
A classmate jabbed the sleeper in the side of the ribs, eliciting a snort, but the sleeper woke, and thus saved all of them from ten minutes of squat-thrusts.
The officer continued his lecture. “This is your final exam in unconventional warfare. Does anyone have any questions about donning the gas mask?”
“Good.” He pulled his own mask over his head. “Assume the position.”
Twenty basics pulled gas masks over their head, mimicking their instructor.
“Position the mask.”
Again, Rod and his classmates followed the officer’s lead, fitting their mask to their face. Rod ran a finger on either side of the rubber, ensuring a tight fit. He peered out through the mask’s two frog-eyed lenses, and although his eyes had grown used to the low light level in the tent, everything looked distorted, out of focus.
The officer strode down the center of the tent and stopped in front of a box at the end of the aisle, he rummaged inside and pulled out a small canister.
A metal ring extended from the end of the canister. He held the canister up for all to see and grasped the metal ring with his right hand; his muffled voice sounded as if it were coming from the bottom of a well. “This is tear gas. If one of these lands near you and you don’t have a mask, run like hell, otherwise you’ll be unable to fight.
“The purpose of today’s training is twofold. First, you should know how to correctly use a gas mask.” He pulled the ring. Thick smoke poured from the canister. The officer held the tear gas unit above his head, allowing the gas, which was heavier than air, to billow throughout the enclosed tent. It swirled around the officer. “If your mask is on correctly, and you have a good filter in your canister, you should not be able detect the gas. If your mask leaks, stick out a paw. Is everyone okay?”