Friday, January 13, 2006

Memories of the Air Force

I was in the United States Air Force from 1976-80, the Carter years. My military years were perhaps the low point in two centuries of American military morale. No, it wasn’t my fault. America was on retreat and communism was advancing everywhere, from Southeast Asia to Central America. Inflation was rampant, interest rates were high, government price controls were causing gas shortages and Carter was asking Americans not to put up Christmas lights. It’s not a coincidence that America’s nadir was the left’s zenith. Since Carter it has been downhill for the left and uphill for America.

I joined the Air Force because I was restless and wanted something new. I wanted to get out of the nest. The military was my ticket out.

Before I got on the bus to take me away from home, my Mother advised me not to linger in bus stop restrooms because homosexuals hang out there. I took her advice seriously, going in and out of the restrooms as fast as possible and avoiding all eye contact.

I was a chinese linguist, trained at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey (a primo place to be stationed). I flew out of Okinawa in what the media call “spy planes.” We were not spies, as we wore uniforms while we worked. We wanted to be called linguists, not spies, because spies are killed when they’re captured. Somehow that made a difference to us.

I ate the best chinese food I’ve ever had in Japan. Since I got back to the states I have not found anything that comes close. The chinese fast food that sits in tubs under lights is slop I would not feed to pigs.

I spent my last year in the Air Force at Ft. Meade, Maryland, where I worked in the NSA. I’ll tell you two things I’m pretty sure I can say about the place. The building had the longest corridor I have ever seen; must have been an eighth of a mile. And they piped muzak into the building. I think they did this to keep the Russians from eavesdropping.

I sat at my desk trying to read chinese, which I could do only with the help of a dictionary. If you want a test of your patience, try looking up a word in a chinese dictionary. Remember, they don’t have letters. Nothing in their language makes sense like that. You have to look up the radical of the character, a part of the character under which it is grouped. Then you have to count the number of strokes and hope you find something that looks like the character you’re trying to define. It’s a nightmare. Doing this all day with that ghastly muzak coming out of a speaker in the ceiling -- it was like being in a modern novel with no sex parts.

I’ve forgotten my chinese now. Use it or lose it.

I was a mediocre military man. I did the job okay, but sometimes my hair touched my ears and my bed was not always made. But I’m glad I was in the USAF. I met challenges, saw new places and got to observe a lot of interesting people. They’re all filed away in my subconscious; maybe one will reappear in my next play in the form of a Roman centurion or an inner city cop or maybe even an airman.

1 comment:

John Enright said...

I'm glad to hear it was even hard for you to look up Chinese words. I was recently trying to interpret some Chinese characters and spent the better part of an hour - unsuccessfully trying to look up 4 words.