The Land of Enchantment -- More of "The Wild Blue Yonder"
For much of my time in Albuquerque, I was a "Reserve bum", which is to say that I did quite a lot of work for the Air Force, much of it involving travel. Some of it, however, was done right at Kirtland AFB. Reservists are still required to do "one weekend a month" and two weeks sometime during the year. The average civilian has little idea of what's involved with Reserve service. Almost no Reservist does only the the required duty; almost all do significantly more.
My first assignment away from my home unit was to HQ USAFE at Ramstein AB, Germany, near Kaiserslautern in the summer of 1989. That was the year that everything came to a head in Germany.
Shortly after I arrived, I discovered that there was a local station right next to the AFN station on the radio dial. The guys I was working with were kind enough to let me re-tune the radio after listening to AFN news and translate the local news for them. After one such session, I said "You know, in five years, this country is going to be reunited, or the east is going to go the same way as Poland -- right down the tubes." They were too polite to say anything, but I know they thought I was crazy.
On 9 September, I flew down to Berlin and met with Christine, Erwin, and Kathrin. I told them essentially the same thing, and they were equally polite. The next evening, back in Kaiserslautern, I was watching something on TV when the local station broke in with a broadcast from the Embassy in Budapest. There were 7,200 people holed up there, hoping for permission to cross into Austria and freedom. A large-screen TV was set up on the steps, and a secretary translated the Hungarian Foreign Minister's announcement for the crowd -- they were free to leave and go wherever they wanted, not necessarily back to the DDR. Around 4,500 left that night; the rest over the next couple of days. In the office the next day, I said to the guys: "What I said before about Germany being reunited in five years -- you can forget that. Two years, tops." Again, they were too polite to say what they were thinking. But on 9 November, The Wall was opened and less than a year later, the country was reunified. Es gibt nur ein Berlin!
Our Reserve weekends, however, can get rather interesting. Twice a year, our Civil Engineering unit was required to do a bivouac. This always involved camping out on Kirtland AFB, down in Coyote Canyon. It also involved simulated chemical warfare attacks, and anything else the devious minds of the training cadre can dream up.
I learned early on that since we were required to report in around 0430 for these bivouacs, it was just as well for me to park my vehicle outside of our building the night before and crawl into the back and go to sleep. Our Training Manager would sleep in his office, where he had an alarm clock. As soon as he got up, Joe would come out and make sure I was awake. We'd both get cleaned up in the latrine and be ready and waiting when everyone else showed up.
In December of 1989, we had a full-blown Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI), complete with chem warfare and the whole nine yards. This was probably the toughest one we ever did, since it was our first. Things usually followed a rather predictable scenario: assembly at 0430, followed by equipment issue and transport out to Coyote Canyon. Before we could even get set up, there'd be a simulated attack. On this occasion, though, the training cadre had gone all out. They booby-trapped our equipment. To make matters even worse, they booby-trapped one of the Port-A-Pottys set up for us. We all agreed that that was pretty low.
After that attack, we resumed setting up, interrupted only by lunch and dinner. By late evening, there'd be another simulated attack. By this time, we had the tents set up and had places to hide. During the first part of the "attack", I found myself crouching behind some sandbags with the squadron commander. Peering out into the darkness, I could see some figures running around the compound. The Major said something about hoping they weren't our people. I opined that anything upright was a fair target, and he agreed. But we held our fire, so as not to give away our position. Besides, others were closer to them and could take them out if needed.
Later, some of us were hunkered down in a tent, waiting for the next attack. I was closest to the "back door" of the tent, with one guy behind me on his cot. There were a couple of others with us, but I forget who. All of a sudden, the flash bang grenades went off, signaling another attack. I grabbed my M-16 and crawled over to the doorway. Bill simply rolled off of his cot onto the ground, but that turned out to be a less-than-inspired move. He landed belly-first on his own helmet. While he was trying to get his wind back, in walked one of our women. And yes, she's a blonde. Standing up at full stretch, she walked right in the door and stood -- stood! -- on my hand. Fortunately for me, the ground was soft and she didn't do any damage. But 150 pounds of her on my hand was mighty uncomfortable. Grabbing the cuff of her pants, I tried to get her attention, all the while yelling "Get off my hand! Get off my hand!". But my yells were muffled too much by the gas mask I was wearing. Finally, with one might tug, I literally yanked her foot off my hand. Now she finally noticed me. Behind me, Bill was literally rolling on the "floor" laughing. To this day, he tells that story much better than I do.
The 925th Civil Engineering Squadron got its start in November of 1985. It wasn't until 1988 that we went on our first deployment. This was to Hill AFB, Utah, where we built a latrine at the softball fields. It was a great "shakedown cruise" for us and gave us an excellent opportunity to work together as a unit on a single project.
Our second deployment was in July of 1990 to Base Recovery After Attack Training (BRAAT) at Eglin AFB, Florida. This was when Hussein invaded Kuwait. Things got really serious when we found that out. Many of us were wondering if we'd be activated to go to the Gulf, but we never were. Some members were used as "backfill" at various bases, however.
Our third deployment was to Yokota AB, Japan in 1991. We had been schedule to go to Rhein-Main AB in Germany, but the Gulf War had eaten up all the funding for that. Then they found they had some money after all, so off we went to the Land of the Rising Sun. The trip over was horrendous. There's nothing like a quarter-mile bag-drag thru LAX to really make a guy's weekend. And we were schlepping more than just our own luggage; we had to take our tool boxes on the plane as well. It was an interminable flight, followed by a four-hour(!) bus trip from Narita Airport to the Base. After got off the bus and were standing around doing the "hurry up and wait" bit, I turned to the Commander and said "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto". Made his day. He still cracks up when reminded of that.
I was supposed to be working in the Military Personnel Flight (MPF) for the two weeks, and they were glad to have me. Unfortunately, some person or persons in our Heavy Equipment section didn't think it was "fair" for me to be working in an office while they were working outside, so I got pulled out to drive a dump truck for the second week. But I did keep in touch with the MPF guys. They had a custom of going out to dinner one night a month to celebrate birthdays, promotions, reassignments, etc., and they invited me along. Of all places, we wound up going to Red Lobster. Go figure. During dinner, one of those sly, evil little airmen pushed a basket over to me and said "Have some onion rings". After I had chewed down what had to be the rubberiest "onion ring" I'd ever eaten, she confessed that it was really fried squid. I let her live.
Our next deployment was in May of 1992, to Allbrook AFS, Panama. I could probably write a book just about that two weeks. While we were there, it was decided that, in order to satisfy our annual bivouac requirement, we'd simply haul our cots outside one night and sleep under the pavilion. On paper, this seemed like a pretty good idea. In practice, however..... Let's just say Murphy reared his ugly head.
In any group of three or more men, there's got to be at least one snorer. In our group of about 50, there were three. I think we were above quota. The worst offender was our Chief. I think the vibration from his snoring loosened some of the bolts holding that pavilion together. At any rate, I only lasted until 0200, then I gave up and went up to my room to get some sleep. Next morning, someone asked Gus if he had been snoring or if that was a chainsaw up his nose.
In any CE outfit, there are always people who are trained to do things that aren't really a part of their official duties. One of our guys was a welder, even though technically he was an electrician. This came in handy out at one of the schools we were working on, when he welded together a wrought iron gate to keep thieves and vandals out. OK, so it wasn't the greatest welding job the world has ever seen, but it got the job done. One afternoon, the Chief from the RED HORSE (q.v.) Squadron came out for a look-see. Even with his boots one, he probably wasn't more than 5'6". He looked a bit sideways at the welding job and asked rather gruffly "Who did this?". Someone said "Mike did". "Which one is Mike?", asked the Chief. Now, sitting on the floor, Mike is just about eyeball-to-eyeball with the Chief. Mike raised his hand and said "I am". After a somewhat awe-filled look at Mike, the Chief turned around and left.
On our last day there, while waiting for our plane to come in, a few of us drove over to the canal and got to see a ship go thru one of the locks. I've got to dig out the picture I took and post it.
It was our great good fortune that the Group Commander came down with the second group and flew back with us the same day. After we were airborn, the plane -- a C-5 Galaxy developed hydraulic problems. The closest place to fix it was Charleston AFB, South Carolina, which is almost directly north of Panama. Our landing was less than perfect, but as they say: any landing you walk away from is a good one (and if you can re-use the plane, it was a great one). The landing was rough enough to wake up all those who were sleeping, which was probably at least half the group. One guy woke up, yawned, and asked "What time is it?". Someone said "Well, it's almost eight o'clock on Charleston." "What do I care what time it is in South Carolina?" was his reply. (Surprise, Dave! We didn't make it home. Since the Group Commander was with us, we had no trouble getting the Billeting Office to take care of us and get us rooms at a nearby motel. Sometime during the night, they got the plane fixed and we made it back to Kirtland the next day.
In January of 1993, we again went to BRAAT, but this time was way different. For one thing, it was January, not July. Wearing the chemical warfare gear is far more tolerable at 50 degrees than at 80. This time, I worked in the underground bunker which served as an alternate command post. This time, we had some Canadian Reservists with us, and we were all impressed with their professionalism. If we ever go to war, I want them on our side.
Around noon on Thursday, I was at the only door to the bunker, waiting for the shuttle bus that would take us to lunch. Suddenly, a guy in civilian clothes started down the hill toward us. Discretion being the better part of valor, we stepped inside and closed and locked the door. A moment later, there was a knock on the door and a voice announced "I'm here to clean out your commode". Yeah, right. You try to come in here, fella, and we'll clean your commode. After a minute or two, the thought dawned on me that this guy just might be legit. So I walked back to the desk and suggested to the Canadian Warrant Officer on duty that it might be a good idea to call over to the HQ and ask if this was on the up-and-up. A few minutes later, we got our answer -- "Let him in". Try as we might, we couldn't get the poor guy to accept our apology. But we all agreed that, if we were terrorists or saboteurs, that's exactly how we'd try to gain entrance to a secure building.
In 1994, the 925th finally got that coveted deployment to Germany. Unfortunately, Yours Truly was at Reserve HQ at Robins AFB, Georgia and couldn't go. Murphy again. But at least the rest of the group had a good time.
Our very last deployment was to Kim Hae AB, Korea. It was also our best. We were to build a quonset hut for storing equipment and supplies. The flight over was not nearly as bad as the flight to Japan. The work was 3½ days behind schedule when we arrived, but it was on schedule when we left. The "permanent party" liked us so much, they took us to dinner. I was eager to sample some authentic Korean food, but I informed them that I had one hard-and-fast rule: no bait and no house pets. I wound up enjoying some beef dish that was excellent, as well as the hottest garlic I ever tasted. For the next three days, every time I sneezed, I smelled garlic.
The middle Saturday we were there, we had the day off and three of us decided to go visit a Buddhist temple at Pomosan. This involved a subway ride to a bus turn-around, and then a bus ride up to the top of a very large hill. Fortunately, on a good day I can recognize some Korean writing, so I knew what to look for. We got to the bus station, and I looke in vain for a bus marked "Pomosan". After a while, Steve went into the office and inquired about the bus. He came out and said it would be about 10 minutes. Sure enough, in due time a bus marked "Pomosan" arrived and took us up the hill. Pictures of that will be forthcoming.
They say that all good things must end, and that's true of the 925th. We won the war, but lost the peace. The BRAC commission decided to shut us down, and we were duly inactivated in December, 1995. Some people were eligible for retirement, some of us found positions with other units, the rest took the buy-out money and left for civilian life. The end of an era.