The lights were blinking, as they probably should during the test sequence. Red, blue, green, yellow and clear, maybe a few others colors too. I waited, tapping my toe trying to find the beat until they were through flashing. Leaning back against the narrow gun-metal gray bench opposite the racks of equipment, I patiently stood, staring, hoping only the green lights would stay on. Actually, I wasn’t even sure about that either. Damn, I need to find the service manuals for these radios or I’m screwed.
First day on the job and it’s starting to hit me, I’m alone and responsible for this entire communications van. Jesus lord, what have I gotten myself into? Thankfully, the manuals were all there; two drawers full of operating procedures, schematics, testing methods, maintenance programs, the whole works. Guess I can learn this stuff, I catch on pretty quickly they tell me.
Bottom line, I just need to get by somehow for ninety days without any major problems, then I’m outta here, back to Clarke Air Base in the Philippines. Back to my boys and bars and something resembling a nine-to-five work shift. Living off-base for more than a year in Angeles City was total freedom, close to that of living stateside. You never know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. Sure enough, I accepted this TDY, temporary duty, assignment to South Korea just to break the monotony, first day and I realize it’s a mistake.
According to this test I just ran, most of this crap here is non-functional. That’s bad, real bad. Mostly because I don’t know how to fix it. It’s been so long since I did any real electronics work, I can’t even think through a logical troubleshooting plan. Okay, so I’ve got six receivers with matching transmitters, three to a rack on either side. Down the middle I have a big-ass transceiver, along with meters, gauges and assorted test equipment. The six pairs are supposed to be tuned to six different frequencies, and the transceiver in the center is the backup for the other twelve units, since it can send and receive and is tunable to any of the other channels. Okay, I’ve got that much. Problem is four channels are dead.
My van is my cubicle, it’s where I come to work each morning, an eight by eight by eight workspace where I come inside, get comfortable, pull out the documentation and furiously read everything I can in order to make some sense of this stuff all around me. My van is next to a large semi-permanent tent, housing the ATACC, Alternate Tactical Air Command Center, which is down here in Taegu because the estimated life span of the primary TACC up on the DMZ, Demilitarized Zone, in Seoul, should hostilities break out, is approximately three minutes. So, this is kind of important. And that’s why I can’t sleep at night.
After boot camp in Texas, which was basically a track meet in unbearable heat and humidity, run, run, run, eat salt tablets for lunch, then go run some more. Sergeant Taylor, my DI, drill instructor, couldn’t talk to me unless his face was within an inch of mine, then he’d shout like I was a quarter mile away.
“Do. You. Un. Der. Stand. Me!” He’d methodically scream, his big fat negro lips spraying spittle on me on every consonant hit.
“Yes sir, Sergeant Taylor, sir.”
“I. Can’t. Hear. You!” He’d bellow even though you know he had to have heard you, due to his position practically inside your uniform.
Yes sir, Sergeant Taylor, sir!” The standard reply, just louder than the first time. That seemed to pacify him, and he’d move on to the next poor kid.
Sprinting and abuse for six weeks. Fun in the hot Texas sun. I didn’t understand how this was supposed to prepare us for the service. But, after time, it became clear that we were a much more organized, disciplined and cohesive unit. Even I could see that.
When I left San Antonio, I made a point of visiting with Sergeant Taylor to say goodbye and thank him for his instruction. I actually was sincere, I was a different person than when I’d come here. He took my pale hand into his huge black one, he talked to me quietly, told me to take no chances and to evaluate every situation for what it was, not what it was supposed to be. We shook hands like men. He was sincere too.
A year in gulf coast Mississippi for tech school followed. I was sent to electronics school and then into Ground Radio Repair and Maintenance. This was my job now in the United States Air Force for the next four years. I was the guy who repaired the radios that directed the air strikes. This was in 1967 and Vietnam was raging. There was a draft lottery and I won, so I joined the USAF rather than go into the Army. I’m not much for hand-to-hand combat, eating mud with your rations and a near-suicide ticket to the steaming jungle and unrelenting guerrilla warfare. This was a decision borne out of sheer self-preservation, nothing else.
First week in electronics class, I’m picking it all up pretty easily. I listen to the instructor, take notes and read all the background material about the days lesson when I get back to my barracks. I wanted to know not only the answer to the problem but how and why it worked. This was basic electronics broken into phases, each six weeks long, for about eight months then you graduated as an electronics technician, afterwards you were assigned to a specialty school.
After the first phase, grades were given out, I had topped the class and the instructor made a big deal out of it. I even received an award for outstanding class participation and material comprehension. I have the paper signed by the base instructional officer to prove it. The teacher beamed at me. He was proud. I thought about all those teachers in grade school and high school who used to tell my mother, at every parent/teacher meeting, that I, indeed, had a high aptitude for learning but needed to apply myself more (which I never did). Well, I guess they were right after all. I’m a smartypants!
In fact, I was turning out to be a first class leader as well, they put me in charge of a floor in the barracks. A floor leader wore a green braided rope over one shoulder of your fatigues to show your authority. A red rope signified a barracks leader and a gold rope was a shift leader. Every day there was an assembly to hear announcements, all the airmen lined up in tidy rows making a great rectangle. All the guys from all the floors, from all the barracks on that shift stood at attention on the parade grounds.
I had a good view of this spectacle because I was a rope, and all the ropes stood up on a platform in front of the assembly, with the real officers and base officials and looked down on the general population. We were a big deal to the other common airmen. The ropes were like a club, we hung out together and we were, for the most part, full of ourselves. We were responsible for our floors and barracks, and everyone knew it, and they grudgingly gave us respect. Otherwise we’d make it hard on them, and who needs extra weight to carry on a long slog like a four year enlistment. So, respect it was, earned or otherwise.
There were inspections several times a week, usually by the gold rope, sometimes there were surprise inspections and these could happen at any time of the day. Each floor, open from end to end, was filled with bunks, about thirty of them with accompanying lockers, half down one side, half down the other. Your area had to be clean, I mean eat-off-the-floor clean, beds made tight enough to bounce a quarter two feet into the air, and lockers squared away. If a rope or inspecting officer opened your locker and the shoe polish can or toothbrush was not in exactly the place it was supposed to be, KP, Kitchen Patrol, was your next stop, peeling potatoes all day, scraping slop and washing dishes.
Once in a while the commander of the base himself would perform inspections. This happened in my barracks, on my floor, one morning around 4am. The gold rope doesn’t like to be embarrassed so when he got word of the surprise inspection, he told all the red ropes, who in turn told all the green ropes and we prepared our floors. So, when the Colonel walked in and flipped on the lights, I shouted everyone to attention.
Every airman rose as one, in their white boxer shorts and white tee shirts, startling the Colonel. He was very impressed, randomly opening lockers and picking up a boot here and there to check the quality of spit-shine. I remember this particular inspection vividly because there was this redhead boy next to me, standing rigid at attention, and his morning wood was clearly visible, having poked out cleanly through the opening in his boxers. The Colonel didn’t miss a beat, “Now this is what I call coming to a full attention! Well done, son!” He bellowed. Everyone stifled themselves, and the ginger turned beet red.
Some time later I was asked about becoming a red rope, moving up the leader ladder, so to speak. I was honored, and combined with my outstanding technical study grades, I was starting to feel special. But, something didn’t feel right. A nagging sense that I was out a little too far began to circulate in my head. My only friends were other ropes, and nobody in my electronics class talked to me any longer. When the floor went out en masse to terrorize the Biloxi bars and girls, I wasn’t included. I would go get a pizza and a six pack, and look for another rope.
This bothered me. After a while it really bothered me, although I wasn’t exactly sure why, until I remembered something my father told me when he dropped me off at the induction center in Philadelphia.
“Listen to me. Don’t volunteer for anything. Hear me?” My dad said, holding the door open for me to get out and on with my military duty.
“Okay,” I said.
“That’s how they get you to do things you probably shouldn’t be doing. Catch me?” “Okay,” I said again.
“Look, just don’t stand out, you want to be back in the crowd. You don’t want to be identifiable. That’s the trick. Got it?”
“Okay,” I said, thinking I should change my response before he gets mad.
“That’s how you survive the service. I know what I’m talking about, so hear me, son.” “Okay,” I said and pulled my bag out of the back seat and sauntered over to the line, joined the other slouching teens, waiting for the fun and games to start.
That recollection hit home one night with a jarring thud. I snapped upright in bed, a cold sweat beading up on my forehead. “I’m standing out!” I screamed, my brain reverberating. “I’m way, way out in front!” Oh sweet Jesus, this isn’t good, now is it. I’m a star pupil, I’m a rope, I’m screwed. I gotta fix this, starting now! Certainly, it’s not too late.
So, I slacked off, my grades plummeted, I refused the red rope promotion and they took the green one away. Fine, hurt me. Snicker, that’s what I had hoped for! I fell back into the crowd. No more excellence for me, no more being a leader of men, no sir, I’m a survivor. I’m a shadow. You can’t see me, I just a faceless man in the crowd. Hoo-rah!
I completely understand the rationale. If they don’t know you, they won’t recommend you for some godforsaken duty. So, you stay back with the pack, there’s safety in numbers. They’ll sacrifice one but not a whole group, right? Glad I wised up in time, before I really got myself into a fix. I sort of missed being elite, but I understood the sacrifices that must be made just to get through my hitch in one piece. And my father said it was so, who am I to argue?
Of course that’s not helping me now. I’ve got a van fill of broken equipment and I sure wish I knew what the hell I was doing. It’s making me nervous that someone might actually want to use this stuff, and I’ll catch hell for sitting back here, in my cube, reading comic books.
After a few days cramming info from the tech manuals into my cranium and trying to apply what’s what to the radios in front of me, I was finally able to read the results of the diagnosis. The test that I ran on the first day, I ran again, this time I knew what to look for. The results were not heartwarming. Most of the equipment was not functional. Who the hell left me a comm van in this condition, damn it, I protested out loud to no one. My voice ricocheted throughout the metal enclosure.
Just then there was a knock on the door, I nearly shat my pants.
“Yeah?” I queried
“Come out here, airman.” An authoritative voice commanded.
I slowly opened the hatch door, squealing on its metal-on-metal hinges like a horror movie and I looked out. There was a staff sergeant standing there smiling.
“C’mon, I’m gonna give you the nickel tour.”
I climbed out, introduced myself, we shook hands and I followed him into the big tent only twenty feet behind my comm van.
The sergeant told me about the role this ATACC played and once again about the life expectancy of the TACC up in Seoul. Seems everyone down here in the south-central part of Korea loved to cite that fact, about those poor fellas up on the DMZ. Three minutes. Macabre military humor. At least it was funny here in Taegu.
One side of the tent was covered in huge video displays, with piercing dots and colored beams and vectors slowly moving in every direction. In front of these displays, which went from floor to ceiling, there were several rows of compact desks spanning the length of the tent, filled with people facing these screens and punching away at computer terminals. They were mimicking everything Seoul did, all the air traffic, friend and foe, so that in the event of an emergency, the transfer of control would be seamless, from up there to down here. Filling out the rest of the tent were conference tables and war boards, manned by senior officers, looking upwards and scratching their chins in deep thought.
This was serious business, and I began to physically shake thinking about the state of my van and the unlikely chance that I can get it operational anytime soon. My best plan consisted of faking it for ninety days and hope the next guy knows what he’s doing. Please, please, please don’t ever need that equipment, okay? Not for awhile. Please God, I’ll say a thousand Hail Mary’s if you get me out of this one, I swear!
I had settled into my new digs, a long open quonset hut filled with cots and an attached latrine with showers. Not exactly the Hilton, but on an Army installation, Air Force personnel are not a top priority. My fellow bunk mates were friendly killers. I was living with the ROK Tiger Division, an elite Korean fighting force. They were on their way to Vietnam after final training here. Wherever the Tiger Division went, the enemy fled, these guys were surgically efficient and they had a mighty deadly reputation. A typical stat from a battle: 847 enemy soldiers killed, no wounded. Three Tiger Division combatants with minor wounds. You get the idea.
They were always smiling, and bowed their heads in an exaggerated nod whenever they passed me. Nice fellows. Actually, they were too nice. They gave me a gift, one that keeps on giving. A case of pubic lice. I battled those little critters nightly, even though I wasn’t sure what was going on down there. Finally, I went to sick bay. Doc told me what had infested my groin area, crabs, even held one up for me to see (a tiny dark spec), then put it under a magnifying glass. Talk about ugly, these aggressors were armored, multi-legged creatures, not at all like our svelte and tasty blue claws at home, more like mutant zombie transformers. Plus, a bonus, while I delayed and tried to remedy the situation myself, they had laid eggs. Nice, now I’m host to a colony of mini carnivore crustaceans.
The doc gave me a cream that, applied regularly, would stem the tide so to speak and fumigate the budding village, eliminating every last one of those annoying buggers. Worked like a charm. Now, I had to see about moving to different quarters, these Tiger dudes were too aggressive, even in small subtle ways. Besides, they smelled like Kimchi, a traditional Korean dish made of rotten cabbage.
In a couple days I found new sleeping quarters with a few radio operators. I didn’t say what it was I did, and when asked, I told them it was classified. I was thinking of their well-being, I didn’t want them having nightmares about their backup equipment. At least I was sharing space with Americans now, even if they were Army grunts.
So here I am, walking down the main road in Camp Walker, my new home, and on the other side, not more than forty feet away, I see a boy from my neighborhood walking the other way. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What’re the chances of meeting a homie half a world away. I was thrilled!
“Yo, Billy!” I shouted from across the road.
He looked over at me and said, “Hey, how’re you doing, man.”
And kept walking. I thought he was fooling around. I stood there watching him walk past.
Back in the ‘hood, his sister was part of our gang, we hung out together. He was a couple years older than me, but still, we knew each other.
“What’s up!” I yelled after him.
He never turned around, just kept walking. I’ll be damned, I thought. Am I in an alternate universe or something, this is too weird. And that was it, never saw him again.
After a few weeks, my life became routine. Up in the morning and off to the van, study more documents, try to fix something, fail, break for lunch, come back, read comics until quitting time. I had no supervisor, so I set my own hours. Then I’d head out, off camp, to hang in the bars with the radio ops. Even celebrated my 21st birthday there. The bar sent over a birthday cake, some odd rice cake thing that one of the guys stuck a lighted cigarette in. Happy birthday to me. Yay, I’m legal!
In my third week, I devised a plan. Through sound troubleshooting techniques, I determined which half of each unit contained the problem. This was not difficult, it was page one in the service manual. But, since I couldn’t find the failed component in a million years (remember I decided not to apply myself in tech school, nice decision there), I simply ordered the entire back or front end, whichever was needed.
Now, the bad component might cost ten dollars, but I was ordering thirty thousand dollar whole assemblies. But, hey, I had no supervisor, remember. It’s not my money. You want this stuff fixed or what? That’s what I thought. Having completed the requisition orders, and had them approved, I took the next week off. I deserved it, nearly burnt my brain to a crisp reading all that tech crap.
One of my favorite bars to hang out in was just outside the camp’s main gate, Secret Garden, it was anything but secret or a garden unless you meant the green and brown mold growing on the walls. There was one dirt road through the town, with bars on both sides and moma’sans selling street food along the way. Koreans loved Americans. Young and old would smile, greet us, wave. I made a point of buying Hershey bars at the PX, Post Exchange, those little two-bite sized ones, to give to the kids. Feels great to be appreciated, even if it was the generation before us that did all the fighting, defending and hard work. I represented America, and they wanted to show their appreciation. I accepted.
So, one night I’m sitting at Secret Garden, a small wooden building, the bar a long haphazard affair running about twenty five feet down the narrow, one-story hut. No tables, just a bar and a phone booth at one end. The bar top was so low, and the stools so high that you had to half sit on the stool so as to reach your beer without risking ligament damage, or throw your lower back out of alignment. And, the later the hour, the more dangerous this twist and reach performance became, although it did provide comic relief from time to time.
In walks this large, portly fellow in civilian clothes. He takes off his full length black coat, shakes it out, and plops down onto the stool next to me. He’s in a well-made, but mismatched and oddly colored suit with a purple, button-down shirt and polka dot tie. Okay, ready? It’s Tiny Tim.
I kid you not. The strangest human on the planet is sitting next to me, quaffing a beer and making small talk. Nose like an eagle, long stringy black hair hanging to his shoulders, bulging eyes, lanky and gangly all over. He orders a beer, then heads to the phone booth. I watch him leave. I look at my beer. Am I hallucinating? Nope, here he comes again. He returns to his stool, picks up his beer in his small meaty hand and winks at me before he sucks down half of it in one swallow.
“Say, are you Tiny Tim?” I ask, looking around nervously to see if anyone heard me. “Yep, afraid I am.” He says.
“What are you doing in Korea?”
“Playing shows, I’m on my way to Pusan.”
The man I’ve seen on TV singing in a falsetto voice, playing a tiny ukulele and choosing songs from yesteryear like “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” was an out and out fruitcake. But this guy seemed cool, not at all like that carnival act everyone knows. People only watch him because he’s so odd, like the bearded lady or a two-headed cat, was it just an act?
“Hey, Tim, your fiancé lives not ten minutes from me at home.” I thought I’d show him we have a connection, besides being Americans seven thousand miles from home.
“Ah, the beautiful, Miss Vickie. The love of my life.” He says wistfully.
“She sure is a pretty girl.” I said. I was gonna add, “and what a catch for a cretin like yourself,” but decided against it, being not quite proper bar etiquette.
So, we shoot the breeze for a couple hours, until Tiny Tim decides he has to be moving on. He tosses a generous tip onto the bar, wraps that gigantic overcoat of his over his shoulders and gives me a two-fingered salute. “See you around,” he says and passes through the door into the dark night.
I look around, the few remaining patrons are staring at their drinks, oblivious. Me, I’m incredulous, was that really for real? Seriously? I shake my head. Korea is truly an amazing place.
Towards the end of the second month I come to work one morning and there are two huge pallets stacked with crates sitting in front of the van. It’s my order. Holy smokes! I better get busy, anybody sees all this equipment here and I’m gonna be in deep doo-doo trying to explain. Feverishly, I break open the crates and haul all the assemblies into the van, pile them on top of each other leaving only a single, tight place remaining for me to stand. Crap. I have to remove some of the stuff back outside again to access the manual drawer, then pull them all back into the van again, and swiftly close the door to any prying eyes.
I spent the next couple weeks replacing about seventy percent of all the electronics in the van. Probably would have been cheaper, and easier, just to order another entire comm van. But, I did it, and most of the transmitters and receivers were returned to working condition. I tossed the old assemblies into the incinerator a little at a time to avoid drawing attention. A couple days later, the entire van was in tip-top condition. All six frequencies were humming along, six receivers and six transmitters. Smiley, happy little radios. And the big guy, the transceiver, able to do both jobs, smugly waited as backup should any of the others stumble. I was one proud, and lucky, Ground Radio Repair and Maintenance technician. I stood tall. Studly.
With only a little over a week to go before they ship me back to the Philippines, I had intended to start documenting what I had done to the equipment since I’ve been here, which was considerable, just in case they wanted to give me a medal. Not really, but I thought maybe the next joe that comes in here might want to know something about the current status. Especially since none of the serial numbers match anymore. I was truly torn about this; on the horns of the preverbal dilemma; between doing the right thing, and hiding my tracks.
I blinked, looked around, it was hung over o’ clock, and way too early in the morning, but I just couldn’t sleep any longer. I took a quick shower to wake me up and headed over to the chow tent for an eggs and mystery meat breakfast. I choked it down with liquid mud, actually army coffee, had to add ridiculous amounts of cream to dilute it down to engine oil weight so it was drinkable. And shuffled off in the chilly, early morning twilight, one of my last days at the ol’ communications van.
About thirty yards away, I saw what appeared to be several figures milling about the front of my van. When I got closer, I saw two MPs, Military Police, with rifles at the ready, holding another unidentified person down on the ground. The boardwalk to the van wasn’t wide enough for two people to stand together, but they had no space problem because the third guy was face down in the cold, mucky dirt. One MP had his boot on his upper back, keeping the pressure on his prisoner, and the other held the business end of his M16 pressed into the back of the man’s head.
I made enough noise to raise a drunk the morning after New Year’s Eve shuffling up to the van, just in case they were jumpy. Certainly didn’t want to startle them. I could see they had their safeties off and their index fingers rubbing nervously on the triggers. They both turned towards me, while prodding their prisoner with more force, as if to say, “Don’t try it, amigo.”
“Morning.” I said flatly. “What’s going on?”
“Who are you?” The younger cop said.
This is my van, my responsibility, what the problem?”
“Caught this slope poking around couple hours ago. North Korean spy. Waiting for orders.” “North Korean?” I said with the last syllable lilting upwards in tone.
“Yeah, they’re not too bright, but they sure are persistent.” Both MPs nodded in agreement, they felt this was an accurate assessment of the situation. Both these guys look like they wanted red meat, and they wanted it now. The testosterone was floating in the air thick as hot bacon grease.
I looked down at the prisoner. He was dressed in black and dark green, no uniform or any identifying marks on him, His hair was black and spikey. I could not see his face, it was pushed, hard, into the damp loamy earth between the van and the boardwalk. I don’t know how he managed to breathe. I felt bad for him. But, then I thought, beloved Jesus, I’m sure glad these cops are here, if that spy had come while I was working, reading comics or whatever, would he have felt sorry for me? Doubtful. He would’ve sliced my throat wide open and went on with his mission. Jesu Christo, get me the freak outta here!
Needless to say, I didn’t work that day. I wandered around the camp, nodded at a few ROKs, Republic of Korea soldiers, and headed into town. My nerves were shot, I needed extra-strength medicinal alcohol to settle my jumpy self down. And, I was quite successful from what I can remember.
Soon afterwards, I returned to Clarke Air Base and told tall tales of Korea, half of them I made up because nobody believed the real ones. It was an eventful three months over there. I even took Tae Kwon Do lessons for a few months from a world master instructor, an ex-Tiger Division commando, all known to be experts at this Korean style karate. I rose to the rank of green belt, which I think is just above no belt. I’m bad, don’t try me, fool.