In July of 1967 my parents asked what I was going to do now that I was out of school. I really had never thought about it. My mom suggested I apply for jobs at a couple of factories where relatives had worked. I did that in a mechanical way. Thinking back I see that I didn't really have any understanding of how the world works. When I say I'd never thought about what I was going to to with my life, I mean it never really entered my head. July of '67 was just another summer vacation to me. If someone had said to me that this was some sort of nexus in my life I would have stared at them with a blank expression on my face. Hearing the words but not understanding what they meant.
While films from Vietnam were on the news every night, I never really thought about what was being said. It was just not part of my world. A friend of mine enlisted in the Air Force. Almost all of my other friends were getting their draft notices in the mail. Most went to the Army, some to the Marines. The Air Force sounded like an interesting job; something a little differnt. I was too stupid to realize that it was also a lot safer. Sometimes being stupid works. I went downtown and talked with the recruiter. When I came back and told my mom about it she was more than a bit apprehensive. My dad said it was a good move. My dad had fought with Patton in Africa and Italy in WWII. He figured a stint in the military would force me to grow up. At the time I didn't understand, but it turns out he was right. I was amazed at how smart my dad got in the next few years. Everything he said started making sense to me. Amazing!
So my parents signed the papers (I was only 17 years old) and I enlisted in the Air Force. I left home with a gym bag, a big brown envelop with my "papers," and about $17 in cash. I walked down to the main road that ran along Lake Erie and waited for the bus that would take me into Cleveland, just 20-miles to the east.
In the center of town was the bus terminal. It was at the base of one of the tallest buildings in Cleveland, the Terminal Tower. We were ushered into the basement and into a hallway. A sergeant had us line up against the wall and inspected our papers one at a time. When he was finished with the last man, he turned to me and, handing me the stack of envelopes said, "You're in charge of carrying these documents. Loose them and you'll go to jail."
A couple of busses were outside and we were herded into them. We were driven to the airport where a sergeant took my stack of big brown envelops. Once again we were ushered into a side hallway and stood against the wall. We were now yelled at by a couple of sergeants who explained that we were not the property of the US Government. That we would speak only when asked a question. That we were to keep our eyes straight ahead. And there we stood for about an hour.
We were then led, single file onto a plane. I later learned that it was an airline flight chartered by the government. We took off and headed for Detroit, there to pick up another group of enlistees. Did I mention that this was the summer of 1967? As we flew over Detroit on our approach, we saw an amazing sight. Looking down on the city we saw fires everywhere. Small ones on most street corners. Larger fires engulfing whole city blocks elsewhere. In the streets were tanks blocking most intersections. It was as a scene in a movie. We learned later of the riots but not of the reasons.
We made several other stops that night. Each place we'd pick up 10 or 20 enlistees. By the time we arrived at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, we were crammed in that plane like sardines. We were once again led single file from the plane to busses. When the busses stopped outside our barracks a sergeant climbed on board. One of the things he shouted at us was, "The first work out of your mouth is 'Sir.' The last word out of your mouth is 'Sir.'" And we piled out onto the lawn and into our first formation.
For the next few weeks my state of mind was, "Sure, I can play this game." The marching and drilling was not much different that what I had been doing in the high school's marching band. The classroom work was simple. The physical training was the only thing I found challenging. That was something the would not change for the next 20 years or so.
Me on graduation from basic training, August 1967, Lackland AFB, TX
We had all been given the standard military aptitude tests and I had scored very high. Tops, actually, in most areas. So the career counselors said I had my choice of what job I wanted. Oh, looking back now I could have made a much better choice than I did. But at the time I was not given to deep thoughts about the future. I saw a glossy brochure showing airplanes and guns and bombs and said, "That's for me. I want to be a weapons and ammunition specialist." And that's what I got.
Off I went to Lowery AFB, Denver, Colorado for five months of training to be an ammo guy. They taught me all about explosives and bombs. Everything from small grenades to atomic munitions. I had a small delay in getting my security clearance for the nuke classes, though. Something about my grandparents and their immigration from Prussia. But it all worked out in the end.
This is me and A2C Phoenix at Lowery AFB, CO
After a while the classes became boring. I mean once you learn about how a bomb works, they loose their mystery. The Air Force managed to cram 4-weeks worth of material into 5-months.
In class, clowning around an a 500-lb bomb
Oh, the braid on my shoulder? Ah, that signified that I was in the Drum and Bugle Corps and therein lies a tale.
When we graduated from basic training we thought all the bullshit was over. That we would now be treated like adults. We arrived at Lowery and were quickly divested of that notion. We entered our new barracks to screams from the men inside to, "Get off the center isle!" No one but the drill sergeant could walk down the center isle of the barracks. We used rags on sticks to reach out into the center isle and polish it with Pledge several times a day. Everyone else had to tiptoe along the wall squeezing between the bunks and the windows.
We had inspections three times a day. The latrines were spit-shined with Brasso and toothbrushes. At 0430 we were up and in formation; ready for our daily physical training. By 0600 those attending school were marching to classes. Those of us who had not yet started classes (there was sometimes up to a two-month wait for your class to start) there were details all over the base that required our attention. Details like trash pickup on the flight line, KP duty at one of the mess halls, or just painting rocks that had been painted a hundred times before. One day in my first week at Lowery I heard marching band music coming from a barracks across the drill field. I asked my drill sergeant about it. "Oh, that's those fucking beaters-and-blowers. You know, the drum and bugle corps."
"I used to play drums, Sergeant. How would I get into that group" I asked?
He glowered at me and with the meanest snarl I'd heard to date said, "What? You don't like it where you are? You don't want to stay in our squadron? You think you're too good for us? I'll sent you up with a fuckin' audition, Shaw. But you had better make it cuz if your fuckin' ass comes back here it's mine."
The next day an airman came to the barracks and escorted me over the rehearsal hall. I played a little drums. We talked a bit. And I was in. They sent me back to my barracks in a truck to pickup my things. At the time all my things would still fit into a standard duffle bag. I was in and out of that barracks before the sergeant even knew I was there.
Now, the Lowery Air Force Base Drum and Bugle Corps was an elite group. We had our own barracks with actual rooms! We had inspections once a month rather than several times a day. We had no other duties but to play in the band. The braid told everyone that it was OK for us to be walking around alone instead of marching with a group. That it was OK for us to be unsupervised and, oh, say, at the base exchange in the middle of the day. We were just special.
We had one main job on base and it was this. Most of the airmen on base were attending the aircraft fire control (i.e.: weapons systems) school. What with the war and everything all the schools were running three shifts per day: Morning (0600-1200) Afternoon (1200-1800) and Night (1800-2400). The base commander wanted a parade every day of all the airmen marching to afternoon class at noon, and then all the airmen marching from morning class, also at noon. Each day we would form up on the main street with a brigade of airmen (about a thousand) behind us. At exactly 1145hrs we would march them past the reviewing stand and, while we stopped at the side of reviewing stand, they would march by and salute and then continue on to class. Then we would march down the street a couple of blocks and turn around. At exactly 1230hrs we would march the airmen from the morning class past the reviewing stand.
We did that every day for five months, rain, snow, or shine. Since we had to play for the class change at noon, we all had to attend the night classes at our respective schools. We were give permanent straggler's passes. We didn't have to be marched to classes. We would just walk. Like real people.
Oh, and since we got out of class at midnight we didn't have to get up until the noon parade. We also then had to attend the 1400 rehearsal. other than that we were free to do what we pleased.
Getting out of school at midnight was also special. The first thing we'd do would be to head over to the mess hall for 'midnight chow.' Basically it was all the left-overs from the day plus fresh breakfast of eggs, bacon, ham, and pancakes. After eating we'd head back to our rooms and change into civilian cloths and head off base. We'd hop on a bus at the gate and in 10 minutes we were in downtown Denver. Remember this was in the late '60s. This was the height of the free love and hippie era. Denver was a hotbed of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. I was just 18 and just off the farm. It was a good time.
In January of '68 I received my first real assignment. I was to report to Clark Air Force Base. It was at some place called the Philippine Islands. I had no idea where that was. My mother and father did. They were not pleased. I went home for a few weeks leave and generally hung around just waiting to report to Clark. It was snowing and cold when I left Cleveland in February. We flew to Travis AFB, California. There we changed planes and headed to Clark.