The Prisoner Has a Phone Call

I was in the United States Air Force from August 1964 to January 1966. Anyone who can count on their fingers (and even some who can’t) will tell you that that only amounts to about 18 months.

“The standard hitch for a volunteer in the Air Force is four years. So, what gives?”

The simple truth is that the Air Force, unable to stand it any longer, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, marched me to the door, and threw me out into the street. This happened under the auspices of section 39-16 of the United Code of Military Justice, to wit: “sloth, defective attitudes, and inability to expend effort constructively.”

Basically, I couldn’t get up in the morning. At least not at 5:30 or whatever ungodly hour they were expecting me to be upright. Never could. Still can’t. Oh, I can do it under special circumstances – like if there’s a fire, or the dog is throwing up on the bed – but as a daily habit? Um… no.

After I had completed Language Training in Indiana* and spent two weeks at home on leave, I was ordered to report to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas for Voice Intercept Training. The trip down there was not one of my stellar moments. I missed two planes out of four – one I was asleep as the plane took off, the other I missed because I was engrossed in a comic book – and I arrived, instead of the six hours early as I’d planned, three hours late.

The lateness resulted in me losing the small promotion I’d gotten two weeks earlier. It also meant that there was no more room in the barracks with my friends from the Indiana school and I was assigned to a bunk in another barracks among strangers. With no one to pull me out of bed at the crack of dawn, it wasn’t long before I’d slept through some mandatory early morning formation and I was once again in hot water.

Voice Intercept was, at the time, some pretty secret stuff and all of us had been preliminarily vetted for a Top Secret security clearance. We were all on “casual status” – doing KP and mopping floors – while we waited for the final okay before we could start school. Seeing this propensity for tardiness on my record, I was ordered to undergo a Psychiatric Evaluation.

I was half an hour late for the appointment.

The psychiatrist decided that I wasn’t dangerously deranged, I was just a “doofus” (I think that’s the clinical expression).  The Squadron Commander decided the best way to deal with doofusness was to get tough. And so I was Court Martialed.

Right now you are probably imagining a military courthouse full of uniforms covered in gold braid and an angry Prosecutor yelling, “Why were you late? Tell the truth!” and me yelling back, “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!” That is called a General Court Martial and they are somewhat rare. What I underwent was a Summary Court Martial consisting of me and a lieutenant who acted as judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense. There were “extenuating circumstances” (I had had Baker’s KP the night before one of these heinous offenses against common decency and had only been allowed three hours sleep) so instead of the usual sentence of four weeks at hard labor; I only was required to serve two.

I was taken to the base Law Enforcement Center and escorted into the Stockade. This took up about half of the building’s available floor space, the other half being devoted to the Front Desk, offices, and meeting rooms of the Air Police. The Stockade consisted of a bunk room with eight or ten bunks, a recreation room with five jigsaw puzzles, all with multiple missing pieces, and two solitary confinement cells which were never locked. Why were they never locked? Because I was the only one in there. Both the recreation room and the bunk room had barred doors into the Air Police’s front desk area so Goodfellow AFB’s Finest could keep an eye on me. I guess they wanted to make sure I didn’t start any one-man prison riots or beat myself up in the shower.

I was actually looking forward to the “Hard Labor” part of the sentence, figuring at least the time would pass quickly. I did spend a day or two on the floor of some building scraping up years of accumulated dirt and floor wax with a razor blade, but for the most part, it was two weeks of Hard Boredom.

I did have company for three of those days. A Sailor was picked up on his parents’ nearby farm for being AWOL from the Navy for the previous two months and he was dropped for safekeeping at the nearest military prison – mine. His name was Andy and he was jaw-droppingly stupid. He and a friend had sailed into the Port of San Diego, climbed off their ship, cashed their paychecks, and with the proceeds obtained a motel room and a full, twenty-four bottle case of cheap whisky. He said they drank until they passed out and upon waking, drank until they passed out again. When the whisky was gone, so was their ship.

“As long as I was already AWOL, I figured what the hell I might as well go see the family.”  So he used the last of his money to buy a bus ticket to Texas.

Andy had two hobbies. Most of his time was spent using a Big Chief Tablet and a pencil designing bad tattoos. After he had finished one of his creations and proudly showed it to me, he was a little disappointed that I couldn’t make out what it was. “It’s a damned skull that’s on fire and has a dagger stickin’ through it. Anybody could see that!” His other pastime was crawling on his belly as quietly as he could under bunks and around furniture so he could grab me by the ankle and shout, “Gotcha!”

I moved into one of the Solitary Confinement cells until a couple of Shore Patrolmen arrived to take him back to San Diego.

One evening, about ten days into my sentence, I heard a telephone ring.  It barely registered with me because the telephone out on the Duty Desk rang frequently. Had I known it was my Mother on the other end of the line, I would have given it more attention.

Since she had not heard from me since I left home the last time, Mom had decided to get on the phone and track me down. In my defense, I had vowed to myself to call her as soon as I was out of the jug and tell her everything was hunky-dory. If I mentioned my little contretemps with military law at all it would be to dismiss it as an amusing misunderstanding.

Not having much information except the name and city of the Air Force Base, she called Base HQ which referred her to Wing HQ which referred her to Squadron HQ which, not being able to find me on the list of Active Personnel referred her back to Wing. She was getting pretty rattled by then and the fellow who said, “Oh. I think they’ve got him over at Base Security. Let me connect you,” didn’t help.

The phone rang. The man who answered it said, “Air Police. Desk Sergeant Jones,” then held the receiver up over his head and yelled, “Hey! The Prisoner has a phone call!”

By the time someone had opened the gate and walked me out to the telephone, Mom was a hopeless, sobbing wreck. All she could say was, “p-p-p-prisoner?” It took about eight minutes of the ten minutes I was allotted to calm her down, reassure her that I was being treated well, and my only crime was not being able to get out of bed in the morning. I promised her I’d call as soon as I was out and, as Sgt. Jones was tapping on the crystal of his watch, told her I loved her.

She hung up with, “Well, just remember, we love you…” leaving unspoken the rest of the sentence, “…even if they don’t.”

As soon as I was released, my Squadron Commander informed me that since I had, during my year-and-a-half in uniform, accumulated two non-judicial punishments and a Court Martial, I was eligible under the above-mentioned Article 39-16, to be booted out of the Service. And that he was starting said proceedings forthwith.

For about an hour I was devastated. Then several of my friends became so jealous they were angry with me and I began to think that maybe things would be okay. By the time we got to the bottom of the second pitcher of beer at the bowling alley, my future had been lit by a rosy glow.

They teach you in Basic Training that getting out of the Air Force in any other manner than completing a full four-year hitch meant that your life was ruined. No college would ever accept you, no employer would ever hire you. I am happy to say that this is a complete bag of lies. My particular Discharge was classed “Honorable,” meaning, I suppose, that I did my best but I was just not cut out for military life. I have never had any employer or institution so much as ask how long I served or what class of Discharge I was given.

It took a month of being bounced around among a myriad of different departments and offices before I was finally escorted to the front gate.  There were no drums, nobody ripping insignia from my shoulders, no lines of troops turning their faces away. Just the click of the gate closing behind me as I walked to the bus station.

***

* Look on the list to the right and click Russian Training

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