Memoirs Veterans

Memories and Reflections: The USO

I don’t think I’d ever been more tired in my life, I was one of a small team that worked like maniacs to send all of our aircraft back home before we got to grab our stuff and run like mad to a civilian airport and finally wing out way back home. I felt foul. If you’ve never been to Guam it’s hot, damn hot, and its humid. I mean you sweat in the cool of the morning humid, and it rains out of the blue in a phenomenon called Boonie Showers. I’d sweat, been rained on, and my uniform dried on my body and I sweat a whole lot more.

The only people more miserable than me were the people in line with me to get onto the plane, thankfully they juggled things and gave us a nice little corner all to ourselves. I’m not sure who they were being nicer for.

So we’re running late, the movie sucked and the food, fish, upset my stomach to the point it didn’t stay with me long. We bounced through Hawaii just fast enough for one of my guys to get me a bottle of Gatorade while I fire-balled two cigarettes and we ran for the plane. By the way I think the Gatorade cost $10, I hate Hawaii. I rehydrated some from being sick, the movie on this flight sucked more and dinner was fish again so I traded it for somebody’s tiny little dinner salad.

At least there was coffee on the flight or I’d have gone insane.

So at 0300, in civilian time its “What the fuck am I doing awake?” o’clock, we get our luggage at LAX and we’re screwed because its 3 in the A.M. and were stuck in Los Angeles until 11-ish because we had a headwind and missed our connection.

And then a voice from heaven. “Would you like to come to the USO?” And this wonderful lady scammed us carts to haul all of out crap and we trooped behind her in our rankin’ stankin’ uniforms to the sweetest setup I’d ever seen. The word complimentary was all over the place, donuts, hot dogs, fruit, sodas, juice, oh dear lord, could this be heaven? No, its LA. And there is a bathroom, I grabbed my bag and figured I’d tidy up at the sink and change, because my uniform wasn’t pretty and my skivvies were even worse. But when I stepped into the bathroom there were showers… and the angels sang… and I didn’t care if it was heaven or LA, I was soon clean, and my clothes smelled wonderful, and my deodorant was fresh, and I was so happy I even shaved.

There’s nothing like finding a friendly face when you don’t expect it. That’s what the USO does for our people in uniform. They’re spread out all over the world to help make life easier for the troops (and their families). They don’t all have the amenities that LA offers but I’ve had a cup of burned coffee and a glazed donut and a chair to doze in that meant every bit as much as the fancier place because I just needed it.

You can’t think of the USO without adding a thought about Bob Hope, he was involved with the USO for 62 years, from WWII to the Gulf War on 60 USO tours and then on until the end of his life. Its harder to think of someone that’s been shot at more than he’s been, and he was a volunteer. He has a US Navy support ship named after him, and an Air Force C-17 Globemaster, these aren’i combatant vehicles, they support the troops by moving cargo and equipment, just like Bob’s mission to the troops was to support as well.

So if you come across an opportunity to kick a buck or two for the USO I’d appreciate it, so will a lot of other people that the USO supports, and I’ll bet Bob will too.

© 2009 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.


The Time of My Life

Fun and for that matter happiness is where you find it. Probably a cliché, heaven knows enough people have said it through the long march of history, but its not something you can tell people and make it true, it’s something that each of us needs to find for ourselves. It’s something that I’ve had to find several times over the years, sometimes in the most unusual situations. As anyone who peeked at my bio can tell you, I spent 23 years in the Air Force, and back in 1984 when I reported to boot camp I made myself a promise, that I’d stick with it for as long as I enjoyed it, for as long as I was having fun.

My definition of fun would change a lot and start right away. As strange as it sounds I enjoyed basic training. It was only six weeks long but seemed like an eternity, but if you sat back and took it all in you could see where it was all taking you. Folding a handkerchief to a perfect little square, measuring every pair of underwear and t-shirt to make sure that it was the proper dimensions. It was an exercise in patience, it was an exercise to teach you to do it right the first time and it became second nature, to the point that I still fold everything the same way that I did in basic, maybe not quite to dimensions, but I ain’t digging out a ruler.

I’ve read that the purpose of military training is to strip individuals of their individuality and make them a cog in a machine. That’s actually about as far from the truth as you can get. Each person is always an individual but you learn to fit into a team and work with people. Every person has strengths and weaknesses and part of what you learn is how to bring your strengths and fit them together with the strengths of the others you’re working with. After you’ve been doing it for a while you want to be challenged, and when you’re challenged you want more. You want the tougher jobs, you want the burning sun or the cold rain because you know inside that no matter how jacked up things are you know you’ll come out on top.

People don’t seem to understand the military mind. The worse things are the tighter we came together. I was a jet engine mechanic by career field, and I worked most of my career out on the flight line, out in the weather and making the jets fly. Your career field didn’t much matter, I could work electrical systems, hydraulics, air frame and in a pinch some basic electronics and avionics. You learned a bit of everything because you never knew when you’d need to know how to do it. During the slack times when we weren’t working or training it would be war stories in a launch truck or in a ready room.

War stories are hard to describe, the easiest way goes like this… a fairy tale starts out “Once upon a time” and a war story starts out “This ain’t no shit…” There, a short digression for a change.

You’ll have a few old timers in the middle telling stories, how bad it was to live in tent city in Korea in the winter, waking up in a flooded tent on Diego Garcia during the monsoons. Typhoons on Okinawa, sandstorm and camel spiders in Oman, Saudi or Kuwait. How good the seafood is in the Azores, how clear the water is off of Guam, and the quality of beer in all of the countries that you can actually drink beer in. And you talk about the jets, the rough times troubleshooting a backbreaker or ballbuster out in the middle of nowhere when you don’t have spare parts or all the tools you need because you’re working out of a forward operating location. Younger faces are on the outside and as the months and years pass your spot works into the middle until at last you’re the old man or woman that the shiny young faces are looking at when the storytelling starts.

One of the truest things about airmen, soldiers, sailors and marines is a bitching GI is a happy GI, its when they get quiet that you have to worry. You bitch about the heat, how you get paid as much for being covered in oil, jet fuel and grease as the guy over at finance does for working indoors with heat or air conditioning. You bitch about the box nasty that the truck driver dropped off you can scarf a melty peanut butter and jelly sandwich with greasy hands in the shade of a wing. When you hear the bitching listen to it, see the light in the eyes of the person talking, the smile on their face and hear the laughter. No matter how grumpy and miserable they are when they are sweating, listen to them talking about it over their next meal, and then months and years later when those times become a war story.

Adversity brings out the best in people. I always say that there is a difference between cocky and arrogant. An arrogant person will tell you that they’ve been there and done that, they hung the moon and have seen the wind. A cocky person really has. People don’t prove themselves in easy times, any fool can make things work when the going is easy, its like riding a bike downhill. Its when you get to the bottom of the hill and have to pedal up the next one that people prove themselves. Show me somebody that can tell a bad joke when the crap hits the fan and I’ll show you someone cocky, that’s the person you want beside you when you when you start up the hill, whether its back home, working in a blizzard or chasing camel spiders across steaming hot tarmac.

There’s probably no end of stories I could tell, being chased around the showers by a really temperamental coconut crab, getting fuel flushed out of my eyes, setting a record in the mile when the brakes a trailer loaded with 8,000 pounds of bombs caught fire, having engines catch fire while I was running them, it keeps going, and when I talk to people that never served they look at me like I’m crazy and ask how I could put up with such bad conditions. Bad? Are you crazy? I had the time of my life!

© 2009 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

Memoirs Veterans

And then I was home…

Another in a growing list of birthdays has come and gone and was spent enjoyably I can report, birthdays for me are low key if I get my way, whenever possible I shut out the outside world and pretend it doesn’t exist because for me it’s a day to relax and spend a little time taking stock of how things are going, where things are going and just to remember times past. Yes, that does mean that I ignored yet another inauguration, 11 total in my life to date; but, since the first one I ignored was in 1965 and I’d just been born, I don’t think that was a conscious decision. Birthdays I reserve for me and my family, I had to work many of them so half my day at least was robbed but I tried to make up for lost time.

I think I may have developed the my day concept when I was a kid, there were four boys and we definitely had chores, and more or less tried to do them, but the birthday was the day you had no chores. It was my day (or night after school) to lounge around the living room, legs hanging over the arms of a big stuffed chair reading a book while my brothers toiled away. That was good times but it was hard work pretending not to gloat when I peeked over my book.

Weekend birthdays were even better when I was little, we got 50 cents candy money on the weekends but the birthday boy got a whole buck! Do you have any idea how much candy you could get for a buck in those days? Pixie sticks, pure sugar with a dab of sour flavor and an amazing sugar rush when you knocked down a half dozen in under a minute. Tootsie Rolls, Bazooka Bubblegum, Everlasting Gobstoppers, jawbreakers, atomic fireballs, Mike & Ikes, and then the evening spent in front of the TV in a half-conscious state known now as the sugar crash and back then as “Oh thank God!” by my Dad.

Birthdays have a long history of memorable firsts for me as well, I partook of my first aerodynamic cigarette (aka a left-handed Lucky or a Mary Jane Slim), I experienced my first time being intoxicated (swacked out of my skull) on my birthday, played my first game of AD&D and had my first all on my birthday. Come to think of it those were all on the same birthday. Wow, that was a banner year, depending upon how you look at it.

Ahem, anyway.

My best birthday memory was January 20th, 2002, hands down and no second thoughts. It wasn’t that I got a nifty gift wrapped present, to tell you the truth I don’t remember if I got anything at all, its all in the lead up to that birthday. Within a few days of 9-11 I was out of the country and the next four months were grueling, 12-16 hour days and everything you could imagine broke on aircraft that were flying long hours day after day. My best friend passed away while I was deployed, then one of the guys working for me lost his Dad, when we left the states we were scraping frost off the windshields and when we got to where we were going it was a race every day to see if heat or humidity would hit a hundred first. Then we redeployed on Christmas Eve which meant pack it all up, launch our jets out for missions, land unpack our gear and recover the jets, so that was fairly hectic.

But hectic was actually good, once you get into the rhythm everything moves like lightening, and then at the forward location the missions were shorter, the jets were all broke in and work drug down to nearly nothing. We’d hear rumors of something breaking and sneak out to work it without telling anyone else. Working long hours isn’t bad, searching for work over long hours is hell! But then our time was up, we left the US flying west on overworked military airlift, we got on commercial jets and continued the line, on this trip we’d literally circled the globe. We got a lot of interesting looks in Shannon Ireland but I spent a great hour while they loaded actual alcohol on the jets for us, oh and real food too! No more MREs or ribs that they said were beef, that tasted like goat and looked like camel spider legs baked till they fused together. I had a great time talking to a couple of Irish gents that kept telling me to “leave your hand in your pocket,” when I tried to buy a round. Irish coffee tastes better in Ireland, and so does the beer fresh from the keg. Poor guys there were so many of us that we floated every keg they had and wondered where we’d been to develop such a thirst. I slept from Ireland back to the states but apparently everyone else drank the plane dry.

We hit Bangor and I warned the wife we were really coming and she told me that the base airfield was closed because of fog but they had hopes that it would reopen before we got home, so fingers were crossed all over. Then at last the little town was out the window and far below, seeing it really does remind you that it’s a tiny place to live and the wheels touched ground right around 2:30 am on January 20th, I’d missed Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years and landed on my 37th birthday, but that wasn’t the best part. That came when I managed to escape the grip and grin line of everyone that wanted to shake our hands and welcome us home. That’s when I spotted my wife across the tarmac, it was 20 below zero (sounds colder than -20) and I was walking across the tarmac in desert camouflage feeling my nose hairs freezing. She had my field jacket wrapped around her to keep it warm and I was slipping into that when I got a kiss I’d waited months for, and then I was home.

© 2009 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

Memoirs Veterans

Coconut Crabs, Dawn, Lava Soap and a Cigarette in the Shower

I spent 90 charming days on a tropical island in the middle of nowhere, it was actually the first 90 days of Operation Enduring Freedom. It was interesting times, first off my tent was less than 100 yards from the ocean and we were surrounded by coconut trees. It was almost like being on Gilligan’s Island but no coconut cream pies and we had some access to the internet. My tent wasn’t far from a ‘pagoda’ which is what we called the shower and latrine buildings, they had the further added charm of a water buffalo, which was our local source of potable (drinking) water, because if you drank or even wet your toothbrush from the tap you risked acquiring a condition that we politely called the ‘screaming shits.’

Our jets were flying 14 hour missions which meant that our day shift launched them out in the morning and we caught them on our shift and spent our 12 hour shift working like madmen (and women) to refuel, rearm and fix them after they landed. So every morning when I got back to tent city, AKA Camp Justice, I stunk. I don’t mean I was a bit gamy, I mean I friggin reeked. Fuel, oil, grease, hysdraulic fluid, oil, armpits, feet and sweat marinated testicles. Who knew that a tropical island could get THAT hot? I had it lucky, I spent about 60 of the 90 days on the night shift, where the cool ocean breeze dropped the mercury down to about 95 degrees with matching humidity.

So I’d get back to the tent and take off my boots outside, we’d rigged a screened in porch with a busted cot for a couch and a buttcan hidden under it because we weren’t supposed to smoke around the tents because if they caught they’d be gone in about 30 seconds. So I’d have a smoke as I brushed off the salt deposits on my boots and doused the insides of them with footpowder, then slip inside. My space in the tent was right inside the flap and to the right, I had a sheet wall between me and the guy next to me and a mosquito net over the front and another sheet I could drop to keep out the light as I slept.

Inside I had a standard issue cot, which is just about as wide as my shoulders and there’s a walkway between my sleeping cot, and the cot I use to keep all of my stuff off of the concrete pad under the tent. The reason for this is that tent city is about 3′ above sea level, and the sea in question is only about 100 yards from said tent. I waded through the tent a few times. Anyway. Clothes off and shorts on and I grab my towel and shower kit and head off to the pagoda. This day I was lucky, I had the whole place to myself. This would be good news except that I had worked very late and everyone else was in bed.

So I’m in the shower and start the routine, stand under the shower and get wet, then lather up with Dawn dish soap to cut through the oily stuff and then rinse off and lather again with Lava and scrub head to toe with a fingernail brush while burning another butt. You get some damned odd looks while you do this from the stragglers that wander through but they are mostly amazed by the layers of funk that scrub off and the dirty ring of suds than pools at my feet as I scrub until I’m a really fetching shade of pink. Then its rinse off and shampoo and get all of the grit that didn’t rinse off out of the places you don’t want grit, basically everywhere below the eyebrows with hair follicles.

You get the idea…

So I’m all lathered up and I hear a skitter and a loud CLACK, I wipe the suds out of one eye and there’s a big sumbitch of a coconut crab crossing the floor toward me, dragging that bigassed claw it uses to crunch coconuts with. Now I don’t know if you’ve considered it but consider for a minute; but, how many pieces of human anatomy are tougher than a coconut? Now that you’ve considered that, how many pieces of your anatomy are exposed in the shower? The showers were situated around poles, four people at a time can shower at each pole, no dividers, so I started around the pole turning on all four showers and scrubbing and rinsing and trying to keep the suds out of my eyes as I dance around the pole with a crab clacking away on the nut cracking castanets that nature provided for it and finally got them all turned off and out of the shower and stood out in the breezeway drying off. You’re not supposed to be naked outside, but I was feeling generous and gave the entire pagoda to the crab and I was back in my shorts pretty quickly anyway.

A lot of people get nervous about showers, Hitchcock and the movie Psycho keeps eyes glancing to the shower curtain, but my eyes are always down in the shower now, psychos with knives I could probably handle, but a pissed off crab in the shower is REALLY unnerving.

© 2009 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

Memoirs Veterans

9-11 from My Perspective

There’s a lot of memories wrapped up in seeing 11 Sep on anything, it actually reminded me to change the way my computer shows the date, I kept it set for military format, DD/MM/YYYY, instead of the normal (to most of you) way of MM/DD/YYYY. And when I changed it I started thinking about that day, and the events and feelings around it.

In the summer of 2001 I found out I had 2 hernias. Inguinal Hernias to be technical. The unpleasant part of the term inguinal is where a loop of intestine can wind up, the link above has a diagram, if you want to know, go peek, I won’t spoil it for you.

So I had them both fixed in August, it involves a few small holes, it would be Endoscopic Surgery so recovery would be faster, but I would still be out of work until the last week in September. They gave me an orientation for the surgery, which was actually funny because we used similar, but much more expensive and better quality scopes to inspect jet engines, and I’d been using them for 17 years at this point. The surgery went fine, Kevlar mesh and a few surgical staples, and I went home that day. Recovery was a little more interesting that they or especially I would have liked, to put it delicately my boys were several sizes larger than they should have been, it was a few days after before I could pull my sweatpants up over the surgical area.

I was feeling pretty normal on the 10th when I went to bed, I wasn’t moving too fast but I was doing stairs just fine and as long as I didn’t get stupid and try and lift things I would be fine. It did look like I had two belly buttons, one of the scars had built up strangely and every now and then when I stretched I could feel a tug and a pop and the second bellybutton would be a little shallower. Don’t cringe, I had to feel it, what do you have to fuss about?

The morning of the 11th, a Tuesday I was being lazy and sleeping in when my wife got back from taking the girl to school, she was calling my name as she came up the stairs and turned on the TV. The second plane hit while we watched.

Oh shit.

At the foot of my bed is a big wooden chest I made when I was about 14, I had my MoBags (mobility bags) in it. Two of them and everything I would need to be out of town for a minimum of 120 days. We checked everything and packed it all together, she gave me a fast and very short haircut, then I shaved off about a month’s growth showered and called in. I asked where they needed me and told them I’d be in for the swing shift, 4 pm till midnight. We ran a few errands and then loaded everything into my car, because I was on a half-hour notice now to appear and leave.

This is when you hurry up and make sure you have everything, power of attorney for the wife, my will was up-to-date, I had cash, my government travel card, I was current on my training, the M16, and all my gear was packed. By career field I was a jet engine mechanic, but because of my rank I was working as an expediter, which meant I had 24 people from 6 different career fields that I dispatched to jobs from a big ‘bread truck,’ and I knew I was going to be busy as hell.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. I got to work and all aircraft were generated and ready to do, we were standing by for any orders because my squadron was ‘in the bucket,’ meaning that we were the rapid deployment force for the bomber fleet. I was assigned to the 34th Bomb Squadron, we maintained and flew the B-1B Lancer, the history of the squadron went back to 1917 and when you looked at our guidon it had so many campaign streamers it looked like a pom-pom attached to a spear, if you dug a little you could see the actual pennant. One of the key historical accomplishments about the 34th was that most of the aircraft and pilots for the Doolittle Raid on Japan were from the 34th, if you look here you’ll even see some of the pilots wearing the patch on their flight jackets.

April of 1942, four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, 16 B-25’s that had been shoe-horned onto the flight deck of the USS Hornet and flew a one-way mission to attack Japan. Of the 80 men that took off, 3 men were killed during the mission, 8 were captured (4 of them executed in custody), 5 were interned in the USSR, and all 16 aircraft were lost. Most of the crew’s made it to China, where the local population spirited them away, there are some estimates that the Japanese Imperial Army killed as many as 250,000 Chinese civilians trying to find them.

The actual damage inflicted by the raid was slight, but the psychological effect to Japanese and American morale was electrifying, it would be a few months later, June of 1942 before the Japanese advance would be stopped at Midway, and the long campaign to Japan itself would be four more hard years away, but in April of 1942 the Japanese were invincible, the US navy was shattered and severely outnumbered. The Doolittle Raid would prove to both sides that the Japanese weren’t invincible, and it proved to the Japanese that the Home Islands were vulnerable, and forced them to change their deployments to protect them at the expense of weakening other places.

But on the night of the 11th the guys that I supervised dragged their bags in and we checked everyone had everything, and then we started the waiting game. All up and down the halls were pictures of the history of the squadron, including shots of bombers flying off of an aircraft carrier. Down the hall and across from the commander’s office was the ship’s bell from the USS Hornet. It was three months shy of being 60 years since Pearl Harbor, and a few of us old timers walked up and down the halls and let the history soak in a little.

Technically I wasn’t deployable, I was actually still on convalescent leave, but I felt plenty recovered and I wasn’t going to stay behind. I’m not sure exactly what I said the first time I was told I couldn’t go, but I’m told it was loud and profane and I didn’t repeat a single cuss-word in the entire tirade, and since I was talking to an officer I did put a ‘sir’ on the end of it. Long story short I did go, and I watched as the bombers left, loaded with bombs and afterburners glowing bright and the thunder of the engines shook the ground beneath my feet. I was standing beside the truck listening to the radios, one playing music, the other a 2-way maintenance radio.

When the first jet broke ground AC/DC’s song Thunder was playing, and the 34th was called the Thunderbirds. If that’s not an omen of good luck I don’t know what is. We wound up forward deploying on Christmas Eve, from one location to another much closer to Afghanistan, and even that day we launched aircraft at one location and recovered them at the other. One hundred and twenty days of continuous operations and we took everyone home that we left the states with, a few dings and bruises, and we were all tired of living in tents, but we all went home safe.

To me that’s more important as the amount of bombs that we dropped. I’ve gone to too many funerals in my time, in some cases there was no coffin for the family to give some sense of finality. Its hard enough to accept the loss, but a picture on a empty coffin covered with a flag is not consolation. There were many that didn’t have that sense of finality when the towers fell. Its like you never get the chance to truly say goodbye.

© 2007 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.