Thursday, May 11, 2006

You're In The Air Force Now

Airman Basic Combs, Michael B., AF 19741871
I arrived for Air Force Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, on the 3rd of August, 1962. As I stepped from the bus that transported me and my six responsibilities from the airport to the training center, I asked myself, “What am I doing here?” I know I wasn’t the first to question fate at the threshold of military basic training, and I'll bet I wasn’t the last.

My reasons for enlisting in the Air Force were probably about the same as for a lot of other guys. First, there was the sacred and the profane, both centered on my love for, lust for, my high-school sweetheart Marilynn. We had been going steady for four years, since about the time of my 16th birthday and her 14th. The first three years we were totally well behaved. We weren’t even kissing. Then the kissing started, and soon we were constantly scheming of ways to be alone together.

The next big reason for enlisting was, after completing two years of college, I needed to make a lot of money during the summer of 1962 to be able to afford my third year of college, which was to be my first year at San Jose State. Marilynn got a maid job at Donner Lake Lodge, on old Highway 40, and I got a job washing dishes there while I tried to get on a construction crew building the new Interstate Highway 80 between Reno and Sacramento. The starting wages were high, over $4 and hour, but I never got a job because I could never swing union membership. I spent about half of the summer earning 95 cents an hour, plus room and board, washing dishes. What little I made I spent on gas for my old 1955 Mercury, to drive to construction sites and the union hall between shifts, and to pay for the occasional motel room for Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Actually, I am sure we came up with a more creative name than Smith. We always had a suitcase, and I turned my Point Arena High School class ring backwards to try to make it look like a wedding band.

The final straw crash landed after I gave up on getting Highway 80 work, and Marilynn’s parents expressed serious concern about us being together so much so far from home. I drove to Santa Rosa and slept on the floor of brother Ron’s apartment while I made a last desperate attempt at saving the summer from being a total financial disaster. My gas tank was empty, and I budgeted ten cents each day for a generous bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy. Since I had to walk, not drive, to look for work in Santa Rosa, after a couple of days my walking search for work took me down the city block where the Army, Navy, and Air Force recruiters had small street-front offices.

As I walked slowly past, a thought flashed that the military pays, houses, and feeds its people, making three points that at that moment really focused my attention. I stopped, then entered the Army recruiting station. I soon had the same feeling I had when I bought my 1955 Mercury off a used-car lot. I moved on to the Navy recruiter, and after I answered some questions about college, and took a short test, I found that I would retire in thirty years as an Admiral. It seemed too good to be true, so I moved on to the Air Force. I answered Technical Sergeant P. T. Neely’s questions, and took another test. After he scored the test, Sergeant Neely explained an Air Force program called AECP, the Airman Education and Commissioning Program.

With my two years of college and my test scores, I was qualified for an Air Force program that would send me to college full-time to complete a degree, after which I would be commissioned a Second Lieutenant and serve a minimum of six years on active duty.

Now they were talking my language! I quickly calculated – five weeks in basic training, then off to college for the fall semester. Plus marry Marilynn then, and we could legally do every night the pleasant activity I was now missing so much. “Sergeant Neely, sign me up! Sir!”

After Sergeant Neely advised me that I could save the “Sir” for officers, he also informed me I would have to get my parents’ consent because I was only 20 years old. Marilynn, who was 18, could get married and do just about whatever she wanted without her parents’ consent, but even though I was two years older I still needed my parents’ consent.

I borrowed gas money from Ron, and drove home to Point Arena to have Mom and Pop sign my Air Force enlistment papers. Reluctantly, they signed. I returned to Santa Rosa and Sergeant Neely put me on a bus to the Oakland Induction Center. I overslept on the bus, and ended up changing in Fairfield for a bus back to Oakland, where I was put up in a hotel room for the night. The next morning I passed a physical, took some more tests, was sworn in, and since I was the oldest, or most educated, or something, I was put in charge of six other guys for the trip to Lackland. Off we went by bus to San Francisco International Airport, and then my first plane trip took me and my six charges to San Antonio and Lackland to begin our new lives.

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