My trip back to Desolation Air Base was waylaid by a twist of fate and a couple of contemptible Colonels. I had thousands of miles to travel and less than sixteen hours to go before I'd be deemed AWOL (absent without official leave). Even worse, the Sergeant in charge of air traffic operations didn't have the most empathetic ear, so I knew there'd be big trouble if I missed my next shift. It's not like I would have been the first ever to be late returning from leave ~ but I knew I'd have been the most recent one. That was a bad place to be, because the Sergeant's tolerance for any particular infraction seemed to dwindle with each successive occurrence. Over half-way through his second tour of duty in Desolia, he was already a fairly manic guy. It wouldn't take much before he'd go completely maniacal and I didn't want to be in the cross hairs. 

This little odyssey began when I decided I was long overdue for a getaway . . .

I needed to be somewhere else for a while ~ a place far away from these airplanes, this authority and the monotony of barracks life at a remote air base. Burned out on barely edible food, incredibly dumb pilots and the omnipresent dust, I needed to find that place where, as Billy Strayhorn once wrote; "one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life ~ to get the feel of life." The feel of life?  Oh I needed some of that. The lush life was calling.

My deteriorating temperament was telling me it was time to put in for some leave. There was no shortage of good reasons to go. I was tired of listening to Mr. Fye, Desolia's sweaty and malodorous tower interpreter, trying to explain away the almost daily close calls between our air traffic and theirs. I needed food that didn't give me diarrhea. I needed a bed someplace where there were no other shift workers clamoring around while I was trying to sleep. I figured it was time for a break when the local beer, which normally tasted like it had been filtered through old gym socks, started tasting good to me. To quote Strayhorn again; "A week in Paris could ease the bite of it" but who could afford Paris on an E-4's pay? At least I didn't have to worry about airfare. The odds of my getting leave approved gave me enough to worry about.

Tower staffing numbers changed frequently, depending on how fast you could count backwards. Most of the Air Force's controller inventory was spread out across Southeast Asia. Some of the relatively few who were left got sent to backwater bases like Desolation. There weren't many of us here, so I worried. Asking the Sergeant for leave would be like asking if I could take his 19 year old daughter along with me. I put in my paperwork and hoped for a miracle. It came back approved. Maybe the Serg was drunk at the time or maybe he just wanted to punish the last guy who took leave by making him take on extra shifts while I was away. I didn't know and I didn't care. The smell of freedom was in my nostrils.

The troops stationed at Desolation Air Base got to take at least one trip per year on military aircraft. I started wondering about every destination we sent transport-type airplanes to. Those planes came in from almost everywhere and that's usually where they went when they left. North African, South Asian, Middle Eastern and European airports were at the far end of many flight plans ~ some further than others. I was most interested in a city that had decent hotels with rates to match my finances, good food and, hopefully, some interesting things to see. I wanted to live that "Lush Life" for a couple of weeks. As the starting date of my leave drew near, I had to make a decision.

Athens, Greece met all of my criteria ~ amazing archaeological sites, interesting food, friendly people and a favorable currency exchange rate. But best of all; it was far, far from Desolia. I just needed to get there.  I knew we had a couple of flights headed that way each week so I started doing the necessary paperwork. Then, one dusty morning in May, I walked out onto the ramp and boarded a C-141 bound for Athens.

When the crew found out I worked in the control tower, they invited me to ride in the cockpit. I wondered; did they think I might serve as some kind of talisman ~ a "lucky charm" that would protect them from those menacing mishaps our airspace was known for? The Captain in command, a guy around my age named Max, radioed the tower that I was on board. This, to me, was kind of like informing a mugger you have a four-leaf clover in your wallet. It wasn't going to change the outcome.

We taxied out amidst a flock of the Desolian Air Force's F-84 trainers ~ all chattering away in the local lingo. Not knowing what they were saying only heightened the anxiety on the Starlifter's flight deck. Several of them took off ahead of us; turning left or right and vanishing into the turbid haze. As we started our takeoff roll, I took a deep breath, scanned the skies and crossed my fingers. We'd be relatively safe if we could somehow make it a hundred miles or so from the airport without being side-swiped by one of these low time trainees. From experience, our local pilots understood the probability that evasive maneuvers might be needed forthwith. By the same token, we controllers knew that steep turns and rapid altitude changes always took precedence over our control instructions. The deal was simple. Be ready for anything. But Max and his right-seat buddy weren't from around here.

The departure was blissfully uneventful but I could neither exhale or take my eyes off the sky ahead until we were well up into the flight levels. The two guys flying this thing were surprisingly cordial, given our Officer/Enlisted man relationship. They even insisted I call them by their first names while on board. Captain Max and his partner were based in The States but spent most of their time traveling along these high roads, doing pick-up and delivery everywhere. Reaching cruise altitude, we talked about some of the other bases they flew into, the latest news out of Vietnam and our home towns. Max was from Macon, Georgia where, as a teen, he watched the B-52s and big cargo planes flying in and out of Robbins AFB. He said it was his inspiration for joining the Air Force.

By far, the most popular topic was this amazing airplane. They were brimming with enthusiasm over it. In the long enroute hours we spent together, they explained every system that Starlifter had. Then, after one intermediate stop along the way, we arrived over the Aegean coastline. There were a few descent clearances and we were eventually turned over to Athens Approach. The Acropolis and its crown jewel Parthenon came into view. I was glad to be riding up front and able to take it all in while the flight crew set this huge machine up for landing.

Athens was all I expected and more. If ever there was an axis on the wheel of life . . . or civilization ~ this was it.  Two weeks of palatable food, potent wine and perpetual Hellenic sunshine were exactly what was needed to rejuvenate my spirit and stamina. When it was time to leave, I was ready. I stuffed my jeans and tee shirts into the suitcase, climbed back into my Air Force uniform and called for a cab to the airport.

There was a military transport scheduled to depart Athens that day. After an intermediate stop, it would end up at Desolation Air Base. Seating was always contingent on space available and was normally assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Not wanting to take any chances, I got to the airport very early and had my name added to the stand-by list. Although there were a few names ahead of mine, the airman working the counter was encouraging. According to him, not many people ever left sunny Athens for dusty Desolia. I listened but couldn't believe there were guys like me actually stationed here! This was his job ~ in Athens, Greece! Where the hell did I go wrong.

I sat down next to my suitcase and stared out at the Air Force ramp. The military terminal was a small gray room in need of repainting. A Greek travel poster hung on the far wall, just behind a table holding two empty coffee pots and a stack of paper cups. The whole place smelled like burned coffee. I looked at my watch, waiting for something to happen while thinking about resuming my nightmare back at work. Two C-130s were parked on the far edge of the ramp and one was taking on cargo. I watched for a while; wondering where they were headed. Then I started looking for something to read.

In an hour or so, a C141 taxied in. The crew climbed out, walked through the terminal with their duffel bags and disappeared. The guy behind the counter didn't even look up. A few more Air Force troops showed up and went to the desk. After some talk, they too settled in to wait. I wondered if they were also headed to Desolia. We all waited. Another Starlifter rolled into the ramp. One of the crew members came in, stopped briefly at the desk, studied the stand-by list then went back out to the aircraft. I got up to double check the number of people who were ahead of me on that list. There were just three; all enlisted airmen like me. That didn't worry me. These airplanes were pretty big.

A short while later, I heard some loud discussion behind me. The racket was coming from two Colonels, standing beneath the check-in sign, arguing with the airman behind the counter. I couldn't hear exactly what was being said but it didn't go on for long. Arguments between airmen and officers were usually pretty brief. Within a few minutes, the two officers took their seats in the waiting area. One was shaking his head and laughing. Then I heard; "Will Airman Factor please come to the check-in counter? Airman Factor please." I sighed and got up. This wasn't a good sign.

The Pilot in Command had advised the desk there was room for just five people for the flight to Desolation Air Base. At number four on the list, I would have been one of them; except that the two Colonels had somehow muscled their way into the top two positions. This pushed me down to number six. In other words; I was screwed. The airman behind the counter was doing his best to empathize with me but all I could really hear was my Crew Chief hollering about how I should have started back to the base sooner. I was starting to feel like I was being crushed under that "wheel of life."

I started thinking about how to get word to my duty section. Would this guy behind the counter let me use the military phone system?  Or maybe the flight crew could let the people I work with know about my situation. I was starting to feel like I did before I went on leave; totally stressed out. It got even worse when I heard the boarding call and saw five people get up and head for the aircraft. The two officers were still chuckling about something as they walked by. Neither of them gave me so much as a glance. It got very quiet in that waiting area.

My mind was in turmoil as I stared off into the ramp space. An airman scurried around the aircraft, pulling the chocks away from its wheels. All the doors were closed and I thought I could hear one of the engines starting up. Feeling a little queasy, I wondered if there'd be another flight to Desolation that day. Naah. My fate was sealed up as tight as that Starlifter. Then one of the doors opened again. A guy in a flight suit stepped out and started jogging toward the terminal. He came in, went straight to the check-in desk and picked up the stand-by clip-board. In a moment, "Airman Factor, please come to the check-in counter. Airman Factor please."

The guy in the flight suit was a tough looking old Senior Master Sergeant. He told me to grab my bag and follow him. I wasn't sure what was going on but followed his orders and hoped for the best. Coming to Athens was exciting but being stuck here while my leave expired would lead to excitement of a different nature. We crossed the ramp and climbed into the aircraft. I didn't know how but it appeared I'd been saved! As my eyes grew accustomed to the murky darkness inside the fuselage, I could see those two Colonels strapped into their seats like a couple of high-ranking packages among the pallets of cargo. They weren't laughing anymore. I sighed. It looked like this trip was going to be a long one ~ in more ways than one. I started searching for an available seat but it didn't look like there were any left. Puzzled, I heard a vaguely familiar voice. "Hey airman, get yer young ass up here, and that's an order!" The voice came from the direction of the cockpit. I squinted and saw another guy in a flight suit, wearing Captain's bars. What a coincidence. It was Captain Max!

The two Colonels watched, looking a little stupefied, as this airman three-striper turned and marched toward the flight deck. I just smiled, knowing I'd be back at Desolation on schedule. That "feel of life" was returning.

I saw Max a few more times during the remainder of my tour at Desolation. He'd always call the tower and ask for me when his route brought him through. If he was remaining overnight, I'd find him some civilian clothes and sneak him into the NCO Club. It was a wild place where drinking to forget cost very little. It was also strictly off limits to officers. We'd go in, share a few pitchers of beer and have some laughs. The next morning, he'd be gone. The last time we spoke, he told me he was leaving the Air Force after this hitch and going for a job with the airlines. I hope he made it. Who knows? Maybe Max was one of the countless thousands of voices I heard coming from the skies during my time on the boards. Less plausible coincidences have happened; like that day he appeared, literally out of thin air, to became my lucky charm and save my "young ass" in Athens. It made me wonder; was his route of flight that day simply a coincidence or was it not-so-simply a milestone in some magnificent plan?

That brings me to the question I've often pondered while making my way through life's long labyrinth. Are coincidences really coincidental? As one who believes that everything, good or bad, happens for a reason, I'd have to say no.

© NLA Factor, 2011


Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Mr. Factor:

A friend gave me a point-out to your blog, for which I'm grateful. Capt. Max sounds like the kind of leader that the AF ought to figure out how to retain.

I'm looking forward to working my way through your earlier posts, and in the meantime I've added a link to here in the sidebar of my blog.

Joy of the Season,


No Longer a Factor said...

Hi Frank,

Thanks for the touch & go at my Blog! And please pass on my thanks to your friend who gave you the point-out. I always wonder if anyone reads this stuff! Thanks also for linking to my Blog! I will reciprocate.

N631S is a sweet looking unit! I cut my flying teeth on Cherokee 140s but would later rent one of the FBO’s Cessna 150s because they cost less per hour and the view was better while I bored holes through the sky.

You’re right about Capt. Max. There’s a lot to be said for treating your subordinates with a little respect. I hope the FAA is finally getting that message.

Anyhow, I couldn’t blame Max for getting out. He, like the rest of us, figured it was only a matter of time before we got sent to Vietnam. And let’s face it; his C-141 would have presented a great target, lumbering into or out of Cam Rahn, Tan Son Nhut or any of the other garden spots.

Thanks again for writing. Have a safe and happy holiday season!

NLA Factor