To Square One And Back

High school left me with very little education and a whole lot of bad memories. When the time came, I hurried through my graduation ceremony then ran off to find the most menial and low paying job a substandard grade average might qualify me for. I got lucky! The job I landed not only met my servility standards and apparent desire for a pitiable pay scale; it was also pretty disgusting work. So this was it; square one of my working life. 

Something happened though. After a few months I began to realize that "disgusting" wasn't as satisfying as it's reputed to be. Quite the opposite. Thus, the arrival of my Pre-induction Notice from the Draft Board actually came as a welcome relief. With my usual low expectations in tow, I traipsed off in search of the nearest Air Force Recruiter.

Volunteer day at Barber's College? Nope.
A few months later, on a sweltering Spring afternoon, I stepped off a bus at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. I couldn't know at the time but Basic Training would be the prelude to my rebirth from callow youth to air traffic controller.

Within the first 24 hours, we were required to memorize our eight-digit service number. If you don't know; this is the military's "personal identification number." It gets stamped into every GI's dog tags, so that anyone could figure out who we were - just in case we were unable to say. But memorizing numbers was no easy task for a guy who'd eventually have to quickly memorize a traffic pattern sized dose of tactical callsigns and aircraft  registration numbers.

Everybody got the haircut. Then, after the issuing of uniforms, we all began sweating our way through the ensuing weeks of verbal abuse, physical training, close order drill, shooting at things and other stuff contrived to make us appear almost military. But we were still just kids; only now with guns and no hair.

Somewhere along the way, we were all asked to pick from a list of jobs we'd like to spend the next four years doing. I wondered which one required the least amount of skill - like, for example, shaving the heads of basic trainees. I studied the list methodically, as though I actually understood what I was looking at, while never really correlating my eventual choice with a post-military career or its earning  potential. As I saw it, being asked to choose a job was like asking me to choose which color of bus I'd like to drive over a cliff. It simply didn't matter. I just knew the end result would be the same - a long fall onto the rocks. Bewildered, I finally settled on ATC, although I had no inkling as to what the job entailed. It didn't sound too disgusting though. In fact, it sounded interesting.

After selecting the career we hoped to get and after working through a series of aptitude tests and interviews; someone would make a decision on our fate. There were no guarantees. Assignments were based mainly on the needs of the Air Force.

Basic training plodded along. Then, in the final few days before leaving Lackland, our big moment came. All graduating Airmen were marched into an auditorium, where a sergeant stood holding a clipboard full of papers. As names were called, someone in the crowd would yell "Here!" and the sergeant barked out their next duty assignment. His papers were arranged alphabetically, so I had time to appreciate the queasiness in my stomach. I watched him flip through them, one by one, never looking up. Finally, in his very military, staccato voice; "Factor! Air Traffic Control - Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Mississippi!"

The sense of elation I felt at that moment was misguided and premature. There'd be trouble ahead, and plenty of it. Nonetheless, here I was; about to begin my Air Traffic Control technical training. Here I was; about to land on square one again.

Biloxi in those days was a sad looking town; worn away by years of Gulf hurricanes and off duty GIs. Not originally from the deep South, I didn't know what to make of it. I was now in a place where black folks stepped off the sidewalk to let me pass - neither of us ever making eye contact. It was a place where nearly every bar in town was on the Base's list of off-limits establishments. Everyone carried that list because off-limits establishments were the only bright spots in a Biloxi night. The beaches were the only bright spots during daylight hours; when you could appreciate how dreary the town looked. Littered with broken glass and the aluminum pull tabs from countless beer cans, you either wore flip-flops on your feet or you wore bandages. The only other places to be were in the barracks or attending class. But that was no fun.

When I arrived in Biloxi, our involvement in the Vietnam War was on the upswing. The Air Force needed lots of air traffic controllers. In response, Keesler ran the ATC school in three shifts. Mine was the 6:00 PM till midnight shift. At the appointed time, my class would meet up in front of our barracks and march across the airfield to a converted hanger that housed the classrooms. There were several courses; each one lasting about a week and acquainting us with certain aspects of the job. As I recall, the first block was titled "Weather." From there, we went through instructional blocks on aircraft recognition and flight characteristics, Federal Air Regulations, Airport Traffic Control, Mobile radar units (known as GCA Units) and Approach Control. I may have forgotten some but it's been a lot of years since then.
GCA Units at ATC School, Keesler AFB
One day, sometime around my fourth week of class, the trouble caught up with me. I was called into the lead instructor's office. My grades were a perfect reflection of my off duty activities, which never included studying. That's because one of my barracks buddies had a car and that car was our means of touring the off-limits bars after class. We had to be careful though. Bed check occurred around 1:30 AM. So, after some guy with a flashlight came around and peeked into our rooms, we all tiptoed out of the barracks, met up at the car and headed for town. I should have noticed my ATC career disappearing in the rear view mirror of that big Chevy Impala but was always too caught up in the excitement of what might happen next.

The lead instructor was a chubby, red faced Tech Sergeant who didn't look much older than I was. He could turn a phrase though; describing a sad mental picture of my future. It was a bleak picture that included failure and peremptory reassignment to one of the Air Force's more servile and, very likely, disgusting jobs. There, I'd serve out the remainder of my enlistment with no hope of promotion. In other words; back to square one again.

I had indeed driven the bus over a cliff. Or maybe I was the second steer in line at a slaughterhouse and suddenly realized I was about to become dead meat. I gulped, groveled and grew penitent. I pleaded and promised. For an 18 year old kid with low self-esteem, very little sense of responsibility and no vision for the future, the threat of a long fall from a short career was just what I needed. Staring, once again, into the face of failure was a strong motivator. I went back to my barracks and began studying for the next test; knowing I wouldn't be seeing much more of my drinking buddies and even less of those buxom Biloxi barflies. I wouldn't be seeing much more of those nauseating, daily hangovers either.

Graduation from ATC school brought more anxiety.Where to next? Vietnam? I wondered; would they send a controller with no actual ATC experience to Vietnam? Then I realized that most of the people over there, the ones pulling triggers and dropping bombs, had no prior experience either.

Marched into another auditorium with another hard-assed sergeant holding a clipboard, I was about to get an answer. Wherever I ended up; I would arrive there as a new kid, with only a superficial understanding of what air traffic control was all about. I knew I'd be working in a real control tower though, with a crew of real controllers. Everyone would watch me carefully, train me candidly and eventually evaluate my fitness for the work. On the day I picked ATC off the Air Force jobs list, I had no idea what I was getting into - but things were a little different now. Now, at least I was smart enough to know how little I knew. I had also passed the ATC course; a fact that boosted my self-confidence level from zero-sum up to some. This would be another beginning for me; another step back to square one and another step in my long adventure.

I've since made a lot of trips to square one and back. By now, I know the way without some guy with a clipboard shouting orders. Just don't ask me for directions. Eventually, we all find our own way.

© NLA Factor, 2013