It was the first time I’d ever been on an airplane. The noisy little turboprop shuttered down the icy runway as it left Bangor airport in the early, cold morning of December 3, 1973. It was a shaky and slightly deafening quick hop to Boston to change planes. The airport at Boston was expansive and confusing to this rural boy, but I managed to find the next gate, and a very expensive Danish and coffee to fill the void created by an overabundance of nervous stomach acid.
A couple hours later, I was strapped into my first ever jet propelled airplane on my way to Atlanta for another change. I must say that the difference between that turboprop and the 707 was amazing. And the flight was long enough, smooth enough, and quiet enough for me to grab a few winks. I awoke on approach to the Atlanta airport, and from my window seat I could see that this place made the Boston airport look small in comparison. I might have to actually ask for directions to my next flight. But, since I had a couple hours before takeoff, I was confident that I wouldn’t have to swallow my manly pride. I could make it on my own. I was wrong, of course.
Slightly before sunset, I was in line to board the last flight, heading to the wonderful city of San Antonio. By that time, I was so nervous that the type of plane made no difference. The excitement of taking off and landing had quickly worn off as the anticipation and mystery of my final destination flooded my thoughts. There would be no sleeping on this leg of the trip; just silent anxiety knowing that my life would change forever in just a few short hours. I knew there was a bus waiting for me at the end of this flight. And I knew that if I got on that bus, there would be no turning back.
As I looked around the flight, I could almost pick out the young men and women that were going to be on that bus with me. We all had the same serious and questioning expression on our mugs. We all had excitement in one eye and worry in the other. And we weren’t doing much other than contemplating what the next six weeks had in store for us. Looking back, this was the quietist flight I’ve ever been on, and I’ve been on quite a few since that life changing flight.
The pilot came on the com to announce that we were on final approach to the San Antonio airport. I think he knew where many on this flight were heading, because he finished up his announcement with a salute to the military past, present, and to us, the future. He brought the plane to a very smooth touchdown, and a way-too-short taxi to the gate; a gate that many of us wouldn’t enter, because our ride was waiting on the tarmac. And we were about to embark on a whole new adventure.
When the airplane came to a stop at the gate, the captain came on the com to instruct all of us that were heading to Lackland to stay in our seats while everyone else disembarked the aircraft. Once that was done, the rear door opened and a sharply dressed sergeant entered and walked to the front of the plane, turned and smiled, and pointed at the rear door. He calmly instructed us to gather our gear, disembark, and get on the bus. We followed his instructions with smiles on our faces and relief spurred by his calm and friendly demeanor. This wasn’t gonna’ be that bad after all.
The night air was chilly for many, but being from Northern Maine, December in Texas was like the first day of summer to me. And the relaxed mood in the bus, thanks to our friendly and smiling hosts, sparked us to do our own informal meet-and-greet during the 45 minute journey from the airport to the base. By the time we arrived, just after midnight, we were ready for our new life, and really ready for a good night’s sleep.
As the bus passed through the gate and pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a dozen or more sharply dressed sergeants smiling and waving at us. We sauntered off of the big blue bus, rummaged around for our luggage, and followed the instructions to go find a line to stand behind. We all lined up, still chatting, smiling, and somewhat relaxed, and put our bags on the ground at our sides. This was going to be a piece of cake, most of us thought.
One of the sergeants raised his hand and calmly told us to quiet down. He held his hand up until we reached a point of quiet where he could introduce everyone and welcome us to Air Force Basic Training. He wanted us to know that this would be our home for the next six weeks, if we made it through to graduation, and that he and the other sergeants were there for us. They would teach us everything we needed to know, and get us ready for a career in uniform. We all smiled and shook our heads at each other in somewhat silent approval that our choice of the Air Force was the best, and that we were going to really enjoy our training.
When the sergeant had finished with that part of his introduction, he informed us that we would be boarding the busses once more for our final destination, our dorms. We were elated that we were finally going to get some sleep. The sergeant told us to pick up our bags, and we did. But, I guess we didn’t do it well enough to suit him because in the absolutely loudest and most ferocious voice I had ever heard, he shouted, “PUT’EM’DOWN!!!!”
In one uniform thud, every bag hit the ground, followed by that same voice bellowing, “NOW, WHEN I SAY TO PICK’EM’UP, I WANT THEM ALL UP AT THE SAME TIME!!! …… NOW…. PICK’EM’UP!!!”
Still not good enough. “PUT’EM’DOWN!!... LET’S TRY THAT AGAIN, LADIES!!!.... PICK’EM’UP!!” Followed shortly with ,”PUT’EM’DOWN!!!..... PICK-EM-UP!!!.... PUT’EM’DOWN!!!.. PICK’EM’UP!!”
This went on for a while, but we learned how to pick’em’up and put’em’down that night. And by the time we actually got to bed, around 2:30 in the morning, we had put away the smiles and the attitudes, and were gearing up and fearing up for the unknown that lay ahead. By the way, that unknown came at 5am. I just hoped I was ready, because it was game on, and there was no turning back.