Back in 1978 I enlisted in the U.S.A.F. when I was 19 and eager to escape New Jersey. I was following a boyfriend who had enlisted a few months earlier. I never saw him again and he married the girl who inserted herself in our dates on occasion. I never gave her a second thought. I give her credit. But at 19, there was no way I was ready to be married. She got the guy. I wanted adventure.
I didn’t get much. I went through basic training in San Antonio, then to Wichita Falls, Texas, for tech school training in computers. The highlight was arriving at tech school hours before a tornado wiped out half the town and some of the base, and we spent some three weeks assisting with cleanup. My first and only tornado.
When I got my orders for my first assignment, it was to Edwards AFB in California’s Mojave Desert. I was offered a swap to Las Vegas instead but I believe in destiny. So for two years I lived in a dorm there and did some growing up. I learned to shuck my racist heritage, I learned that people of other faiths were as valuable and as valid as me, I existed in a parallel universe, a society structured with rules and the anticipation of warfare.
I had an indoor job. I was a computer operator, working on IBM and CDC mainframes. Most nights I ran a plotter that transferred data onto giant rolls of graph paper, much like newsprint. Most of the time I changed big tape reels and made sure the pens didn’t run dry. Nothing worse than hearing the plotter run for 45 minutes and realize that half that time it was just scratching the paper instead of transcribing the day’s missile tests. Start over. Productivity report somewhat lacking.
During my two years at Edwards, which included getting to work on the first NASA Shuttle flight, I figured I should see what else might be in store for me. I put in a request to leave Edwards and I told Uncle Sam he could send me anywhere in the world. I was listed for North Dakota, Germany, England, Korea, Japan, Nebraska and Hawaii. Each week, I’d watch as the list would come out and see how I’d get closer to the top for each of them. I was three from the top for Hawaii. It never occurred to me that I’d get here, but the two before me chose not to come to the Aloha State.
I arrived here July 14, 1981, and it’s been home ever since. At Hickam AFB, my duties included monitoring data gathered by U2 aircraft that flew over the Middle East and the then USSR. Ronald Reagan was our president and I knew more about the possibility of World War lll than he did. I had to wait a year for my clearance to get my transfer to Hawaii. And it was another indoor job.
So while I was in the USAF in Hawaii, I learned to surf, to eat sushi, and I made friends with the locals and acclimated myself as best I could. The Jersey Girl still rears her in-your-faceness, but she’s been mellowed by years of Hawaiian Style.
I’m a veteran, but this day is not for me. This day is for the real soldiers, sailors and airmen who put their lives on the line each day, and for those who try to exist in this universe instead of the military universe. It is not easy for them to make the leap. Some should stay in the military because its rigidness and rules allow a certain level of freedom from responsibilities. It’s not easy adjusting from military to civilian life, if a strong civilian base doesn’t exist for those making that leap.
Wartime veterans are old and young. Some are justifiably angry, some are paranoid, some are homeless, all deserve our thanks. Civilians cannot really understand the experience of living in a parallel universe, which might explain why we are all perplexed when it comes to serving this population with respect and dignity.
Ever feel uncomfortable when a straggly and stinky homeless guy engages you from the tables outside Keeaumoku McDonalds or at Starbucks? I do. It’s sad, this guilt I feel, because I’m repulsed and embarrassed at the same time. It’s a moment like that when I need a little forgiveness. So I always smile for the one who yells at me, “HEY! GLENN CLOSE!” It’s the least I can do.