Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Estaca Stories - There's An Alien On My Plate!

I was sent to Estaca when I was 19 years old.  Prior to that, I had lived in Texas and had only traveled to  New Mexico, Florida, and a short visit to Juarez, Mexico.  All of those trips occurred before I was a teen.  My point here is I was by no means an experienced global or even regional traveler when I joined the Air Force.

Raised in Texas, I was fed a pretty basic meat and potatoes diet.  I wasn't what I would call a picky eater, but like most kids, there where things I just couldn't stomach.  My mom was a hard working single mother who was raising three children without any external financial help.  Money was tight and with the exception of liver, she had little tolerance for captious appetites.  Dinner was dinner and we ate what was served or we didn't eat. Despite this edict, I still grew up with an aversion to seafood.  With the exception of salmon croquettes and tuna, we weren't served fish often.  At least the salmon had a crust and I could smother it in ketchup to choke it down.  I was lucky to have two older sisters who were good cooks.

Fast forward to 1982 and teleport to the other side of the planet.  Estaca was located in Puerto De Bares on the northwest corner of Spain in a region known as Galicia.  Bares was a fishing village and as such, fish was on the menu of damn near every meal, damn near every day.  It became clear to me that I would have to learn to like fish or eat only the food Vic cooked in the site dining hall.  In Galicia, it seemed like nobody ate supper before 9:00 in the evening and when supper was served, it was an event complete with wine, bread, wine, grilled veggies, wine, soup, and wine.   Oh yeah; and fish. There was one particular restaurant in Bares that the guys from the site frequented.  It was a quaint little hole in the wall with just two tables.  It was actually part of someone's house and I'm pretty sure they just cooked in their home kitchen and served it to us.  They loved the Americans.  We called before we arrived, were always polite, we did our best to speak Spanish to them, and we tipped well.  As such, they always did their best to accommodate us.  Whenever any of us showed up, they would bring out the condimentos Americano (American condiments) consisting of Heinz 57, A1, and ketchup.  It didn't matter if we were only ordering soup and bread, they always brought out the sauces.
Estaca was a remote tour, meaning the military would not fund travel or other expenses for families to live there.  Estaca was also one of the most picturesque and economical military locations in Europe and several site personnel opted to bring their spouses over on their own dime.  I was newly married when I arrived and spent a couple of months there solo before flying my wife over.  While I was on my own, I would tag along whenever anyone went into Bares for dinner.  The extracurricular activities on the site only held my attention for so long and getting away, even if just to someone's tiny kitchen restaurant, was a welcome diversion.  I found also that I could get pork almost as readily as I could get fish.  Suffice to say, I did not starve.  I did, however somehow acquire a taste for calamari.  The lady who cooked it at the Bares restaurant had some secret formula for the most amazing batter.  We were all too afraid to ask what the recipe was.  Nevertheless, they were like super delicious spicy onion rings, only somewhat more chewy.

Time passed and I managed to save enough cash to buy my wife a ticket to fly over to Spain.  I also picked up a disposable car and rented a place for us to live.  She was raised a military brat and and as such, had lived on Air Force bases in the US and in Asia.  Still, none of that could have prepared her for the life road on which we were about to embark.  She braved the long TWA flight to Madrid and then caught a connection to La Coruña.  After those twelve hours came the three hour ride in a pickup truck to Bares and up the mountain to Estaca with myself and our driver Pepe.  As the truck crested the hill and the site came into view, the conversation between she and I went something like this:

"There it is!" I said.
"There what is?"  she replied.
"The site."
"What site? Where?"
 "Down that hill.  Those white buildings."

Silence.

This wasn't going as well as I expected.  Looking back, I suppose she felt the same way.  She left the modern world of Dallas, her family, and all her friends at eighteen years of age and found herself immersed in a world seemingly devoid of color, wherein we drove past old men walking oxen carts along the side of single lane dirt and tar roads with the ultimate destination being what appeared to her to be an abandoned trailer park.  I remember thinking to myself what's the big deal?  I realize now why it was no big deal to me.  I had been to boot camp and tech school and basically in a state of instability for the previous eight months.  I was accustomed to change.

Nevertheless, she persevered and after she regained the power of speech, we settled in.  I was desperate to impress her and show her things about the area that weren't so ancient.  I figured a nice dinner out with local flavor would be a good start.  She loved seafood, so the regular place in Bares seemed like the perfect spot.  After all, what better way to impress a woman than with an exotic European dinner in a restaurant with two tables in the corner of what appeared to be some stranger's home kitchen.  I quietly hoped that the familiar sights of Heinz ketchup and A1 on the table might help.

There were no menus.  On any given evening, they just told you what they could cook, although sometimes they would write it out on a chalk board.  Spoken or written; it was really irrelevant because my Spanish then was about as fluent as Al Gore's Latin.  The language barrier notwithstanding, I thought I knew what to order because I have been there so many times before.  I glanced at my pocket Spanish/English dictionary, looked up a translation for squid, and in my best Euro stud Rico Suave demeanor spoke "Vino rojo, caldo Gallego, y chipirones para dos, por favor."  I intended to order red wine, a popular local soup, and those delicious spicy onion ring style pieces of squid skirt.  The soup was a great appetizer and red wine is red wine (to me, anyway).  While we waited on the main course, I bragged about how wonderful the chipirones were going to taste.

It was turning out to be a nice evening out on our first "date" in Spain.  Then the server returned to our table with a plate of...something.  I was expecting this:



But what was served looked more like this:


I remember the look on my wife's face. I can only imagine the look on mine.  Up to this point, Long John Silvers was about as sophisticated as my seafood pallet got (calamari notwithstanding).  Both were crispy fried and could be dipped in ketchup.  My wife had lived in Japan as a child and was actually a fan of nasty seafood crap.  Still, even she wasn't going to eat this.  I commented something like "this isn't what I wanted".  Her face sported a "no shit!" look.  We were both reminded of the movie "Alien".  Sure enough, there was an alien on our plate.


Had this occurred in the States, we would have just got up and left it there.  But, the culture in Galicia is different.  Cooking is an art form and serving and seeing it enjoyed is a source of pride for the locals.  I'm not sure how well we hid our emotions, or if we were able to at all.  I'm just glad neither of us barfed.  One thing was clear, there was not enough A1 or ketchup in the entire country of Spain to make either of us eat that tentacle-laden pile of afterbirth that was placed before us.  The problem was this was a common place for the Estaca crew to eat.  We would be back and they would remember us.  To some degree, Americans stuck out in a crowd there.  But in a village that small, a young, big-boobed, petite, hot blonde stood out like like a pecker in a women's locker room.  Realizing this, I knew we couldn't just leave the corpses there in the plate without offending the proprietor.  We sat and thought over it long enough to burn sufficient time to appear to have actually eaten them and then wrapped them into napkins and stuffed them into my wife's purse.  Once safely outside the restaurant, we discreetly dumped the bugs (and probably her purse too) and went back to our apartment.

We did go back to the restaurant regularly, but we went with others from the site who could help us avoid ordering intestines or some other nasty crap.  We told the others at Estaca what had happened and it was as funny to them as it had become to us by then.  I was told that we should have left certain pieces of the squids on the plate because they're not generally eaten by humans.  Lord only knows what they thought when we left.

For what it's worth, I still don't like fish!

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Real Agenda?

Fifty-four people were shot in Chicago between Friday night and Monday morning. Ten of the victims were killed, including two boys, between 16 and 20, who were found lying face down, naked, on the South Side early Monday morning.

Can anyone name any of these victims or their suspected shooters?

Can anyone NOT name the victim or the shooter in the Florida case?

Does anyone wonder why that is?

I wonder if Al Sharpton will hold a protest rally in Chicago.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Identification Required!

I find it interesting that liberals throw a fit over the mere idea that a citizen be required to produce photo identification in order to vote.  Race baiters like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson always have a field day whenever the topic arises in various states, claiming it disenfranchises minorities.  Indeed, Eric Holder and company have done their utmost sticking their noses in the individual states' business to back up Sharpton and Jackson.

Never mind the fact that those same "disenfranchised" citizens (irrespective of race) must produce ID to do the following:
Get a driver's license
Purchase alcohol
  Purchase cigarettes

Purchase antihistamines
Purchase spray paint
Purchase a firearm
Purchase glue
Apply for welfare
Apply for food stamps
Enter a bar/nightclub
Cash a check
Make any large credit card purchase
Open a bank account 

Rent an apartment
Fill a prescription
Be admitted to a hospital
Get a marriage license

Most recently, taking the SAT or ACT college entrance exams has been added to the list, with the justification of preventing fraud in test taking.  No one seems to be raising a stink over that or over the items listed above.  Is this because the race baiters don't believe that voting is as important as test taking or do they not believe their special interests will be affected by the new rule?  It seems to me that the former would be un-American and the latter would be racist.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Estaca Stories - The Commies Are Coming!

Two quick notes of warning:
  1. This entry requires a bit of a European political history lesson, which I'm sure is exactly what you came here for!
  2. This entry isn't humorous.  It's not sad or even introspective, which is how I tend to get when I'm not laughing at myself or other people.  It's just an account of a very interesting week during my year at Estaca.
If these two notes don't scare you off, then read on.  If history isn't your thing, check back soon and hopefully there will be something more to your liking.

I remember as a teen watching a first season episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975, during which Chevy Chase reported in the Weekend Update segment "Our top story tonight: Generallissimo Francisco Franco is still dead."  I also remember having no idea why that was funny to the live audience.  If you don't know either, Wikipedia has this to say on the subject:

Franco lingered near death for weeks before dying. On slow news days, United States network television newscasters sometimes noted that Franco was still alive, or not yet dead. The imminent death of Franco was a headline story on the NBC news for a number of weeks prior to his death on November 20.

Giving credit where credit is due, you can find this Wikipedia entry here.

As exciting as that infotainment tidbit was, it wasn't the history lesson to which I referred. On November 22nd, 1975, two days after Franco's death, Juan Carlos was crowned king according to the law of succession promulgated by Franco.  In 1978, the Spanish Constitution was changed in a referendum vote to acknowledge Juan Carlos as King of Spain. The Spanish Constitution dictates that the monarch is the head of State and commander in chief of the Spanish Armed Forces.

Try to contain your enthusiasm; we're almost done.

General elections were held in Spain in October of that same year.  When the votes were tabulated (with no hanging chads to cloud up the count) the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, aka Partido Socialista Obrero Español, aka friggin' Commies emerged as the largest party, winning 177 of the 350 seats in the Congress and 157 of the 254 seats in the Spanish Senate.

You can put your History books away now, boy and girls.

I arrived on site at Estaca in April of 1982 and had no clue about Spain's political structure.  Hell, I barely gave a second thought to the American system.  For months, life at Estaca was akin to a real life season of television's M*A*S*H series.  We played pranks on each other, drank like fish, partied like college kids on spring break, and in our spare time, worked to defend America in our assigned Air Force roles at Operating Location F.

One morning in March of 1983 at the near end of an otherwise uneventful night shift, I heard a strange noise coming from outside the radio building.  The equipment rack cooling fans and the industrial air conditioning system in the radio room were very loud.  Right outside the radio room door was the generator room and since the generators were the sole source of electrical power for the site, they ran 24/7.  Needless to say, the volume level of the rock music from my over sized early 80's era ghetto blaster cassette player was cranked up to sufficiently cover the other noises.

All the other noises notwithstanding, I heard the faint sound of what seemed to be a car horn, so I killed the cassette player and confirmed my suspicion.  The radio room had windows, but they were covered on the outside with bricks that had small holes between them.  I split the blinds with my fingers and did that move where you adjust your head back and forth, up and down in an attempt to get a composite glimpse of what might be out there.  Since there were no fences or gates at Estaca, the occasional tourist would drive onto the site, get out, and take photos.  Sometimes, they would park their car, unload the kiddos, and set up a picnic on the grassy knoll near the cliff that dumped onto the Bay of Biscay.  We actually once had a couple park in front of the main building, walk into the dining hall, plant themselves at a table, and ask for a menu.  But I digress.

View from the Radio Building
The head bob-and-weave composite image turned out to be an olive drab colored Jeep loaded with bodies.  I looked at a radio operator named Mark and he looked back at me, both of us sporting a "what the fuck?" look on our faces as he bolted out the door to see who they were.  I found a better vantage point to see what was going on outside and realized that these were not American soldiers.  Mark spoke even less Spanish than I did and it was clear by the expression on his face that he had no idea what they wanted from us.  He moved himself into the beam of the flood lamp that bathed a small area in light so I that could see him and then gestured towards the window that he and I had previously been peeking through in a motion that indicated that I should stay put. I then watched him turn and walk away and disappear into the darkness in the direction of the main building as the Jeep occupants remained in their vehicle.

Moments later, the intercom phone rang in the radio room.  It was Mark on the other end telling me to stay put and NOT to open the door unless I was told to by someone in a leadership role from the site.  No one in any leadership role was even awake yet.  We agreed on an authenticating phrase and hung up.  This phrase would be the confirmation code word for any orders I would be given as long as this ordeal might continue.  If I didn't hear the phrase, I could assume that the order was given under duress and as such, would not follow it.  To this day, I still have no idea what I would have done in lieu of following an instruction that was not followed by the authentication phrase.  I was just the generator guy and I was never briefed on any such potential events.  I was only 19 years old.  Up to this point, the most stressful event I had faced on site was covering my ass for throwing Molotov cocktails off the cliff at night and having the Spanish Guardia Civil called to the site by a ship who saw the flame bursts on the rocks below.  That was a prank and although the "Guads" were not to be messed with (I have a broken nose to show for it, but that's another story), it paled by comparison to what appeared to be happening here.

Daylight broke and there was still no phone call.  It seemed as if hours had passed.  In fact, they had.  To make matters worse, I was hungry and I needed to pee.  I peeked out the window again and saw that more military vehicles had arrived.  These were personnel carriers and the parking lot was now crawling with soldiers.  I looked out to the back of the building through a small crack between the bricks and an exhaust vent that was part of a document incinerator used to dispose of classified documents and the occasional old Playboy or Hustler magazine.  The area behind the workshop building was a flowing meadow adorned with and sectioned off by stone walls which stood about three feet high.  The meadow stretched out towards the Bay of Biscay with a horizon that kissed the clear blue early spring sky at a seemingly infinite distance.  On any given day, it looked like the physical actualization of a painting by Claude Monet.  Well, on any clear day, that is.  Rainy days at Estaca more resembled a painting by Edvard Munch bathed across a landscape of the Muensters' front yard.  Interestingly, the tranquility of the clear pastoral image before me suggested nothing of the turmoil that appeared to be brewing just a few feet away on the other side of the building.

The music had been turned off before Mark exited the shop.  Despite the howling of the fans and the blowing of air conditioning equipment, the radio room had an eerie silence about it.  I made it a point to stay between the equipment racks, lest any shadows cast by my movement be seen by the soldiers outside.  I assumed that as far as they knew, the room was empty when Mark left and that they had no idea what was inside.  Finally, mercifully, the intercom phone rang and I almost peed my pants in the shattered silence.  I picked up the receiver and listened, saying nothing.  "This is MSgt Clark" I heard.  

MSgt Clark thought he was God's gift to the enlisted corps.  We all just thought he was a dick.  (Look for a blog entry on MSgt Clark soon.)  "This is Airman Wilson" I replied.  "What are you doing in the radio room?" was the next line he spoke.  I wasn't supposed to be in there alone, but alone I was and there were procedures to be followed in events such as this.  "Follow my instructions implicitly" he began.  "I want you to power down two of the radios and kill the alert light".  Waiting for an authentication, I didn't reply.  He repeated it and then said "Hello?"  I heard Mark's voice in the background say "Say tojo".

Tojo (pronounced toe-hoe) is a prickly Spanish plant that has the same effects as bull nettle here in Texas.  If you inadvertently brushed unprotected flesh against tojo, it would take weeks for the barbs to work themselves out of your skin.  The swelling and resulting rash were miserable and nothing seemed to help.  It just took time and you had to wait it out if you got into it.  "Tojo" was the authentication phrase Mark and I agreed upon.  In hindsight, it seems appropriate.  "Tojo" said Clark.  "Do that and come back to the phone." I killed the circuit breakers on the racks feeding the radio power supplies, hit the light switch, and went back to the phone saying "Done".  The alert light was just a normal white flood light that was positioned on the rooftop corner of the workshop building.  It was tilted up so it could be clearly seen from atop a hill and the single lane dirt road that led to the site.  The idea was if you were approaching the site and the light was off, something was up - don't continue down.  Estaca was a remote unaccompanied tour, but many of us had our wife there.  My supervisor even had is three young daughters with him.  My wife had been visiting for a few months, but had already returned to Texas awaiting my completion of my year there.  The alert light was a simple and discrete warning that could be viewed from a distance sufficient to allow anyone approaching to react and turn around unseen from the site.  We once turned it off when Clark was off site hoping he would never come back, but he called the site from a payphone in a restaurant we frequented in Bares.  We lied and said it must have burned out.  The result was a new, fully documented procedure painstakingly detailing a schedule and process for ensuring the alert light was fully serviceable at all times.

Workshop Building Viewed From HQ


The next order was a little more ominous, but it was kinda fun nevertheless.  I was instructed to key up the remaining radio and read the duress code.  All mission oriented conversation carried out over the radio was done so using the phonetic alphabet.  Each site supporting the Silk Purse mission was issued a set of code books which were valid for a specified amount of time.  The codes were essentially sets of three letter combinations that represented a single letter.  An example would be FJS=O, VQK=L, BZK=F.  If I needed to spell out our site name "OLF",(Operating Location F) I would speak the following phonetic alphabet letters with no discernible pauses as follows:


"Foxtrot Juliet Sierra Victor Oscar Kilo Bravo Zebra Kilo"

Anyone listening in on our frequencies without the code books would be clueless as to the meaning of the spoken letters because the individual letter codes could be comprised of any combination and quantity of letters.  I looked up the letters from the code book (which was still out because the previous shift had not ended when Mark left) and wrote out the predefined message on a scrap of paper.  I lifted the intercom receiver and Mark answered the other end.  "I just want to confirm you want me to do this."  Mark, who was a genuine laid back California dude, just said.  "Screw it, man!  Read it and kill the last radio.  TOJO MOTHERFUCKER!"  I hung up and read off the letters, which essentially broke radio silence on a predetermined frequency that was monitored back at Torrejon Air Base in Madrid.  Interestingly enough, the response that came back in plain English was "Repeat."  I repeated the message.  I then heard "Is this a joke?" 

There was a reason  they asked this.  Actually, this reason was going to be anther standalone anecdotal entry in the Estaca series, but the details lend themselves well here, so I'll elaborate now.

Every night during a predetermined time slot, each Silk Purse site had to transmit their status to the powers that be in Mildenhall.  By the way, the Silk Purse mission objective ceased in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union (thanks to Ronald Reagan), so I'm not divulging anything remotely confidential here.  The update process was basically a short message stating the operational condition of the site.  Green was all good - all three radios up and running.  Yellow indicated one radio down - either for a problem or for routine preventive maintenance.  Red meant two radios were down and our ability to support the airborne command post was severely limited.  Every night around midnight in their respective time zones, each site would report their status using the phonetic alphabet process described above.  A green status message was a short burst of a few letters that when decoded, spelled "green".  A yellow message would be somewhat longer to indicate the reason the site was not green.  As it was usually just a routine maintenance situation, the message was still relatively short.  A red status message required significant elaboration on the part of the site and could take several minutes to code out on paper and then phonetically speak out on the air.

Some paranoid genius way up in the USAFE (US Air Forces Europe) command structure figured out that if the Russians were listening, they would instantly know something was up if a site transmitted a message that was longer than the other messages.  Suspecting this, the Commies could focus their resources on that site (assuming they knew where it was) and potentially exploit the presumed weakness.  So in their infinite wisdom, someone decided that all messages had to be of the same length.  A predetermined number of characters was determined and distributed to each site.  Any characters following the actual status were simply filler text.  These filler letters could be determined by the radio operator on duty when the message was transmitted.  A few months before this incident, one of the Estaca operators sent a status message that was something tantamount to this:


"Green. Abandon search. All occupants dead."

The rest was a recipe for cookies or something, but the rule of a predetermined quantity of letters was adhered to explicitly.  Within hours, helicopters from Torrejon Air Base were thundering towards Estaca.  The last time a chopper showed up on site it was bringing a visiting General for a morale visit.  The idea was that the morale of the staff on site would be boosted because some high ranking officer took the time to fly to the middle of nowhere to visit us.  Truth was, the real morale boost came from the helicopter rides the aircrew gave us while the others got a handshake from and a photo taken with the General. The "abandon search" status message generated a helicopter visit with a whole different purpose.  Let's just say nobody got a ride, but a few people did get reamed.  This incident was my first exposure to the truly bad ass Air Force Pararescue troops.  Immediately following what was dubbed "the Estaca incident", a new USAFE Silk Purse policy was enacted that dictated specifically how the filler text would be generated.  There were entirely different code books created specifically for this filler text.  Another policy was just what we all needed.

Enough of that story.  Back to this story.

"Is this a joke?"  Before I could reply, another response, this time coded, was spoken.  I had to look up the letters and translate their meaning, which was "Is this an exercise?"  I suspect the look up process took me much longer than it would have one for of the regular radio guys because Torrejon kept repeating it.  I looked up the letters and responded phonetically what translated to "NOT AN EXERCISE."  The duress code was a predetermined message of fifty or so letters; very short considering its content.  After I repeated "NOT AN EXERCISE" The radio was silent.   I waited a few minutes for a response and then killed the power on the last rack.  Our phones to other military sites were radio based, so once I killed the line, we were isolated.  Estaca was 600 miles from Torrejon.  It would be interesting to see the response.

We had a local land line, which we referred to as the "diga phone".  When we answer the phone in the States, we usually just say "hello".  Spaniards answer the phone "¿Dígame?" (deega-me), which translates roughly to "tell me" or "say to me".  I was reminded that the diga phone still worked when it rang and made me nearly wet my pants again.  I still had not peed and I was about to burst.  If the alert light was off, we were supposed to find a local land line and call the site for instructions, just as Sgt Clark had done months ago.  This phone call was another tech calling in as instructed.  I told him in as few words as possible not to come on site and that we would reach out to him when it was safe.  I emphasized the word "safe".

The radios were off and the duress code was sent.  I wondered that was going on.  I wondered how long it would take Torrejon to respond.  But mostly, I wondered how much  longer I would have to wait to pee.  I remember feeling an odd sense of separation from everyone.  It was odd because the rest of the crew were less than 200 feet away in the main building.  We were all taught the basic steps I had just carried out; just in case.  But really, what are the odds...?  Welcome to my world.

The last step was to destroy the code books.  I opened the three ring binder and dumped the pages and my message note sheets into the bottom drawer of the incinerator, which resembled an old metal file cabinet.  I slid the drawer shut, spun the combo tumbler, and flipped the switch recessed on the backside of the cabinet.  I remember smelling fuel and then hearing a WHOOSH sound as it ignited.  Seemingly seconds later, it was silent.  I opened the drawer and there was no trace of anything. No ashes; nothing.  This sparked an idea (no pun intended).  I grabbed several pieces of paper, wadded them up and tossed them in.  Then I unzipped my fly, peed on them, closed the drawer, and reignited the incinerator.

I was feeling pretty clever.  In my mind, this was space shuttle toilet ingenuity and I was as proud of myself as I was relieved.  What I failed to consider was the exhaust from the burned papers.  By this time, the Spanish army had spread soldiers all over the place, including the meadows behind the workshop building.  A few minutes later, I heard a knock at the door.  The knock was only slightly more quiet than the sound of my heart beating in my chest.  I walked hesitatingly, daintily between the now silent equipment racks resembling Quai Chang Kaine walking on rice paper as I made my way to the door from the side, avoiding possibly being spotted through the slim crack.  I heard Spanish being spoken, but couldn't make it out.  Then I heard "Scott! Open up!"  I waited'  "TOJO! OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR!"  It was Mark, Sgt Clark and some Spanish officers.

Mark and Clark (sounds like a morning radio duo, doesn't it) were accompanied by two Spanish officers and Vic, our site cook.  Vic was an old local Spaniard who had been the cook at Estaca since it was a US Coast Guard site in the 1960's.  Oddly, everyone seemed to be in good spirits.  Vic was there to translate.  I was officially relieved of my duties, but mostly I was just relieved.  I headed across the parking lot/volleyball court  to the main building, walked past the Spanish soldier posted at the door as a guard, and made my into the dining hall, joining the rest of the morning crew.  "I need a drink!"  Vic was busy with our visitors, so breakfast wasn't ready.  I made my way into the lounge and poured myself a stiff Coke.  I looked over and saw the lock box where the emergency keys to bypass the cipher lock to the radio room were stored.  The box had been turned so the latch could not be seen.  I suspected that during the incident, someone thoughtfully camouflaged the box and placed shot glasses in front of it.

I went back to my closet of a room and tried to sleep.  If the events of the morning weren't enough to keep me awake, the 32 ounces of Coke I slammed down a few minutes before certainly were.  I got back up and went back to the dining room hoping breakfast would be ready.  I was told to go back and remove my uniform shirt.  It occurred to me at that instant none of the American site personnel were wearing anything that indicated military rank.  Looking back, I suppose this was a tactical move to keep the "enemy" guessing.  I was an Airman 1st Class with only two stripes.  I doubt my rank would have neither impressed nor intimidated anyone.  Nevertheless, I did as I had done all morning and followed orders.  I doffed my shirt and tossed it into the projector room.  I was the site's movie night projectionist and had a key.




Breakfast was essentially cancelled that day, so I poured myself a bowl of cereal and choked the milk down.  I don't drink milk.  I find it peculiar that we as a species drink the milk of another species after we have been weened from our mothers.  It doesn't occur naturally with other species in the animal world, so whey do we do it?  Yet again I digress.

The staff was abuzz with the events of the morning.  There were only nineteen people assigned to Estaca and many of those were off site awaiting an update to return.  Still, the buzz was pretty loud.  Nobody knew what to do.  I went back to my room and cranked up my Screaming For Vengeance album by Judas Priest.  Back then, everyone in the Air Force bought a stereo as soon as they could because we got great deals on high end audio gear from the BX.  I was no exception.  I had massive power and volume with the latest cassette deck and record player technology crammed into my ninety square foot closet of a room.  When I jammed, everybody jammed.

I woke up from a catnap and made my way back to the dining hall.  When I retired to my closet earlier that morning, I was told our movement was restricted (by us, not them) to the main building until further notice.  I looked out the windows and didn't see any helicopters.  Darn! No rides.  While I was napping, our staff was told by the Spanish officers that their  Army had got wind that  activities of the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasun), the  Basque separatists in the region to the northwest of Estaca had raised concern for nearby American military interests.  There were several remote Operating Locations throughout Spain.  The Basque would routinely hold rallies and we could see them on local Spanish television displaying poster sized maps of US installations and list them as potential targets of action.   OL-F (Estaca) was the closest site right under the Basque's noses and yet we never appeared on their maps.  Most of the locals always thought we were a weather site, but there was a large group who believed wholeheartedly that the US operated an underground submarine base at Estaca.  That was far more exotic than a weather station and some of the single guys on site bragged that the title of Submarine Pilot was far more impressive to the local women than Meteorologist was.  Perhaps the Basque leadership discovered we were there and started sabre rattling.  The Basque were known to blow stuff up now and then, but were considered rank amateurs back then and even more so  by today's standards.  Indeed, President Obama's pal Bill Ayers' Weather Underground group posed a greater danger to Americans than did the Basque.  In 2010, Basque leader Arnaldo Otegi received a ten year sentence for terrorist actions.  Ayers is still out there, albeit in a less threatening role as a retired college professor.  In 2011, the Basque announced the cessation of all violent activities.
In the end, all this Basque talk is actually moot because once the helicopters arrived two days later, we learned that the Basque had nothing to do with the actions of the Spanish Army.  It turns out that the Air Force restrained and delayed their response because if this was indeed a "just" Basque incident, less attention might be drawn to Estaca if the Basque saw that in the eyes of the Americans, that they (the Basque) (I hoped)) were insignificant and that the incident was small enough to leave up to the locals to resolve.

The real cause of the Spanish Army action was a result of the recent elections and the PSOE gains therein.  As you undoubtedly recall from our earlier history lesson, King Juan Carlos held supreme command of all the Spanish military forces.  Apparently, high ranking members of these forces were more loyal to the newly established Socialist government than they were to the King.  Indeed, sabres were being rattled, but the intent was to demonstrate to the King just who had real command of the Spanish military forces.  Why Estaca was chosen for this demonstration  was never revealed; not to me at least.

By the end of the first day, the site was literally crawling with Spanish military.  Day and night we would hear whistles being blown and and orders barked out in Spanish as the soldiers carried out various basic exercise maneuvers.  While we were feeling less threatened by the presence of our "guests", someone on our side decided that we should make living there as inconvenient to them as possible.  We made sure all the batteries for the backup lights were fully charged and Vic and his helper moved all the perishable food into a deep freezer.  At dusk, we killed the generators and the site went dark.  Up to this point, I had never heard what Estaca sounded like without the growl of the generator exhaust echoing off the nearby hills.  I remember laying out on the roof of the lounge that night staring at the stars.  The starscape at Estaca was indescribably vivid, bright, and contrasted.  The stars over there were different than the ones we see in the States.  Laying out on that roof day or night was nothing short of therapeutic  It was so quiet with the generators off that all I could hear was the Bay of Biscay waves breaking on the rocks a hundred feet below.  In fact, the silence allowed me to hear a seagull approaching from a distance.  I remember hearing something that sounded like an approaching ffffffffffffffffffffff sound as the gull floated effortlessly above me and it faded away as he flew on.  That sound was actually the wind traversing the gull's wings.  I never experienced anything like that before or since.

By the time the brass from Torrejon arrived, we had restored power to the site, but not to the radios.  For the most part, we were back to life as normal; or as normal as life at Estaca could get, anyway.  When the helicopters buzzed over, we were in the middle of a Spain versus US volleyball game on the makeshift court between the main and the workshop buildings. As far as I knew, the Spaniards never entered our living areas or the radio room until the last night when their officers got hammered with us in the lounge.  The conversation that night centered around life in America with the most frequently asked question by the Spaniards being who killed JR Ewing.

Throughout the ordeal, I never really felt threatened.  It was more of an annoyance,actually and I think I feared pissing my pants and pissing off the Air Force more than I feared the potential actions of the Spanish Army.  Seeing the way Spanish soldiers were treated made me appreciate the way the Air Force treated its enlisted men.  Until 2001, Spain had a nine month compulsory service requirement for men either in the military or some alternative service.   These guys were treated like bastard stepchildren at a family reunion by their leadership.  There were times when I felt sorry for myself as a lowly Airman in the middle of nowhere.  Those pity parties ceased after the events of that week.

The Air Force brass hung around for a few more days.  During their time at Estaca, they shopped the local towns and generally hung out with us, enjoying the sunshine on our secluded beaches and the hospitality of the locals.  Before they left, we were debriefed on the events of the week.  We were instructed what to say, what to deny, and more importantly, what to forget.  After the brass departed, I was issued a Letter of Reprimand by MSgt Clark for being alone in the radio room.  Mark was issued one for leaving me there.  Had I been the one to greet our Spanish visitors, neither of us would have received our admonishments.  A Letter of Reprimand (LOR) was a career advancement killer in the Air Force.  I had no Air Force career aspirations whatsoever, but I was devastated by Clark's actions.

I left Estaca the following month, bound for Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas.  MSgt Clark had gone home to the States on scheduled leave the week following the above described events.  He would never return to Estaca.  I'll explain why in an upcoming article, but suffice to say here, he got what was coming to him.  My LOR was included in my site out-processing documentation package.  This was 1983 and the Air Force was woefully behind on administrative computer systems.  Remote sites like Estaca still wrote and filed everything manually and any conversions into electronic formats were accomplished at the nearest major installation .  While awaiting my processing appointment at Torrejon, I decided to see what all was in my packet.  There in the middle of my shot records, relocation orders, and education status forms was the LOR Clark wrote on me.  I removed it, wadded it up, and tossed it in the trash.  Had I been able to, I would have peed on it and tossed it into the incinerator.

This story has an even better ending.  While attending a monthly Commander's Call at my new squadron in the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Bergstrom, I was called up on the stage after the general announcements of policy, Airman of the month, etc.  The commander, Colonel Corder, pinned an Air Force Commendation Medal on me as I stood at attention, stunned beyond belief.  AF Commendation Medals were not common for lowly enlisted personnel during times of peace.  In fact, I did some pretty hairy mission oriented stuff during my remaining AF years and never received another one.  It may be different now, but in those days, when awards were issued in a formal ceremony, an admin officer would read aloud the citation that accompanied them.  The citation would list the specific accomplishments that warranted the award and the signature of the Command Officer who approved it.  My citation simply read something like The events and circumstances that warrant the award of the Air Force Commendation Medal to Airman First Class Scott Wilson are classified by [some USAFE order].  Nothing else.

As thrilled as I was to get the award, I was equally perplexed by the fact that it was issued to me for the exact same circumstances for which I was issued a Letter of Reprimand.  M*A*S*H had nothing on Estaca De Bares in 1983.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Estaca Stories - Stangeroid From Uranus

Military installations are a mosaic of personalities and cultures.  I believe the military is as close to one can get to what some would call a utopian society, because people from the absolutely most diverse backgrounds all seem to work and play well with others.  Social factors like race, religion, and political persuasion are for the most part inconsequential in the face of a common goal, which in the case of Estaca was supporting the Silk Purse mission.

One tile in the mosaic that comprised Estaca was a guy named Chuck Stanger.  Chuck was of average height, but was bone thin in stature and his clothes hung loose on his pale, non-muscular frame.  If I had to pin a fashion influence on Chuck, I would guess early 1940's Nazi concentration camp, only slightly less cheerful.  I'm guessing Chuck was in his mid twenties, but it was difficult to tell.  He possessed a baby face adorned with a failed attempt at facial hair growth.  Air Force Regulation 35-10 dictated the size and appearance of facial hair.  Beards were forbidden altogether and mustaches had to terminate into a point on each end and be no wider than the mouth.  Unless you were Steven Tyler or Mick Jagger, this didn't allow for much room of a mustache.  Chuck's facial hair was so sparse that he resembled a junior high school aged boy who had been sneaking his father's razor in a feeble attempt to hasten his own beard growth.

Hailing from Salt Lake City, Chuck was the youngest of a litter of Mormon siblings.  He never swore or drank alcohol. He abstained from caffeine and did his best to lead a good Latter Day Saintly lifestyle in the face of eighteen horny, binge-drinking, expletive-hurling Airmen who had been cooped up together for months on a rock six hundred miles from a "real" base.  Picture Donny Osmond dropped into a perpetual party hosted by Hunter S. Thompson and you get an idea of how well Chuck's piece fit into the Estaca puzzle.  Everyone on Estaca had a nickname.  Chuck's was "Stangeroid From Uranus". We learned that he was given that name when he was stationed at Bergstrom AFB in Austin, Texas where he worked as a lifeguard at the base swimming pool.

Talking to Chuck was like talking to Data on Star Trek, The Next Generation.  He never had a short answer for anything.  An actual conversation I had with Chuck went something like this:

"Chuck, how old are you?"

"Age is very subjective.  By which calendar would you consider I phrase my answer?"

I don't know, Chuck.  How 'bout the one with twelve months that starts in January and ends in December.

"I prefer the Romulan calendar, but I can't pronounce the reference in time that would accurately represent the year of my birth."

OK, I'll bite.  Why not?

"Gene Roddenberry didn't publish the Romulan calendar back in time far enough to reference what we call 'modern' time.  And even if he had, the syllables couldn't be articulated by the human mouth."

Nevermind, Chuck.

Chuck was a genuinely bright guy, but most of his knowledge was about as useful as the Romulan calendar itself.  Actually, this is something to which I can totally relate, but I digress.   Chuck worked the graveyard shift in the radio room.  Putting Chuck on day shift with "regular" people would have been like trying to shove a tetrakaiheptagon into a square hole.  I worked the graveyard shift in the power plant.  As I write this, I'm pondering the possible reasons why we were both on the same shift and I'm not sure I appreciate the answer.

One night, I was in the radio room working on my CDCs (which were skill level advancement correspondence courses required for advancement in rank) after a Silk Purse mission while Chuck was performing some scheduled maintenance on one of the site's three radios. I remember asking him a question about amplitude modulation or something and his answer was something like:

"I don't voluntarily submit to tests of my intelligence." 

"What? No, man. I'm not quizzing you. I need the answer."

"This smells like a test and I'm not biting."

"Nevermind, Chuck."

The personality flip side of all this detail is that Chuck rode a motorcycle.  Upon arrival in the region, myself and the others assigned to Estaca were driven to the Estaca by Pepe, one of the Spanish nationals who worked on the site.  I flew into La Coruña from Madrid and was met by Pepe for the three hour drive to Estaca De Bares.  Chuck had been assigned to another Silk Purse site in England prior to coming to Estaca and opted to ride his Triumph motorcycle from the UK down to Spain.  For a guy with no apparent use for balls until marriage (which wasn't likely anytime soon) riding solo pretty much non stop across the back roads of Europe on an ancient motorcycle was an indication to me that Chuck had a big set of them.

Intelligent people are typically curious souls who have to possess the latest, coolest techie toys and Chuck was no exception.  He had mail ordered a device that was supposed to increase the gas mileage on his Triumph motorcycle by as much as 25%.  He would wake up during the day and watch intently for the mail truck like little Ralphie Parker anxiously awaiting the arrival of his Lil Orphan Annie decoder ring in A Christmas Story.  When the device arrived, it was some cheesy plastic reservoir with a magnet that was to be placed on the fuel hose between the fuel tank and carburetor.  It was clearly ripoff and everyone recognized it as soon as Chuck pulled it out of the box.  Everyone that is, except Chuck.  He was convinced that the principal of magnetically induced molecular alignment of fuel particles was a solid one.  Chuck was a bright guy, but this thing was as likely as to increase fuel mileage as electricity was likely to awaken Frankenstein's monster.

Chuck installed the magnetic miracle and took off on the bike towards Vicedo, the nearest town that had a gas station.  He returned with a full tank of gas and the odometer mileage copied down so he could accurately track and publicly marvel at the efficiency improvement.  That night while Chuck was working, I sneaked out and and topped off his gas tank with gas I pilfered from the site fuel storage tank.  The ride in from Vicedo was about 10km, so the gas gauge needle had barely moved.  Chuck lived on site in one of the closet sized dorm rooms and only took the bike out occasionally.  Nevertheless, whenever he ran into town and back, one of us would add a tiny bit of gas to his tank when he was at work or sleeping.  Chuck was so excited about the amazing improvement that he started tracking it on the chalk board in the dining hall as a means to throw it back in our faces.  This went on for weeks and he was convinced that he was getting close to 100 miles per gallon.  It wasn't until he started talking about spending his life savings to buy literally hundreds of these devices to distribute as a side business venture that we let him off the hook.  He seemed so let down when we told him that he actually didn't believe us at first.  Once we quit adding gas, it was clear that he had been taken.  I almost felt guilty about that one.

Life at Estaca was a series of foolish pranks and Chuck's disposition and sense of superiority seemed to make him the butt of many of them.  Chuck was an avid photographer and he had some pretty sophisticated camera gear.  He was always shooting something, but we never saw the results of his photographic endeavors.  One particularly crazy night in the Estaca lounge, someone noticed that Chuck had left his camera in the lock box.  The lock box was about a cubic foot sized wooden enclosure that was used as storage for spare master keys to the generator and radio room.  If an emergency occurred, certain trusted individuals (Chuck included) could use the keys to give emergency responders access to the secure areas.  Another trusted individual was a guy named Ron Linske.  Ron was a hardcore atheist and an ever harder core drunk.  He turned me on to so much great music such as Frank Zappa, 999, Jim Carroll Band, and countless others during our time together at Estaca.  I became a fan of The Who after hearing "Live At Leads" blasting from Linske's Klipsh Heresy speakers and Hafler amp.  Ron was among a group of us who were knee deep in the process of getting plowed one night in the lounge when he discovered the camera.  We all knew instantly that it belonged to Chuck, but we had no idea why he would have left it there.  Actually, we really didn't care.  We were ripped and feeling stupid and things went downhill quickly when someone suggested we use Chuck's camera to take some pictures.  It started out simple with a photo of a toilet.  Then someone took a hefty dump and took a pic of that.  By the time we stopped, the photos were about as vile as one can imagine - even in the modern Internet age.  Photos were taken of everyone's junk and everyone's ass, some of which were spread wide for a clear shot of the balloon knot.  We posed food with vacuum cleaner parts to simulate sex acts.  You'll have to use your imagination on that one, but trust me, it looked graphic.  By dawn, we knew Chuck would be getting off work and could be passing through the lounge on his way back to his room.  Linske shoved the camera back into the lock box and we all parted ways.  Some went to bed; others went to work.

Time passed.  In fact, so much time passed that we all completely forgot about the disgusting events of that night in the lounge.  Chuck never mentioned it to any of us and nobody heard from the site commander about it, which seemed to indicate that Chuck never complained to him about the abuse of his personal property.  The whole event just seemed to fade away.

About a month later, we learned what happened to the film.  We also learned why we never saw the result of Chuck's photographic efforts.  Estaca had a pretty well-equipped black and white dark room and the Air Force had set up a business relationship with a store in a town called Viviero which would process color photos and slides for us at a deep discount. Slides?  Remember, this is 1982.  Chuck never used the dark room nor the photo services in Viviero.  Instead, he would mail his spent film rolls home to his mom to process and assemble into an ever-growing photo album of his life in Europe.  Apparently, one of Chuck's brothers wrote to him chastising and asking what the hell was going on over there.  I would say that this is when the shit hit the fan, but honestly, we had probably tried that and took pictures of the result that night too.

I gave Chuck a lot of crap here, but I can't lose sight of the fact that he had the balls to solo ride 1,200 miles from Mildenhall, Suffolk in the UK, down the entirety of France, and across the Basque separatist (some say terrorist) regions of Spain over unmarked roads on a 1970's era Triumph motorcycle.  He rode night and day and made it to Estaca on his third day.  I have to give him props for that.  I heard that he had orders to Turkey and was planning to ride there from Estaca.

I left Estaca before Chuck did and I never heard from him again.  I'm told there's an Estaca Facebook page out there and that I'm listed as one of the "missing".  One of these days I'll have to get on Facebook and get among the Estaca "found".

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Estaca Stories

In 1983, I was in the Air Force and stationed at a tiny communications site in Spain.  When I say tiny, I'm not exaggerating.  There were only nineteen personnel assigned to Operating Location F, otherwise known as "Estaca" and none of them were even officers.  The highest rank assigned to the site was an Air Force Master Sergeant.  Estaca De Bares was a radio site that served as a ground entry point for the  Airborne Command Post in Europe.  Our mission there was known as "Silk Purse".  The Silk Purse concept was that when those pesky Russians finally started WWIII, select military commanders would board a jet stuffed with communications gear in Mildnenhall England and fly around the world issuing edicts to restore order to the planet.  Maybe I've grown cynical in my old age, but it all seemed really important back then and I was proud to be a part of it.


Estaca from Afar
Estaca only had two buildings.  We were considered Class B resources, which meant in terms of National security priority, we were second in Europe only to nukes.  Yet, there wasn't even a gate into the place or fence around it.  Well, now that I think of it, there was a fence.  It was a stone fence about three feet high the purpose of which was to keep out the herds of wayward sheep and wild horses that roamed the area.  One building housed the mission radios, the backup generators, and a small maintenance shop for the two six passenger trucks assigned to the site.  The other building had a few ninety square foot dorm rooms, a restaurant caliber kitchen, a dining hall/movie theater complete with a 16mm projector, a 3/4 VHS tape player, and a bar/lounge.  The lounge was the centerpiece for most of the insanity that took place at Estaca.  The tall building in the upper right of the above photo was constructed after I left the site in 1984.

Estaca was my first assignment in the Air Force following my technical training at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas.  Second to getting laid and graduating, the part every Airman looks forward to the most in tech school is getting orders.  Orders are printed details of an Airman's upcoming assignment and since they were my first after tech school, they were something for which I waited with baited breath.  Other students' orders were just stuffed into their mailbox in the admin area of the training dorm.  I got a note that said I had to report to a personnel office to pick up my orders.  When I signed for them, the location was blank.  There was no base listed.  All it said was "Spain".  SPAIN?  I was briefed on the details of the assignment by some two-stripe nerd with military issue birth control glasses who possessed a personality equivalent to that of a dried up sponge on Quaaludes.  After the briefing, I knew about as much as I did before went in.  All I knew is it was Spain and it was "remote".  I had vivid visions of jungle growth with Quonset huts scattered and camouflaged to hide them from the Russians.  I learned later that "remote" meant only that the tour was unaccompanied, meaning no family support or facilities were available.  I had no family yet, so that mattered not to me.  Jungle?  In Spain?  Really?

When I finally made it to Estaca, I was as green as they came.  I was a nineteen year old kid from Texas thrust into a backward region in the northwest corner of Spain known as Galicia.  The Estaca site literally bumped up against the Bay of Biscay, the tide from which crashed violently all night and day against the jagged rocks piled some two hundred feet below.  That crashing sound would prove to be soothing in the near future.  Many aspects of life at Estaca have had a profound impact on me as an adult.

Certain events in my life have caused me to forget a great deal, but I recently saw a movie called "The Way", most of which takes place in northern Spain.  The movie sparked a flood of memories of my year at Estaca and I still find myself laughing out loud over them.  I'm the kind of guy to whom laughter gives a muse for writing and my Estaca memories offer a great deal of fodder to satiate this muse.

Motivated by this new muse, the spontaneous laughter, and the new found memorable fodder, I plan to post anecdotal stories from my life at Estaca here.  I will search for more photos and do my best to paint the experience as rich as it was for me as a wide-eyed kid turned loose in Europe.  Many of these photos and other memories of my early adulthood were destroyed in a fire in 1986.  As such, I have reached out to others who were there for images and details.  There are so many events that have flooded into my head and I'm really looking forward to articulating them here.  Some of the upcoming topics will be (in no particular order):

Stangeroid From Uranus!

The Estaca Flick

Disco!

Suicide Siat 600

Breaking Bad

Molotov Cocktail Happy Hour

MSgt Clark of SPACE COMMAND!

The Commies are Coming!

Doc the Dealer

 The Alien on my Plate


All Occupants Deceased

Hep Cats

...and whatever else comes to mind.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ineptocracy

(in-ep-toc'-ra-cy)  - a system of government where the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable of producing, and where the members of society least likely to succeed or sustain themselves are rewarded with goods and services paid for by the confiscated wealth of a diminishing number of producers.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Contraception - Courtesy of Uncle Sam



Isn't it interesting how the liberal left that screams constantly about the importance of the separation of Church and State has wholeheartedly endorsed the Obama administration's mandate that the same State enforce it's beliefs upon the Church?

Just to be fair, I find it equally interesting how a church riddled with leadership that practically endorses pedophilia (through its own lack of action) can find something like contraception to be a sin.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Stagnant

Lately, I feel idle.  I loathe the feeling.  All my adult life I've craved a sense of purpose; a sense that I'm making some measurable degree of progress towards realizing my ultimate potential - whatever that may be.  It's said that a shark must keep moving to avoid drowning.  It's a peculiar parallel when I think about it.  A shark is the top of the food chain in its world and yet the very element that gives it life can end that life, simply due to of a lack of progression. More than anyone I know, I'm in charge of my life - at the top of my own food chain so to speak.  And yet like the shark, the seemingly simple act of resting can drag my spirit into a steep downward spiral.  If I'm not on the move, I get the feeling I'm drowning in a sea of mediocrity.

I've privately struggled with this for years and I've been searching my mind to put into words exactly what I feel.  The closest I've come to resolving these thoughts is the summation that deep down, I have this subconscious fear that the man I ultimately become will face the man I could have been.  I can't think of a more terrifying prospect.

Thursday, March 1, 2012