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".