Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Estaca Stories, cont. - MSgt Clark of SPACE COMMAND!

One of the first things that struck me when I arrived at Estaca (other than the remote location and seemingly backward-in-time locale) was the laid back atmosphere and the chilled disposition of the staff.  In the interest of maintaining a low profile, military uniforms were not required and regulations governing grooming were loosely followed if they were followed at all.  On my first night there, I was greeted by a guy who introduced himself as Ken Bell.  The next day, Ken was the first person I ran into after finally catching up on some much needed sleep.  “Good morning, Scott.  Grab some breakfast and meet me in the reefer shop and I’ll give you the ten cent tour.”

Remember, I was a kid who had essentially been locked up in a disciplinary world for the last six months.  In boot camp, recruits are literally told when to eat, sleep, and shit.  In the tech school that follows, freedoms most of us take for granted like alcohol, television, telephones (phone booths, that is…this is pre-cellular), civilian clothes, and walking around unsupervised were extended to us in phases.  The idea was to not turn young testosterone-filled men completely loose after six weeks of absolute restriction.  It was dynamite on paper, but boys would be boys.  For a reasonably grounded guy like me, watching others spiral out of control, drink till they vomit all over themselves and anyone in their general vicinity, and literally fight over women towards whom they would have never given a second look a few months prior was entertainment enough until I was free of the prescribed restrictions.

I was catapulted from that world to Estaca where the regulations governing Air Force discipline appeared to be mere suggestions.  They even had a reefer shop!  My recruiter never told me about this!  Turns out, reefer was the term for refrigeration.  Although I had never done drugs of any kind, I remember feeling somewhat disappointed.  I wandered over to the reefer shop and saw Ken drinking coffee and reading Stars And Stripes – the US military’s equivalent of Pravda.  During the “tour” Ken dropped his office to grab some papers for me to sign.  Ever the observant one, I found myself reading the few certificates on the office wall.  He wasn’t just Ken; he was Master Sergeant Ken Bell.  To a no-stripe green horn Airman like me, a Master Sergeant was big doo doo and up to this point, I didn’t even know they had a first name.  I had only been married a month and my father in-law was an Air Force MSgt.  I didn’t dare call him by his first name.  I was in awe of him and feared and respected him equally.  He would turn out to be the finest father in-law that any son in-law could ever have.  But I digress. 

MSgt Bell was cool.  He was a grounded, laid back guy who remembered where he came from and realized that at that point in my life, I was there too.  Bell was the NCOIC (Non Commissioned Officer In charge) of OL-E (Operating Location E).  Remote sites in Spain were referred to as Operating Locations and there were actually two of them at Estaca.  Staff assigned to OL-F such as myself served the communications aspect of the Estaca mission.  OL-E staff were the support element and were primarily facility and infrastructure focused.

Einstein’s theory of relativity states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Where there is a Yin, there is a Yang.  Where there is a cool and compassionate Ken Bell, there is another Ken.  And this one was a complete douche nozzle named Ken Clark.  Clark, also a MSgt, was the NCOIC of OL-F.  Clark wore a uniform 24/7. Clark’s military haircut was perfect. He could scrape the pock marks on his face from the reflection on his shined boots.  Ken Clark was a dick.  He was the kind of guy that guys like me avoided whenever possible.  Bell led me into Clark’s office and introduced me whereupon Clark made it clear that he preferred to be called Master Sergeant Clark.  His office walls were adorned with every certificate and every award he had received throughout his Air Force career.  The air Force issues awards and ribbons for properly tying your shoes, so you can imagine what Clark’s “I Love Me” wall looked like.  The only images that weren’t of him were those of an American flag and one of Ronald Reagan.  He also had a bota bag hanging on his wall that he said he was seasoning for future use.   To season a genuine bota bag, wine is stored in it for weeks until the lining softens and the bag is functional.  What really caught my eye was the name plate facing me on the forward edge of his desk that read “MSgt Ken Clark, COMMANDER”.  I was pretty sure the title of Commander was reserved for commissioned officers, but I wasn’t going to question Clark on the matter.  Bell had welcomed me with a pep talk and compassionate words of wisdom for a wide-eyed kid thrust into the middle of nowhere on the other side of the planet from his home.  Clark conducted an orientation and reviewed the numerous admonitions to which I was subject if I failed to obey various Air Force regulations.  Afterwards, he had me sign a typed statement acknowledging the discussion (albeit one way) that had just taken place.  Clark handed me a copy which he had not only signed, but had affixed underneath his signature with a rubber stamp that read “COMMANDER”.  Bell walked me out with his hand on my shoulder in a “there there” fashion without speaking a word.

I was no genius and I was far from lazy, but I realized quickly that the way to avoid Ken Clark and the few rules that were actually enforced at Estaca was to work the night shift.  It seemed there were few Silk Purse missions at night.  I suppose the Air Force figured the Russians wouldn’t attack during the dark.  Nevertheless, there was practically no tension on mid shift.  It afforded the perfect opportunity for a young man to play loud music, goof off, and slowly become indoctrinated by the propaganda that filled the pages of Stars And Stripes.

After a few weeks, I operated at Estaca as if I had been there all my life.  The job was easy and there was little bullshit to deal with because, a: we were so remote, and b: everyone who cared was asleep.  I even learned how to avoid Clark.  He was the modern personification of M*A*S*H’s Major Burns.  They guy was so devoid of a life that he actually sought out things to bust people over.  While I took every opportunity to avoid Clark, another Estaca character named Ron Linske took every opportunity to get in Clark’s face.

Linske was trouble.  He had a terrible attitude.  Like me, he had come to Estaca as his first assignment from tech school, but he had arrived years ago.  He just kept extending his tour there and the Air Force kept allowing it.  I suppose someone in Personnel wisely figured why force some onto a remote tour when there are volunteers.  Ron was one of a few guys at Estaca who would stay as long as the Air Force would allow them.  He spoke fluent Spanish and had a local girlfriend.  Ron’s respect for Clark and his concern for Clark’s capacity to mess with his career were so minute that they had to be measured in micro give-a-shits.  The man just didn’t seem to care.  I remember being somewhat envious of him for it.  Linske’s room was adjacent to Clark’s office and Clark had to walk by Linske’s room via an outside breezeway to get to the rest of the site. 
One of Linske’s favorite past times was to blast the chorus from Frank Zappa’s “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” from his Klipsh speakers whenever he saw Clark coming.  It pretty much served as a warning to the rest of us that Clark was on the prowl when we would hear “You’re an asshole!  You’re an asshole!, Yes Yes! You’re an asshole!  You’re an asshole! That’s right!” echoing off the building across from Linske’s room.  Note:  To get the full effect, one really must hear the tune.  You can do so HERE.  Linske once sneaked in to Clark’s office and replaced his COMMANDER stamp with one he had mail ordered that read “COMANNDER”.  Clark apparently never noticed it because he used it on the Letter of Reprimand he issued to me months later.  Linske claimed to have pee’d in Clark’s bota bag too.  I wish I had thought of that.

My immediate supervisor at Estaca was TSgt Taylor.  “T”, as he was called, was a huge black guy with a booming voice.  He was also one of the kindest people I’ve met.   He had his wife and three young daughters in country with him.  They were a great family.  T hated Clark and made no bones about it in public or private.  There were three generators in the power plant, two of which were solid and reliable.  The other was a piece of crap that basically was cannibalized for parts to maintain the other two.  One of my pastimes while on site was making signs.  This was pre-PC, or BPC and we had no tools.  I would lay out masking tape on pre-cut and stained wood, carefully draw out my lettering, and then painstakingly hand cut the stencils with a razor knife. When the blood returned to my fingers, I would spray the colored letters for the signs. These projects included such exciting items as “LATRINE” and Dark Room”.  The power plant at Estaca was so clean you could literally see the reflection of your face on the floor while standing upright.  T decided he wanted the generators painted and asked me to stencil some lettering for them.  While I was working on them, he had one of his famous altercations with Clark during which he proclaimed “I’m gonna have Troop (his nickname for me) name the most fucked up generator I got after you!”  When I was finished, the generators were named “Lucille” after BB King’s guitar, “Betty Ann” after T’s mother, and "Ken Clark".  I suppose the joke was on us because Clark loved it and was proud of the fact that he had been immortalized in the power plant.  He even took pictures of himself posing in front of his mechanical namesake.

Believe it or not, I maintained a relatively low profile at Estaca despite my artistic sign handiwork and I was clever enough to avoid the brunt of Clark’s meddling.  In my Alien in my Plate entry, I mentioned that although Estaca was a remote tour, unaccompanied by family members (at the Government expense), several people on site flew their wives over and lived in the nearby villages.  I was newly married and as such, was being paid a separation stipend and a housing allowance.  The housing allowance was to offset the residence expenses of the families back in the States.  I have no idea how the separation stipend was justified, but I didn’t care.  It was an extra $50 per month and in remote Spain, that went a long way.  Also as previously mentioned, I flew my wife over to stay with me for as long as she wanted or could stand it.  We rented a fourth floor apartment in the nearby town of Vicedo.  She stayed around three months, which was not as long as some, but longer than most.  I was sad when she left, but I understood the hardships she felt and the reasons she wanted to go home.  I took leave in December and went home for a month. 

My pay was directly deposited on the 15th and on the last day of each month and a Leave and Earnings Statement (LES) was mailed to my residence or record, which was my in-laws house where my wife was staying during my Estaca tour.  For some reason, my December 15th LES indicated that my paycheck was $0.00, which I thought odd.  When my bank confirmed it, I was nauseated.  I reached out to the nearest Air Force base, which was Carswell AFB in Fort Worth to try to find out what happened.  Remember, this was the analog Air Force without the luxury of databases and instant access to records.  I was told that someone in finance would have to research it with Finance back in Spain and get back to me.  The distance and time zone difference made it clear to me that I would not get a timely answer.  The December 31st LES arrived in the mail with a matching set of goose eggs.  Yep; another $0.00 paycheck.  I was furious.  My wife was furious.  My in-laws probably thought I had gotten into some trouble and was being fined for it.  I called Carswell again and again, received no answer.  As young newlyweds, we had few bills and no debt and my in-laws were happy to help, but it was humiliating nonetheless.

In what seemed like an instant, my month at home was up and I was back on site in Estaca.  I only had a few months to go there and then I would be stationed back in Austin, Texas.  On my way back to Estaca, I had a day or two to kill at Torrejon Air Base in Madrid for medical appointments, during which I took the opportunity to sit and wait at the finance office to try to figure out if I was ever going to get paid again.  Turns out, the answer was simple.  MSgt Clark took it upon himself to have my housing allowance stopped because my wife was living with me in Spain.  The regulation stated that a visit exceeding ninety days was no longer a visit.  Rules are rules, but rules in places like Estaca are often looked at with wide tolerances.  But that wasn’t even the point.  Clark got the dates wrong because she wasn’t there for ninety days.  Other wives were there longer, but she was not one of them.  As if that level of meddling wasn’t enough, Clark also had the housing allowance I had been paid recovered by the Air Force, which explained the zero dollar paychecks.  This, like the Letter of Reprimand Clark issued to me for the exact same event for which I was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal, was the sort of Machiavellian bureaucratic bullshit that ultimately caused me to get out of the Air Force after my second enlistment.  I straightened out the residence record and was able to provide proof of dates.  Even the finance specialist was shocked at Clark’s action.

I returned to Estaca refreshed, a little wiser, and ready to knock out my last few months and put Clark out of my mind forever.  I remember feeling  the knot in my gut as I crested the hill that overlooked the site when I returned from vacation.  We blazed down the gravel road and suddenly skidded to a stop amazed at what we saw before us.  There was a huge chain with enormously heavy links strung across the narrow drive that led into the site.  The chain was functionally useless because anyone could just walk around it and onto the site.  Hell, they could just as easily drive around it.  The ineffectiveness of the chain wasn’t the point.  The chain was the point.  It was Clark’s way of being a dick to the locals.  The dirt road that extended past the entrance to the site led to a locally sentimental scenic point over the Bay of Biscay.  In 1943, Spanish locals watched from the land adjacent to the site while a German blockade runner called the Alsterufer was sunk by a RAF Liberator bomber as she was being escorted by a fleet of torpedo boats and destroyers.  Dozens of cars loaded with tourists visited this point on a daily basis and occasionally, they would wander into the site.  Over the years, the personnel assigned to Estaca had gone out of their way to ingratiate themselves with the local Galego population.   These were a close knit, private people with a mixture of Basque thrown in.  They didn’t typically take to strangers and the presence of a US military base would be about as welcome as a fart in a space suit.  Clark’s chain definitely sent the wrong message.  We dropped the chain whenever possible.  Clark would conscript help and re-string it.  We tried hiding the chain.  Clark would find it.  He finally instituted a policy that dictated the chain had to be up and anyone seeing it down and not taking action to replace it would be held responsible.

A few months prior to my payroll fisting by Clark, we had a Hepatitis scare on the site and all of us - even the spouses and Spanish local employees - had to have blood drawn.  One of the Estaca staff who had returned to the States came down with Hepatitis B almost immediately after he got home.  Someone at the Air Force hospital that treated him figured the source of the infection had to be Estaca and the snowball started to roll.  The site medic drew blood from all of us and thankfully, no one tested positive. It turns out the outbreak started at Torrejon Air Base in Madrid and had nothing to do with Estaca.  We all pretty much forgot about it.  A couple of months later, Clark had attended some training boondoggle back in the States for the newly formed Air Force Space Command to which he had recently learned he would be assigned after completing his Estaca tour.  He was so proud of the assignment he actually removed photos of himself and emblazoned his office wall with a huge Space Command shield.  We all had plenty of laughs at the idea of a cheesy old school TV serial intro with a booming Don Pardo like voice proclaiming “The Adventures of Sgt Clark of SPACE COMMAND!” with triumphant music in the background.

After the “training” Clark took leave at home while he was in the country.  He basically used the training as a ticket home paid for by Uncle Sam.  We received word that while he was home that he had come down with a nearly fatal case of Hepatitis.  Try as we might have, none of us could bring ourselves to feel sorry for the bastard.  As if his near death experience wasn’t good enough news, we also learned that Clark was so near the end of his Estaca tour that the Air Force would not send him back to the site to pack his things.  There was no shortage of volunteers to do it for him.  Our site carpenter assembled a three cubic foot wooden crate in which all of Clark’s possessions were hastily dumped for shipment to his next duty assignment.  Among those possessions was the chain which had been cut into a dozen pieces and tossed among his other crap.

Like everyone else at Estaca, I never heard from Clark again.  There was no Facebook back then. No Linked-In, no Google, no Internet!  I suspect that even if there had been, Clark wouldn't be on my friends list.