Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My summer of 72

I got an e-mail from someone through my Website after reading my post about my almost court martial, wanting to know if I was one of a dozen or so troops who spent the summer of 1972 (about Memorial Day to Labor Day) working outside of Eielson Air Force Base (AFB), Alaska. I had almost forgotten that time.

I can't remember the circumstances behind the reason the group of a dozen or so of us lower grade enlisted troops were sent from McClellan AFB, but it was the closest unit and base in our organization and being the central global maintenance and engineering unit for the organization. For me, they just wanted me away for a while after winning the initial round of hearings cancelling the rest of the court martial.

Anyway, we flew to Anchorage on commercial airline, transferred to a military cargo plane to fiy to Eielson AFB. It was late May and I remember the sun not setting until after 2 am and rising about 4 am. I didn't sleep well the whole time for the amount of daylight. We had two major tasks.

The first was to remove all the buried pipe associated with the sonic or weather system used to detect, er. monitor nuclear detonations. But first a diversion.

All nuclear explosions have common characteristics, which are part of the actual explosion or material. We had a system for each of the different types of detonations (underground, underwater, surface or atmospheric) and specific characteristic(s). These were housed in ground-based locations, and included seismic, magnetic, electrical, barometric, sonic, and light systems with airborne and ship-based systems for direct observation and sampling.

The barometric system used an array of specific size and spaced pipes and sensors to detect the pressure wave generated by a detonation. The sensor array and equipment are used to capture the pattern of atmospheric pressures changes and any anomalies, such as a sudden pressure wave by a nuclear detonation. This system was being phased out, and under the agreement with any landowners, we were obligated to remove any signs of our equipment.

All I remember is much of the old pipes and sensors were buried - meaning long since not working as they have to be exposed to the atmosphere to work, and they were on the University of Alaska campus. Try removing hundreds of feet of pipe with sensor heads about 10 feet, some of which was buried a few inches to a foot or more wasn't fun. And one pipe section actually went under a tree. It was left there broken and the closest joints.

The other work I remember was installing extra cable for the seismic arrary miles from the station on the base. The organization had what they called a "deep hole" seismic sensor, down just over a mile. Nuclear detonations send seismic waves similar to an earthquake which reverberate around the world. Most of the seismic, B system, sites had shallow sensors, about a thousand feet or less, but Eielson had the deepest hole for testing and monitoring.

Every system had its sensors far from any human activity and far from the station to ensure a better signal and reduce noise and inteference. And every system ran a duplicate sets of cables, one set not used, but then avaiable to simply switch connections at junction points during cable breakage or failure, common in some areas from weather or people, or during bad weather or immediate situations.

The problems with cable failure was common as it was normal to go through a complete set of spare cables in 1-3 years. In Greenland and Alaska the problems was simply the cold weather would snap cables or break connectors. In some areas, like Thailand, Iran, etc., sections of cables, which were in quarter mile length between connectors, were stolen by local theives.

In Alaska we were running them a new direction to the station, across the backcountry around the base and along roads to and on the base. In some cases the poles were only just installed a week or so before and hadn't fully settled into the ground to the permafrost. They swayed with leaned against and moved or tilted when cabbles were hung. Not a fun job climbing the poles to secure the cables, something I refused to do.

But it was the backcountry that was the best experience. It was my first trip there. We used a Nodwell, painted bright yellow with a stakeside bed for the cable spools and extra equipment for connectors, etc. This, also, was my first experience with these vehicles. And they are cool.

Our job for the first stretch was to unspool the cable and lay it on the ground. We did this through the forest, just laying it in cable bundles on the forest floor. And we did this across open areas, which is where I learned about fen, a type of subarctic bog. It's different in its structure, composition, soil, plants, water source, etc. from bogs, muskeg and other types.

It's the water source that distinguishes it. It's fed by groundwater where the land is completely water logged with a mass of plants living in an anaerobic environment. Underlying it could be peat or other material and more water, but the permafrost is significantly deeper than other areas around it.

The last distinguishing feature is that it supports weight, almost any weight, including the Nodwell, weighing in with all of our gear and equipment at over 12 tons. I know this because my job was to follow it and unwind the cable(s). And walking behind it across a fen is literally awesome.

It's like walking across a sponge filled shallow lake. You almost float on your feet. Each step sinks about an inch, feels bouncy beneath you, and fills quickly when you move your foot, like you weren't even there. You simply trusted you won't sink and you don't. And the Nodwell only sank a little more than your foot. They just drove it straight across the fen.

I could write more stories about the work and with the Nodwell, like taking it vertical over a railroad bed (it's rear drive literally pushes the front, and as long you can have traction, it willl climb, and almost straight up), or almost losing it when it decided to slide into a lake (we backed out and took a different route around the lake), or after crossing a bridge we saw the sign that read, "10 ton limit", or getting a lesson in ways to high center a 12 ton tracked vehicle (meaning you are really stuck).

It is the fen that I remember the most, those small patches of nature that surprise the senses. I went back to Alaska in the early 1990's, to Anchorage for a week. This wasn't an enjoyable trip and Anchorage in the spring, just after snowmelt, isn't pretty. And I didn't get to travel beyond work and the hotel, and then travel home.

But I will remember the fen, and of course the Nodwell.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The choices we make

I'm writing this on a Saturday where I'm more or less puttering around the place. But it's also a beautiful day here in the Puget Sound, a rare early spring day with sunshine. And even with cirro-cumulus clouds, thin as they are, the sun shines through. And despite the cool temperatures, freezing this morning and barely near normal with the sun's warmth, it's good enough to open the windows wide and clear the stale air inside. In short, a great day to be somewhere, but home.

But home is where I am, today. I often take days off from life, especially now in retirement - I won't say officially that I also took an occasional mental health day from work for days I just didn't feel like being there. Now it's often a day a week, one-seventh of my life, just to be home and not go anywhere, to just be here in comfortable surroundings and do what the moment thinks, such as mentally wandering in a post on this blog.

And I get to not think, but just open the mind to whatever occurs.

And in this day when the temperature barely sneaks into the low 50's, mild compared to the rest of the northern tier of this country this day, where snow falls on everything and freezing temperatures chill the day and people. And melting snow the river valleys south floods land and scurries people from their homes, I like to feel cold. As I get older, I get more sensitive to the cold, but I seem to feel the need to feel cold to some degree.

When I lived in Phoenix, Arizona, I wanted so to feel cold I sometimes drove to the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, to just stand on the edge of time and feel cold. Down to my bones, down into my bones where cold had replaced everything part of my body's warmth. And then I would drive home. I still do that occasionally, stand in the cold day to just feel cold until my body is cold. And then I go inside.

I am always struck with this need. I suffer from Raynauds syndrome. I've always had cold hands, even in warm weather. People always said the old saying, "Cold hand, warm heart." Well, it's partly true because it's the result of this syndrome. And it was triggered during some field work at Big Creek near Grisdale. I never recovered and moved into supervisory and later technical management within a year.

And now anything cold, even taking something out of the refrigerator and especially the freezer gives me problems, where my hands begin to get so cold the fingers begin to stiffen. Within a few minutes, if I held it, I wouldn't be able to have much movement. In the winter the skin on my fingers becomes so tight it splits open under and along the nail, at the knuckles and especially at the tips of the fingers.

And in the last few years it's snuck into my toes. I love walking barefoot, even in the winter around the house or even outdoors for quick chores like the taking out the trash. But now, while I still walk barefoot, the toes get cold and start turning white, and turn bright red when blood flow returns. The issues of getting old, nothing new but it's still new to me.

And I get to putter in the kitchen. I love a nice eye roast. It's one of the few meats I can eat anymore as a result of an overly sensitive digestive system. I describe it as it's not what I can't eat anymore but what I can, all of which can be written on one 4x6 postit note. Makes shopping easy, one would think?

But nay. I love food and I love wandering in a good grocery store, the smell and sight of all the foods. It makes me feel alive and there in the moment. And the thought it all, through the tremendous global ecomonic system of today, exists for me then and there. If only we in America can learn to appreciate what this means when most of the world doesn't even know and many can't grasp the scene.

Because poverty rules the world. Poverty of our own making. Poverty we can overcome if it weren't for politics and greed. Simple human traits. We can't overcome those with our goodness. I haven't figured out why, and likely never will, but accept the opportunity I have now to experience a grocery store. And don't get me started on drug stores. Or shopping centers. The state of the world we have and live in. It should be better, and we're both the problem and the solution.

And so my mind can wander around the mischievous thoughts that happen. Even wonder who left their newspaper. And did they leave any thoughts with it or take them with them.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Court Martial

Well, not quite, because I was saved, but damn near. For a court martial to happen there is a long, involved procedure, from the investigation to the actual hearing and judgement. And before it all happens someone has to read you your rights, usually your commanding officer. And not your immediate one, but usually the senior commander of the organizational unit.

In my case, being in the 1155th Technical Operations Group at McClellan Air Force Base, Sacramento California. It was depot maintenance and repair facility for the worldwide operations of the 1035th Technical Operations Command. At the time we were the only Command outside the Strategic Air Command groups with a high priority and classification in the Air Force.

What made us so important? We monitored the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (test ban) Treaty. In the early 1960's the US and then Soviet Union (unofficially) agreed to each having systems capable of monitoring any nuclear explosion (test) anywhere in the world. We each had almost parallel systems of types and locations. It's now done by satellites, but it was then all done with ground systems with airborne and naval systems for live monitoring.

The whole thing required top secret clearances from the lowest level airman to the highest general. I had one as well as many other young enlistees. I served my four years and left, but not without some drama.

When I was on a temporary duty assignment at our headquarters southwest of Washington D.C., I made an off-hand comment to a senior sargent - I was a first year sargent - and he took offense. When I got back to my normal work station two weeks later after being in Germany, I was greeted with a notice by my supervisor that the sargent had filed a complaint demanding I be investigated and court martialed.

Well, the first thing that happens is someone reads you your rights. In my case our group commander, a two-star general stood about a foot from me, looked at me, and read me my legal rights. And then explained the proceedure for a court martial. After a pause, and before excusing me (you just can't leave a room, you have to be ordered or instructed to leave), he wished me good luck.

After I left the room, I talked with the first sargent, a unit's highest ranking non-commissioned officer (NCO) who handles all affairs with NCO's, who also wished me luck. I had a good company first sargent and commander, they knew the situation and the people, and both enjoyed and liked the young NCO's. But they had to follow the rules and intent of Headquarters (where that sargent was stationed and I made the comment), but they didn't have to mean it.

Anyway, after an investigation, there is a hearing. The unit I worked in was technical engineering where my immediate supervisor, a career Captain was an asshole. He didn't like young NCO's. but the office commander was a Lt. Colonel who had served two tours in Vietnam. After reading the charges and the initial investigator's report, he was simply astounded.

The key here is that you, the charged, have a choice. You can admit guilt and accept an adminstrative reprimand or face a general court martial, investigation, hearing and all, and the odds aren't on your side. In almost every case, some charges are found to sustain disciplinary action with the either a demotion or discharge. In short, if you force the issue to the court martial, they will find you guilty.

I was faced with the choice of the lessor or, as they say, bet the farm. I talked with friends, one of whom had accepted an administrative reprimand and regretted it. Everyone, except the Captain, recommended I make them prove their case. I told my commanding officer of my decision. He called me into his office before the hearing. We had an interesting conversation, and all he asked for was honesty and after heariing my side of the story, he told me he would represent me at the hearing.

It was interesting having a senior commanding officer as your representative. He made it clear to the hearing officials the charges weren't worth more than an apology, and that wasn't from me either, but the board. He said he had found a lot worse offenses in Vietnam, almost all of whom were excused as incidental, and not investigated, let alone requiring disciplinary action. And he told the board he was willing to defend me throughout the whole proceedure.

This was my saving grace. Having a respected Lt. Colonel on your side against the establishment changed the dynamics. They couldn't just accept the complaintant's story, since it was just between the two of us, as fact. And they had to face if the charges were really that serious. It was 1972. I was young with an excellent record, no bad or black marks. And while all my supervisors said I did have an "attitude problem" they all said my work was outstanding.

At the time I worked with a variety of engineers. My job was being a member of a team building and testing new equipment, having spent 2+ years repairing the equipment. I had to turn engineering plans into prototype models, test them, and then develop and write instructions and manuals for the installation and maintenance of the new equipment. I also went on world tours installing the new equipment, like headquarters where I made the comment.

In the end, the board dismissed the charges. They didn't have the interest to fight the Lt. Colonel. But they also didn't want me to get away without some disciplinary action, and the most they could impose was removal from consideration for promotion in the next cycle. That's the key, if you lose, you can lose everything, but if you, you win everything and keep them from doing anything against you.

So, that was it. All that was left was the notice about my promotion, or being removed from consideration. I was called into a room with three senior NCO's. They explained the decision and handed me a document to sign accepting it. I read it and asked if it was for only the next cycle. "Yes.", they said. "And I'd be eligible for the one after that?", I asked. "Yes.", they said. I quickly signed the document.

They were kinda' stunned. I smiled and started to leave. They stopped me, and said, "You signed it very quickly. You're not worried about losing eligibility for promotion?" I replied, "No, because I didn't qualify. I will make the cycle after that and be promoted." You could almost feel the sudden feeling of stupidity. I asked, "You didn't with check the promotion board?" "No.", they said. "Well, I did.", I replied.

So I left. And the rest of the story?

Well, I did make the promotion cycle after that and was offered my fourth stripe if I re-enlisted. I didn't, and as luck would have it, I took my discharge. The Air Force even forgave me the 2 year inactive duty required with enlistments, and gave me my full discharge. And so on January 2, 1973, we parted company. I walked out of McClellan AFB and never looked back.

And even 36 years later, there hasn't been anything I've done that's been that tough. And I tell people after a two-star general reads you your rights, everthing else isn't all that bad.