13 Years (Part III)

After my technical training at Sheppard was completed I was given leave to go home and see my family before reporting for my first assignment at Castle AFB, CA. I didn’t use the entire leave allocated me because my father and I never saw eye to eye on things. Us together in the same room was like trying to mix fire and gasoline…there was always an explosion. So I ended up reporting in to Castle a week early.
I took a Greyhound Bus from Oroville and it made a stop in front of the main gate to Castle. I showed my ID at the front gate and told the Security Cop that I was reporting in early and needed to find out where I should go. He took a copy of my orders then went in to call the 93rd Civil Engineering Squadron’s orderly room.

A few minutes later a truck drove up to pick me up and take me to the orderly room. Since I had shown up late in the day they had me fill out some forms and then the First Sergeant took me to the dormitory to show me to my new room.

The first thing I remember was that the room was a total disaster. I couldn’t believe this was an Air Force dormitory. After all, I was accustomed to daily inspections and this room could never had passed any kind of inspection. There were clothes all over the floor, on top of both beds, and the garbage can was overflowing with beer bottles.

The First Shirt, (slang for First Sgt), told me to hang out until my new roommate got home to find out which bed would be mine. So I sat in a chair waiting. About half an hour later some guy walked in, (funny I still don’t remember HIS name) and said, “Oh, you must be my new roommate.” He then started moving clothes off one bed. When he got to the bottom of the pile I saw a baggie of marijuana. He just shrugged his shoulders like ‘no big deal’ and threw it into his locker.

I would soon find out that almost everyone in that dorm either used, or sold weed. After they got used to seeing me hanging around I’d come home from work and find doorways open with stereos blasting and guys sitting there steaming apart bricks of marijuana. And this was within my first month of being there! I thought to myself “this is NOT the Air Force they told me about.” It didn’t bother me, it just came as quite the surprise because I remember when I went through my indoctrination prior to enlisting they made such a big deal about me admitting to having used drugs.

But anyway, I get ahead of myself.

Recollections from the Power Pro Shop

The next morning I got up and walked over to the Orderly Room, it wasn’t even a half block away from the dorm, so even for a newbie it was easy enough to remember. They called my shop and someone came over to get me. The guy who picked me up was a Staff Sergeant Chalmers. He didn’t say much on the short drive back to the Power Production Shop. But once we got there he said “I’m Roger, how you doing?” I said, “Pretty good Sgt Chalmers.” He stopped and said, “Nope, I’m not Sgt Chalmers, I’m ROGER.” Come to find out he was really laid back. I also found out he had glaucoma and would sit in his office with a corn cob pipe smoking weed for it.

Pretty soon everyone started showing up, (I had, and still have, a tendency to be early for everything.) I was introduced to them all. I remember some of them, and some of them I don’t. There was Darrel Maybry, Manfred Schoenhoffer, and a Senior Airman I only remember as Mary. The rest I can’t recall. I was driven around to pick up my tool box and check in with the various sections in the squadron my first few days, then given a trainer to begin my training as a Power Production Specialist.

I soon found out that damn near everything I had been taught in tech school was of little use in a power pro shop that mostly maintained emergency standby generators. Tech School had focused on power plants, and none of that applied to what I would be doing at Castle.
It seemed we had generators everywhere. Certain unit orderly rooms had standby generators, while others were for fuel pumping stations, and others at highly restricted areas such as the F-106 Alert Facility or the highly restricted Weapons Storage Area. Our job was to maintain them, keeping them in a state of readiness should there be a power outage on base. Some of these generators were considered low priority and we provided training for people in the units they were assigned to on how to start them should the power go out. Other units were higher priority and they had automatic start panels, a panel that would sense a power outage, start the generator, and transfer to emergency power when the generator came up to speed.

Once I got familiar with the MB-Teen’s and the EMU’s that comprised the majority of our generators it became pretty easy work. But there were certain events that stand out in my mind.

Before I get ahead of myself, after I’d been there for about 6 months almost all the people who had been assigned to the shop began to rotate out, with a new group coming in to fill their places. It was with this new batch of people that most of my work related memories will deal with. But there was ONE particular instance that was with the old crew that I will discuss first.

Along with the standby generators, the power pro shop was also responsible for maintaining the aircraft arresting barriers on the flightline. Every morning we’d have to call in to the tower where the flight controllers work, (Just think of Fred Dalton Thompson in Die Hard 2), and gain access to the runway so we could check the barriers. If you don’t know what a barrier is just think of any movie you have seen with an aircraft carrier and a plane landing on its deck. Barriers are those cables the planes hook on to stop them. However in our case they were only for in-flight emergencies when the plane could not land and stop on its own.

Anyway, one day we got a call on the radio regarding a plane coming in hot with a possible hydraulic failure. None of us had ever had any real experience with a barrier engagement. Sure we knew how to check the cable and doughnuts, (little rubber discs that kept the barrier cable an inch or so off the ground), and we knew how to tighten the cables to keep the proper tension, but there was a lot more involved and none of us had any experience with any of it. So when that call came in we began to worry.

You see, those cables were attached to big spools of tape. As a plane comes in and engages that cable the tape begins to play out. Both sides begin to pump hydraulic fluid into a braking system to slow the plane down. If either side pumps too much fluid that side will slow faster and drag the plane off the runway at an angle. We had no experience with synchronizing the barriers, so the fate of that plane was resting on pure luck that they would work properly.

When the plane came in it caught the cable and it played out perfectly, keeping the plane dead center on the runway. Sighs of relief came from all of us as we realized we had dodged a huge bullet. Cheers went up from everyone else. Later they would cut a segment out of that cable, have it mounted, and given to us with the date and time of Castle’s first barrier engagement. But we all realized that we could very well have lost a million dollar plane, and the pilot along with it. We were damn lucky!

Another experience that sticks in my mind happened when an underground cable blew, shutting off power to a good portion of the flight control equipment on the flightline. We often worked side by side with the Exterior Electric shop because they worked to get commercial power back up while we provided the emergency power until they did.

During this event my friend, and roommate, Rich Maechtle, an exterior guy, was down in a manhole making a splice on the blown transmission line. Suddenly it began to rain. Now making a splice is no easy thing on a high power line. First you have to crimp the two lines back together. Then you have to layer semi conducting tape, and insulating tape over and over to ensure that now straw current leaks out and shorts out the line again. There can be no air bubbles in the tape, or moisture, as that would cause current to escape and the line would short out again. So rain was not the friend of an exterior lineman in an underground environment. Luckily the splice worked and Rich didn’t get drowned in the process of completing it.

Then there was the time that one of our generators had a problem and we had to swap it out and bring it back to the shop for repair. This one was hooked to an auto transfer panel and I was sent, with a brand new trainee, to disconnect it and bring it back for the needed repairs. I honestly can’t remember if I simply forgot my training, or if I was trying to show off in front of the new girl in the shop, but I disconnected the 3 phases from the generator prior to disconnecting the neutral. That’s a big NO NO. You see the purpose of a neutral is for the return flow of currents in a power generating system, and when generators are connected to an auto transfer panel they share the neutral with the commercial power. So when I separated those two conductors 440 volts went through me and knocked me back about 10 ft. It’s funny that the only thing I remember is this poor girl sitting there crying that she was gonna die doing this job. But I survived and learned a very valuable lesson…keep my mind on the job at hand.

After I got settled in at Castle I got a bit of a rebellious streak in me. I always kept my hair just a tad bit longer than Air Force regulations and I began to get kind of cocky. If you have never been in the Air Force you may not realize that each unit is appropriated a certain amount of funds to operate with for the fiscal year. Well once it was towards the end of the fiscal year and we were out of funds to buy parts. One of our generators needed a starter. It was the only generator of its kind on the base so we couldn’t simply swap it out with a spare from another unit…we would have to wait until the funds for next year were released and we could buy a new one.

Well our Electrical Superintendent, a Master Sergeant Walters, was always on our ass about getting that generator fixed. He wouldn’t listen to reason, all he would say is that the base commander wanted to know why it was taking so long to get that unit back into service.

Well this was a brand new base commander and recently they had spent untold thousands of dollars upgrading his new home; including a very expensive chandelier in his living room. Finally I blurted out, “If the base commander wants that generator fixed so much he can sell that damn chandelier so we can buy the part!” From that moment forward I was on MSgt Walters shit list. I never got a good performance report because of that one comment, MSgt Walters always downgraded whatever my NCOIC gave me. But really I didn’t give a shit. I just couldn’t tolerate stupid people, still can’t really.

Now before I go any further I have to tell you a bit about these guys I worked with. As I had mentioned there was Manfred Schoenhoffer. He was a true blue German. In fact one of his relatives served in the SS during World War II. Manfred used to hate it when we called him a Nazi.
Then there was Greg Carlson. He came from the hills somewhere North of Oroville where I had grown up. Greg was about as wild and redneck as they came.

Then there was Larry Coffman and Mike Keppler. They both arrived at the same time, and Larry eventually became my roommate in the dorm for awhile. They both remembered seeing me at Tech School…I was leaving on the day they showed up.

And then there was Sharon Olsen. She was the poor girl that thought she was gonna die after I damn near got electrocuted disconnecting that generator.

Finally there was our boss, Doyle Palmer. He replaced Roger Chalmers when Roger got out on a medical discharge due to his glaucoma.
You see I have to tell you about these guys because work was not always just work…there was a lot of play that went on as well.

Manfred wanted to be a taxidermist, so he’d set up traps along the base perimeter road and catch quail and squirrels to stuff. Gregg was a hunter and would trap coyote and squirrel. Larry and I were like two peas in a pod; he chewed Skoal, I chewed Copenhagen, and we made a good team, for awhile anyways, (but more on that later). So we would have fun at work, as long as the generators got maintained Doyle was pretty good about letting us do whatever we wanted.

Castle AFB was a busy place. It was home to B-52’s, KC-135’s and of course the F-106 Delta Darts at the alert facility. So there were always planes coming and going on the flightline. Me and Larry didn’t mind, we’d sit there on one of the taxiways chewing tobacco awaiting clearance to go check the barriers in the morning while KC-135’s thundered down the runway. If you have never been up close and personal with a KC-135 when it takes off, it’s something you can’t imagine. Those things are flying gas stations for other planes and when fully loaded with fuel are awful damn heavy. So they inject water into the engines to provide more thrust for takeoff. Sitting there in a panel truck only a few hundred feet away was quite the experience. The whole truck would shake back and forth like there was an earthquake.

Anyways, one morning we got clearance to go check the barriers so we began down the runway. Suddenly the tower came on telling us to exit the runway. I headed off into the grass between the runway and taxiways. I was going too fast, I admit it, but I turned too suddenly and went into a skid. At first I kinda thought it was fun as I turned the wheel again to try and correct. But then the truck began to tilt sideways. A tire had blown and the rim had dug down into the mud. Suddenly we were sitting on our side and I was in deep shit.

There was a big investigation and they took my license until it was resolved. They put Larry and I in different rooms trying to get us to squeal on each other. I was at fault since I was the driver, but it could have happened to anyone. Larry stuck to the facts and eventually I had to go before a full bird colonel, (not the first time that would happen either), and as I stood at attention he read his decision. He concluded I was not at fault and that no disciplinary action should be taken. Dodged another bullet!

The only thing that sucked about working at Castle were the exercises. Since Castle was a Strategic Air Command Base they were very fond of playing war games. Most of the time they weren’t that bad, and broke up the routine of simply running generators. However, one time I got screwed over big time because of an exercise.

I had just gotten tickets to go see the Eagles in Oakland CA on their Long Run Tour. I had 4th row center stage seats so I was psyched. It was noon on the day of the concert and as I was going to lunch they held a recall, SAC was having another damn exercise! I couldn’t give away my ticket as it was worth about as much as a roll of toilet paper. Pissed me off royally and I was in a foul mood during the entire exercise.

But then there was a couple exercises that turned out to be great. CE, (Civil Engineering) had a sub section, if you will, called Prime BEEF. It’s an acronym for something but it was basically a mobile unit that could get sent off to do repairs on other bases. You see CE wasn’t just power pro and exterior electricians. We had carpenters, plumbers, heating and air conditioning guys; basically we maintained the entire base.
So one time they called us up on a recall and we all showed up with our duffel bags expecting to sit around and then have it terminated. Well this time we were told we were taking a plane up to Travis AFB for a week in the field. We were to live in tents and play war. Well this was a surprise, especially for one interior electrician who thought this was another bullshit recall and had only packed dirty T-shirts into his duffel bag. What a shock he got when he had to wear the same clothes for a week after playing in the dirt and mud up at Travis.

And then there was the time we were called up on, what we thought would be another bullshit exercise, only to be told we were going to Hickam AFB Hawaii. It seemed they had a building that needed renovation and we were chosen to go do it. We were going to Hawaii? It was cake; we’d work 8 hours tearing down drywall and ripping out old circuits in the walls, then hit the beach and the bars at night. Who could complain about that? The only thing that sucked was the long flight over and the long flight back. Cargo seating in a KC-135 is definitely not how you want to fly halfway across the Pacific.

So work in the 93rd Civil Engineering Squadron was not always boring. Plus since we shared a shop with the Exterior Electric guys, I became good friends with many of them. They taught me to play their favorite pastime…HORSESHOES. And we’d always get together at one of the civilians houses for weekend barbecues. So most of the time it was fun.

…to be continued…

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