13 Years Part V

For those of you who have never served in the military, they give us 30 days a year vacation, only we called it leave. You could save up to two months then you would have to begin using it, or losing it. During my entire time at Castle I never took a day’s leave, so when I was given my orders I had almost 2 months I could take. I planned on taking a month but as I said, my dad and I didn’t get along well when we were together, so I departed for Spain early…seemed like this was becoming a pattern.

I’d never been overseas before, aside from that short week I spent in Hawaii. So I had to get a passport prior to departing. But I was looking forward to it, and I thought my basic high school Spanish would finally come in handy.

While I was stationed at Castle my roommate and friend always told me about a friend of his, Newt, who had passed out before he ever saw the Outlaws in concert. So he told me to write Newt and send him a picture I’d taken to rub it in. Newt and I became pen pals who wrote each other regularly. Newt was in the Navy, stationed at the Pentagon. So when I got orders to go to Spain, and my dad and I got into another of our arguments, I called Newt and asked if he’d mind if I came and visited him. He asked when I’d be coming, so I gave him my flight information and he said he’d meet me at the airport.

I lost track of Newt over the Years, but he was a good guy. He took a week to show me around D.C. He took me to Arlington Cemetery, the Smithsonian, and most of the monuments around our nation’s capital. As much as I despise that city now, I still would love to go back and revisit some of those historic monuments. But I wander…

My flight for Spain was to leave out of, of all places Philadelphia. Newt couldn’t take the time off to drive me, but he paid for my train ride up to Philly and we bid farewell. Airports never seemed to bother me, I don’t get lost like some do. So I checked in for my flight and sat at the bar drinking Jack and Cokes until it was time to board my plane.

I have to tell you, the flight to Spain was worse than that flight across the Pacific in a KC-135. The seats had more padding, but they were so close together I couldn’t stretch my legs. On that KC at least the seats ran parallel to the plane so you could stretch out. But those 8 hours in a cattle car were miserable.

Finally we arrived at Torrejon AB Spain, just outside of Madrid. My assignment was Inoges Radio Relay Link, so I was still not at my destination, but at least I was on the ground again. I began asking for directions to Inoges. Nobody had even heard of it. Finally a woman overheard me and said I would need to take a bus to Zaragoza AB Spain and then catch a ride to Inoges. Luckily she was going to Zaragoza, so she showed me where to go.

The trip from Torrejon to Zaragoza, by bus, was 4 hours. It was dark by the time we left and about 3 hours into it I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the woman who’d told me how to get to Inoges. She said “See that light up on that mountain top over there? That’s Inoges.” I thought to myself, what the hell have I gotten myself in to?

Anyway, about an hour later we pulled on to Zaragoza AB Spain. It was way late on a Friday night and there was nobody about. Finally my friend and escort flagged down a base cop and explained that I needed to get to Inoges. They called their dispatch, who in turn called Inoges, who in turn called a guy who worked at Inoges, but lived on Zaragoza. They came and picked me up and said that I would spend the weekend at their house because he only worked Monday-Friday. His name was George, and he was Mormon. He just about shit when I told him I was too, even though I hadn’t been to church in years.

That weekend George, and his wife Terry, insisted I go to church with them that weekend in Zaragoza City. I didn’t have any decent clothes to wear, but it didn’t matter to them, I was going to church and that was the end of it.

The Zaragoza ward was small. There were only a few Americans, and maybe 10 locals from Zaragoza. Spain is, at least it was, predominantly Roman Catholic, so Mormons were few and far between. So I was a novelty, an American, and MORE IMPORTANTLY, single. Almost from day one they began trying to fix me up with a ‘decent’ Spanish girl in the ward.
But, I get ahead of myself.

When I finally got to Inoges they were surprised that I was there. It seemed that the guy who was supposed to meet me at the airport, Timothy Buckholz, had taken leave and forgotten I was coming. OOOPS.

Anyway, Inoges was a very small site. The barracks and all the other facilities were on a Spanish controlled base, while where I would work was atop the mountain, 11 kilometers above. I went through the regular routine of meeting the guys in the orderly room, my commander, and then I was taken to my dorm room. I was shocked to learn that I would have room to myself, although we would have to share a bathroom.

They then gave me the nickel tour of the base. It wasn’t much. There was a chow hall, a small site run bar, a TV room, a movie theater, the offices and barracks, and a library room full of paperback novels. But, I would later find out there was also a dark room to be used by all who cared to. It seemed no one was in to photography though because it hadn’t been used in years. But that was something worth considering as I loved photography.

Anyway, they took me to the chow hall and introduced me to all the Spanish guys who worked there; Tony, Florencio, and El Cubano. I can’t recall his name but he always referred to himself as, El Cubano, the Cuban.

Then it was time for me to head topside to see where I’d be working. The road up the mountainside was only wide enough for one vehicle at a time, so they had certain ‘up times’ and certain ‘down times’. If you missed your ride going up the hill you would have to wait until the vehicles coming down got to the bottom. So they said to be on time for your ride.

Our site had a massive fleet of vehicles at their disposal; two six pack Dodge 4-Wheel Drive Trucks and one Chevy van. Impressive. The van, I would later learn, was used to make mail and parts runs to Zaragoza, as well as taking people to the base hospital there. We had no hospital, not even a clinic and it was a 45 mile drive to Zaragoza AB. So you’d best not get hurt seriously or you were in deep shit.
The ride up the hill was pretty, it was spring and everything was bright green, although the road could have been better maintained. Once we got to the top I was taken in to the power plant I would be working at. As soon as I walked in I thought that finally all that training in Tech School would pay off, a real power plant!

The plant consisted of 4 White Superior Diesels each powering a 200 kilowatt generator. The site load was so small that only one unit ran at a time, with 3 being on standby. It was small, it was noisy, but it was a power plant and I was gonna learn to run it.
I was told that the plant provided power for a microwave station which was one of many in a string of site to site communications stations all across Europe. If power went down at one site the string was broken so it was important that we kept power going. Hmmm, the stakes just went up.

Anyway, they took me next door to introduce me to the Microwave guys, and then I was given a short tour of the plant to show me what I was going to have to learn. Much of it was familiar, so I wasn’t too worried. Then I was given a trainer, a SSgt Nelson Toracca. I was told that we worked 12 hour shifts with 3 days of work then 3 days off, rotating from days to nights every change of shift. After all this my first day at Inoges was finished and I was driven back downhill and told to be ready for the ride upstairs at 7:30 a.m. the next day.
The first month or two was routine. I learned how to parallel, (tie two generators together on a common buss), taught how to fill out the hourly forms, and the operation of the switchgear that controlled the electricity we produced. It was all pretty simple.

Life in a power plant becomes pretty mundane after awhile. Aside from routinely scheduled maintenance their isn’t much to do except take hourly readings and keep the floor clean. After a few months I was moved over to an opposing shift to work with another guy, Chris Dwyer. He was from New York and we really didn’t hit it off. We didn’t hate each other, just had nothing in common. So we’d either just read, or take naps. I know we weren’t supposed to be sleeping on duty, but after awhile you get to where you can sleep with your ears listening to the sound of the generators humming along. Any change in pitch or hiccup and you are awake instantly.

Not much exciting ever happened at work the whole 3 years I spent there. Only three times did anything happen that I really remember. The first happened on a day shift. Our plant switchgear had a main circuit breaker for each generator, and a tie breaker for two busses. That meant you could isolate the output and have one generator running on one buss, and another on the other. Since our load was so small they kept the tie breaker closed. Well one day after I’d been there a couple months, I was on duty with Torraca when the tie breaker tripped for some reason. Remember I was new to the site, AND I only had two stripes at the time. Toracca had been in for 12 years. So he was supposed to be more experienced than I.

Anyways, he freaked! He ran over and tried to close the tie breaker. It wouldn’t close! He dug out schematics and wiring diagrams trying to figure out what to do. I sat there watching because I wasn’t fully trained yet so there wasn’t much I could do. Meanwhile the Microwave guys are ringing the phone off the hook wanting to know when power would be back up. Torraca was losing more control every minute.

Since there wasn’t much I could do in the office with a panicking SSgt, I went out into the plant and stared at the switchgear. Suddenly a light when on in my head. The tie breaker was open separating the two busses. The one buss still had power, the other one didn’t. So I calmly walked over to Unit #2 and hit the start button. The unit came up to speed and I adjusted the voltage and frequency to specifications. Then I walked over and closed the main breaker for Unit 2. Suddenly the Microwave was back up.

All during this time the Microwave guys had been going nuts. They had lost half their systems and Torraca couldn’t figure out how to restore power. So they called downstairs and got the commander on the phone. He grabbed the Electrical superintendant and they drove up the mountain. By the time they got there the power was back but the tie breaker was still open. The electrical superintendant asked who started Unit 2? Torraca told him I had, thinking I was gonna get my ass chewed. He turned to me and said, “Smart move son.” Then he took me over and told me to parallel the two busses together like I would any other generator. So I did, and the tie breaker closed and things were back to normal.

I learned a valuable lesson that day, it doesn’t pay to lose your cool in a situation you have no control over. That lesson would pay dividends later as on occasion alarms would go off and I would have to do an emergency transfer of power from one generator to another before one failed. Not once during my time at Inoges, (after that day anyway), did I ever drop power for the Microwave side. But there was once where it was close…

As with all bases, people come, and people go. So it was with us. A new batch of people came in, almost within a month of each other.

Among them was one Marty Rasmussen. Marty was from Iowa and was about as soft spoken a guy as they come. He was smart too.
By then I’d gotten tired of swapping from nights to days, and back to nights. So I asked the commander if anyone wanted to stay on days while I worked nights opposite them, it would be okay with me. It wasn’t until Marty came that they found someone who would go for that arrangement.

One night as Marty was walking around he noticed a leak on the oil filter canister. These canisters were huge, almost 4 feet tall. They had four bolts holding a cap in place and inside was high pressure oil running through two filters. Well Marty grabs a Crescent Wrench to tighten up the bolts and stop the leak. Next thing you know he’d broken one of the bolts and oil began gushing out of the filter canister.

I got to work just in time to help clean up the mess. There was oil EVERYWHERE. Marty had tried to run over and start another generator while a low oil pressure alarm was going off. He slipped in the oil and skidded into the wall. He finally got the other unit on line and shut the other one off when I walked in for work that night. Marty was covered in oil. He looked at me, I looked at him, and he said, “Don’t ask.”
That was about the closest I can recall us ever losing power after the Torraca incident.

There is one more incident from work that really sticks in my mind before I go on to the juicy stuff. A new superintendant had come in, Pedro Serna. He was a know it all prick! One time we were doing a 1000 hour inspection on one of the generators. Serna, take that back, MSSGT Serna, told me to dump 5 gallons of diesel fuel over the rocker arm assembly, let it drain into the cylinders, then run the units for half an hour to clean out whatever sludge had accumulated in the engine. I told him that is against Air Force regulation 85-19 which stated to replace the regular oil with a low viscosity oil to remove sludge. Putting diesel fuel into a crankcase could cause an explosion. MSSGT Serna said, “Just do it!”

So I went out into the plant and climbed the scaffolding so I could begin taking the valve covers off the unit. These engines were pretty good sized, not the biggest I would work on, but still, they were big. Each head assembly had its own independent valve cover. I began unscrewing the cover off one, and then when it came lose I tossed it over my shoulder. When I got to the fourth one, a Tsgt Akins, a good friend I will talk about later, took one look at me and told me to go to chow. I said no. He said, “That’s an order.” So I stopped, got in the truck and drove downhill to go eat. Nobody would talk to me, they all left the room when I came in.

Finally when I got back uphill again Akins asked me if I’d calmed down. I said why. He told me that the look on my face had scared the shit outta him. Now Ron Akins was a wiry guy from New York, AND he was a second degree black belt. He didn’t scare easily. Later people told me when I came in for chow my face was bright red and I was shaking uncontrollably.

Anyway, while I was downstairs they convinced MSSGT Serna that I was right and he was wrong. I don’t think he liked me much after that. But the feeling was mutual, I hated his guts.

That’s about all that’s worth talking about as far as work went at Inoges. But you gotta remember, we worked 3 days on, and 3 days off. A young horny airman can get into a lot of trouble with 3 days to himself.

…to be continued…

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