In the summer of 1979, the military became my ticket out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At 18, I was an emaciated hippy with a serious recreational mesc habit. Between my work, the poverty diet, and the drugs, I was rail thin at 6'2 and 145 pounds. With frizzed out hair down to my elbows, I resembled a brown-eyed mop that had been plugged into an electrical socket.
I'd dropped out of high school to get away from my parents the previous year, and worked building mobile home rafters for a bit better than minimum wage.
A guy named Leonard and I were assigned to the same machine. We didn't like each other much. I think they paired me with the only guy there who was a bigger idiot than me.
I worked the lead. We'd put down gang nails on the magnetized plates and I'd toss him a 12-footer to slap into the jig. We'd put down the uprights and I'd throw him another piece that we'd bend into an arc to form the top. Pneumatic hammers locked everything in place while we put down another set of nails. I'd swing a radial saw over the end, hit the button to activate the press, and then pull a stop to pop the rafter off the jig. Leonard would hoist it over his head to the cart behind us. As he turned back, another 12-footer would be flying his way.
It became a dance, performed day after day until it became a matter of pure muscle memory. I'd sometimes imagine that my parents were hovering somewhere above watching, marveling at my amazing skill. It was a ridiculous fantasy. They had no idea what I did or who I was.
Rate was forty-five rafters an hour. I was bored out of my mind.
I could easily see my future in the collection of stoners who manned the saws and jigs and forklifts at Component Manufacturing. At 18, I was the youngest person there.
An accident in an uninsured car knocked me out of my rut. I was high. Really high. Somehow the cops never noticed. I stopped for the sign and pulled my Country Squire station wagon that I'd bought for a quarter pound of pot onto Minnesota Avenue out by the airport. Then I saw the motorcycle. He was speeding. I froze. He tried to lay his bike down and skidded sideways into my rear panel.
Later, I visited the guy in the hospital where he was in traction with a seriously busted up ankle. He was remarkably forgiving about the whole thing, but his insurance company wanted money I didn't have. My life needed to change.
The military recruitment center was in one of those low ugly shopping areas that were everywhere in Sioux Falls. In towns where land isn't worth much, most buildings are low and flat. The Marines, Army, Navy, and Air Force had adjacent storefronts.
It took less than a minute to decide on the branch. I had no interest in killing or being made uncomfortable, so the Marines and Army were out. I didn't know how to swim and was afraid of water. That left the Air Force.
The recruiter regaled me with tales of air conditioned offices and cushy desk jobs. There would be women to flirt with by the water cooler. I'd do my forty hours, and then be my own person. There would be money for college. I could retire a young man.
His talents were wasted. I'd made up my mind before I walked in the door.
First, however, there was the small matter of qualifying. I was, after all, a high school drop out with a GED who looked like a total fucking addict. He asked about that and I gave all the right answers. That was good enough for him.
A date was scheduled to show up at 7:30 for my ASVABs. The Air Force was selective. I'd have to do well.
As much as I looked forward to my new life of air conditioned administrative leisure, I was having the sex, drugs, and rock and roll summer of my life. My sound track was Journey, Foreigner, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, and REO Speedwagon.
I was a bell-bottomed cultural product of the 70s mid-west.
Home was a downtown SRO above the Arrow Bar and across the street from the Nashville Club. I had three girlfriends, all named Lisa. Lisa number one dealt mescaline, and I mostly got mine for free. She was actually a former girlfriend, but once it was known that I was going we started having sex again. Lisa number two was pretty and blond and working class. She would leave town for welding school shortly before I left. Lisa number three, my true love, was beautiful, poised, and unattainable. She would later become a lead singer for a popular local rock band. We were friends, and it secretly drove me insane.
My drinking buddies made it clear that once I was gone, all Lisas were fair game.
As it turned out, my big breakthrough with Lisa number two came the night before I took the ASVABs. There had been a party, and she told her boyfriend to get lost. I'd been hovering in the wings for months.
We had a fifth of Bacardi 151 between us and plenty of weed. There was never any shortage of $15 lids of Mexican or $40 bags of Columbian back then. Even working poor losers like me could usually afford to stay stoned 24/7.
At 1 or 2 AM we found our way to her place. She still lived with her mom, but we were quiet. I took a cab home. A few hours later, when I pulled my pants off the floor, they didn't fit right. Somehow, in the dark, I'd worn her jeans home instead of my own. I put on my other pair and rushed out the door.
The plan had been to get a good night's sleep and arrive sharp and refreshed. Instead I was still half drunk and smelled like rum, pot, BO, and sex.
About a dozen of us sat in testing cubicles under florescent lights, quietly filling in ovals with #2 pencils. The test came in sections, each timed by a buzzer. I kept finishing too early.
I figured that was the end of that.
Maybe my test got mixed up with someone else's, but I didn't just pass. I did absurdly well. The AFQT, or average score, was a 97 out of a possible 99. For the Air Force, a qualifying grade was 35.
The recruiters looked at me differently after that.
Later came the physical. Being flat footed and under weight wasn't a problem. In July, 1979, at a few months shy of 19 years old, I was sworn into the United States Air Force and put on a plane to Lackland, Texas to begin Basic Training.
I had no idea what was ahead of me.
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two