In November of 1979, I arrived at my assignment at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts. I had just spent three months at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas, a place that gets my vote for town most likely to have your ass kicked in a bar for no reason at all.
Sheppard, while restrictive, was a big improvement over Lackland. We were two to a dorm room and the drinking age was 18. The Base liquor store, or "packie," as I learned to call it, was happy to sell us whatever we wanted. I could get pot too.
We'd fall into formation while it was still dark outside and march to our classes as the freezing Texas wind whipped across the open plains. I would work in Travel Pay, which meant mastering three thick volumes of regulations that were subject to regular changes and updates. Technical school was a mind-numbing bore in a repressive locale, but at least there was drinking.
I passed the vocational tests without studying. Daily life on a military base was sterile and dull, and I retreated into a different kind of numbness. There were a few minor brushes with authority, and an incident file began to accumulate.
My arrival at Hanscom, I hoped, would start a new chapter in my military career where I would finally just get to be a person again. Instead, I initially found few friends, roomed with a dopey kid who ate Fig Newtons by the box, and thought I was going to die from boredom. I shuttled back and forth between my dorm, the dining hall, and work without incident or enthusiasm.
Hanscom AFB is a small research and development center located in the triangle between Bedford, Concord, and Lexington. Geared largely toward the civilian scientists who worked at nearby facilities like MIT, Draper Labs, and Raytheon, there was little emphasis on military customs and courtesies. You were expected to salute officers and wear a crisp uniform, but formations were rare and marching was almost nonexistent. The dormitories were like those on any college campus, and the mess hall was first rate.
In all actuality, I had little to complain about.
I worked in a a small office of around eight people, and calculated payments to those, both military and civilian, who had traveled under order of the Air Force. I would receive DD-1351 travel vouchers over the counter, and process the simpler ones on the spot. I punched at a calculator all day and chain smoked Kools at my desk.
By the time 1980 rolled around, I was starting to find people like me. Bored, alienated, potheads who had work that was technically challenging but otherwise dull. We came together to drink and get high more or less nightly. We all worked office jobs and wore our formal "blues" to work. Several were computer operators. I would visit them on their night shifts as they worked alone, occasionally changing tape reels on the huge mainframes that filled the room. We'd duck into stairwells to get high.
We were a pot-smoking counterculture of the bright and bored. When Pink Floyd's The Wall came out in April, 1980, Comfortably Numb became our anthem. Much of our world revolved around music. The punk revolution was underway, and I gravitated toward the artsy pop of Roxy Music and Bauhaus and the rougher sounds of Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and The Velvet Underground. I got out to see Flipper and Mission of Burma whenever they played. Boston radio was then in a golden age. I found the leftward spectrum of the dial and abandoned the alt-rock of Boston's WBCN for the amazing underground radio on Boston College's WZBC and the folk scene at Emerson's WERS.
We spent hours at Dungeons and Dragons in worlds that a programmer named Mark made himself on his Mac plus, which at that time was an expensive hotrod of a personal computer. Mark, with his custom maps and probability charts, would always be the Dungeon Master. He was obsessed with sex. One night he sent his girlfriend in to sleep with me as a gesture of friendship. I was sex starved and deeply grateful to both.
One of the members of our group got lucky in Atlantic City and celebrated by buying a keg and a jar of mescaline. Me and another kid had a competition to see who could eat the most. At six hits, I was the champion. We moved a state of the art stereo system into an upstairs rec room and held an acid party right there in the dorm. I remember standing in the hallway and watching the colors melt as I traced my finger along a fall landscape.
The next day we all got called in for urinalysis. For reasons I'll never understand, mine came up negative.
By then, I'd decided that the Air Force was intolerable and was working toward a discharge. I began by simply asking Squadron Commander Major James Kephart if he'd let me out. He said no. The fall-back strategy was to fail my competency exams. This was unsatisfactory as well. My bosses were onto me, and while my antics annoyed them a bit, they were not about to let me go.
Then I heard about the Limited Privilege Communication Program. The idea behind LPCP was that an Airman with a drug problem could seek help without fear of negative consequences. One could go into treatment, and if this failed, receive an honorable discharge. This, I decided, was my way out. I ate a couple hits of acid, stayed up all night, and walked into the base substance abuse counselor's office to discuss my "problem."
I was a chronic drug abuser, I said. I didn't regard this, really, as a problem for me, but it may well be a problem for them. The best thing for all involved, I explained, was to just get me out of there. I thus began my series of weekly chats with the pleasant counselor, who was probably more than a little amused at my transparent act of chutzpa.
My new status as a known drug abuser meant a transfer out of customer service across the hall to data entry, where I worked with a number of nice civil service ladies and keyed computer cards into a terminal.
At this point in my life, I was staying stoned pretty much 24/7. I didn't really need to amp up my usual drug abuse much to take it over the top. I did my level best to come off as incurable.
Not surprisingly, my data entry was less than accurate. My boss was exasperated. "Airman Harris," he said, "You're making an awful lot of mistakes."
"I keep telling you," I shot back, "I'M ON DRUGS!!"
Time hazily passed. Eventually, an evaluation meeting was set with my Supervisor Paul Bouchard, who was really taking all of this very well, a Base Doctor, and Major Kephart.
I was asked to describe how my efforts at getting clean had progressed, and I relayed that they had not. In fact, I said, I really had no interest in stopping at all.
This was when Kephart spoke. "Airman Harris," he said. "Where's your hat and cane."
"Hat and cane sir?"
"To go along with your song and dance!"
I'm not sure that there's an acceptable answer to a question like that, and whatever it was, I didn't find it. The meeting concluded without resolution.
Later, I'd find that the Air Force does indeed have a sense of humor. I was determined to have successfully completed my program of rehabilitation and returned to my old job. It was as if the whole thing had never happened.
There would be no discharge for me.
At this point, I was nearly two years into the four, and reconciled myself to finishing out the full term. Within the next year, my life would change again.
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