A few weeks ago I talked about my years in the Air Force. I mentioned the fact that military people have a strong sense of duty. Most of the time that’s a great thing, but sometimes ...
It happened while I was stationed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, where I discovered that one of the problems of being on a large military base located out in the country is that there aren’t enough rentals near the base.
The result was that I rented a place in Trenton, a two-hour drive to the base over bad country roads, often in rotten weather.
But bad roads or no bad roads, and lousy New Jersey weather or not, I was determined to get to work on time every day.
Besides a strong sense of duty, there was another reason for me to stay on the straight and narrow. That reason went by the name of Master Sergeant French, who I have mentioned in an earlier column.
Sgt. French was my section NCO, a friendly old guy who had my court martial papers typed up and filled out and was just waiting to enter the first charge he could trump up.
To say that I was not Sgt. French’s favorite person is an understatement.
Because of things beyond my control, he had the totally wrong impression that I was the last of the great con men.
That’s another story, one I’ve already told, but you can rest assured that for me, there was no such thing as, “Oops! Sorry, Sarge. I guess I’m a wee bit late this morning.”
Uh-uh! Not if I didn’t want to end up back in civilian life, looking for an employer who needed someone who could make neat little 30 caliber holes in a target at 300 yards.
And the same thing applied to my buddy, Ted Simmons. Guilt by association, you see.
So Ted and I got to the base on time every day, rain, shine, or — as in the case I’m speaking of — snow.
Lots of snow! A New Jersey anti-blizzard.
What’s an anti-blizzard?
Well, during a blizzard, snow comes down so fast you think someone has unzipped the sky and let an avalanche loose. And it comes at you horizontally, driven by high winds. Bad, yes, but nothing compared to a New Jersey anti-blizzard.
Temperature: 32 degrees.
Wind speed: Zero.
Snowflakes: Large, wet, and falling by the ton.
Result: Wet, heavy snow packed so high on power and telephone lines that they come down between each pair of poles for mile, after mile, after good old New Jersey mile — knocking out power and communication, blocking the roads, preventing snowplows from doing their job, and setting New Jersey back to the days when George Washington and the troops sat freezing their buns off.
One afternoon after a New Jersey anti-blizzard, Ted and I were due to work the night shift, but were unable to phone in to tell them it wasn’t going to be easy — if it was even possible — to get there.
So we started out in his car in bright sunlight with hopes that we would get to the base, (a) on time, and (b) alive.
The roads were covered by 2 feet of wet snow, packed down into 6 inches of slick white ice. It took an hour just to get out of Trenton.
There were no stoplights, no cleared streets, no nothing. Just us two poor fools creeping along and a lot of cops in the middle of intersections risking their lives trying to keep people from performing vehicular homicide on each other.
Poor guys. Most of them looked like they’d been up all night, and from what I’d seen the night before, I don’t doubt that they had.
But that’s another story.
Trenton was nothing compared to the country roads. I won’t go into details. I’ll just let you picture two dummies dressed in Air Force blue creeping along icy roads for more than three hours.
It wasn’t too bad at first because there wasn’t much traffic, but as we neared the base, we joined our fellow lemmings, a long caterpillar line of cars filled with men and women determined to make it to the base at all costs.
By the time we got close to the base, we were part of a mile-long file of cars creeping along at barely 5 miles an hour and staying as far apart as possible because there was no braking on that icy hard-packed snow.
You should have seen Ted gripping the steering wheel. White snow, white road, and white knuckles!
And then, inevitably, some idiot three cars up ahead of us, who happened to be sitting on one of the few cleared spots in the road, stopped dead!
Ted, who had been keeping the car in second gear and using nothing but the engine to slow us down, took his foot off the gas and gently tapped the brakes.
At first it looked like we were going to stop in time, but then the wheels broke loose and we began to slide. To make matters worse we were on a gentle down slope. Closer and closer we came to the car ahead, which of course was an expensive model that looked like it had just been driven off the showroom floor.
Ted turned the wheel but it had no effect at all. On and on we slid.
Closer. Closer. Closer ...
And then ... a miracle!
All on its own, the car did a slow, ponderous turn. Ted and I watched the world slowly turn before our eyes until we ended up in the opposite lane, headed away from the base.
One look at the unbroken line of cars crawling along in the opposite direction told us there was no way to get back into it.
“God has spoken,” Ted said. “I’m heading back home.”
And he did, even though I argued with him long and hard.
But on the way back I spotted lights in a gas station that had been closed before. We stopped and I went in and used their phone to call in. “Let me speak to Sgt. French,” I told the WAF who answered, trying to think up a suitable excuse.
“He’s not here,” she said. “He can’t get in. And the Colonel says not to bother to come in. They haven’t got the runways plowed yet so no aircraft are going in or out till tomorrow.”
On the way home I was so relaxed you could have poured me into the tall brown bottle I uncorked as soon as I got there.