Tuesday, February 14, 2012

#528: The smallest Air Force base in the world

I've bn stuck in some pretty small places. Ankara Air Station in Turkey (where I was assigned by the US Air Force in 1990-91) was about 4 blocks long & 3 blocks across -- a home 10,000 miles from home 4 the 2,000 or so Americans assigned there. It's all closed up now.
Onizuka Air Station in Sunnyvale, Calif., was even smaller. Not counting the 3-story parking garage, you could almost throw a baseball from 1 side of the base 2 the other.
But that'd B leaving out "The Blue Cube" -- a 4-story, windowless high-tech block, "shrouded in secrecy" (as the local newspapers put it), that was the whole reason the base was there.
Unfortunately, the Blue Cube sat right next 2 US Highway 101, where hundreds of thousands of cars passed by every day, possibly with 1,000s of people inside them wondering what went on inside that huge light-blue building....
Onizuka's whole mission was satellite tracking -- including GPS satellites that I assume were used 4 enemy surveillance & target-spotting during the 1st Gulf War. But in 1992, when I was there, We Couldn't Talk About Any Of That. It was all still Top Secret. This was LONG B4 everybody & his brother had a GPS system in their car.
I'd bn in other places where we Couldn't Talk About Our Mission -- in the 3 years I was at Francis E. Warren AFB in Wyoming, I could never Confirm or Deny the existence of nuclear missiles at any particular location. Everybody just knew they were Out There ... somewhere. That's about as detailed as I could get.
Onizuka AS was even MORE secretive. Imagine being a public-affairs guy at a place like that. Sure you could talk 2 the local media -- you just couldn't tell them what the base DID.
Imagine being a base newspaper guy at such a place. What the hell could you write about?
Well, somehow I found SOMETHING to fill the 8-pages-per-week of the Xerox-copier-reprinted typing-paper-sheet-sized ONIZUKA ORBITER. Since I couldn't talk much about the mission, I tended 2 write lots of humorous pieces, & focused on base intramural sports & people with intresting off-duty hobbies -- the 1's who'd talk 2 me about those. 1 guy wouldn't talk about being a member of a local rap group (when he was off-duty) Bcos he thot it would signal 2 his superiors that he didn't take his job seriously.
I had 2 put up with this heavy-handed Big Brother take-your-job-deadly-seriously stuff EVERY DAY. It was the kiss of death 4 a reporter who tried 2 have fun with his job. & it helped me decide 2 get out of the Air Force that much sooner.
In an AF base newspaper, 1 of a reporter's highest callings was sposta B 2 write a "mission feature" -- a slice-of-daily-life-style piece that would vividly show how 1 person's or 1 unit's job helped get the mission (national defense) done. In a place as secretive as "Oz," mission features were tough 2 write. Impossible, even.
1 unit didn't like the fact that I led off a story by focusing on the 9 empty 3-pound coffee cans they had stacked up in their break room. I thot the coffee cans showed the kind of demanding, ongoing, routine kind of job they did -- as important as it was. They wouldn't let me print the story with that description in it. I was able 2 convince their section chief of my reasons behind including such an image -- she even agreed with me. But she said publishing it would cost her her job. So I backed off.
Another unit (as close as I could get 2 the satellite-tracking center of the base's mission) was offended when I pointed out that their main work area (a cluster of huge satellite dishes that sometimes had 2 B climbed out on 2 B cleaned) included a "Pigeon Attack Zone" -- this area ID'd by big signs next 2 the door out 2 the dishes.
The guys thot the signs were hilarious -- so did I -- but they didn't want the signs (or the kind of "attacks" the pigeons often dive-bombed them with) mentioned in the base newspaper. We talked it over, & I held on. & the story ended-up winning an award.
But after that, fewer offices & work areas around the tiny base would talk 2 me in NE depth. Mission features got tougher 2 find. So much so, that 4 an April Fool's Day edition, I wrote a mission feature on the base's janitors -- a dozen guys who spent hours each nite vacuuming carpets & mopping miles of tile floors. I thot the story was hilarious -- so did the janitors. & when I printed the story under a "Mission Feature" banner, nobody could miss the joke. That story also won an award.
I fought the overly-secretive silliness every way I knew how -- not always good-naturedly. & I told every1 I knew there that I couldn't see why everything was so hush-hush -- we hadn't bn THAT secretive during those 3 years I served at the biggest missile base in the world (which I promise 2 write more about soon).
...It wasn't all bad. Tho I wasn't there 4 the very 1st issue of the ORBITER, they let me re-design it a little with the 2nd issue. Since the Sunnyvale/San Jose area was even then known as a high-tech mecca 4 computers & such, I chose a modern, high-tech look 4 the paper, with a sorta computerized-looking sans-serif typeface that let me squeeze even more info in2 every issue's 8 (or sometimes more) pages.
& despite the frustrations, I wrote some stuff I was pretty happy with. 1 piece was on 1/2adozen base guys who had up&coming parts in the Bay Area rap music scene. I wish I coulda done more of that stuff. I hadda lotta fun with base intramural sports -- usually attracted 2 the losers, but trying pretty conscientiously 2 get everything covered. It was a small base & pretty EZ 2 keep up with.
Possibly the best story ever while I was there was on a base golf tournament -- & naturally, I followed around some REALLY BAD golfers, including R base Chaplain who was still learning how 2 play. He was hilarious -- after he scored a 9 on the 1st hole & a 10 on the 2nd, we were all crying from laffing so hard. & luckily the comedy came over in the story.
But all the stuff I Couldn't Talk About left me with a lotta stuff I Couldn't Write About -- & sometimes if I tried, people I'd never met would rewrite me 4 reasons unknown. Certainly not Bcos of National Security. I was able 2 convince most of these folks that I Knew What I Was Doing. But their rewrites would always stand. I started taking my name off of lots of stuff -- the only way I could noticeably protest.
I'd bn planning on getting out of the AF since B4 coming 2 Oz. When things started going bad, I started sending out a dozen resumes a week 2 Real Newspapers, begging 4 a writing job. Finally, in Sept 1992, The Smallest Daily Newspaper In The World -- located in Worland, Wyoming -- offered 2 hire me as a managing editor. It was the beginning of a whole new adventure.
After 10 years of service, the AF did at least let me out when I asked nicely. & I left Oz with a couple of end-of-the-year awards, 4 AF Space Command's Best Feature Writing & Best News Writing of 1992. (The 2nd of these was kinda a joke. There was no "news" at R base. Not Officially.)
...Oh, music was important in all this, 2. The cheapest house we could find 2 rent was 45 mins away from the base in San Jose (which then had the most Xpensive rent prices in the nation, we were told). 2 dare California's freeways (101, 680, 880, etc), music was ESSENTIAL. It was while driving these freeways that I realized Madonna was an Artist -- a mix-tape of her songs that I could actually STAND ("Open Your Heart," "Live to Tell," "The Look of Love," "Oh Father," "Dear Jessie," "Dress You Up," etc.) probly kept me from wrecking the car a dozen times. On the way 2&from work I also played the HECK outta mix tapes I'm still playing 2day.
& that 45-minute commute was on the Good Days. When it rained -- which it seemingly always did each Fri aft -- the drive home could stretch in2 3 hours....

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