Sunday, May 12, 2013

#667: The biggest missile base in the world

After three years in the Air Force spent coloring forms with yellow & purple markers at the Army and Air Force Hometown News Service in San Antonio, I begged to get out so I could get a real AF base-newspaper job -- & in June of 1986 I was sent to Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming -- at that time the biggest missile base in the world.
I was thrilled to be at a base where there was actually Something Happening. But as with several of my AF assignments, I couldn't really Talk about what was going on. Though the base controlled 200 ICBMs spread out over a 12,600-square-mile area covering southeastern Wyoming, northeastern Colorado & western Nebraska, we could neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons in any particular location.
But everybody assumed those weren't just chewing-gum-warhead missiles sitting out there under the rolling hills of the Great Plains.
It took me awhile to find my footing. But soon I was writing & shooting photos for base-newspaper stories about security police patrolling isolated missile sites in the dead of winter as the gusty winds blew -60 degree wind-chill temps at them. We on the base newspaper (usually two staffers, rarely three) tried our best to write "mission feature" stories showing how each job on the base contributed to supporting the mission -- but it wasn't easy. There was so much we weren't allowed to talk about....
I finally got the chance to interview & hang-out with a missile launch crew while they were on-duty -- but it took a couple years of work & begging to do it, & I was only allowed to proceed after a reporter from the OMAHA WORLD-HERALD newspaper beat me to it. I tried to do a John McPhee/NEW YORKER-style atmosphere-piece on the crew & their surroundings....
...& naturally, after all that work & all that begging, I couldn't take all that I'd learned & turn it into a story of a reasonable size for a base newspaper. I was always too ambitious for my own good, back then. The story never got printed -- it was too freaking LONG, there was too much neat atmosphere & too many great quotes I wanted to cram in.
Months went by ... & finally I was told it would be better if I just gave up. I still have my 35 pages of notes. Not the last time I cracked under pressure....
One story I was proud of was when I got to be on the site when the last of the support crews "switched-on" the tenth Peacekeeper/MX missile, to reach what the AF called "initial operational capability" at the end of 1986. That story DID get printed, & helped win me an award. & eventually 50 of the 10-warhead Peacekeepers were deployed across the Wyoming plains.
But usually we on the base newspaper didn't get quite so up-close & personal with The Mission. We wrote about stuff that grabbed our attention -- folks from the base doing good & interesting volunteer work in the local community, interesting personalities, big base events, retirements, etc. I started reviewing strange music, movies & books.
After LOTS of encouragement, I started writing sports stories -- about a couple guys who ran in marathons, one AF doctor who competed in stair-climbing competitions & briefly got into the GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS (that story also made the front page of the local daily paper), the hilarious comedy of Youth T-Ball, & even the base's Chess Club.
& I found that writing sports gave me a freedom I usually didn't have in the rest of the paper -- the rest of the time we had to play it pretty straight.
But all the time I was looking for "light" stuff, more humor, because working at the world's biggest missile base was a serious business.
I wrote comedy pieces on Air Force Medals You Don't Want To Win, Fictional Air Force Bases You Wouldn't Want To Be Assigned To, & the comedy possibilities of Air Force jargon.
I even snuck through a piece about whether some of the older homes in Base Housing were haunted: Some of the houses dated back to the late 1890's when the base was a U.S. Army cavalry post. But it was a touchy subject, because the base commander wanted it known in no uncertain terms that he'd tolerate NO GHOSTS on base....
I tried to take stuff lightly, use the paper as a sort of escape from everyday AF grinds & demands.
& I had a great role-model to learn from -- an Air Force Technical Sergeant named Gary Pomeroy, who'd been Strategic Air Command's Journalist of the Year for three years in a row. Gary could write stuff that would make me cry from laughing so hard. But he was tough, he'd been around. Brutally realistic, he thought my laughing fits were silly & juvenile -- but he was a great writing coach ... if you could survive his critiques.
When I wasn't working on the base paper, I was writing at home. I still had dreams of being Stephen King when I grew up. The first draft of "On Tour With the Little Green Men" (which I posted here awhile back) came out during my three years at FEW. A 40-page science-fiction/music piece called "The Landscape Player" (probably too long to post here, though I think it's my best, most vivid piece of fiction ever) also came out while in Wyoming. Neither of them ever got published anywhere.
The wife & I loved Wyoming, & for the first time in years we weren't homesick for Idaho -- even when the snowdrifts piled up over the front door of our mobile home. I made the mistake of telling people I'd stay at FEW permanently, since few AF folks seemed to want to visit Wyoming -- they thought it was as brutal & boring as, say, North Dakota or Montana. Or South Korea. Or the Aleutian Islands. & they were wrong.
But saying I'd volunteer to stay was probably the kiss of death. At the end of 1989, the news came that I was "The Number One non-volunteer" in the AF's public affairs career field to be sent overseas. & there was a job waiting for me in Ankara, Turkey.
So in December 1989, that's where we went. At least I got to take my wife & my 2-year-old son. We were actually kind of excited about going. But it turned out to be two of the worst years of our lives....

No comments: