My Life So Far–The U.S. Air Force Period

While still in high school and afterward, I volunteered at the U.S. Air Force Ground Observer Corp Center in Corpus Christi. It was run by a small group of U.S. Air Force personnel. I knew that I was subject to the draft and would probably wind up in an infantry unit. But these Airmen were intelligent and technically sophisticated. They seemed to be (and were) providing a very important service, coordinating civilian volunteer spotters. This was the height of the cold war and we expected that Russian bombers could well attack the U.S. After awhile I decided to join the Air Force and make that a career. Remember that I was enlisted already in the The Army of Texas which discharged me directly into the U.S. Air Force. My initial testing showed a strong ability in electronics. (Of course, after the license and technical school.)

The Jewish chaplains invited all the trainees to conversations, to breakfast on Saturday with a little lox and bagel and discussions. In the middle of Basic Training, everyone received an off-base pass for two days. We Jewish trainees were bussed to the downtown Young Men's Hebrew Association for a dance with local young Jewish women. But all this did not make a dent in my growing indifference to my Jewish heritage.

I finished Basic Training but instead of leaving Lackland Air Base, I volunteered for the base Drum and Bugle Corp, with a chance of auditioning for the U.S. Air Force Band.  Four weeks later, I had my audition and was not good enough. Yes, I had won state-wide competitions and yes, I had played in the city symphony, but no. In competition with the professional level of musicians, I was out-classed.  I was immediately shipped out to Scott Air Base in East St. Louis. There we were to be trained to repair radio relay equipment. The instructors soon discovered that I was not new to electronics and had me doing some of the teaching.

I arrived in the dead of winter. In Corpus Christi, any time the temperature dropped below 50 degrees, we were sure the cold would freeze our limbs. In Illinois, in the middle of February, I was walking across the center marching area known usually as "the quad", in sub-30 degree wind and snow when a friendly voice invited me into a building for hot coffee and doughnuts.  No moment of doubt. I discovered that, to be polite, I would have to sit through a lecture by the protestant chaplain, explaining something called "The Lord's Prayer." It would only be about 10 minutes, so. . .Sure.

Those ten minutes changed my life. What the chaplain, Phil Hampe, had to say carried meaning for me. Afterward, I walked up and asked for a private meetng. One meeting led to six or eight, by the end of which I asked him to baptize me. He did so, at Easter morning service in 1957.

As good as this felt, looking back on it there were some flies in the ointment. Phil was from the conservative wing of the Presbyterian denomination. As a young, new convert, I picked up many of his prejudices and beliefs. There was no question that Jesus Christ was the only way to heaven. My sadness was that meant my mother would be consigned to Hell. I certainly did not know that there were Christians with a different understanding.

After graduating from Radio Relay Equipment repair school, I was given the choice to be a permanent instructor in the school, but the school was being transferred to Biloxi, Mississippi. I was also given the choice of reassignment and could choose between Germany and Japan. I chose Germany. The U.S. Air Force, in its infinite wisdom chose that I be stationed in Japan, where I would both work on airborne radios, radio relay equipment and teach electronics. Johnson Air Base northwest of Tokyo held the fascination of a new nation and culture, but the safety of living on an Air Force base with the transferred culture of the US (Movies, hamburgers, baseball, and English).

Johnson Air Base was home to a variety of Air Force Units, but it was also the Air Traffic Control Center for the area west of Hawaii, and all of the Far Eastern Command area (Korea, Southeast Asia, the Philipines. It also was a scanning center to protect against Russian or Chinese bombers. This job fell to the Airways and Air Communications Service. My job included maintaining air to ground communications, teletype and telephone radio relay equipment and eventually, when my superiors discovered my facility and knowledge of electronics, I was also assigned to teach classes in electronics.

A week or two after arriving, a new friend told me about the Christian Servicemen's Center. A week later, after work, the same friend invited me to go with him. I did and he introduced me to the Rev. Donald Sears. Don was a constant friend and mentor for the next three years. He was clear and honest. Unlike Phil, who was very conservative, Don was quite progressive and liberal. He didn't presume to read God's mind. This was my first awareness that there were differences. In many ways, it was because of Don Sears that I came to feel a spirituality beyond dogma and doctrine. It became so much deeper than belief. Instead of "believing" it became a relationship of spirit.

As I reread that last paragraph, I fear that it might seem a put-down of Phil Hampe. In no way should it. Phil's theology was very conservative, but Phil's love was genuine and started me on the path to what I have become. Phil supported me emotionally and in many other ways when I later entered seminary. I owe him much.

I became friends also with Don's wife, Joanie and their two boys and later was "part of the family" when Katie was born and then Becky. Sunao Yokobiki, a social worker who worked for the Center, for Don, became another good friend and teacher. Eventually, his lovely wife Mihoko was included. And there were many others, both "GIs", ("Government Issue") and other Japanese.

Among the many young Japanese there was a woman who, deliberately to be able to improve her English, worked as a nanny for an American couple on the base. She came to the center first, on her birthday, for the same reason. Eventually Tamayo Sato became a "regular". When the airbase couple completed their tour and were going back to the US, she needed a job. Before long, she was working for Don and Joanie, caring for Chris and Andrew, their two children and improving her English–which was already quite fluent.

There were many adventures with Sunao, Don, Mihoko, Joan and the 20 or so "regulars" among the Japanese and US Airmen who became part of the community. One highlight was traveling to Sunao's home town on Awajishima in the Seto Nai Kai, the inland sea of Japan.  My first experience of Japanese long-distance trains was delightful. From Kyoto, where there is now the world's longest suspension bridge with the longest span of 2.5 miles, in 1958 there was only an open, slow ferry to Awajishima, but for a 22 year old American GI that was more exciting.

Among the the "denizens of Emmaus House/Christian Servicemen's Center were a few who became even more special and closer. My closest friend was Don "Rick" Richtenburg. Rick was in a barracks just across the road from mine. When we were not at the center, he and I would visit Tokyo or Yokohama, especially Akihabara which was the center of electronics components. Another close friend was Lloyd "Toby" Tobiassen. Toby was from Long Island and we teased him about his accent. He was very good man and had a wonderful heart. There were many more, Larry, Cliff, Jim George, etc.

Another of the adventures was a visit to the Kokusai Kirisutokyo Daigaku 国際基督教大学 also known a International Christian University.

I had long since fallen in love with Japan and this university situated in a semi-rural area with tea-house, rice fields, wasabi field and even its own archaeological site was perfect. Its dedication to liberal arts, progressive thinking, good scientific research and linguistics seemed ideal. Every student was expected to learn both English and Japanese. They welcomed non-Japanese students from Europe, the US, Hong Kong and Taiwan. (Japan and Korea were still estranged.)

Don Sears' mentoring led me to struggle further with my faith. The more I did, the more my mind was opened to new spiritual experiences. I became intrigued by the number of Christians who had not only studied Zen Buddhism but incorporated it into their spiritual life and practice. Several of them were ordained in Buddhism to teach Zen, while still remaining Christian. The idea that one can't be both Buddhist and Christian at the same time is foreign to the Japanese psyche. In the summer of 1959, I took some leave to spend about a month at the Sojiji Zen monastery. At the time, it was one of the few that welcomed foreigners. I later became an occasional attendee at the sangha of Zen Christians in Tokyo. For many reasons, I couldn't make the trip regularly, but when I could I learned and grew. A Zen practice has since been part of much of my spiritual life. 

But I get ahead of my story. In this period we were not yet at war in Vietnam–at least not officially. But as a young airman at Johnson Air Base, it was an open secret that we were maintaining and preparing aircraft that made the trip with supplies for the South Vietnamese government and, in some cases, participated in the actual aerial attacks in support of the S. Vietnamese Army. I had no idea of the corruption of that nation. I was a good ole' boy from South Texas and while I had shed the worst of my Southern attitudes, was still very conservative politically.

One anecdote: Airmen are rarely called upon to actually do any direct fighting; never-the-less, it is a military service and we were expected to learn to fire handguns and rifles. At least yearly, we all had to "qualify" with the M-14 rifle (The venerable Garand had long since given way.) and those who pulled guard duty, with the Colt .45 caliber handgun. As a young enlisted airman, I often went to the range and enjoyed being so much better than so many of my superior-ranked shooters. The secret, of course, was my time with the Corpus Christi Rifle and Pistol Club. It became fun to tweak my bosses nose by out shooting them.

I was a good airman, three times winning the award of Base Airman of the Month. Got to fly back seat in the trainer jets that pilots used to practice and remain competent while also doing my job well. I invented some electronic gadgetry and had commendations for this. I taught electronics and was generally a "good boy." Finally, in a period of rare award of rank, I was given my third stripe. Someone got around to awarding me my "Good Conduct" medal (We used to tease that you got that for brushing your teeth.) and a few other ribbons.

At the end of 1959 my tour of duty in Japan being finished, I was sent to Goldsboro, North Carolina's Seymour Johnson Air Base. Still assigned to the Airways and Air Communications Squadron, our unit consisted of about 10 men at the base and another 20 or so stationed in areas off the base. We were responsible for the maintenance of communication from Langley, VA to Shaw Air Base in South Carolina. That communication equipment was often located in huts in small towns about 30 miles apart. The signals would be sent from antennas mounted on the town's water-tower and manned by a three person team who lived in the hut with the equipment. When a team reported a transmitter or receiver had failed, my job was to go or assign someone else to go to the site and either fix or replace the equipment, often bringing it back to be repaired at our facility at Seymour Johnson.

My year at Seymour Johnson brought a few adventures. Though I had grown up in South Texas, I had not realized the depth of racial prejudice. Perhaps I was just not yet sensitive enough. Housed in a dorm arrangement with four men sharing two bedrooms and an intervening bathroom was certainly more luxurious than the steel army bunks I'd had in previous locations. In my group, I was the only white person. I became quite close friends with the other three men. We went to the canteen together, to dances, to movies, shared a beer and they even tried teaching me to dance the cha-cha.  On base we just didn't worry much about race. We were focused on getting the job done competently and enjoying our off-hours.

The first time I left the base to go into town, I went with Bill.  We took the bus. The purpose of the trip was to buy me a new pen. The couple blocks to the stationer went past a soda fountain. (If you are too young to know about soda fountains, ask someone older.) I wanted to go in, but Bill said he was just not thirsty. We got to the stationer and I opened the door. Bill walked in and then stepped aside to let me go to the counter. We were immediately greeted with a chill and an attitude of resentment. The clerk did sell me the pen, but he clearly didn't like it that I held the door open for Bill. (Oh. Did I forget to mention that Bill was black.) That was my first reminder of where I was.

At a later time, another airman and I were driving to one of our relay stations to work on a dead transmitter.  Lunch time came and we drove the jeep to a restaurant. I started to get out, but my companion explained that he couldn't go in there. He would meet me later after lunch.  Instead, we went to the little town store and bought a loaf of bread, some sandwich meats and a couple of drinks to take back to the relay outpost.

One day we were notified that we were experiencing a "Broken Arrow" alert. With no preparation, we had no idea what that meant. The rumor was that a B52 stationed on the base and carrying nuclear bombs had crashed and there was some possibility that a bomb would be triggered. We all assumed that this was some kind of training exercise. Only recently have I learned that this was no exercise but was a fact that happened. Fortunately, no bombs actually exploded (Or I probably would not be here to write this) but that four out of five safety switches had been tripped. It was actually a close thing.

My year in the deep south kept reminding me that on the Air Force base, we were all equal, but in the cities and towns of North Carolina, it was not so.

Early in that year, I knew that my career goals had changed. As much as I liked the Air Force life and the technical skills I was using, I wanted to get a college degree and I wanted to do so in Japan. During this year, I took night classes, college entrance exams, IQ tests (They were still in vogue then.) and made friends with a couple in which the wife was Japanese. I also applied to the university in Mitaka. When I found out that only one in twenty-eight applicants was accepted, I was prepared for rejection and the need to go elsewhere.

Imagine my delight when I received an acceptance letter from International Christian University, inviting me to study there. I was at my discharge point and the U.S. Air Force was kind enough to pay for my ticket, by boat, to Japan, rather than the more normal ticket to Corpus Christi.

I need to reiterate that the U.S. Air Force was a positive in my life. In addition to learning to be more self-disciplined, I was recognized as a superior airman all along the way. My membership in the Army of Texas meant that I became a leader even in basic training, my electronics training was recognized and meant that I was often given opportunities to advance and take on responsibilities not offered to others.  My efforts at military training brought me recognition as base airman of the month on three occasions while in Japan. I even received an extra rank advance in addition to commendation for inventing a device that prevented outages on the teletype circuits. But most of all, the Air Force gave me a much better sense of self-worth and self-confidence. When I was discharged, I left a much different person than I was going in.

Pacifism is a very attractive philosophical proposition, and I could almost be there. I really do want to be a pacifist. But it is still too difficult for me, having been a child during World War II and the struggle against the Nazis, Hitler, and the Japanese military who raped Nanking. There are some wars that must be fought. That said, I haven't seen one since WWII or possibly Korea. The only beneficiaries of our more recent military adventures have been the weapons manufacturers and the military contractors like KBR and Blackwater.

We need a capable military, but the $700,000,000,000–more than half of the budget–that they take is a theft from the citizens of the United States. The money thrown away on $50 million dollar gas stations in Afghanistan that are not completed and are on the way to and from nowhere is an outrage.

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Next Episode the College Years