Thread: Unpaid Bill
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Old 10-02-2019, 11:07 PM
vapros vapros is offline
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Join Date: May 2004
Location: baton rouge, la
Posts: 3,268
Default War story

In February of 1951 I enlisted in the United States Air Force. Took the oath at Offutt Field in Omaha, where I was given a handful of meal tickets and put on to a train for San Antonio – a train that had no diner, as I recall. From Lackland AFB in San Antonio I was transferred immediately to Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls. At Sheppard Field a sort of emergency basic training program had just been put in place to process all the volunteers fleeing the military draft of the Korean War era. Nobody wanted to be in the infantry. Instructors were badly needed and by the time I had been in the military for a month I was an acting corporal and teaching math classes to recruits at all levels. Some groups grappled with the multiplication table, while others could benefit from a bit of solid geometry. Could have been worse. No KP, no guard duty and a Class A pass – except for my working hours I was free to go, and I did.

I wanted to join the Sheppard AFB basketball team, but that didn’t work out. Too many players better than I was. Bowling was another matter – I had my own ball and bowling shoes in a carrying bag and most evenings after supper I caught the base bus into town and was soon a part of the scene at Spudder Lanes. Spudder seemed to be a word from the oil fields – I never knew what it meant. I bowled a couple of leagues each week and averaged about 190, which was pretty respectable in 1951. I was able to make a few nickels in the jackpots to supplement the tiny Air Force pay but that didn’t always work out, either, and a number of times I pawned my watch and/or my suitcase at the hock shop right outside the base gate. If I was not bowling I was in the league meeting room learning to play bridge with a trio of locals, also bowling notables. Dale Hansard, Jimmy Doolen and Clint Humphries and I had a book by Eli Culbertson, the guru at that time. Two-and-a-half honors to open the bidding, etc. We all studied the book when we were dummy in the game. A truly enjoyable bridge game with imaginative insults and righteous derisive noises.

Not all the instructors were good ‘ol boys. There were a number of college grads in the group and they sort of looked down their noses at the rest of us. Less than six years after the end of WW II, there was a Japanese guy named Mitsunaga and a German kid named Fritz von Pilgrim who had been an anti-aircraft gunner in Berlin at age twelve. Fritz looked a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger.There was also a little guy named Dick B Gates. (Gates was not his real name, but Dick B was.) Not a handsome fella, he had curly hair, thick lips and acne. He was a year older than me and he was in the second year of a four-year hitch and he was miserable in the military. He was shy and not very sociable. He didn’t smoke or drink or gamble or chase girls. He had read all the old magazines in the dayroom four times and sometimes went to a movie at the base theater, alone. Dick didn’t know any dirty jokes and was a poor fit around the barracks. He wanted to get out and go home, but of course you can’t just pick up and do it. He and I spoke a few times, but I was generally in a hurry to get into town.

I began to see him in the bleachers at basketball practices until that was over for me. Then one evening after chow he caught the base bus when I did and got off at the same stop I did and he stopped at the concrete bench to tie his shoe and then fell into line thirty yards behind me – all the way to the bowling lanes. While I bowled, he got a Coke and watched from the spectator seats behind the lanes. When I left the place, hotfooting it up the street to catch the last bus back to the base, he chugged along with me as best he could. Said he had enjoyed the bowling. From then on he was my shadow. When I caught the bus to go to town to the bowling lanes, he did the same. While I bowled he watched. If I went into the meeting room to play bridge he sat out front and watched the bowling until it was time to leave. He said it was okay, he liked what we were doing and I was not to worry about him. He never asked me whether or not I liked it. I didn’t like it, to be honest, but then he was the first fan I ever had. And it did sort of bother me to realize that the other instructors might see us as close buddies, which we were not. Just a guy and his shadow. I could have told him to buzz off, but I never did.

Soon he was telling me just how tough it was for him. He said he couldn’t hang on for another two and a half years – he had to get out. I pointed out that we had a pretty good gig and nobody was riding us very hard, but he couldn’t see it. He wanted to go home, and I could see he really meant it. So, sometime in the summer of ’51 he said to me one day, ‘Bill, I want you to do something for me.’ I asked him what he needed and he said I should go to the orderly room and tell them he was queer, so they would kick him out. Forget it, I told him. There’s no way I would get involved in such as that. I suggested that he go and ask one of the other guys if he was sure that was what he wanted. I think I even gave him a couple of names. He didn’t say any more about it, but it hung a sort of dark cloud over us. A couple of nights later I woke up about three a.m. to find that Dick was sitting on the floor next to my bunk and he had his arm under the sheet and was rubbing my leg. I cursed him and told him to get the hell away and go to bed, and he went. Two nights later it happened again and I ran him off again, but I was sorry for him more than mad at him. In the morning, on my way to the classroom area, I went into the orderly room and sat down with the NCOIC, a Tech Sergeant that day, and told him what was happening. He thanked me for letting him know and that was all that was said. I left and went to work.

All day I wondered what might happen to Dick B Gates and I wondered what he might say to me about it, but when I got back to the barracks his area was bare, as if Dick had never been there. The bunk was stripped, the footlocker stood open and empty and in the wall locker there was nothing but a few bare hangers. I had been gone maybe seven hours and it hit me hard. This was long before ‘Don’t ask – don’t tell’ but I couldn’t believe the speed of the reaction. ‘Queer, you say? Just leave it to us.’ For several days I waited to be called in for an interview but it never happened. No doubt Dick had made no effort to deny it – this was what he had wanted, and he got it. Several of the other instructors asked me what had happened, but I pled ignorance. Everybody had jobs to go to and the building was probably empty when the moving crew got there and no one saw a thing, but Dick was gone, and I missed the little guy. I expected he might write to me, but he never did.

I thought about him several years ago and put his name into the internet and they knew him. He had gone to college in Michigan and had taught English and Drama at several schools in that area. Eventually he left Michigan and took a job at a small medical college in a western state, where he retired as Registrar Emeritus after twenty years. There is a scholarship there in his name. Good for Dick. He died in 2004, age 72 and I believe there was a widow, but that was sort of unclear. His obituary mentioned that he had served in the United States Air Force. I suppose if they had asked me that’s what I would have said, too.
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