Friday, August 3, 2012

Three Years, Nine Months (Part 4)

Well, I'll have to say that, as banal and uneventful as I had thought my military career was, I'm finding it quite difficult to write about -- at least, if I expect myself to tell the truth.  Today, to give myself some comforting inner model from which to work, I'm going to think about my life as a piece of stone.  Cold, solid, tangible.  And I'm acting like, perhaps, a team of geologists, examining this stone, and appraising its makeup, its flaws, and hypothesizing about how and why this particular example of what is, after all, a fairly common stone, ended up looking like this.

I begin like this, because I'm frankly ashamed of much of my early life, especially the period of my military enlistment.  And I want to make as clear as possible that, when I might seem to be making the attempt to shift the responsibility, or blame, onto someone else, that isn't my intention.  To use the stone analogy again, it is an effort to understand and remark upon the forces that helped shape this particular stone into what it looks like.  Clearly, I understand that I have the ultimate responsibility of the choices I made.

God, this is going to be a cold and unpleasant swim.

When last we saw the young airman, he had just abandoned the girl he'd gotten pregnant, had just begun to have what I supposed we could call a 'gay life experience', and was standing in his barracks hallway, looking at his name on a re-assignment list.  Which list suggested that same airman would, by the date indicated, by serving the next year of his enlistment in Iceland.

Dazed and ashamed as I still was by my treatment of the abandoned girl, depressed as I was by what felt like a brick wall, having collapsed on top of me, this reassignment seemed like a chance to escape.  As if running halfway around the world would change things.

Those of us being reassigned weren't given much time to prepare for shipping out.  Frankly, the only thing I remember of that period was my faint attempt to learn something about where I was going.  The base library wasn't the richest source of information.  I discovered that the Icelandic Independence Day (from Denmark) is June 17th.  But for some reason, I was most interested in what kind of insect life might be supported there.  The available encyclopedia made no mention of Icelandic arthropods.

Somehow, in one of those fogs that seemed less like real life and more like living in a badly-focused film, I got myself and my belongings to New York, and boarded the appropriate plane for Keflavik.  It was a long flight, and we had a layover in Goose Bay, Labrador, because of bad weather ahead.  To me, it made no difference whether we arrived in the morning or the afternoon, or even if we ever landed at all.

But we did.  Mid-May, in Iceland.  The air was unusually crisp, and there was a strong breeze blowing.  I got my things and went to the barracks, to sign in and find out who my roommates would be.  Things still seemed fuzzy and slightly blurry.

When I got to my room, I met the two guys who were already deep into their tour of duty there.  They were busy, taping aluminum foil to the inside of the windows.  I had a bad feeling about this.  How would we ever pass inspections, with our windows blocked out?  They explained that the sun had already begun setting later and later each day.  Soon, there would be too much light coming in, to allow us to sleep.  Maybe this was one of the reasons Iceland was considered a 'hardship' tour.  Given that, at the time, the war in Vietnam was a more common destination for relocated military personnel. I was grateful to be so far away, even if I did have to live, surrounded by aluminum foil, like a baking potato for four months of the upcoming twelve.

Later that day, the First Sergeant (or, Boss of the Barracks) called everyone in the building out into the first floor hallway, and demanded to know who had kicked in the door to his office the night before.  There was a long, long, long, long silence, and I was very uncomfortable.  I remember having a powerful urge to raise my hand, and take the blame, even though (as I was frantically trying to remind myself, over and over again) I'd been three thousand miles away when the door was damaged.  I couldn't have done it.  I couldn't.  But my generalized sense of guilt, and a dread of scenes like this, made it difficult for me to think straight.  Finally, someone admitted the deed, and he followed the First Sergeant into the office, and the splintered door was shut behind them.

While the historic me is unpacking his clothes and other effects, and first experiencing jet lag without knowing what it was, let the current me explain why anyone at all was in Iceland in the first place.
Situated between the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean, Iceland is the main land mass Russian submarines would have to pass, in order to do whatever Russian submarines do once they've passed it.  Iceland didn't really care about the Russian submarines, but NATO did, and so arranged to install and operate a naval station, with Iceland's permission, and acceding to Icelandic demands.  The Navy had the enormous, bulb-headed 'sub-chasers' that flew overhead, using sonar to track the underwater Soviets.  The Air Force, according to the agreement, had given Iceland some fighter jets.  But, as Iceland has no military, there was no one to pilot these planes, unless the US supplied same.  And, as pilots never fix their own planes, or cook their own meals, or do their own laundry, or keep track of their flight hours, a whole varied bunch of Air Force personnel were brought to the North Atlantic, to take care of the little things.  I liked to think of us as the big and unappetizing portion of the food pyramid.

Oh, and by the way, the station was built at Keflavik because, for Icelanders, it was the ugliest place on the whole island.

And as I had been 'trained' as a computer operator, computer operating was what I would be doing -- although, by today's standards, what we call computer operating is not much different from using an abacus, or making little piles of stones.  My office was maybe a five-minute walk from the barracks, and those walks were often the most pleasant part of my day.  The air continued to be almost keenly fresh, and what I took for a gust of wind when I first arrived was, in fact, the constant 25 mph wind, generally from the west.  Often, if there was a light rain falling, I would arrive at work half wet and half dry, the dividing line being a vertical line from head to toe.

The work was what military work usually was -- dull, repetitive, and completely meaningless to me.  The only thing I did, each month, that seemed to have some relevance, was sitting at the punch card machine and entering the amount of time each pilot spent aloft -- at least I was having some kind of indirect impact on another person.  The rest of the time was spent using the card sorter, and with my poor attention span, I could never remember how far I'd gotten in the process, and would have to start a complex job all over again.  A job which, today, either wouldn't exist, or would take about a nano-second to complete.

The other interesting thing about my job, at least for a while, only had to do with where the squat little building was situated.  We were on a pebble-strewn field, with some flowering grasses and spongy mosses scattered here and there.  A plover (I can't specify which particular variety -- let's say it was a golden plover.  Has a nice ring to it) had laid her eggs, as some plovers are wont to do, out in the open, in a shallow depression she'd made by pushing some pebbles aside.  The eggs were smaller than hens' eggs, and speckled for protection.

I'd noticed the bird, from the office's back window, and when I had a chance to see what was so interesting about that particular spot, the bird went into her very convincing survival act.  She flew up, about ten yards away, and then suddenly fell onto her left side, with one wing tucked under her and the other one waving as if in pain.  If I took a few steps in her direction, she pushed herself along on the ground, making little pitiful cries, to indicate how very easy -- stupidly easy -- it would be for me to catch her.  And of course, once we were what she considered a safe distance from her clutch, she miraculously recovered, and flew away.

I tried, while the eggs were there, to avoid putting her through this melodrama any more than necessary.  Mostly I kept a kind of peripheral eye out, watching through the office back window, in case someone should go walking across the field and unknowingly step on the eggs.  I'd hoped to see the chicks, but after a week, everything disappeared.  Nature.

When I wasn't working, what was I going to do?  This was another element of life at Keflavik that qualified it for its hardship designation.  Because of bad experiences with British soldiers during WWII (many babies with unnamed British fathers in post-war Iceland), Iceland required all military personnel to apply for a pass, to leave the base.  Anyone under a certain rank could not go off base out of uniform. To help ease the passing of the non-work downtime, there was a one-story social center on base, housing an officer's club, and a much larger facility for the enlisted men.  Burgers were available.  Beer was available.  Fights were available -- a wry joke was that the club was where the airmen went to watch the sailors fight with the Marines.  (Everyone used slightly different terminology for the combatants).         

When off-duty, and in my room, I would play my guitar and draw or write.  Sometimes, I took walks, either on-base or off.  I was of sufficient rank to wear civilian clothes when I left the station, and I took a lot of solo hikes down through the actual fishing town of Keflavik, and up to the cliffs beyond.  On the stony parts of the island, where it looks as if nothing could possibly grow, there is in fact a thick carpet of mosses, spongy underfoot.  Once I took my shoes off, to test it, and aside from dampening my socks, walking on the moss was quite comfortable.

The cliffs were much different.  Because I was there as summer heightened, the grasses were at their most abundant, startlingly rich where I expected nothing to grow, and whipping about in the breezes from the beaches and rocks far below.  There was a little path, right along the edge of the grass, and I could sit with my legs dangling over the side, watching the bay turn colors -- sullen blue-grey, almost black, deep celadon green, then a surprising and flickering amethyst.  Usually, with both the usual breeze at my back, and the gusts of air rushing up from the littered chunks of basalt, it was too cold to stay very long.


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