|Added 7 November 2003|
I left Pakistan in 1959, changed in many ways. I now wore the chevrons of an Airman First Class in the United States Air Force. I had served with pride. I felt I had done a good job. Certainly, I was a much better Morse radio operator thanks to great training and live operational experience.
Being away from America for a year, I learned to appreciate many things I once took for granted. As I stepped off the plane at Newark, New Jersey airport, my parents were there to greet me. They were always at the airport to greet me! As we drove home down the Garden State Parkway toward our home in Beachwood, I thought about sleeping in my own bed, eating Mom's ox-tail soup, and grabbing my fishing rod for a little action with some finny critters. I also thought about those palm-sized White Castle hamburgers, blue claw crabs boiled to perfection, drawing a clean glass of water from a faucet, and just relaxing in the best country in the world. Ain't America great!
The thirty days of leave would pass all too quickly. I got my rest, guzzled bowls of Mom's great soups, and landed a few fish. I crammed a lot into that leave, but it ended before it began. In the years ahead, these visits home were always too brief, became less frequent, but remained enjoyable.
As I boarded my flight to San Francisco, I turned and waved to Mom and Dad. I didn't know how they felt, but I was saddened. As I said, they were always there, whether I was arriving or departing.
I was headed for the island of Taiwan. I knew nothing about my new duty station except its island location and unit designation, the 6987th Radio Group Mobile. I was excited about this assignment in the Far East. I knew little about oriental culture. Sure, I had seen some movies, mostly World War II flicks, that depicted oriental characters. As I discovered in Pakistan, my understanding of oriental people and their culture was grossly distorted by movie fantasy and my ignorance. I would gain a new understanding based on actual experience. But first, I had to get there.
The flight to San Francisco was uneventful. I jumped aboard a shuttle flight that took me over to Fairchild Air Force Base, my departure point from the United States. The plane was a Flying Tiger Airlines military charter. That's right, the airline bore the name of that famous group of World War II fame.
As the aircraft lifted smoothly off the runway, I felt like a seasoned traveler, whatever that means. I had done this over water stuff before ¾ the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean. Unlike some other passengers, I knew the flight would be tedious and boring. Yielding to a sudden twinge of hidden excitement, I glanced out the window at the receding California coastline. It faded fast. We headed west toward our first stop ¾ Hawaii.
Surprisingly, it was a rather short flight. We had departed after sunset. There were no major over water sightseeing events, sunrises and sunsets, so I just dozed off quickly. Over the vast Pacific, sunsets are often memorable and humbling experience. Visualize water stretching across the entire horizon. The setting sun is awesome, unbelievably large. What your eyes see is an illusion. The sun, a huge shimmering fireball, appears to be lowered into a featureless kettle of quickly darkening black liquid, as if on a tether. From your vantage point in the air, you'd swear the sun literally sinks into the ocean. I believe it. I saw the steam!
Before I forget, I must mention another Pacific Ocean experience that puts you in your place, if you think about it. Over the Pacific, two hundred human beings hurtling through the atmosphere encased inside an aircraft fuselage is truly insignificant. A mere fly speck in reality. Yes, two hundred individual lives, hurtling through space, with no meaning in a Pacific Ocean context. Yeah, those 200 souls had to reach land to regain relevance. A year earlier, I found the Atlantic huge. The Atlantic is a backyard pond by comparison. And, I mean a small pond.
Even more unsettling is this idea of island-hopping to the next landing site. Flying over the Pacific during those times, a silent prayer for the navigator was mandatory. I hoped he was the finest navigator who ever took a star sighting! Back then, there were no global positioning system satellites whizzing around the earth to help mark your position. Navigation was about things celestial, wind speed and direction, faint navigational beacons, infrequent ground communication, and sometimes ¾ dead-reckoning.
As I suggested in my travel to Pakistan, you measure transit of the Atlantic in hours of ocean. Over the Pacific, the measure is days of ocean. You leave one island pit stop sure of only one thing ¾ there's a lot of water to cross before you find the next runway! It's disquieting. The "point-of-no-return" announcement by the captain always had an unsettling impact on me over the Pacific. I could see the pilot switching off the microphone, throwing a worried glance at the copilot, and saying, "Well, there's no turning back now."
Our landing field was Wheeler Field in Hawaii. While refueling, everyone got enough time to browse for stuff in the airport's exchange store. Some folks were just walked about and gazed at palm trees swaying in a brisk night breeze. As usual on these military flights, we were airborne again before we could enjoy the balmy weather, beautiful beaches, and hula girls. I felt a little disappointed. This was where World War II had begun for the United States. I quietly wished I could see or visit Pearl Harbor. Alas, we were off to our next destination, Wake Island. As the Hawaiian Islands faded in the rear view mirror, I promised to pop a personal salute to honor those heroic Marines who defended Wake Island in the early days of the big war. That is, if we made it!
Back then, tiny Wake Island was a refueling stop you couldn’t miss. More bothersome, it is a very small island in a very big ocean. Like me, I'd guess many passengers were silently worrying about the navigator's health, and wondering what kind of grades he got in training school. On any flight to Wake, you could hear a collective sigh of relief, even if it wasn't audible, when the pilot announced that the island was in sight! Hidden tension and raw fear fostered pin drop quiet on the Wake Island run. Once the pilot announced we'd be landing shortly, people who acted like deaf mutes for hours suddenly became very chatty. I did too.
At Wake, you had two simple objectives ¾ land and takeoff safely. Even when the weather appeared beautiful, taking off safely could be a problem. You see, in daylight hours, the air temperature could rise rapidly on that little atoll. If your plane sat on the tarmac too long, you might get an unwelcome lesson on how air density affects flight. If the air temperature got too high, your plane, trying to takeoff, could roll down the runway ¾ forever! It had something to do with the relationship between your aircraft’s gross takeoff weight, air density, and aerodynamic lift on the wings. In other words, you could just roll, and roll, and roll down that runway and never rise a foot into the air. So, at Wake, you got in and out fast, before things heated up. If you didn't, you were in for a long wait until things cooled down. And, God forbid, you might even have to stay overnight at one of the most boring places on earth, unless you loved sand, ocean, and Gooney birds. This Flying Tiger charter flight was loaded and obviously heavy!
We refueled and got out of the heat trap in short order. Some years later, this air density-to-takeoff weight ratio at Wake Island would keep me on the ground for about six hours, "cooling" my heels sitting on my duffel bag in the rather crude terminal building. Thankfully, we were in the air and headed toward the destination, Taipei, Taiwan. Oddly, I wondered about men fighting and dying just to be the landlord of Wake Island. What a waste.
I took advantage of the flight boredom to steal a nap. Dozing off is a good way to cope. It beats twiddling thumbs or making mindless chit-chat with fellow passengers. Nap, hell! Hours had passed. It seemed we arrived over the city of Taipei just minutes after leaving Wake. I was a little groggy. I tried to catch a glimpse of the Island of Taiwan below. The clouds were thick, yet broken. Peering through cloud gaps, I got a glimpse of rice paddies dotting the landscape, mountainous terrain, and what appeared to be a ground fog. Cinching my seat belt tight, I waiting for that sense of relief when wheels smoothly hit the ground!
I immediately noticed one thing about Taipei. There was a thick, odorous haze blanketing the city. I thought it was ground fog. No such luck. It was a polluting haze, and something I was to become all too familiar with over the next thirty months. You can't even fool yourself into believing that it's just heat and humidity. Your nose dispels self-delusion.
In the 60's, the sanitation system throughout the island was wretched. Outdoor cooking in the streets was commonplace. Honey pot human fertilizer was a main rice field fertilizer ingredient. The people had their own scent. The combination of these odors, steamed by incessant island heat and humidity, brewed up a nose curling stench!
Visiting a public restroom was worse than enduring the most poorly maintained outhouse. Add to this my observation that the Chinese were not paragons of personal hygiene, and I started thinking about a market for permanent nose clamps and personal breathing devices! But I'm getting ahead of myself.
As passengers walked down the aircraft ramp and started walking toward the terminal building and the mandatory first stop at immigration, I heard someone calling, “Airman Kuhn, Airman Kuhn.” Seconds later I saw a young airman paging me. I walked over to him. The other passengers stared at me, probably wondering who I was and why a lowly fellow like myself was being paged. I felt their eyes on the back of my neck as I walked toward the young man standing alongside a station wagon painted in Air Force blue.
After identifying myself, the airman checked my military identification and then asked me to get into the station wagon. "Don't I have to pass through immigration," I asked. He told me that would be unnecessary and said to wait in the vehicle while he went to see about my bags.
About ten minutes later, I saw him returning. He was followed by a Chinese laborer who was toting my duffel bag. Within minutes, we were out of the airport and on the main drag through Taipei. He said he had been detailed to pick me up. We were headed for our duty station. It would take about an hour or so to get there.
Inquisitive, I asked the driver about my apparent special treatment at the airport. He didn’t say much, but told me it had to do with our work, my security clearance, our the Status of Forces agreement with the Taiwan government. What was a status of forces agreement, I wondered? Anyway, he told me to just relax and enjoy the ride. Relax! Surely, he was joking!
The roads were choked with people, bicycles, pedi-cabs (a pedal-powered bicycle cab for two passengers), taxi’s, buses, dogs, cats, pigs, and various other forms of life. Watching him drive that station wagon through this maze of obstacles kept me wide awake! How he managed to dodge all the potential accidents is beyond me. Eventually, the mish-mash of traffic started to thin and we turned onto a mountain road that wound its way through several small villages. As we climbed ever higher, I noticed fields of cultivated plants dotting the mountainsides. Asking the driver, he responded, "those are tea plantations." I'd never seen tea plants. So this is where they get those leaves I like to drink!
As time passed, I also noticed quite a few platoon-sized groups of Chinese soldiers hiking along the road in combat gear. Their uniforms and helmets were of American design, so I assumed they were friendly. Obviously, they were on some kind of exercise or maneuver. I again quizzed the driver. “Yeah, they’re Nationalist troops. Always training. Chiang Kai Shek is going to take back the mainland someday,” he said, laughingly. I said, “What’s so funny?” “Well, most of these guys consider themselves Taiwanese, not Chinese. When Chiang and his Nationalists came across from China in 1949 after getting kicked out by Mao and the Communists, they took control of Taiwan by force. Most of the people here before Chiang arrived in the 17th century. They have no allegiance to Chiang and his silly notion to retake the mainland. We wonder what would happen if Chiang tried to invade the mainland. I don’t think most of these troops would fight and die for his pipe dream.” “Gee, you seem to know a lot about it,” I observed. “You will too,” he said. “You’ll learn.” I settled back as we drove higher and higher into the mountains. Curious, I asked my driver, now my pseudo-guide, where we were headed. He said our outfit was on the site of an old Japanese airstrip from World War II days. It was about 35 miles outside Taipei. The elevation and ground conditions were perfect for our radio work. We’d be there shortly.
He was right. Within minutes we were driving through a guarded gate at the entrance to Shu Linkou Air Station, home of the 6987th Radio Group Mobile. At first glance, things didn’t look bad. Although most of the construction was of corrugated sheet metal, the buildings appeared clean and in good shape. I did notice that most of the building roofs were braced securely to the ground with steel cables. Typhoon protection, I correctly guessed.
We pulled up outside the First Sergeant’s office. I thanked the driver and walked inside to report for duty. The check-in was fast and efficient. I headed for my barrack to find out how I would be living for the next fifteen months.
The barracks at the station we were designed in an H-type configuration, made of corrugated sheet metal. The H-type configuration is characterized by living quarters on two sides connected by a common latrine and shower area in the middle. The living portion was what is called open bay. No walls or partitions. Just double bunks, footlockers, and upright steel cabinets for clothes and other personal items. The living areas housed about 60 men (30 on each side). The quarters were livable, but offered no personal privacy. It’s like living in an oversized tent. It’s not the best, but you get used to it.
Operational teams worked on a four-shift rotation, designated A, B, C, and D shifts, or tricks as the men called them. Three tricks were on duty during any 24-hour day, with the remaining trick team being on break. Each trick worked a 4/1-4/1-4/4 scheme: four swing (afternoon) shifts, one day off; four midnight (red eye) shifts, one day off; four day shifts, four days off.
Constant rotating shift work is not fun. In fact, it is damn hard, both physically and mentally. Sometimes, the men got so bored and fed-up that they'd force a shift scheme change just to break the monotony. In Taiwan, I worked the 4/1-4/1-4/4, 3/1-3/1-3/3, and 6/2-6/2-6/3 schemes. I was destined to do this rotating shift act for about 12 years. It did get old! And, the abuse one gives the body does catch up with you sometime! One thing certain, I became a night person. Shift work turned me into a guy who could did not greet the morning sun and chirping birds with glee ¾ except for a fishing expedition!
I was assigned to B-trick. They were still at work when I arrived at the barrack, so I didn't have to report for operational duty until the next day. I went about the business of finding my living space and unpacking. It was getting on toward late afternoon when the first few B-trick radio operators started filtering into the barrack. Some said hello, others simply ignored my presence and went about their business.
During my assignment in Pakistan, I made the initial trip and worked with many men I knew from technical school. Dealing with a group of total strangers was new to me. Making friends was not difficult after the group accepted me, both socially and professionally. At the moment, I was a complete stranger. Suddenly, I did see a familiar face, a man I knew and worked with in Pakistan. Boy, was I happy to see him! He helped me get squared away. I had to be accepted by my work mates, on both a social and professional level. I was unpacking when I notice a commotion. Everyone scurrying around with a sense of urgency. I asked one fellow what was going on. “Going on!” he exclaimed. “Hey, this is Friday. You don’t want to miss chow on Friday. Come on, follow me.” As I grabbed for my hat, another man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, but I notice you just got in and you don’t have your mosquito net. If I was you, I’d get over to supply before they close and draw your mosquito net.”
Suddenly not sure of what to do, I asked the guy who was excited about eating what the big deal was about Friday chow? “Ever hear of the Hennessy Trophy?” he asked. He didn’t wait for me to respond to something I obviously didn’t know. “The Hennessy Trophy is awarded annually to the best mess hall in the Air Force. Our mess hall has won that trophy two years running. Friday is a special feast. Meat, fish, lobster, all kinds of goodies. You can’t miss it!” Heck, I was hungry. I followed him out the door, my mosquito net advisor following, shaking his head. The Shu Linkou Mess Hall was not a disappointment. After powdered eggs and powdered milk in Pakistan, this place was gourmet heaven! Typically, Friday was fish day, and I was anxious to see what all the food furor was about. Certainly, a military mess hall could not be that enticing. Not only was I wrong, I was both wrong and awestruck when I got up to the serving line. Steak grilled to order, roast beef, stuffed peppers like Mom made, fried trout, scallops, fried shrimp, lobster, baked halibut ¾ the main course choices! I didn’t believe my eyes! The steaks were so huge they flopped over the edges of the plate. They offered shrimp cocktail appetizers, a wide selection of soup, salad, and vegetables to augment your main course selection. The desert selections were equally impressive. Cakes, pies, puddings, fruit, it was all there like some fancy New York restaurant. Again, I didn’t believe my eyes! I ate like a glutton consuming his last meal. Surely, this day was something unique. Maybe the President was visiting?
I enjoyed that meal. I went with shrimp cocktail, steak, fried potatoes, corn on the cob, and lobster. I went back for one stuffed pepper and finished everything off with cheesecake and coffee. Before leaving, I grabbed a small sack of mixed nuts for a late night snack. As I meandered back toward the barrack in fading light, I asked the guy who convinced me to hit the chow hall, “What’s the special occasion that prompted such a menu?” He laughed. “Special? Hey, it’s like that every day. Wait till you go to breakfast. You won’t believe that either.” I refused to believe it! He had to be pulling my leg. Later, I asked another guy about the chow hall food. He said it was like that everyday! All I needed was a few hours of sleep and I’d be ready to see what breakfast had to offer. Breakfast was wishful thinking. I never got to sleep that night. Trying to sleep without a mosquito net made me wish I had skipped that first meal! The blood-sucking pests filled the air. The high-pitched whine of their wings was enough to drive me crazy in the first thirty minutes. I had chosen getting blood-sucked to death over steak and cheesecake. Bad choice. The only thing I could do was cower under my sheet and wool blanket. Whatever I did, the little beggars found their way into my makeshift tent. Besides that, I was sweating bullets! It was only 90 degrees with a comparable humidity! My sheet and blanket cave quickly became a steam bath. When I came out to gasp for air ¾ they attacked! That night, I lost 10 pounds and two pints.
The next morning, I was the first man in line at the supply counter. I drew my mosquito net, ran back to the barrack, installed it, and ran to the chow hall before breakfast entry ended. Breakfast was as advertised. Simply amazing. Fried eggs or omelets order, hash browns, toast, cereal, shit-on-the-shingle, pancakes, waffles, you name it! A man could get fat. Feeling 10 pounds heavier, headsets clamped over my left shoulder, I headed off to work for my first shift. If the work was as interesting as the chow hall was a gourmet experience, I knew I was going to enjoy this assignment!
As I mentioned, I was assigned to B-shift. The guys called it Bee Trick. A shift was a trick. Neat. I wondered about the "Bee" thing until I saw my first trick newspaper. It was put together during the midnight shift, in this case by A-Trick personnel. On the front cover was a cartoon capital A with some embellishments I can't mention. It was cute and funny.
The paper itself contained a series of news articles followed by many pages of editorial stuff. The editorials were like nothing you've ever seen. No Wall Street Journal high-brow, no Time or Newsweek wisdom. This stuff was witty, funny, crude, pointed, and occasionally vulgar. I was told this part of the newspaper was called the "Cut Pages." Yeah, cut someone's throat!
I want to dwell on the newspaper for a moment because it became a big part of my life and my tour of duty at Shu Linkou. In those days, the only news we got came in the form of the Pacific Stars and Stripes, a kind of military community press effort. We generally liked it because it had the cartoon strips, Jim Murray's sports column, a crossword puzzle, how to bake a cake recipes, and other stuff. The one thing it was short on was timely news stories. Printing and distribution time meant the news stories had cobwebs by the time one read the newspaper. The Trick Newspaper conglomerate solved this problem.
During the midnight shift, one Morse position was quiet, the airways silent. No transmissions, no work. Someone came up with the idea of using this position to copy Morse transmissions from a station in the Philippines, call sign DZM. This station transmitted Morse code "press reports" from AP and UPI sources to all ships at sea. This type of transmission, plain language English, comes across pretty quick using an automatic Morse code system. Copying "press" at high speed was a challenge. Add in atmospheric noise, receiver drift, and other annoyances, and it was a test of one's skill. The operator of this quiet nighttime position was given permission to copy the DZM transmission every night. The news stories were then turned over to the Trick Newspaper editor. It was assembled and ready to read when the morning shift came on. Everyone loved the newspaper. The officers said they appreciated getting the timely news reports. The enlisted guys said they ate up the "editorials." The officers were just being officers. The enlisted guys spoke for everyone. The "Cuts Pages" got everyone's rapt attention. Every morning, you could find out who was cohabitating, who got shot down (had a venereal disease), who screwed someone else's girl, who puked on the slot machines at the officer's club, and other wonderful events of the day. It was an investigative and journalistic gemstone!
I'll say more about the Trick Newspaper later. I was destined to become the editor of the Bee Trick version of this daily rag sheet. It launched my writing career. It was a position of stature and raw power. No one messed with the newspaper editors. After all, one wrong word and your wife or girlfriend would learn about the Suzy Wong you were living with in downtown Taipei or the horrible dose of gonorrhea you contracted last week! The pen did have more power than the sword. By the way, I didn't lobby for this power position. I got the job by default. I was assigned to the position that was dead after midnight. The editor's job fell into my lap, along with the task of copying DZM press broadcasts. The paper helped me build my code copying skills. It also prevented me from being charged with sleeping on duty, a fate that would have befallen me if I had nothing to do for eight hours.
My first day at work was important. I was assigned to the "dead after midnight" position. It may have been dead after the Cinderella hour, but it was the toughest position in the house for the other 16 hours! To those familiar with Morse operations, it was a nightmarish air-to-ground simplex operation. Over 100 stations freely transmitting on one frequency, frequently at the same time. During prime hours, I relentlessly copied code on a Western Union style keyboard without interruption. Worse, getting a relief operator just to visit the bathroom was a problem. Other than my cohorts on the other tricks who worked the position, relief Morse operators found the code copying challenge overwhelming. Usually, I had to wait for a relatively "quiet" period to ask for a latrine break. I always felt bad for the guy who relieved me when I went to chow. That could take 30 minutes to an hour.
Personally, I appreciated the confidence the Trick Commander and Trick Chief apparently showed in my ability. Within a short time, however, I learned that it was a job no one wanted. My assignment was probably more "stick it to the new guy" than "give it to the hot shot operator." Hot shot operator? Little did they know that on that first day I felt like I did on my first shift in Pakistan when I knew nothing.
I'm not sure I heard much of what the senior operator put on paper! The target was a simplex operation where as many as 10 or 20 transmissions being sent simultaneously by various stations. I thought I could do this job! Nope. I had much to learn and little time to do it. The senior operator was leaving in a few days. Thank God for the side-saddle training system and a super trainer! Frankly, I was a little shook up. I gritted my teeth and got lost in total concentration. The shift was over too quickly to suit me. Would I make the grade?
Strange. Every time I took on a new job at a new place, I always felt apprehensive. It wasn't a lack of confidence. It wasn't a lack of skill. It was about acceptance. I wanted to be accepted by co-workers and supervisors. I wanted to be a respected "member of the team." I was hung up on what others thought. A common human trait. Maybe that's the reason the best hitter in baseball, the best actor, or the best at anything tries to prove it repeatedly. Having no audience other than other humans, we need them to acknowledge our presence and collective contribution. Not so strange. It's like the question my eldest daughter asked me one day many years later. She said, "Dad, would the universe have meaning without consciousness?" That's a tough one. Surely, the universe might exist in such a state, but if it can't be perceived by sentient beings, would it be meaningless? The question is too profound. I leave it there.
Finally over the confidence shock of that first day, I started to hear and comprehend all the Morse code transmissions. After the second day shift, I was becoming more concerned about my typing speed than understanding the code. I wasn't sure if my fingers could keep up with my brain in handling the volume of the transmissions. Concentrate, concentrate, I told myself. Type faster!
After the fourth shift, I found myself shaking the senior operator's hand and wishing him well. He was off to the United States and a new assignment in Germany. He taught me a lot in 32 hours and I was grateful. After a day off, the position would be my responsibility. Would I measure up?
At the moment, it was time to take a break and catch a bus to downtown Taipei. Was Taipei the wild, fun place the guys had been telling me about? What was the big deal about this Mongolian barbecue food? What sins was I going to commit using youth and immaturity as an excuse? Could a guy really get laid for a pack of cigarettes or a bar of soap? I needed to separate fact from fiction. I boarded the bus with anticipation. Years later, after many such roundtrips, I was a much wiser man. I did separate fact from fiction. The stories were more fact than fiction. The bars and back alleys of Taipei were poor places for character building.
Except for those that were there at the time, not many readers will trust the truth of the unbelievable stories I could tell about Taipei in the early 60's. Where does one start? Sitting in a bar and watching a bar girl grab a two-inch giant cockroach off a wall and swallow it? Prostitutes plying their trade on every street corner? Bars where girls drink tea out of champagne glasses at a dollar a pop while you get drunk on Taiwan beer and whiskey? Wild parties where you'd rent out an entire three-story hotel, replete with booze and broads? The female favors you could get for a jar of Pond's Cold Cream defied description!
For those who love adventure, would you believe stealing a train in southern Taiwan and driving it all the way to Taipei with the cops in hot pursuit? More on that later. How about the Chinese linguist caught climbing up the anchor chain of a Russian ship docked in Keelung harbor? Would you enjoy a tale about ferry flight pilots running a black market operation between Taiwan and Hong Kong? Telling these stories is one thing. Believing my recollections might be a daunting challenge if you weren't there.
Lacking a common core of experience with most people, I might be better off leaving you wondering. Suffice it to say that truth trumps fiction. It has that certain ring only truth can sound. I will hold back on some juicy stuff, just as unbelievable, probably in self-defense. Heck, I was the editor of the Bee Trick Newspaper. It was easy for me to create fact or fiction. You do the sifting.
Taipei, in 1960, was not a cosmopolitan city. The Quemoy and Matsu incident off the Chinese coast was only two years old. You could sense the political tension. An accurate description would be to label the city as darn near a war time capital. Troops were constantly on training maneuvers. Radio, television, and newspaper propaganda conveyed the message about Chiang's promise to "Take Back The Mainland." In those days, not very long after the Korean conflict, we viewed Red China as a potential enemy of the United States. Chiang Kai Shek viewed China like the Holy Grail. Taiwan, Republic of China, was our ally. Our military support of the political regime was more in our national security interest than Chiang-Kai-Shek's pipe dream of returning to the mainland. After the Quemoy-Matsu conflict, our military assistance grew steadily. Back then, our military assistance was really in its infancy. Russian ships, as well as U.S. 7th Fleet vessels, used Keelung harbor as a port-of-call. Red Chinese spies operated on Taiwan, and Chinese spies loyal to Taiwan operated on the mainland. U.S. Forces on Taiwan tried to maintain a relatively low profile, but our presence, if not our intent, was obvious to the Red Chinese. Suffice it to say that attitudes and actions on both sides of the Taiwan Straits were aggressive and provocative more often than most realize. Don't get me wrong. There was no sense of imminent danger, just the recognition that it was good to sleep with one eye open at all times.
In this era, Taiwan featured an agricultural economy. It would take decades to build the diverse and dynamic economy Taiwan enjoys today. Outside Taipei, producing food was the principal occupation. In and around the capital city, the political and military power structure reigned supreme. As I was to observe, this general landscape was common in far too many countries in this part of the world. A capital city and seat of power, sometimes opulent, surrounded by outlying communities populated by poor people who toiled endlessly to produce food. It was a recipe for unrest, political upheaval, and outright conflict I saw played out in future years. Sadly, it continues to this day.
To be sure, Taipei had its tall buildings, business shops, movie houses, and cultural sites. You could hail a cab, take a bus, or ride for a few pennies in a pedi-cab, a two-passenger, bicycle-like contraption driven by a guy who always had 24-inch calves. The major roads were paved. International airlines flew in and out with regularity. Housing was affordable and abundant. Yes, Taipei was active and thriving as a center of government, business, and international commerce. But Taipei, like most large cities, had a another face.
The majority of people were typically poor, especially those just outside the city limits. Americans, most of whom were involved in political or military assistance activities, did boost the local economy to some extent. But tourism was virtually nonexistent. Although Taiwan did have many attractions that could lure tourists, the perception of possible conflict with mainland China tended to keep travelers away.
In those days, many potentially great tourist sites were not developed. Infrastructure such as hotels, restaurants, transportation, organized tours, and other necessary supporting activities severely limited the industry. I remember making a trip to what is now a popular tourist attraction, Sun Moon Lake, in 1962. It was a scenic and memorable trip. Yet, I still recall my surprise at being so alone in such a gorgeous setting! Other than a few Taiwanese, I was the only foreigner strolling around taking in the sights. I was the only foreigner at the very comfortable hotel that overlooked the lake. Off season? Hardly. Maybe it was that slow and tortuous trip over the narrow and treacherous road that kept folks away. Maybe the Taiwanese weren't into scenic vacations. Maybe nobody cared. I don't know. It was like visiting the Grand Canyon and being the only car in the overlook parking lots. The absence of humans did enhance the pastoral experience. I never had to wait for any service I desired. Pleasant, but somehow disconcerting.
So what was Taipei really like? Off the main drag, Taipei was a city steeped in squalor, stench, prostitution, and populated by the biggest cockroaches I ever saw! Those cockroaches launched into the air like B-29 bombers! Behind the main street building facades were people struggling to make a few pennies per day. The city's sanitation system was both below and above ground. Yes, there was indoor plumbing, but what you flushed down the toilet came to the surface all too quickly somewhere in the city. I like to think of Taipei as the city with a distinctive odor. I also found that one can get used to anything. When I was a teenager, we visited some friends in Ohio who took us on a tour of a cheese factory. As part of the tour, we were escorted into the room where the cheese ferments. I still remember choking on the smell and running out of that room! The smell of Taipei brought back memories of that cheese factory. Unfortunately, I couldn't run away to get fresh air. So, you try to get used to it. After a while, you don't notice. Okay, so your nose is rotting and newcomers tend to sniff irritably around you, but you learn to tolerate the odors.
In the 60's, Taipei was also a city struggling for identity. It wanted to be an international city. Yet, it lacked the means to make it happen. Spurred by propaganda coming out of the central government, the whole island was on a war footing. Broad economic expansion and some measure of prosperity would not hit this island nation for years to come. A baseball team from Taiwan had not yet played a game, let alone win the Little League World Series. Such a stunner would not happen until many years later.
During my nearly three years on the island, the character of Taipei could be compared to the Wild West. No Wyatt Earp or guns ruling the streets. Quite the contrary. It was a city without rules. A place where "anything goes" was fairly accurate. People scurried about eating, selling things, and going through the motions of big city living. There were a few good movie houses where first-run American feature films played. A number of high quality restaurants dotted the city. Yet, for the most part, bars, saloons, massage houses, whore houses, and other borderline activities dominated. Taipei was a crude and often crass city. The Taiwanese police tended to look the other way except for serious crime or the most egregious personal behavior. When sailors of 7th Fleet ships hit port with pockets full of sea pay, this police restraint was clearly evident. Had it not been for the U.S. Navy's own Shore Patrol, I truly believe roving bands of drunken, fun-seeking sailors might have wiped Taipei off the map! By the way, I am sure every Shore Patrol member was seven by six by two; meaning they all were seven feet, six inches tall and carried two extremely heavy ebony nightsticks for smashing heads. When the "swabbies" came to town, smart men just stayed in the barracks and played pinochle all weekend. After months at sea, sailors were loaded with sea pay and hell bent to frolic. The Shore Patrol, with their nightsticks, armbands, and fearsome stature, patrolled the streets and back alleys with a "bring 'em back alive attitude."
Although the actions of the Shore Patrol were often swift and harsh, many a sailor wandering around drunk and disorderly in Taipei owes them their lives. As I said, the local police were tolerant, but it was far safer aboard ship than in their hands. When the fleet was in port, I caught up on sleep, learned how to play pinochle, and stayed out of town.
Thanks to two good pinochle players, both black, I got good at the game! While the sailors were running amok, I spent many pleasurable hours playing cards, breaking only to catch chow at our award winning mess hall. I also started reading more, learning about people, and being a little more introspective. In the military, you meet people from every state and from all walks of life. For me, it was an educational and sometimes shocking experience.
Those who serve in the military are a special family, especially at overseas locations. They work and play together. They share common dangers and discomforts from which they cannot escape until their tour of duty is over. Military haircuts, uniforms, and mannerisms make them standout in any crowd. Unlike civilians, they find it impossible to change like chameleons or blend in with their surroundings. Your attachment to and relationship with your "group" is like cement, and it is powerful.
Some folks always criticize the military, for a myriad of reasons. Even those wearing the uniform are not above carping about their circumstances or being resentful. These are the kind of folks who never look in a mirror or realize you must peel the orange before eating the fruit.
This was my second overseas assignment. The men I worked with represented a diverse group of Americans. Somehow, this assorted group of people blended into a cohesive and smoothly functioning team. Surely someone or something deserved credit for pulling off this minor miracle.
Think it's easy? How would you take people from every state, all with very diverse backgrounds, train them, send them off to a foreign land, ask them to function as a team, and accomplish some national objective without the proverbial wheels falling off your plan? Worse, when I consider the group of clowns, practical jokers, and devastating pranksters I lived and worked with, I sometimes wonder how we accomplished any serious work!
As you read, remember a few things about daily life in America ¾ your behavior is being controlled to a large measure. This control can be benign, like family values. It could be how you conduct yourself in the pursuit of social acceptance. Even more sinister, Americans tolerate government constraints on their liberty that might seem laughable if they weren't so dangerous. The simple point is that Americans are a regimented people, even though they will argue to the contrary. They are not free.
When these restrictions and controls are lifted, however, most anything can and does often happen. It's like that nice girl from Small Town, Kansas, who finds herself on the strip in Las Vegas. Suddenly a little more free, and given a few cocktails to lower inhibitions, that nice girl can and often does surprise. Lest I be accused of picking on the ladies, men are no different. When the cuffs are taken off, especially in foreign countries, male behavior can go through a shocking metamorphosis.
The caretakers of our military image work magic to cover-up many transgressions before more powerful political forces become involved. Once in a while, nevertheless, GI's do commit acts which cannot escape local scrutiny. When such an offense occurs and garners official visibility, the "system" simply stomps the perpetrator into fine dust. And by the way, these snippets from my memory are not tall tales . . . these things did happen.
Oh, and before I launch into some memories, let me add something here which I believe is rather interesting and worth contemplation. Recall my observation about how difficult it is to take a diverse group of people and teach them specific skills they need to accomplish an objective?
I want to suggest a new model for educational improvement ¾ the U.S. military training system! During my military career, I was trained in three distinct career fields: ground radio operations, computer operations, and electronic equipment maintenance. For each specialty, I attended technical training schools, followed quickly by assignment to an operational unit and on-the-job training.
Consistently, the training schools were intense, focusing totally on discrete learning objectives pertaining to the specific career field. This is contrary to most American educational institutions where the curriculum is more broadly based.
For instance, I attended a 52-week course in electronics at a U.S. Army Signal School to learn about television equipment maintenance. Prior to that course of instruction, I had no electronics theory or practical maintenance experience. My talent was on the operations side of the house. It was like the difference between a computer operator and a computer maintenance technician. Different worlds in the same career field universe. Yet, despite my operations background, I learned electronic theory and how to troubleshoot and repair sophisticated electronic equipment within a relatively short span of time. This is a direct result of focus. All military courses teach only core subject material. No wandering around in the basket weaving swamp. Why do I mention this military training background?
I have come to the conclusion that one of the major shortcomings of our educational system is a failure to focus and concentrate on a subject until it is learned and positively reinforced. This failure to master a subject begins at elementary level, continues through high school, and does not begin to reverse until post graduate college years. Let me pose some questions.
Why does the educational system force a student to wait until college before concentrating on a specific subject or discipline? It is essential to teach such a broad range of subjects at the high school level? Is there a way to achieve greater focus and concentration on specific subjects and get away from the intellectual trap of curricula diversity? Does the military training system, which historically and successfully trains diverse student populations in wide variety of job specialties, illustrate educational techniques that could be applied to the civilian population? Why has there been little or no innovation in our educational system for a century or more?
So much for waxing philosophic about education. It just seems odd that given the impressive advances made in society, that our educational system continues to be rooted in what I call the European model. Although perfectly feasible, we do not begin to truly assess student inclination or talent in certain fields until college. Sadly, many do not reach the college plateau. To some, this may even be desirable. After all, we need people to work in our burgeoning service industries. Can't have college grads slinging burgers, right? Sometimes, I think it's the old 80/20 rule at work. Keep 80% at an educational level where they're perfect for the typical blue collar and minimum wage roles, let the other 20% move up to the three-piece suit world and rule with pomp and dignity. Quite frankly, it stinks.
There's nothing like a military court-martial! Military officers sitting in judgment. The hapless enlisted man facing the true power and might of authority. And, at tiny Shu Linkou Air Station . . . it's a major event!
Now, before I relate my memories of this one and only spectacular trial, please understand that a full-blown military court-martial at some lonely outpost like Shu Linkou is a rarity. A person accused of a serious offense would normally be shipped off to Okinawa or the Philippines where those experienced in such matters would administer justice. Entrusting this legal task to the officers at Shu Linkou Air Station was purely political, and most detrimental to the accused.
The accused, a black enlisted man, was caught red-handed selling items on the black market. Ponds facial cream, silk, cigarettes, and other feminine beauty products were always hot sellers. This guy was a wheeler-dealer. Everyone knew it, but that's not the point. In the court-martial, the honor and reputation of the Shu Linkou officer corps was on the line. The poor guy was dead meat.
As one might imagine, the trial itself drew much attention. After all, you don't get to witness such an event during your military career ¾ hopefully. Anyway, the trial. It started wrong and ended the same. First off, they let anyone in who could squeeze into the makeshift courtroom. A few days earlier, the room was full of ping pong tables. They even let in some of the local Taiwanese so they could witness American justice at work.
It got worse. The prosecuting attorney was from the Military Assistance Command (MAC) legal staff in Taipei. The defense attorney was the Supply Officer at Shu Linkou. As it turned out, even I could have done a better job defending the accused man. The star witness for the prosecution was a Taiwanese girl who worked at the Armed Forces Exchange Store in Taipei. She was the one, supposedly, that could positively identify the airman who had purchased the items which later turned up on the black market. You can picture the scene. The witness is on the stand. The prosecuting attorney asks the woman if the man who purchased the items is in the courtroom. She responds affirmatively. The lawyer then asks the young lady to point to the man.
For what seemed like an eternity, but more like ten seconds, she looks around at those sitting or standing in the courtroom. Then, her right arm comes up with accusatory purpose. Her finger points at a black airman standing against the wall on the opposite side of the courtroom from the accused! The prosecutor, obviously in a little trouble at this point, physically corrects her pointing finger toward the accused and says, "No, isn't that him?" With a female giggle, the star witness says, "Oh yes, that's him," with stern conviction!
This courtroom scene transpires with no objection from the officer masquerading as defendant's attorney. No Perry Mason. The accused already needed a last minute reprieve from the governor, and he hadn't even been convicted.
Quite frankly, this testimony proved to be the difference the case. Sure, we all knew he was shacked up down in Taipei and dealt in black market activities. Yet, in the interest of fair play and justice, we had hoped the guy would get a square deal. But, this was the Shu Linkou show trial ¾ and the honor and reputation of the officer corps was at stake. The verdict was predetermined. Guilty.
This poor fella got six months hard labor, reduction in rank, a fine, and a dishonorable discharge. Sadly, I don't even remember his name. Who cared anyway? After he served his time, he probably went back to the States and got in more trouble, given his dishonorable discharge. Who cared, really?
The second wonderful example of fairness and justice came about a year later. From what I learned, some enterprising young officers made regular ferry flights to Hong Kong and back on a weekly basis. They too fell prey to the temptations of black market profiteering.
Unlike the airman, these guys had an airplane! They also visited Hong Kong, a place rich in black market treasures. No Ponds facial cream for these characters. They went for the Rolex watches, bolts of silk, and other high value contraband.
Hooray for the investigators! They got caught. Contrary, however, to the harsh treatment given the enlisted man, these officers and gentlemen were simply asked to resign their commissions. Sure, to some the penalty might seem adequate. But seen in the light of the earlier show trial at Shu Linkou, the sentence was a mere slap on the wrist. No hard labor time. No reduction in rank. No dishonorable discharge. No, these wheeler-dealers probably went on to corporate board rooms or other bastions of theft where they continued to ply their trade. Who knows? Who cares, really?
So much for justice. Let me move on to another story, one with a sad ending. I doubt many will believe what I write here, casting the story off as a tall tale. Sorry folks, it's true. Unbelievable, yes, yet all too true. I don't know all the details, but three of the guys stationed at Shu Linkou stole a train in southern Taiwan! That's right, they stole a train. One of the guys was a railroad engineer who knew how to drive a steam locomotive. His two partners in this escapade went along for the ride. In all likelihood, they were all drunk when things got started. Whatever the circumstances, the Taiwanese police got upset, the MAC commander got upset, the government of Chiang Kai-Shek got upset, and the American Ambassador got downright nasty. The secret wires were buzzing with irritation over these reckless Americans. Worse still, as the train got closer and closer to the capital city, those responsible probably started sweating bullets about how it would all end and the obvious dirty aftermath.
Relying heavily on what I was told, our intrepid train buffs decided it was time to leave the train in a switch yard just outside Taipei proper. Just before braking the train to an eventual safe stop, all three jumped off the engine.
Two men landed with a thud but suffered nothing more than cuts and bruises. The third guy, Steve Becker from New York, jumped cleanly but struck one of the manual track switching units that dotted the yard. The first two men ran like hell but were quickly apprehended by the police. Steve, lying motionless in severe pain, was not found for nearly an hour. He was rushed to an area hospital. I learned later that Steve would never walk again.
A wild and fantastic tale, no doubt. Convincing others that this is more than fiction is not worth the time. It happened. Sadly, Steve and the others were daring and foolish. I don't know what happened to Steve. I lost track of him after the incident. I do know the guy who shared the upper bunk above my lower accommodation was gone. I shared many a laugh with this hairy bunk mate from New York. Barrack life was never the same after Steve's misfortune.
Not long after I departed Taiwan and got back to the States for a short leave, I did a blind, double-date with another old barrack crony, Bob Naldrette, from New York. Bob had a bunk just across from the one I shared with Steve. He was Steve's good friend. You know, as I think back now to that double-date, I can't remember even asking about Steve. Not that I didn't care. It was simply too painful a memory. Bob and I just went out for a night on the town and shared some recollections. Strange that Steve never came up in our chats. I guess Bob felt the same way I did. I wonder where Steve and Bob are today?
Yes, there were times to laugh and times to cry. If life was all fast balls one could slug over the centerfield fence, it truly would be a bowl of cherries. Unfortunately, curve balls are part of life. I was learning about life all too fast. The boundless energy of youth and the devil-may-care attitude one adopts when less mature starting giving way to cold reality.
Not too long after the Steve Becker tragedy, a young man named Stephenson was killed in an auto accident on his way to the station. He worked at the position next to me in the operations center. I didn't know him very well, but I liked him. On the morning of the accident, several of us were also headed to the station in a private vehicle. The driver saw Stephenson standing at the bus stop in Taipei and asked him if he wanted I ride. He said no.
Two hours later, this young man had not appeared for work. We then learned that a mail truck heading to the station had run off the mountain road. A man had been killed. As the work shift rolled on, and Stephenson did not show up, everyone started to worry. That afternoon, our worst fears were confirmed. Stephenson was the fatality in that crash.
My God, I had just seen him that very morning. He was full of life, that magnetic smile upon his face, red hair making him a standout among the Taiwanese at the bus stop . . . now he was gone, seemingly in an instant. I suddenly realized how precious life is.
Dealing with my own fears and immaturity, I came to understand why the men I worked and lived with could do some of the strangest things, like pulling pranks. Pranks, like other odd behaviors, was a way to relief the pressures of doing tense, demanding work under less than ideal conditions. Moreover, everyone was "doing their thing" in a foreign country where you stand out in every crowd. I always envied the linguists on the staff who at least could speak Chinese. I never managed more than a few words and sentences to get from one bar to the next, order some food, or bargain for trinkets.
Back to the pranks. I have no way of knowing if all the barracks were full of jokers, but the gang I lived with could be diagnosed as inventive, cruel, and definitely weird. The first prank I saw was pulled on a guy who was deathly afraid of fire. I don't know what name they slap on the phobia, but this is the kind of guy you never take on a camping trip. He was a very sound sleeper and hated fire!
Anyway, a group of barrack clowns knew about his fear and the fact that you had to drop a rock on this guy's head to wake him up. Their prank props were simple ¾ chewing gum and a six-inch long stick match available on the local market. Late one night, armed with their prankster tools, they crept up on the soundly sleeping victim.
Pranksters a usually cool, calculating fellows. To pull this one off, they needed someone with a steady hand. They also needed a preacher who prayed hard for the victim to remain asleep until all was ready. As the prayers went out, the team prepared for the prank. The plan was fiendishly simple.
One guy chewed the gum to the proper consistency. When it was ready, the stick match was buried into the gum to just the right depth to ensure that the match stood upright. The next trick was to place the gum and match combination on the nose of the victim without him waking up. Needless to say, an audience of hushed participants and onlookers held their collective breath during this delicate operation. There! Did it. The victim now had a lump of gum on his nose with a six-inch stick match protruding upward.
The climax came when the pranksters carefully lit the stick match and collectively yelled, "FIRE, FIRE!" I could only imagine how the victim felt when he opened his eyes and saw that match flame! I did see how he reacted, much to the delight of the pranksters.
Hearing those terrifying words, his eyes popped open to see nothing but flame! He bolted upright, head crashing into the bed springs of the upper bunk. Now screaming, he then rolled off the bed and onto the floor. Still screaming, he then raced for the barrack door. He almost made it. Laughter and guffaws from a silly crowd stopped him just short of running out into the night. For all I know, he still probably has terrible nightmares about that prank. One thing for sure, it took four stitches to sew up the forehead gash he endured from the bed springs!
In another stunt, the pranksters picked on an unsuspecting sole they didn't particularly like. I don't know why they singled out the poor fellow. He seemed to be a pleasant guy. Anyway, while this man was sleeping, the pranksters carefully placed a thin layer of liquid glue on the guy's eyelashes.
You might find it odd, but the guy slept the whole night with that glue hardening and cementing his eyelashes together. But, you can predict his reaction the next morning when he awoke and tried to open his eyes! Once again, there was a silent crowd of onlookers enjoying the scene that was to unfold. First, the poor guy sat bolt upright in bed and began rubbing his eyes. When they still wouldn't open, he silently started to feel around with his hands, like a blind man. Then, he lost it.
He let out the first blood curdling scream, followed quickly by, "Hey, somebody, anybody, please help me." He screamed again, again, and again. Then the scream was continuous. He pitched off his bunk, bumping into everything that could put a bump on his cranium or a bruise on his toes. His arms started flailing wildly. He was near panic. It was time to call a halt to prank, with the usual guffaws and laughter.
The pranksters rushed in to calm the victim. But they had forgotten one thing ¾ they had put the glue on, but no one seemed to know how to get it off. The answer presented itself in the form of a sharp pair of cuticle scissors and the same pair of steady hands that had painted the glue on in the first place. It took time. Too long. The guy's eyes looked like shit. But the trim worked enough so the poor bastard could finally open his eyes. Before he got raging mad, he cried. The haymaker he landed on the chin of the trimmer was a clean shot. Broke the guy's nose. Being a clever prankster did have a downside.
The next incident was a little less dangerous, but even more damaging to the victim. We had one guy who was always late for work. He had been chewed out by the shift chief so many times most of us just knew the axe would fall eventually. One night, on a midnight shift, we saw the shift chief pacing around like a newly caged tiger. The prank target was late again. When he finally showed, one hour late, the shift chief's patience was gone. In front of everyone, he tongue-lashed Mr. Tardy without mercy. The threats of punishment were equally loud and ominous. "Just once more, young man, and I will put you up on charges," yelled the shift chief. The young man was twitching. He knew he was in serious trouble. So did the prankster gang!
Back in the barrack that morning after work, the pranksters were in quiet huddle. Meanwhile, Mr. Tardy was going around to nearly everyone soliciting help to kick his ass out of bed, to help him. Sensing what was going to happen, the entire scene was rather pathetic. Heck, we were going on a short break before we started our day shifts. As I left the barrack to head for town, I glanced back to see that doomed man still talking with anyone who would listen. Few had ears.
Mid shift break over, most of us turned in as early as possible, not looking forward to that first day shift. It was usually a bleeder. You never got enough sleep or made the biological adjustment to the changing shift times. As usual, the guys started crawling out of the sack from 5 a.m. onward. Everyone was doing the shit, shower, and shave routine; everyone, that is, except one guy. He was lashed securely into his top bunk with clothesline. Sometime during the night, the prankster team had roped him in tight. Without help, he was locked in like a mummy.
Verbal threats were laughed at. Ranting and raving didn't help. And as the men left for chow or work, fervent pleas for mercy began to echo in the quickly emptying barrack. Everyone trudged off to work, looking forward to the spectacle that would take place in time. The Taiwanese houseboys would come to work about 8 a.m. and free the victim in bondage. Yeah, one hour after shift start time. The shift chief was sitting on the position that should have been manned by Mr. Tardy. His face was the color of a fresh beet. He was mumbling to himself. His hands were shaking. He was pissed. When Mr. Tardy arrived, the shift chief was so full of emotion it took nearly 30 seconds for him to explode. Forget the management principle of praising in public and criticizing in private. The chief was a volcano of expletives deleting, venting anger. And what excuse could our man offer? "But chief, I was tied into my bunk." Lame. Just what the chief wanted to hear to calm him down. It was a real show!
Since we didn't have the extra manpower, the victim absorbed the verbal abuse and the promise of punishment before sitting down to do his job. I felt mixed emotions. I know I didn't want to make eye contact with Mr. Tardy. In fact, as the shift dragged on, I started to feel uncomfortable, like someone was about to sneak up on me wielding a machete! I wasn't one of the pranksters, but I figured the guy was so upset that anything could happen. It did.
Mr. Tardy suddenly got up out his chair, tossed his headsets against the far wall, lifted up that heavy Western Union keyboard typewriter we used, and threw the machine over the top of the position. The typewriter landed with a bang, broken keys and parts flying everywhere. He stood there, shaking, until officers and senior NCO's arrived to put him under mild restraint. They even called for medical assistance. Things had gotten out of hand. The humor vanished.
Mr. Tardy had a nervous breakdown. Spent two weeks in a Taipei medical facility. Came back for administrative punishment. Reduction in rank. A fine. A black mark on his record. Thankfully, he was also assigned to another shift. We also got a not too courteous speech from our shift chief during an all-hands meeting. He seemed willing to cut the pranksters some slack, given the victim's tardiness record. Nevertheless, he was harsh and direct about the wisdom of pulling any more shenanigans. Think that stopped anything? Hell, no.
Not a week later a new man was assigned to the barracks. Young fella, by our 20-plus year old standards. He came in during the morning, so the pranksters had all day to work on his mind. The storyline was the 100-pacer. This small, venomous pit viper was a frequent visitor around the barrack area, drawn by mice and rats under the building no doubt.
Anyway, they told the young man that he'd better be careful. A 100-pacer had been discovered just that very morning under the garbage rack outside the main doors. Worse for the eager listener, the heavy rains of the past few days made it likely that one of these dangerous snakes would try to get into the barrack. They usually did, the story told. Had to shake out your boots in the morning just to be sure one wasn't lurking in a new home. Better check your mosquito netting too. There were so many stories of those who had been bitten, limbs amputated, and other such nonsense, I'm surprised the guy could even try to sleep that first night.
All this prankster storytelling had a purpose of course. When the new guy went out for a few minutes after dark, the pranksters went to quick work. They produced a very large toad, one of many that inhabited the area. They slipped that toad under the bed sheets down at the foot of the bed, covered the area with the spare blanket to disguise the lump, and went back to whatever they were doing.
Shortly, in walked the unsuspecting victim. One of the pranksters immediately praised him for his courage in going out after dark with 100-pacers in the vicinity! Others chimed in with similar comment. Then, they all waited as the young man took his shower and eventually crawled under the sheets.
When his feet hit that toad, imagine what happened! Why he didn't have a heart attack I don't know. He did come out of that bunk like a rocket, screaming, "Snake, Snake!!" He ran about fifteen feet toward the barrack door, I guess intending to run out into the night. The pranksters stopped his mad dash with shouts about the snakes that were likely waiting just outside in the darkness. His obvious hysteria was quickly drowned in a sea of laughter. The boys had their fun. That's the way it went in our barrack.
In Pakistan, I had experienced blinding sandstorms and mild earthquakes. Now it was mild earthquakes and typhoons. One typhoon in particular, named Pamela, gave me a permanent respect for these mighty storms. On the night Pamela hit Taiwan, I was working the graveyard shift. The storm hit with maximum fury early in the morning. I'll never forget the experience.
Pamela first appeared as a weak circulation approximately 400 miles northeast of Guam in September 1961. Three days later, Pamela hit Taiwan with sustained winds of 160 knots (184 miles per hour) near the eye. Gusts, I was told, went over 200 miles per hour.
It was about 4 a.m. when Pamela hit our station with full force. Shortly thereafter, a 90-foot radio antenna came crashing down on the operations center. The wall in front of me buckled in my direction and the roof sagged down about two feet! We immediately lost all power. Emergency battery lights came on automatically. Ruptures in the roof caused by the crashing antenna now let in the sickening howl of the wind outside. Rain found its way down through the newly created ceiling faults.
The shift chief told us to get ready to evacuate the facility. Not much later, someone came in and said power lines had fallen on the main access corridor (made of corrugated sheet metal). At the moment, the exit was an electric fly trap. We did the only thing possible. We huddled against reinforced walls and prepared to just ride it out till morning.
For an eternity, probably only a few hours, Pamela hammered away at Taiwan and our little radio station in the mountains. You could hear pieces of the facility behind torn away by the wind. The whole building swayed and shuddered throughout the night. Imminent collapse was a thought in everyone's mind. Mother Nature has a way of putting man in his rightful place on this planet!
After dawn, we were alerted that our relief shift was trying to get into the building. We didn't know what they were going to do without power, but we were tired and hungry. Relief sounded great. Only one problem. The main entrance was still impassable. The only way in was through a rear exit. Getting to this rear door, one had to cross an open field. The only protection was two large steel storage shelters that sat in the middle of the field. We all gathered at the now open rear door, gazing out into the morning light and a scene right out of hell.
Pieces of sheet metal the size of a kitchen table, and other nameless objects, were flying through the air ¾ horizontally! Just being outside seemed suicidal. Yet, out of the morning gloom, running for the temporary safety of the storage shelters ¾ there was the relief shift. They came across the field in groups of six or seven. That's about all that could hide for a while behind the shelters. They would then sprint toward the back door, arriving somewhat shaken and wet to the bone. Miraculously, they all made it. Now, it was our turn to run the gauntlet and get to the hoped for safety of the mess hall or our barrack. Again, Mother of Miracles, everyone made the run without getting cut in half by flying sheet metal.
Pamela was the 5th typhoon to hit Taiwan in 1961. It was the worst of the lot. Ninety-eight deaths, 27 people missing, and 964 injured. More than 5,000 houses collapsed, over 12,000 were damaged. Reports said over 50,000 people were left homeless. Damage was estimated to be in excess of $4,000,000 to crops, land, and homes. That was a huge chunk of money in 1961.
I was to experience other typhoons, but Pamela was etched in my memory. Fierce, unrelenting, and frightening, it was a storm to remember. Winds of 200 miles per hour will definitely part your hair. To this day, I can still see those large pieces of sheet metal zipping through the air like deadly knives.
Before I knew it, two-and-a-half years went by in a flash. I had earned not one, but two promotions, to Airman First Class and then to Staff Sergeant. The promotion to Staff Sergeant came as part of a special program. Retention of good people being a serious issue, the personnel wizards back in the States came up with a plan called 3-D. I don't even recall what that meant, but the promotion was an inducement for reenlistment. Promotion to Staff Sergeant in less than four years being almost unheard of at the time, it was attractive.
At the moment I learned I was selected for the program, I was considering leaving the Air Force. Promotions were slow. The duty stations were less than ideal in my career field, and, I still wasn't sure about my compatibility with the military way of life. Being single, however, the decision could be totally selfish. I opted to accept the promotion and reenlist for another four years.
Not long thereafter, imagine my shock when I was told I would be forced to retrain into another career field! Seems those same geniuses who thought up the 3-D program had mismanaged the people assets in my particular career specialty. USAF Security Service now had an abundance of Morse radio operators. I was given no choice, except to pick the new career field. I chose computer operations.
Subsequently, I was assigned to the 544th Aerospace Reconnaissance Technical Wing, Strategic Air Command Headquarters, Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha, Nebraska. Before long, I received orders for this assignment and was on my way back to the States. As I look back, this new assignment was not especially noteworthy or professionally rewarding. Moreover, it turned out to be an interlude. USAF Security Service, I came to learn, was always lurking just over my shoulder. After only 14 months at SAC Headquarters, they plucked me away from the career field they forced me to retrain in and sent me on what was to be a four-year assignment at Misawa Air Base, Japan. I'll pick up some memories of Omaha in my next story about the tour in Japan. In closing the book on Taiwan, I left that island nation at age 22, a Staff Sergeant. It was a tour characterized by some personal growth and much indulgence. I did improve my professional job skill, learn the power of the press as chief editor of the trick newspaper, and even managed to soak up a little more oriental culture.
On the downside, I started to get a little too cavalier. I remember one night I was copying news from DZM in the Philippines when the signal faded badly due to sunspot activity impact on the ionosphere. With the signal fading and becoming unintelligible, I got the notion of creating a false news story while continuing to feign actually copying DZM. The story I created on the fly was about an air crash involving the San Francisco Giants baseball team. I don't mind saying, it was creative in story and detail, and I carried the ruse through to the end by including it in the evening edition. Of course, I thought it great fun and something that would fall into the prank domain. Woe to me when I learned what a stir that fake story created. Phone calls to the States. Distraught Giant fans. People talking in the mess hall at breakfast.
Later that morning, while boarding the bus for town, two guys sitting in front of me were discussing the bogus story. Seems one of them actually called home when he read my story. Now, with confirmation that the story was false, I heard him remark to his crony, "When I get a hold of the guy who created that fake story, I'm going to beat the shit out of him." I hunkered down in my seat and thought about things like good judgment and wisdom. I had demonstrated neither.
As for Taiwan, I would recall the taste of Mongolian barbecue, the false promise of returning to the mainland, the deterioration of my personal self-control, more abject poverty in a foreign land, and a growing arrogance that came from being part of a very elite command that operated at the fringes of regular military protocol. This latter attitude was to become more troubling in one sense, but invaluable in another. Let me explain.
As in my first assignment in Pakistan, the focus was on mission accomplishment. Strict military discipline and restrictions on behavior became secondary. This was both good and bad. When I did return to the "real world and the real Air Force" I quickly ran into difficulties with strict disciplinarians, men who worried more about the length of your hair than your job performance. On the good side, I had self-reliance, confidence, the ability to assess and take risks, and a questioning attitude. This personal independence is something I had to control and temper in stateside assignments, lest it do my harm. Strangely, this same trait evidently made my standout from others. Somehow, this led to decisions by others that I was a man who could be trusted to get the job done, to take on challenges others shied away from, and someone who would not give up despite difficulties. So, I now faced a serious dilemma, which I did not fully comprehend until some years later.
Doing intelligence work in foreign lands, it is wise to downplay your military affiliation, be culturally sensitive, and to just blend in to the woodwork. On the job, a baseball cap (with the big "B" trick symbol) was part of my uniform. We even modified the fatigue uniforms of the times to make it easier and quicker to dress.
The fatigue shirts of those times had a lot of buttons under an outside lapel. The boots had their usual levels of laces from inside tongue to boot top. Our solution, before velcro, was zippers. Everyone would take their shirts and boots to the Taiwanese houseboys who then took them downtown for the necessary modifications. Within a few days, your shirts and boots came back with superb brass zippers installed. When you dressed for work, it was a snap, or should I say a quick zip to get your shirt and boots on. Toss your baseball cap on your head, throw your headsets over your shoulder, and you were ready for the shift. The poor jerk who stuck with the laces and buttons was still dressing in the barrack while we were eating in the mess hall. Of course, you couldn't take these modified uniforms to any new assignment stateside. They might not even be acceptable at your next overseas assignment. The disciplinarians always had a field day with such violations! You just stored the modified items away or gave them to the locals.
Again, this approach to things strictly military could, and did, prove detrimental to me until I learned how to adjust. Down deep, I shuddered at the thought of being turned into a regimented asshole. I learned that there would always be someone who might get upset about my free-thinking, get-the-job-done attitude. Those folks don't see the wisdom in sayings like, "you pay for the body, but the mind comes free."
Men of action are rarely good politicians. I had poor political skills. I still recall the words in one of my performance reports which said: "Sergeant Kuhn's enthusiasm ¾ when properly harnessed and channeled in the right direction ¾ is a definite asset to any organization." Note the nuances in that one statement. By the way, I got this performance report just after I won my first of three Air Force Commendation Medals for military merit. By the way, I wasn't a boozing, out-of-control, wild banshee. Never was. Always thought of myself as a quiet, thoughtful Capricorn. Yet, this boss viewed my enthusiasm as something that had to be "properly harnessed and channeled in the right direction." Yeah, as long as he held the reins and I went where he wanted to go, I'd be fine. The slightest bit of free-thinking reluctance and I'd be in instant trouble.
My two 15-month consecutive remote tours at Shu Linkou Air Station were rewarding and eventful. I was disappointed to be leaving under the umbrella of "forced retraining" into another career field. As you can guess, this would hurt my promotion potential. I'd be starting at the bottom of the ladder. Worse, I was a Staff Sergeant. I was expected to act in my new role as a noncommissioned officer. And I was headed for SAC Headquarters!
Problem was, I was promoted under a special USAF Security Service program which responded more to my technical skill than my managerial ability. I had received no training to be a noncommissioned officer, leader of men, and all that rot. Frankly, I was ill-prepared for my new role and responsibility. I had to learn how to be a Sergeant on my own, by the seat of my pants. It was a struggle. I was not used to giving orders or dealing with management issues. Nevertheless, I stepped up to the plate and starting swinging! Once in a while I'd hit a homer. More likely, however, in these early days, I made far more mistakes. Thankfully, those mistakes did not harm others or impede their career progress.
Without formal management training, I learned to be observant, to listen, to analyze, and to trust my intuition. This basic process has always served me well. More important, I found that there are three answers to every problem ¾ one of which is to do nothing.
On the seemingly mystical side, I learned the truth about dowsing. It really does work! One day, playing softball at our makeshift ball field, I saw a truck pull up next to the field. Out stepped a Staff Sergeant and a diminutive Chinese fellow who had a forked stick in his hand. With the Sergeant standing by patiently, the Chinese fellow started crisscrossing the area behind the chain link backstop. Every time he passed over one particular spot, the forked stick would point downward and whip around wildly in his hands. After about 15 or 20 minutes, the two guys got back in the truck and drove away. I thought the whole incident strange and thought nothing of it. Nothing, that is, until a week or so later. There, right behind the backstop, and in the exact spot where the dowsing rod was going crazy, was a water fountain! Magically, when you pushed the button, clear, cool, pleasant tasting water spurted out in a steady stream. Unbelievable! If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes . . .
Well, let's leave Taiwan, its tea plantations, and its decadent impact on my morals. My next episode will chat about my 14-month interlude at SAC Headquarters in Nebraska and my subsequent four-year tour on the main island of Honshu, Japan. As for Taiwan, it was a place without conscience, without professional reward, and full of self-fulfilling brothel relationships. Quite frankly, I'd never go back, not for ALL THE TEA IN CHINA.