Friday, January 13, 2012

"Did you exchange, a walk-on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage?"

One of the seminal lines in my young life, while in my twenties, was this line:

"Did you exchange, a walk-on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage?"

That line in Pink Floyd's 1975 album and title song, "Wish you were here" was a banner that my friends and I followed through the late 70s. 

Pink Floyd are probably more well known for their "Dark Side of the Moon" album and their songs, "Time" and "Money". Or their later work on "The Wall" album and film. But "Wish you were here", was a magical album for some of us. It was no "Dark Side of the Moon", to be sure, but it had it's own kind of charm.

I was in the Air Force at the time, what we called, "The War". Compared to my previous life, just being in the military felt like "War". But it was peacetime; still it felt like a war to us. Mostly a way between us younger people and the Sergeants and Officers. But, we had what we felt was a "walk-on part in the War", there was no war, so it wasn't active; rather it was an easy, "walk-on" role. We wondered, what would a "lead role in a cage" be?

It was all cerebral, no one was shooting at us. The "enemy" was the establishment, the administration, the government, our superiors (though we didn't really think most of them were very much superior to us).

Certainly you cannot now compare our experience with that of soldiers in Vietnam, or more recently, the Middle East wars. But we didn't have that to contend with.

I remember in Basic Training, we were lead into a classroom and given our "72 hour briefing". By that time, actually by the first fifteen minutes after arriving, many of us had realized we had made a big mistake. At the briefing, we were told that "up to this point, any of you, could have, at any time, walked away with no ramifications whatsoever. You were free to leave. But as of this briefing, you no longer have that right. You are not Airmen in the United States Air Force and if you now try to leave, you will be considered AWOL, Away Without Official Leave, and you will be brought back, and you will be prosecuted."

I remember, everyone looking around at one another and the looks on their faces. Because the only reason some of us hadn't already left, was because we thought we were already able to be prosecuted, or given an other than honorable discharge, something you don't want following you around all your life. So we were pretty bummed. There were a few acknowledgements of cursing in the seats and a few smiles from our Technical Instructors (TIs). That was our first real beat down. We had been yelled at and given a hard time and we thought that was our beat downs, but we had just learned that we were way out of our league here.

The TI then told us that for anyone in the Flight (a group of fifty guys) who had thought that they would join the Air Force to get away from their mommies and daddies, they had just made the worst mistake of their young lives. Because by time they got done with us, they will be wishing to God they were dealing with only mom and dad. This was not the place to run off to if you want to get away from being told what to do, and when and how to do it. More worried looks from the seats.

Oddly enough I went in Law Enforcement, a Cop, then ended up in Survival Equipment

By time I got to my main base, after Lackland BMTS and after Chunute AFB training school,  I was pretty indoctrinated. I swore along with others of my acquaintance, not to let them beat us down, break us, or make us drones. It became very important to us to remain individuals. We realized the need for teamwork, for being able to follow to group in order to complete our mission and survive in a war situation; but we wanted to hold on to our belief that we were individuals, we were in control of our destinies and we were not "own" by the government.

I can remember whenever two or more of us would be walking down the street, we'd quickly realize that we were walking in locked step. We would do everything we could to walk out of step, but within a minute, we would be marching along together once again. That was extremely frustrating and concerning to us at the time.

After days and weeks and months and eventually years of doing the same damn job day in and day out, dealing with orders to do what we were told time and again, some of these things banal and ridiculous, after a long time of being frustrated at the military lifestyle, it became even more important to us to maintain our individuality. We would grow our hair long, wear our olive drab fatigues in a way to get away with it hopefully but wear them in some way, differently than everyone else. Few got away with that.

We'd try to wear our hats differently. That didn't work. If you're hair was long, you got a $50 ticket from the Law Enforcement guys, and even more demoralizing, you then had to pay for your own haircut, even thought you didn't want one, and had to already pay a $50 ticket.

I can remember one day, "California" Dan, came into the back shop and was upset about yet again, something like this happening to him, some burden our being in the military had put upon him once again. He was from California and was a tall, lanky, kind of odd character, but intereting, passionate (too much so for our or his own good, at times) and was one of my best friends. I had grown up in Washington state, just north of him in Tacoma. We had grown up in very different lifestyles but were both pretty much rebels.

However, I was a little older than him and had figured out how work the system. He was pissed off yet again about something. Angry at the powers that be and I remember him reminding me about the line, saying that he didn't want to be one who sold out, and he was worried that they would win, and his personliaty (which like mine, was bigger than life, but his was out on his sleeve for everyone to see and poke at):

"Did you exchange, a walk-on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage?"

That was when I realized just how much of an impact Pink Floyd had had on my, on our, lives. We hung tenaciously on to that concept of maintaining our individuality. We were not going to be "Lifers". There were two types of individual who went on beyond an initial six year service, the "Career" guys who could be guys like us, who wanted to retire at thirty-eight with twenty years in; and the "Lifers" who were generally complete assholes, hard, possibly redneck, macho types. We avoided them like the plague.

We did our work, biding our time, waiting to hit that day at which you become a "two digit midget" and have less than 99 days left in service; then the glory of almost, that penultimate, "one digit midget", and finally, you're out. It was a time we thought would never arrive. Four years active service, then a fearful two years out of uniform of inactive service, waiting to be called back, for a war to happen, for them to find something you did wrong and pull you back in, possibly to go to jail. I saw that happen, too.

Getting out, seemed a far fetch dream and until then we had exchanged a "walk on part in the 'war' for a lead role in a 'cage'." In this case, the "war" was Life and the "cage" was the military. We felt like we were in prison. We used to say that our situation was worse than being in prison because there, you had people forcing you to return to your situation. But in the service, we got off work, got to go home off base, but then in the morning, of our own recognizance, we had to force ourselves to return, as much as we didn't want to.

It meant to us that we had sold out in a way. All we had to do, not to return, was not return. But then we did.

Sucks being antisocial, a rebel, in the underground, or the "Brotherhood" as some termed it; those who led a life not sanctioned by the powers that be. We called work, "The Farm" and the barracks, for any sad enough to be single and unable to officially move off base, it was called, "The Zoo", because of something the guys that lived there and did weird things.

It was a strange time for us young guys. It was hard to get through and required drink and partying from time to time. Trying to act and feel normal while not being a part of it (the military). I probably had the longest hair on base, and never once got a ticket. Which was weird for my friends, some of whom had gotten several. Because I learned the rules, the regs, the tech manuals, and became very good at my work, I became "The Chosen" for my shop.

I made my boss look good, earned days off from passing tests I was tasked to do when traveling inspectors showed up.I kept my appearance perfect. I used Dippity Doo on my hair and wore my hat whenever possible. One time downtown, a civilian clerk at a store wouldn't believe I was in the Air Force until I showed him my ID card with my photo on it. Everyday, as soon as I got home, I showered that hardened gel out of my hair and suddenly, I was transformed into a, Civilian! Amazing. We had to do little things like that to maintain our sanity.

And music, was one of those things that really helped. Being basically rock type guys, we loved listening to rock and roll when we were working in the shop. But our Shop Supervisor was from Texas. So he listened to Country music all the time and back in the late 70s, it sucked. To us anyway. It wasn't what Country is now. So when I took over as Shop Supervisor, life was good.

Finally the day came when I got out. And life was really good. Until I tried to find a job. After being responsible for people's lives, for millions of dollars of equipment, I couldn't get hired at McDonald's. It was pretty sad. After a year of no work, living at my brother's, he talked me into going to college. And I did. And the rest is history. My college years were the best years of my life and led to a lot of great things.

But if it wasn't for some of the music out there, I really don't know how some of us could have made it. And some of us didn't. Even in peacetime, some people don't make it out of their military days alive. But then I had to come back to that question, too. I've been working in IT for years, and I had to work in a cubicle, in an office. I've had friends tell me, who worked out of doors, that they could never work in a cubicle. And again, I had to consider that question, only now, it had a somewhat different meaning; one that I realized, after my services years, changes from time to time throughout life:

"Did you exchange, a walk-on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage?"

Well, now that my kids have grown up and moved out, I've been able to do my job from home. No more cubicle, though I'm still tied to that corporate life. I've also been working very hard now for a few years to be able to make a living through more artistic pursuits, through my writings, and things are progressing well. Not fast enough to be sure, but I'm seeing progress.

One of these days I have high hopes that finally, I will abandon that lead role in a cage, and move on out into greener pastures. It's only a matter of time.

Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here (1975)

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell,
Blue skys from pain.
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

And did they get you to trade
Your heros for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

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