Friday, 25 May 2012

Clubs, and the Air Force

The day I finished up basic training….they put us on a bus and whisked us off to Sheppard AFB, Texas…..and that evening….I walked into my first ever enlisted club. At the front door….I learned that I had to join up, but it was merely a buck, and beyond those doors….was this vast empire of folks sitting around and consuming beverages. It was the beginning of a long observation period.

Sheppard offered this unique prospective where a guy could sit and sip…..watch others sip twice and three times as much, then getting into fights over the simplest of things. About three months in Sheppard, I realized that best place to be was the back of the barracks on a Friday night at midnight. There would be guys attempting to walk across an open field and a parking lot….to the barracks.

You’d see guys falling left and right. Then you’d see guys fall flat on their face on the paved parking lot. Sadly, it was a version of entertainment for a guy from Bama.

In 1978, I arrived at Rhein Main Air Base, and found the next observation….the database. These folks on base were awful serious about you paying your monthly fee ($3). By the eighth of the month….this print-out would occur and get shipped around to forty organizations on base….where your boss would eventually call you and let you know that you hadn’t paid. The hint here….was that you had to be a member…..to be in “good” with the leadership. Nothing about this made sense to me.

In two years at Rhein Main, I stepped into their club a total of four times. The yearly $36? Totally wasted, if you ask me.

The place was like some joint that you’d imagine in a 1947 world drama. Cigarette butts were tossed around on the floor and you generally felt a relief to walk out of the place because of the smoke. There was absolutely nothing that you should eat from their menu.

In 1980, I arrived at McChord Air Force Base, Washington. As a senior airman, you were supposed to hang out at the airman’s club….where there were no monthly charges….shocking, I know. This was a 60 by 60 foot room and the only real attraction to the place was this $1 a pitcher deal for beer from 5PM to 7PM. You could sit there and drink one or two of these, then walk back to the barracks. I probably was at the McChord club for twenty or thirty visits over the thirteen months at the base.

The only fights that you ever noticed at the club was usually between husbands and wives…don’t ask why….it just seemed to happen at least once a weekend.

In 1981, I arrived at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. To be honest….over the two to three years there…..I never stepped inside the club a single time. No one talked about fees. And the only thing I knew about the club was that it barely operated.

In 1984, I arrived at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. The fee business had gone to $6 a month, but suddenly I found this odd place where they had live bands six nights a week, with no cover charges. They actually brought out bands from the US and you might have a thousand people in the entire club on a Friday night. Cash flow from slot machines? Well….a minimum profit of $25k a week would be my estimate. Whatever they took in….they put it into the operation and gave folks a reason to hang out.

Ramstein was where I started to notice the amount of alcohol consumption surging to a degree. On any given night, I’d estimate that fifty people walked out and were legally drunk….and they drove home. You could sense that some event was about to occur….to curtail the club system. Folks were getting way beyond an acceptable point.

Across the street was the annex (Freds Lounge), where they designed this nifty new video-game and bar atmosphere to entice younger folks to hang out. It was supposed to be a trendy place. I walked into the annex on opening night in 1984, and thought this might be an interesting place. It was a year later when I went back the second time…..to find half the lights dimmed, some pretty weird folks hanging out at the bar, two gals dancing with themselves, and if you asked what a gay bar would be like at a military base…..this would be the exact description. I ordered up a burger….stood around at the bar, and ate as quickly as possible when they served it. Then I left. I had a dozen people over the past twenty years describe Freds Lounge in the same fashion. How and why they made Fred’s Lounge into that….I shall never know.

In 1986, I arrived at Howard Air Base, Panama. They didn’t charge anything to be at the Howard club, as I remember it. The odd thing at Howard was the ratio of women to men……almost a ratio of 12 women to 10 men. The base was totally open and a Panamanian gal could easily get into the club. Our club was also open to the local Marine guys….who made confrontations interesting. Howard also offered the finest fried chicken joint that I have ever come across. I admit, the grease literally dripped off the chicken. It was the batter that they used….making it twice as thick as anything KFC could offer.

In 1989, I arrived at Davis-Mothan Air Force Base, Arizona. This was the turning point of clubs in the Air Force. First, booze consumption had suddenly become a major issue across the whole Air Force….so $1 a pitcher nights disappeared. Cheap booze? Gone. They had to offer some kind of food on the bar and that cost money. So the money fees went up. Bingo? Oh, that became an issue on gambling. Eventually, they’d agree that they had to allow bingo back into the club. The monthly fee? Up to around $8.

DM was where the monthly day-off (our goal day) suddenly became a wing-commander topic. The club survived off Fridays….for some odd reason. So a goal day simply couldn’t be on a Friday. Folks for some reason….weren’t happy with days off being continually on a Monday. There would be continued arguments about this….where the club manager would argue with the wing-commander. The DM club was essentially broke by the second year I was there. They were demanding absolute membership, and doing everything possible to force people to utilize the club…..even for Christmas parties. Our unit had a tremendous deal worked up with a restaurant just off the base…..and then we were ordered to utilize the NCO club instead ($300 savings wiped out by this directive).

In 1992, I arrived at Bitburg. To be honest….I quit the club about six months after arriving there. This fee business had become insulting in several ways. They were also switching over to credit cards....as part of their fee deal.  You had no choices....if you were to be a member....the credit card was part of the whole deal.

In 1993, I arrived at Ramstein, for my final tour. I never joined the club. In five years….I probably at lunch at the club on three occasions over five years. The Ramstein enlisted club was in a pitiful state of affairs….barely making money, and begging congress to allow them to build a new facility. Eventually, they got the new enlisted club.

The best I can about the new club….it was never planned well (the refrigeration unit was probably half the size of what they needed). The food enterprise? Well….it was popular but the cost for a family of four jumped to $50 easily. For a lousy shrimp salad….it was around $16. The breakfast offerings? It was a 2-star menu, and your plate usually ran around $8. I asked folks about profits on Friday nights….which mostly got a laugh.

No one much from the office of a dozen enlisted folks…..ever went over to the club. The club had actually gone out and hired an entertainment person….who hustled up these ideas of a dating game situation as ‘free’ entertainment. They could actually get two hundred folks to come in and at least watch this, and consume a drink or two. Beyond that…..I doubt if the club really makes any money today at all….except for the slot machine empire. Entertainment? Well….occasionally, they will bring someone out, but there’s always a cover fee per person now for that.

For a guy who grew up in a dry county……I end up with this odd prospective of what military clubs are all about. To me….it was a place to observe the various aspects of life.

You haven’t really witnessed a good fight until you have two drunk women fight over some guy (not even their husband), while he is mostly passed out at some table. Drunk women, tend to fight in a nasty fashion, if you haven’t witnessed such a thing.

You haven’t really witnessed a great argument until you see two women in a slot machine area arguing over a ‘lucky’ machine in the corner, which has yet to pay out.

You haven’t really witnessed bad behavior until you’ve seen one husband and wife….whoop up on another husband and wife…..mostly over moving their drinks from one part of the bar to another.

You haven’t seen anything much in life till you’ve seen a guy consume three boxes of fried chicken and then toss back ten shots of some cheap booze, and then toss the chicken up on the floor.

You haven’t ever noted the effect of pavement on a guy’s face….until you’ve seen some guy who has fallen down in a parking lot six times before he reaches the front door.

You haven’t noted the true meaning of “I’m sorry” until you’ve seen some officer’s date climbing into his car, then dumping her cookies all over the floor of the car while in a fairly drunken state.

You could live your entire life in Bama…..in a dry county…..and missed out on things in life that give you a different prospective in life. So in a way, you needed a twist of the lemon….to see reality.

Email Addresses

This week….they came to us in the office and forced us all to have new email addresses. They decided that we could have the same address….for the rest of our lives. Yep, we could move from office to office, from the Navy to the Army, from Hawaii to Alice Springs, Australia….and we’d just always have the same email address.

So there was some issues with this.

If you were Carl A. Smith under the old system…..then it was simple, you were carl.smith@pentagon.mil.

Under the new system, you became carl.a.smith.civ@mail.mil, and if there were multiple Carl’s, then you were carl.a.smith38.civ@mail.mil.

You can imagine walking into the office and discovering that you are Carl number 38 now. Folks with unusual names, Chunky Berry, were lucky folks…..there just isn’t another Chunky Berry around. I was one of those folks….there’s just one of me in the whole US military.

These are typically things that just don’t come up in a guy’s life. You could live out sixty-five years in Red Bay, Bama…..never thinking about some guy in the local area who had your same exact name. In fact, in the old days….most guys ended up with some nickname (“Rufus”, “Lefty”, “Chevy”, “Yank”, “Sarge”, or “Squeaky”). Then you were awful unique anyway.

In this mighty big world…..things have become slightly more complicated than they were last week.