Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Amarillo Toothache

Both of my older brothers knew how to manage educational pursuits. I didn’t. Those two were able to get interested in subjects and pursue them with gusto. I wasn’t. They both tried to encourage me to do better in school. The oldest one subscribed me to a hotrod magazine hoping I would become a mechanical engineer and, Curtis, the one just older than I, encouraged me to write down some of the witticisms I came up with. I could always make him laugh. He recommended a career in journalism or comedy.

I tried to do as they did and go on to college, but I was sick of school and I knew college would intensify what I already detested. Thus, an Air Force recruiting brochure that miraculously appeared in my closet had a glow on it, offering an honorable escape from the halls of learning, which, for me had become the halls of yearning.

When I told Mother and Pop about my intentions, she said, “Oh, son, no.” But he said, “Let him go.” Pop, I think, understood my state of mind based upon his own experience—he had joined the Seabees when he was young. So, I talked to the recruiter and signed up. There was a month or two waiting period, so I watched a lot of Popeye cartoons, read silly books like No Time for Sergeants, fantasized about the upcoming venture and, of course, second-guessed my decision daily: What have I done?

The great day of departure came all too quickly. Another guy from my town with whom I was barely acquainted accompanied me to the induction center in Shreveport and then to Lackland Air Force Base, where the life-changing adventure began. If nothing else, basic at Lackland gave me more self-confidence than I had before. I felt more mature after running through a burning simulated airplane crash, going into the tear gas chamber and crawling under what they said was live fire.

After a few weeks of that kind of activity and getting yelled at, I was sent to technical school in Amarillo, where two memorable things happened, one bad and one good. First, the bad one. About the third block of my tech course, I developed a terrible toothache that kept me in agony all night. I didn’t have Mother to tell me what to do, so I went to the sergeant at morning formation, holding my swollen jaw. He sent me to sick bay and the doctor sent me to the dentist, who yanked out a big back tooth and authorized a day off from tech school. The good thing that happened was that my brother Curtis flew there to Amarillo from Harlingen, Texas in a T-33 with his flight instructor and got in touch with me. I loved that brief mirthful visit on the flight line, not knowing at the time it would be our last one. He was killed a year later in a B-47 crash.

The Air Force made me realize that the halls of learning would be superior to the life of an airman. After my tour of duty and honorable discharge, I went to college, enduring it until it actually became interesting. There, I found that other grown men made a living telling stories about storytellers and the stories they tell, so I got a Doctor of Philosophy degree in English literature and joined them.

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