The real test of friendship is: Can you literally do nothing with the other person? Can you enjoy together those moments of life that are utterly simple? They are the moments that people look back on at the end of life and number as their most sacred experiences.
~ Eugene Kennedy
We went to the usual spot, the Athenian Restaurant on Coliseum, because he likes to flirt with the waitress. It’s sort of embarrassing. But I was spared that particular show on this sunny but brisk Veterans Day morning; much to his dismay, she wasn’t scheduled to come in until noon.
His name is Joe. I met him back during my days as a southern gospel music director at a local AM station. A long-haul semi-truck driver who liked to swing by when he was home and chat up the announcers, he once played a part in organizing an event in our parking lot featuring the local truck stop’s chapel-on-wheels, the kind Bill Maher visits toward the beginning of Religulous. He’s a lot like those guys – outspoken about his Christian faith and willing to lay hands upon and send prayers heavenward on behalf on anyone in need of a spiritual touch.
When we changed formats, dumping the four-part harmony of the Cathedrals in favor of the more saccharine and advertiser-friendly Matt Redman, he cut his unkempt hair off, ditched the cowboy hat, grew a goatee, and hung around. And even after I dumped most of what I thought was faith at the time and moved on to other notions of God that conflicted with his own, he didn’t abandon me.
He helps me change my brakes when they start squealing. Recently, looking for more of a challenge, we went all out and tore my 2001 Pontiac Montana apart and changed the head gaskets. I mostly fetched sockets, paced around the garage, smoked lots of cigarettes, and lost shit. But he is a patient soul and never once during the two week ordeal complained that I was getting on his nerves, although I’m sure I did. He just kept humming along to the oldies he piped in on XM and ratcheting away. He’s retired now so we get together more and eat out a lot.
He’s also a veteran. I knew this, of course. I’ve spent many mornings sitting at his side at the VA hospital, driving him home after some invasive procedure. I’ve heard bits and pieces of stories and seen a picture or two from his days in the service, but I never held a cohesive, panoramic image of his years in the military in my head. Until this morning. Over omelets, biscuits and gravy, cup after cup of coffee, and eggs sunny side up – just the way he likes them – he told me everything. Well, as much as a former spy can reveal . . .
At the ripe old age of 19, on the advice of a recruiter who promised him the moon, Joe left a job manufacturing rear axles for trucks at International Harvester and enlisted in the USAF. He had been told there were opportunities to work on jet engines, but when, in 1959, he reported for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, they told him he had two options: slinging hash or spying. Although he was (and still is) a fine cook, he chose instead to become a Morse Intercept Operator with the United States Air Force Security Service. After further training in Morse code at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi, he hopped a plane headed to Karamürsel Air Station in Turkey, where, as a member of TUSLOG Detachment 3, he eavesdropped on the Russians and heard firsthand the reports of the downing of Gary Powers’ U-2 aircraft. He also developed a love for bowling, playing in base and local tournaments and amassing numerous trophies. He once rolled fourteen strikes in a row, spanning two games, and recorded a personal best score of 299, one pin shy of perfect. He had only planned on staying in the military long enough to complete a tour and then return home, but he soon found himself hooked, enjoying the opportunity to travel and see parts of the world he’d only read about.
After eighteen months in Turkey, he was transferred to the 6987th Security Squadron at the Shu Lin Kou Air Station in Taipei, Taiwan, where he first heard of the assassination of President John Kennedy from a G.I. who operated the local American radio station and had been monitoring news reports for rebroadcast. Joe claims he knows who shot Kennedy, but he won’t tell me. Says he’d have to kill me. I can live with that. One of his more interesting duties during this stint of his service was monitoring the monthly flights of C-47 Gooney Bird aircraft, under the command of Chaing Kai-shek and the Kuomintang, over communist China. These flights were a violation of controlled air space, something done “just to piss off the Commies,” and the chatter provided loads of entertainment.
With more advanced methods of communications available and becoming frequently utilized by countries the U.S. military were monitoring during the Cold War, Joe acquired further training credentials as a Non Morse Intercept Operator at Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, Texas, and in October of 1964, deployed as part of the 6913th R.S.M. stationed in Bremerhaven, Germany. He continued to achieve success in myriad bowling competitions, played flag football, and served as assistant coach for the softball team, traveling all over Europe for tournaments. It was while in Germany that the travel bug hit hard. He and his friends took boat excursions up and down the Rhine River, stopping to look at castles along the way. He visited Copenhagen and Hamburg and started a love affair with German ale. Then, in March of 1967, after a number of older cars has been driven to death, restored in his spare time, and then sold, Joe forked over $3500 for a 1967 Mercedes Benz 200D, and the fun really started. He traveled to Amsterdam during tulip season, taking a few thousand photos he later developed into slides, ran at windmills with an aplomb rivaling that of Don Quixote, attended wine festivals, and ate Wimpy-style hamburgers, washing them down with cases of beer. By the time he left Germany, late in 1967, for his next assignment with the 6931st Security Group operating out of the Iraklion Air Station on the island of Crete, his Mercedes had rolled over 25,000 miles worth of European roadways. It was while in Crete that he fell hard for tsipouro, a Greek cousin of Turkish raki, and an especially strong drink served best with freshly-shelled almonds dipped in honey.
As 1969 wound down, he found himself back at Goodfellow as an instructor. But he missed being overseas, so after another training stint, this time at Fort Mead where he specialized in decoding burst transmissions, he made his way to “where the heel meets the boot,” Brindisi, Italy, and the San Vito dei Normanni Air Station, where he tinkered in the “elephant cage,” the AN/FLR-9 antenna array that took Cold War eavesdropping to an entirely new, 360-degree level of sophistication. Despite all the geekiness such tinkering entailed, he found time to blend with the locals, enjoying the occasional afternoon siesta and more than one man’s share of Italian night life.
Joe eventually returned stateside in December of 1974 and spent the rest of his military career as an instructor, both at Goodfellow and at the Naval Technical Training Center Corry Station near Pensacola, Florida, where he fed his new love for NASCAR racing by spending his spare time at the Five Flags Speedway. Joe retired in 1979 having achieved the rank of E-6 Technical Sergeant.
You may be wondering how Joe managed to miss a tour in Vietnam. He tells me he tried. He begged them to just let him fly over so he could earn the points necessary for promotion. But it was a no-go; the equipment he worked with was never used in Vietnam. Too cumbersome. And his training never made a combat deployment practical. So he traveled. Soaked up the societies in which he found himself. He never had any illicit romantic entanglements. Never got in a fight. Despite all the alcohol he consumed during his free time, while on duty he was the model of contentment, consistency and performance. He listened, and listened well.
As did I while he shared his story of military service. A tale of interesting work and wild recreation and mysterious locales I will never see firsthand. But I share his memories as he shares them with me.
In a recent post, I bemoaned the fact that so much of what social media offers is generally lacking in substance. How what happens on Facebook or Twitter just doesn’t compare to the connection felt between honest-to-God, face-to-face friends. My friendship with Joe is of the sort that has raised the bar of comparison. In him I have found a friend with whom I can simply do nothing. We can sit and talk for hours and accomplish absolutely nothing, a nothing which is everything. And, on this Veterans Day, I am grateful for all that he means to me . . .