Total Trip Mileage so far: 1058 miles
From Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I had a long, dull ride up to and across South Dakota – just got on the interstate since the secondary roads were just as straight and boring. Stopped at Sioux Falls to visit my old friend Jerry – I have not seen him in 37 years.
My Friend Jerry – a Little History Lesson.
Jerry and I were stationed together at Eielson AFB near Fairbanks, Alaska in 1974 (we arrived in January 1974). My wife Sandy was friends with Jerry’s wife Allison. Jerry and I worked together in the Civil Engineering Squadron, where we were both what the air force called Site Developers – basically we were engineering aides to the base civil engineers doing surveying, construction inspection, and drawing of plans for base projects. Jerry and I specialized in surveying. As soon as it warmed up enough toward the end of May 1974, Jerry and I were assigned to lay out a new bombing range to be located way out in the boonies. The area had been cleared somewhat, at least a lot of trees knocked down – our job was to lay out an equilateral triangle 2 miles on each side. At one point of the triangle would be the target and at each of the other two triangle points would be scoring towers. Each of the scorers would have a transit and when the bomb hit they would each measure the angle to the hit and using the known distance between the towers and both angles, they could compute the location of the hit…and thus the pilot’s score. To compute the hit location the scorers used pre-made charts, actually a device that looked like a big round slide rule…remember this was 1974, no gps, no smartphone, no personal or portable computers…heck, handheld calculators with trig functions were not even in common use yet.
So early each morning we taken out to the site by helicopter and dropped off with a sometimes shaky promise to be back before dark to pick us up. I can’t remember precisely but we may have spent a couple of nights out there. There was one tower already built for us to work out of. We would start at the existing tower and determine where the second tower and target circles would be located. The place was so remote you could not hear any other vehicle or sound of civilization and you could drink right out of the springs. The thing you immediately noticed was all the wildlife tracks, not just little guys, but moose, bear, and wolves. Our biggest concern was meeting a mother and baby moose or bear out in the woods.
Our tools were surveying gear and chainsaws. To layout each of the two mile lines, we had to clear an opening through the woods so we could see with our transit (remember, no GPS surveying invented yet – pure old school survey). We also had to measure the distances manually with steel surveyor’s tapes to a high order of accuracy. The good part was that a lot of trees were knocked down but they were also still laying where they fell. So we decided to build towers to get our transit up off the ground so we could see the far end in one set up. It was a lot of work to build the towers but it worked great and saved us a lot of additional work. We just had to cut line through the remaining standing woods, not a small job but much better than having to cut through all the downed trees as well. Some of the towers we built are shown below as well as a shot from one showing the line cut through a section of woods. Occasionally, another person or two would be sent out to help but for the most part it was just Jerry and I. To be honest, it was a huge amount of work but Jerry and I really enjoyed being out on our own and not having to go into the office to work every day. It took us all summer and into September to finish. Once every couple of weeks we would stop by the office to report on our progress and check for mail and/or messages – this is where a problem happened that I will explain later.
Now with all that long preface, I can start getting to why and how Jerry was to help Sandy and I in a way that put us in debt to him forever. But first, still more history.
Before I was re-assigned to Alaska, we were at Moody AFB near Valdosta, GA. During the time since returning from Vietnam I had changed air force jobs and started working on taking some college courses. At that time the air force had a competitive program that provided a fully paid college education if you could qualify and beat out all the others trying to get in. It was called the Airman Education and Commissioning Program (AECP). The requirements were that you get at least a year of college on your own, have good grades, take a bunch of tests, have your whole career examined, be interviewed multiple times, get recommendations from every big wig, and then be compared against everyone else who was trying to do the same thing. If you made the final cut, the air force would send you to a civilian college for up to 3 years where you could attend classes just like everyone else, no uniforms, just make grades that were a minimum of a B average or above. They would pay all the expenses plus paying you your full salary and benefits at what ever rank you were. After you graduated you would then be sent straight to the 90 day officers training at Lackland with the standard 4 year commitment. If you did not maintain your grades at the minimum level or failed to graduate, you went back to your old job for a 6 year commitment. High pressure, but high rewards.
I had made it through the initial hoops at Moody and was just ready to submit my package for final evaluation when I got the assignment to Alaska. What that meant was that I would have to wait until I got to my base in Alaska before submitting my final package. It usually took about 6 to 8 months to get a final determination. It was late in February 1974 before I was able to finally get my package sent off. I assumed if I got notified it would be sometime in the summer so I would have time to get moved to the school and be ready to enroll in the Fall classes.
However, what happened next reads like fiction but unfortunately it is all too true. There was a guy in my office, actually he was my supervisor ever though we were the same rank (he had been a Tech Sargent longer than me), he had applied for AECP twice previously and had been turned down both times. While Jerry and I were out working on the bomb range, this guy was going through my mail and taking my phone calls. Starting sometime in mid-summer I got a letter notifying me of my selection to the program and giving me instructions to contact a certain person to start making arrangements for school. The guy threw my letter in the trash. When I got a second letter, it went in the trash as well. By late August, they were starting to call me…remember, 1974, no voice mail, no cell phones – all messages had to be remembered or written down – I am not sure exactly what was being said to the school person but there was no message ever passed to me. Out at the bombing range we only had a radio to communicate with the helicopter guys and that was it.
Jerry and I were finishing up and first full day back in the office was a Monday in late September. The phone rang at my desk, I answered it and there was the school guy on the other end raising heck with me, “why had I not responded to the letters or the calls?”, he said that this was going to be his last call to me as he would have to go to the next name on the list if he did not talk to me this day. I had no idea what had happened so I was a bit in shock, especially after he told me he had left numerous messages with this guy. He also told me that it was even more serious, if he missed me there would not be any re-submission of my package for later on because the AECP program was shutting down and I would be the absolute last person to ever get in it.
If all that were not bad enough, he said that most all the schools had already started, including the one where they were planning to send me, Georgia Tech. He said the only school contracted in their program that I might still get into was Auburn. Auburn had just started and would have to agree to take me after classes had started. Someone else already attending under AECP would have to register me for classes. He said he would call me back after talking to Auburn. In the meantime, I went looking for the guy…we had never really gotten along but this was a little more than just not getting along. Of course, he denied every thing and there were no witnesses – I decided rather than getting in a huge fight it would be better if I concentrated on what steps would come next, I could deal with him later. Actually I never did, I just wrote him off. I told my commander about it and he said he would take care of it – I never heard from either. I was shortly going to have a lot more to worry about anyway.
When the school guy called back, it was a good news/bad news situation. Yes, Auburn would accept me but only if I was in class on Thursday…3 days from now!!! That would still be a week after classes started. The only way to do it would be to leave Sandy (and 4 year old Chelsea) in Alaska to clear our quarters and make her way home by herself. He told me to talk to her and get back to him within 2 hours. He would have to get my base out-processing started right away. I called Sandy and she immediately said, “Do it”, she had no illusions about how important this would be to our future. With her answer, I called the school guy and by late afternoon I was ready to pack up and leave the next day – it is truly amazing how fast things can happen in the military when the right people are pushing to make it happen. Someone from the office even rushed out and got me a going away cake.
The next day it snowed, and I got on the plane to head for Auburn leaving Sandy and Chelsea behind in Alaska. She would have to quit her job, pack all our stuff, clean and clear the quarters (we were in housing at Fort Wainwright Army Post in Fairbanks as we had never been able to get housing from the air force – it was a 25 mile drive for me to Eielson each day). She could then move into temporary quarters (like a military hotel) until she could leave. Our plan was that she would book passage on the ferry to Seattle from Anchorage. She would drive our van down to Anchorage and put it on the ferry, then her brother Monty would fly out to Seattle and drive home to Tennessee with her.
In the meantime, I would rent a student apartment for the first quarter and look for a house to rent in my spare time. Sandy and Chelsea would move down between quarters. However, I had lots of school issues to face, the main being that I had never attended college full time, my year of college was all night classes, correspondence, and CLEP tests. The person that registered me had signed me up for more than a full load – something like 20 hrs – I found that AECP folks were supposed to take heavy loads since the military felt like if they were paying us to go to school then we needed to take heavy loads to get out as soon as possible. Well, it is obvious that it all worked out and the rest of the story is for another day.
Sandy booked her passage on the ferry – not so easy really since the construction of the Alaska Pipeline had just started and the ferries were really busy. It was October, Winter was here, and she was on the last ferry of the season…she would be leaving to catch it just a few days before her maximum stay time at the temporary quarters ran out. We had just enough money left to get her home. (Ominous music plays in the background…).
I got a call from Sandy a couple of days before she was supposed to leave…she is crying – I finally get the story – the ferry has run aground and is damaged – there are no more ferries this winter. The options are few, leave our van in Alaska and fly home – we really did not have enough money for that. We could try to sell the van. Sandy could stay in Alaska over the winter and come out in the spring. That would be tough, assuming she could get her job back she likely could not find a place to rent that we could afford – every place was being snapped up by the pipeline people. And that seemed like a horrible option. She could drive out…maybe… the Alcan highway in 1974 was a very different road than it is today and it isn’t that great today. Mostly gravel, with few accommodations, and mostly snow and ice covered already for hundreds of miles at least, if not more. For a young 23 year old mother and a 4 year old – a dangerous place. And just think how alone and scared Sandy had to be at this point…
Finally after all this boiler plate, Jerry enters our story again. I called Jerry to see what wisdom he could share since I was tapped out. Jerry immediately says, “I am getting out of the service this year and I would like to go down to Seattle to look for a job, I will be glad to drive down with her if you can pay my expenses and airfare back to Fairbanks”. Just an aside here, even though Jerry had a degree in Earth Sciences, his real love was trucks and truck driving …he would actually enjoy this trip. Sandy was a bit reluctant at first but soon agreed it was the best of all the hard choices.
So that is how Jerry cemented his place in our family history as the Alaska Savior. It took them about a week or so to get to Seattle and it turned out to be quite the adventure for them all. It is just too bad Chelsea was really too young to remember much about it. They made it to Seattle and met up with Monty and he, Sandy, and Chelsea had a nice cross county trip to Sandy’s Mom and Dad’s place in Tennessee.
For the rest of the story, after the air force, Jerry and Allison settled in South Dakota and Jerry got a job driving big rigs, then he started a trucking company, finally he opened a big truck stop. Today, he still has a small trucking company and is getting ready to retire in Sioux Falls. We had a great visit, recalling the good times we had in Alaska and all that went with it. We sat down to a wonderful dinner and after a tour of Sioux Falls. The 37 years just fell away as we were once again hanging out together. It was a high point in his life to be able to help us out and the great adventure came along with it.