An open letter to all my friends and family.
I live 1200 miles from the place where I went to high school, and where the family reunions are held every year. I've made the trip down there more than thirty times in the past, so why not one more time? I have plenty of friends and relatives I could stay with, and it really doesn't cost that much to drive down and back, so why not? Or why not fly? Airlines today goes just about everywhere. Flying isn't as stressful as driving, is it?
The truth is, my body won't allow me to make that trip unless it's a dire emergency, such as a major death in the family, or some other catastrophe. I might be able to make it down there, but it would be very difficult to make it back in less than a week, regardless of whether I drove or flew.
What's so terribly wrong I couldn't drive or fly to Tioga? It's complicated! Mostly, though, it's that my back (and much of the rest of my body) has taken a terrible beating over the last fifty years. Much of it is from things I did during my military service, although there were - and still are - other contributing factors.
It probably began with my birth and childhood, but the first major damage I can point to occurred when I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy, in 1964, right out of high school. I suffered what today would be described as a "closed-head injury" during a boxing match right after Thanksgiving, 1964. I was having constant, unremitting headaches by the the first week of December, and spent the last three weeks of the semester in the Cadet hospital. My grades, which hadn't been stellar before that, took a nose-dive, and I was sent home. The headaches were mostly gone by June, 1965, and I rejoined the Air Force as an enlisted member.
With Basic Training and tech school behind me, I had three rather eventful assignments: to Enid Air Force Base (AFB), in Enid, Oklahoma (a pilot training base), to Albrook AFB, Panama Canal Zone, and to Holloman AFB, Alamogordo, New Mexico. I got married just before I went to Enid, to Jean Smith, the daughter of a retired AF Master Sergeant, in Denver. Our year-plus there was more or less a honeymoon. I didn't have enough rank to be accompanied by my then-growing family to Panama, so Jean stayed in Denver, and I went south. I spent the 18 months I was in Panama going to college, serving in the USAF Southern Command Honor Guard, and learning about Latin America. Mitzi, our oldest daughter, was born five months after I went to Panama. At Holloman, I met a number of my old classmates from the Academy! I was surprised by the warmth and openness of their acceptance of me as an enlisted troop.
In addition to my military duties, I did a number of other things, mostly on my own. In Enid, I was the next-to-lowest enlisted person, and E-2. I made E-3 just before I departed for Panama. I was promoted to E-4 down there, and E-5 (Staff Sergeant) shortly after I arrived at Holloman. My income as an E-2 was pitiful - a massive $185/month, BEFORE taxes and deductions. We needed more work than that, so I took a couple of part-time jobs. One was as night mechanic at a bowling alley, and the other was as a general yardman for a mobile home sale facility. Both taught me quite a bit. My honor guard duties kept me from working in Panama, but by then we were being paid a bit better and I really didn't have to work a second job. That freed up time for school, for exploring the area, and for doing things I normally wouldn't have been able to do. There just WEREN'T any part-time jobs in Alamogordo, which was good. The extra time allowed me to go mountain climbing and camping with a few friends.
I went to Vietnam in October, 1970, and spent a year there. Twelve-hour shifts, six days a week (or more), left little time for anything else. I worked in an imagery intelligence facility, and the only danger we faced was the possibility the Viet Cong would try to ambush us on our way to the burn facility (never happened), or getting hit by some of the rockets and mortar shells they tossed at the base from time to time. I worked nights - 8PM to 8AM or whenever the morning 7th Air Force intelligence briefing was over. The biggest danger I faced during my tour was almost being run over by a Vietnamese learning to drive.
Jean and I went to Germany in 1971, with our daughter Mitzi. I had a very unusual job (still classified), and learned a half-dozen new skills. Again, I ended up working shift work: From somewhere around 3PM until the work was done. During the winter, that could be as early as 5:30PM. In the summer, I've seen the sun set and also rise on the same shift. Twelve to fourteen hour shifts weren't common, but neither were they non-existent.
Jean's parents came over for a visit when we were in Germany in 1973. We (four adults and a 6-YO) spent eleven days driving my little VW 411 from Wiesbaden, Germany, down through Switzerland to deep within Italy, then back through Austria home. We covered more than 4400 kilometers (2750 miles) in those eleven days, and visited more than a dozen different cities. We have more than 4000 slides and photos from that trip. It wasn't the only one we took, but it was the longest, and the most memorable.
We ended up in Omaha, Nebraska, when we left Germany in 1975. I worked a shift were I worked days one week, then nights the next. That made it almost impossible to go to school, but somehow I managed to take a 12-hour load at the University of Nebraska at Omaha one semester. I hadn't managed to get promoted beyond E-5 while I was in Germany, or at Omaha. Then President Carter introduced a freeze on promotions in the military. Jean and I talked it over, and decided to take our chances on the outside. One reason we made the decision is that we hadn't managed to have any more children, and it looked like we couldn't. We wanted more, and were willing to adopt, but military people weren't high on anyone's list.
We moved back to Littleton, Colorado (Jean's home), in 1977, and bought a house. I found being out of the military uncomfortable, and joined the Air Force Reserve. We stumbled into a deal as therapeutic foster-parents, and managed to adopt Joe. We would have adopted more, but the Carter Recession was killing jobs left and right, and there just wasn't enough money for a second adoption. Even my promotion to TSgt (E-6) in the reserves didn't help.
I took a long reserve tour to Washington, DC, in 1980, working at the National Photographic Interpretation Center (It's changed names three or four times since then, now going by NISC, NMIC, or NCMI, or something). I was part of an eight-man team that supplied imagery intelligence to the Air Force Director of Intelligence. Just as my tour was ending, I was given the opportunity to re-enlist at my then-current rank (not at all normal), and take a specific job in Germany (unheard of). I, of course, took it!
During that three years, from December, 1980, to December, 1983, I had three different jobs. The first was the job I'd been offered to re-enlist -- working with the main computer system as resources manager. The second was a two-week special assignment. The third was as a team leader for a team that needed some advanced training. I enjoyed the last job the most.
We went to Sumter, South Carolina (Shaw AFB) from Germany. Needless to say, I was not thrilled, even though I made Master Sergeant (E-7) while there. Our son Joe needed some schooling he couldn't get in South Carolina, so we were transferred back to Omaha, to Offutt AFB (SAC Headquarters), back to the unit I'd been assigned to before.
The schooling for Joe was good, but the jobs for me were the pits. We survived, but after 15 months, we left for Merrie Olde England, to RAF Alconbury and the 1st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.
I knew when I took the assignment that the 1st TAC would be closing within two years. Thanks to my tour in Washington, I also knew why it was closing, and it wasn't all because of budget cuts. One of the decisions I made when I took that assignment was that I would prepare the 22 people working for me for good follow-on assignments. We worked well together, and made that last 18 months memorable not only for us, but even for the NATO troops that visited us.
From England back to Germany, and the last two and a half years of my military career. I was beginning to have more and more problems with my back, and ended up having surgery in 1990. That surgery was a two-level cervical (neck) fusion of the C4-5 and C5-6 vertebrae. The problem was caused by a build-up of calcium inside the spinal column, pressing against the spinal chord. There was already quite a bit of calcium forming osteophytes (calcium growths) on the vertebra, pinching the nerve roots that come out in pairs all along the spine.
I retired in March, 1991, and spent the next couple of years working odd jobs until I finally began working for NCR Microelectronics, in August, 1994. That job stuck! In fact, I found the job -- testing electronic physical and software components for compatibility and functionality -- something I was both good at and interested in. By 1997, I was a team leader, and had gone from part-time work as a temporary employee to full-time salaried employee. The pay went up with the responsibility.
Unfortunately, the medical problems I'd begun to have at the Air Force Academy had continued, and worsened. I injured my back at least eight or nine more times between 1964 and 1996: diving into a ditch to keep from being hit by a truck, falling down ice-covered steps in Omaha, grabbing a Mosler 4-drawer safe from tipping off a dolly during an office move, being hit in the back by part of a collapsing shelter, and others. By 1997, I had developed osteoarthritis in every joint of my spine, and in most of those in the rest of my body. Working in noisy, enclosed environments, with noisy, electronic equipment and early computers, and working close to active, NOISY flightlines had also caused me to develop tinnitus, a high-pitched, constant ringing in my ears. By 2001, I was no longer able to work.
I had received a 20% Veterans' Administration disability when I retired from the Air Force in 1991. That had been increased to 30% in 1997, and to 70% by 2005. Also by 2004, I had applied for and was granted a 100% disability by the Social Security Administration. I had to have a second surgery on my cervical (neck) spine in 2009, and surgery on my lumbar (low-back) spine in 2011. I was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes in February 2009, and the VA raised my disability to 90%.
Most of the problems I have are degenerative in nature -- they get worse over time. That's the problem we face today. My back is hurting more, and more often. I'm having peripheral problems (aches and pains, muscle cramps, numbness and tingling, etc.) from my back problems, from my osteoarthritis, and from my diabetes. We (my doctors and I) are trying to find an effective treatment that doesn't include surgery, although that remains an option.
It's not all been bad news. Jean and I have been married for 48 years now. We've adopted two children (in addition to our daughter), and have a third we hope to adopt early next year. I've earned three Associate's degrees, and have the credits for a double major/double minor Bachelor's degree. We've seen a huge amount of the world -- more than the average American, for sure. We have friends all over the world.
My medical problems caused me to look for a way to make a little money that didn't require hurting myself. That led me to writing science fiction novels. I currently have eight ebooks complete and posted on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I have two more finished novels I need covers for, and then I'll post those. I have eleven or twelve more in the works! They do help me forget about how much I hurt, and how limited I am in what I can do.
I just can't travel very far. Or reach over my head. Or lift over 20 pounds (I fudge that one almost daily...). Or touch my toes. Or go over 4 hours without eating something. And I have to take a fist-full of pills every day. There's still the Internet, and chat rooms, Facebook, and eBay. There are things I'd love to still be able to do, but there's still enough I CAN do to keep me interested, and moving ahead (including working on my stamp collection that I began in 1956).
So, for all those I didn't or won't be albe to meet in person, look me up online, and say HI! Twist my arm, and I'll even share some of the amusing things that I've seen, experienced, and enjoyed during all those years.