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Basic Training – Just Like the Movies – Or Not : How the start of my music career hit a bump

I was in the Air Force, and I thought that I should spend a few minutes on the joys of the military – my goals therein, and how the whole thing went sideways, but seems to have turned out for the best anyway.

The Music Career

Stepping back for just a minute. When I was in High School the Air Force Band of the Midwest came to perform. They were amazing. When I joined the Air Force, that's what I wanted to do.

Except you can’t choose to be in the Air Force Band of the Midwest, you must qualify for that.

Thus, I had to select a "real" job when I got to Basic Training; I scored high enough on the military entrance exam I could choose any job – I couldn’t decide in the recruiter’s office. “Plenty of time for that”, he said. “You can go ‘open electronics’ and decide what job you want then”.  

Ok fair enough.


I was full of myself as a trumpet player. I had been first chair most of High School and had been nominated for various awards and had a bunch of medals from various competitions. “Shouldn’t be a problem”, I thought. I’ll go to basic, apply for the Drum & Bugle Corp, get my chops up, audition for the Air Force Band of the Midwest, and that will be that. This whole, “selecting a real job” surely won’t be necessary.


I go to basic. And there was just one little problem that I didn’t anticipate relative to this goal. On the day that the Drum & Bugle Corp leader came around I had been given a super important assignment.


To guard the obstacle course.


It seems that the last time that there was a holiday weekend, some fellers got liquored up and decided to run the course and were injured. Thus, the need for guards. Well, this time, my fellow guards and I didn’t see anyone.

I returned to the barracks to discover that I had missed the visit of the Drum & Bugle Corp commander. He was notified that I was interested, and he came by to talk to me. He asked me how many years’ experience I had, and I told him.

“Well, everyone else has one more year experience than you”.   

“So? You’re not going to even let me audition?”



And that was the end of that music career.


The “Real” Career


I guess it was time to make the decision that was going to affect the rest of my life: choosing my job in the Air Force.


There came a point in time at Basic Training that you went to what is essentially the Human Resource office and given a big binder full of job descriptions. The job description for each job was roughly as long as this paragraph.

Not much to go on.


Each job had a title, the description, and the location of where the training for the job was located. You were given the big binder, told to sit in a cubicle, and you had an hour to select your top five choices. There were no guarantees you would get your top choice. (Another omission from my dear recruiter).


This is what the selection criteria I had for narrowing down my job choices:

-          I liked nukes, so I looked for any jobs that had the word “nuclear” in them.

-          I wanted my training to be as close to my girlfriend as possible. Chanute Air Force Base, in Rantoul, IL was the closest base.


That’s it. Those were the two criteria for likely the biggest choice of my young life.


My number one choice was, “Nuclear Missile Launch Simulator Maintenance Technician”. And as luck would have it, I received word that I had, indeed, gotten my first choice and I would be heading to Chanute after basic. More on this later. Let’s finish up our journey through basic.


Basic Training – Almost Like the Movies


If you have been to basic training, or seen scenes of basic training in the movie, you know there’s a lot of yelling and a lot of marching, and lots of pushups. Fun stuff.


The one neat thing about basic is that you have people come from across the country and by the end of basic, you have learned to come together as a team. The transformation is actually very gratifying – especially for a lot of people that generally come into the thing only looking out for themselves.


One aspect of this was the physical conditioning. Most young people are in pretty good shape. But some are not. Our group had one dude that was super overweight. He struggled with the exercises, especially the running. There is a physical component to basic training. If you can’t pass the physical requirements, you wash out.


It’s the last physical test. Pass, and you’re in. Don’t pass, and you’re not. We’ve done all the pushup and sit-ups and what not, and its time for the run. Everyone zooms though the run.


Except for the overweight dude.


But here’s what happened. Spontaneously, as we had all completed the run except for him, we ran around to various spots on the track, lining the way, and yelled our heads off to cheer that dude on. It was an amazing thing to be a part of, because, for the first time ever, that dude completed the run under the allotted time, and was going to be graduating from basic.


Just like in the movies.


The “Not So Much” Part


In basic training, I was a student leader and had my own squad. One quarter of our flight. (Flights in the Air Force, like a company in the Army).


Although the recruiter had told me, “Don’t volunteer for anything”, it turned out that our prior squad leaders were… cognitively challenged. And most had trouble marching. I had been in the marching band in High School, and as it happened, knew my left from my right.


It turns out that those sorts of qualifications get you elevated into leadership. I could also follow instructions. It turns out that sort of thing is also very useful.


One of my jobs was to do a “pre-inspection” before any real inspection. If you didn’t have your area up to standard, you received demerits. Too many demerits and you were “washed back”, meaning that you would have to repeat a portion of basic training.


I had two gentlemen in my squad that had joined the Air Force on the “buddy program”. They signed up together, went to basic together, and would get assigned to the same duty station together.


If they graduated basic together.


These two dudes always gave me the hardest time when I did my pre-inspection. I always caught something. I was just “picking on them”. No amount of, “I’m just trying to help you pass the real inspection” explanation was sufficient. So… after weeks of daily grief I agreed. “If you don’t think you need me, then you two are on your own”.


Well, one of the buddies got enough demerits that he washed back. They were very upset and blamed… me. Now they wouldn’t graduate together and because of that, any guarantee that they would go to the same duty station was out the window.


Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

In hindsight, I should have continued being the “jerk”.


As a bonus, another member of our group, from Alabama, and we had learned early on, had a big scar on his chest.


“How did you get that?”

“Someone stabbed me in the heart”.

“And you lived?”



Anyway, he wasn’t very happy with me either. He caught me one-on-one in the shower and let me know that he thought that I hadn’t supported those guys because I was a racist. And in fact, as soon as we got out of basic, he was going to kill me. And as he said it, he leaned in close and said it with the sort of half-whispered intensity that indicated that he wasn’t fooling around.


When a dude with a scar on his chest from where he was stabbed in the heart says he is going to kill you, that’s something that… catches your attention.


I put on a brave face and said that “He was welcome to try”, but I will admit that I was shaking in my knickers while doing so.


When we graduated from basic, I had a three-day layover until I shipped out to Chanute Air Force Base. I spent every one of those days looking over my shoulder.


What’s My Job?


I shipped out to Chanute to start an eight-month training program to learn basic electronics. At this training school people would always ask you, “What is your job going to be?” I would say, “Nuclear Missile Launch Simulator Maintenance Technician”.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know”.


The weird thing was, all Nuclear Missile Launch Simulator Maintenance Technicians went to Chanute for basic electronics training before starting their real, “on the job” training. You would think that someone in the place would know what that job was.


Not so much.


We (I and four others in the same training) asked various instructors, but no one knew what it was that we would be doing.


We eventually did learn what the job entailed once we shipped out to our “on the job” training at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California. If you’ve ever seen the movie, “War Games” with Matthew Broderick, the opening scene was filmed inside one of the simulators.

War Games, 1983, Copyright MGM.

It turns out that our career field was a very small one. In the entire Air Force, there were only 100 of us.


Side Note: Eventually that career was shut down, and the maintenance is now performed by contractors.


At Vandenberg and later, my final duty station of Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, MT, I learned all about electronics, troubleshooting, communications, and computer programming. It turned out to be a pretty solid way to start a career, and likely allowed me to earn just slightly more than being a trumpet player in the Air Force Band of the Midwest.

And now I get paid to play guitar. It was just a little hiccup to the start of this music thing.


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