"Well I've been out walking, I don't do that much talking
these days--These days--
These days I seem to think a lot about the things that I forgot to do
And all the times I had the chance to…" Jackson Browne "These Days"
Sheppard Air Force Base, the summer of '89. What was I feeling? Excitement? Anticipation? Fear? Maybe a little of all of them. We had finally been there long enough to be allowed a "weekend pass" from the base dorms. That's the problem with short technical schools-by the time you were allowed to spend the weekend off base, you were almost finished.
We were in Block 4, the final block of instruction. Final block test on Tuesday. It had been a long summer in Wichita Falls. What an awful place. And this is coming from a native Texan. If Texas needed an enema, they would put it in at Wichita Falls for sure.
There were 8 of us in the class. Two non-comm's and a Senior Airman who were re-training and five pipeline students (right from basic training in Lackland). Of course, as one of the pipelines, I knew the other four pipelines the best. Pete from Kentucky honestly reminded me of a young Snuffy Smith with his head always forward over his neck and his chin kinda sticking out. Lowrey was a big farm boy from Wisconsin and Joey from Illinois. Then there was Stan(?) - I swear I have a mental block with his name. Stan or Stanley or something like that.
I didn't like Stan-and he was from Dallas. You'd think we'd have a lot in common, but no. He had all American looks but there was something about him that always caught me wrong. I think it was the way he talked about women. He was always "smooth" around them to the point of being "slick" but he had absolutely no respect for them. After a couple of months with him, his conquest stories made me sick. I'm sure most of it was B.S. anyway.
Finally though, the first Friday night off base! It had been so long since I'd had a drink. It was hard for a 19 year old to get booze on an Air Force Installation when you couldn't leave it. Some of the guys were brave enough to get someone over 21 to get them beers at the Airmen's Club. Of course, you had to find someone over 21 who was dumb enough to risk buying you one. That didn't work for me. An alcoholic is better doing without than trying to just have one. That's just trouble waiting to happen.
Yeah, I really should have been studying. Sergeant Dawson was a pathetic instructor. No, I'm not just blowin' smoke either. Truthfully, I should know. After 5 years, a war and several trips around the earth, I was back at the same school house myself, as an instructor. The guy sucked.
Me and the Senior Airman were in close competition for Honor Graduate for our class. Sure as hell he would be studying this weekend but it's almost impossible to explain my love for getting drunk at the time. At that moment, it was much more appealing to me than being the Honor Graduate.
Lowery and Pete were both 21. We all pooled our money together, which we had little of, and Pete signed for a room at one of the drive-up dump motels on Highway 240 just outside the front gate and Lowery picked up the beer. Something cheap and domestic, but really the cheap part was all that mattered. In '89, $40 could buy quite the cans of cheap beer.
We used to call the cardboard box that held the 24 can case a "suitcase". That night we had an entire set of luggage! Joey and Lowery started lining up styrofoam coolers on the floor and filling them with cans while Pete and I began a mad relay to the motel ice machine. We had four coolers full and another suitcase still to be unboxed.
Certainly, this was not about "having a party", this was simply about getting drunk, hammered, shit-faced, stoned, slammed, blinded……you get the idea. I my mind's eye, I can almost hear "Have a Drink on Me" by AC/DC playing somewhere in the room. This was going to be our first and final "party" together and we were gonna make it count.
I pulled one of the coolers over to the little round table with a ratty chair in the corner by the AC unit. I didn't matter to me whether it was cold or not. I opened and threw down three in a row.
"Dude, you better slow down on those!" Pete said. This is about the stupidest thing an alcoholic can think of hearing. If you're not an alcoholic, you won't get it.
Let me explain. Imagine that you've skipped dinner to go to the movies. It's already 8:30 pm and you've just gotten up to the concession counter to get your goodies. You order a large drink and a giant popcorn! No, no, not that new crap but the stuff fried in coconut oil. They shake salt and pour butter on it just like you asked. You can feel your stomach turning over as you smell that golden goodness wafting up in the steam. You take your ticket and make your way down to the right screen room and duck inside. But, before going to find a seat, you grab two kernels of the popcorn and drop them in your mouth where they almost seemingly melt on your tongue. Then, you take the rest of the popcorn and throw it in the trash can inside the door and go to the seats.
That's what it's like for an alcoholic to try and "slow down on those". What would you do? You'd devour that whole damn bag of popcorn and then feel miserable the rest of the night for being such a pathetic pig. The consequences of drinking as an alcoholic are much, much higher.
Ok, I made an attempt to slow down. MTV was on-they actually played music then-and we were having a pretty good time. Letting off steam and laughing about things that had happened during basic. We were in high times about not having to march 2 miles to lunch or class 4 times a day anymore.
I'm not sure how many I'd had by this point but I was feelin' no pain what-so-ever by now. In fact, I had gone from slightly buzzed to very buzzed.
All was going well until someone started knocking on the door. Bang! Bang! Bang! We all looked at each other with a start. The fear of being busted was like a collective cloud that appeared in the room.
"Hey! You guys in there?" It was Stan…..who told ass-wipe we were here?
Lowery got up and opened the door. "You made it, huh?" Good old Lowery-too nice to too many people.
Stan came strollin' in with one of his All American smiles on, "Hey, where's the beer?" What a douche. Showing up after everything was paid for. I had a good mind to….that's when I saw her.
Katie from Kansas was following behind Stan and she came into the room. She had hazel eyes and fiery red hair cut in a military style Dutch boy. She was from the class behind us. I knew her from the smoking area. It seemed everyone smoked then. We were all young; younger than we realized but Katie seemed even younger. Why had she wound up here with Stan? I don't even think she was supposed to be off the base.
In any case, it didn't matter too much to me, she just seemed really young.
After another hour had passed, I was beyond buzzed. I was drunk. How much had I consumed? Who knows? I certainly had more empties scattered around than I had fulls in my cooler. That's the real problem with being a drunk. At a certain level of intoxication you become "10 feet tall and bullet proof". You're on top of the world. Whatever demons you have been running from are way behind you. But, you have no "stop" button. Even when you know that one more is going to be too much, you have it anyway.
That's when you come crashing down from the 10ft height. Like hitting the bottom of the bag of giant popcorn except that you've fallen flat in the dust of your soul and all those demons catch up to you again at once and start to tear you apart.
Everything in the dingy hotel room was swaying. Yep, one too many for damn sure. The sounds of the laughter and music seemed distorted and muffled. My sloshing brain and stomach were working together to let me know that once again I'd had too much poison and they were thinking about getting rid of it.
I took some slow deep breaths and blew them out to try and get enough clarity to get up and get to the bathroom. I put my hands out and gripped the arms of the ratty chair. They seemed for an instant like the hands of some other person in a grainy video but I used them to pull myself upright.
If I thought the room was swaying before, it was really moving now. I could feel the old "golden" carpeting with my bare feet. It felt gritty even though it had probably been vacuumed. I had a flashing wonder about when I had removed my shoes but I wasn't sure. I made my way into the bathroom with the harvest brown tub. If I was going to avoid throwing up everything, and that was a mighty big IF, then I'd have to get in a hot shower fast.
My memory really begins to get sketchy here. I have the blurry remembrance of laying my shirt and jeans across the back of the tub matching brown commode and then reclining in the hottest spray of the shower that I could stand. After that, nothing………
Nothing until what must have been sometime around 2 AM. My eyes slowly opened and I was lying on my back on one of the two queen beds in the room. I was on the one furthest from the door. Everything was still spinning. I gently turned my head to the right. Lowery was crashed beside me, face down, snoring away.
I moved my hands around and felt that my jeans were back on (that was a relief) but no shirt. I was trying not to make my stomach any angrier.
Head going to the left now. Joey and Pete were crashed on the other bed. The only light in the room seemed to be from the flickering TV. The sound must have been down really low. I didn't want to raise my head for fear that the bed might become more unsteady that it already was.
Why the hell did I wake up? This was certainly the part I wanted to sleep through.
That's when I heard her voice from the end of the bed -
"I said no! I don't want to..." It was Katie. "No!" she almost cried; louder this time but still in a hushed tone.
"Shhhh! You don't want everybody to wake up do you?" Shitbag Stan was down there too.
My eyes opened wide now as the flickering light from the screen allowed the yellowing ceiling to finally come clearly into focus.
OH-HELL--NO!! I was gonna put a stop to this PDQ! I can still hear her voice in my head if I try. She was afraid but also--what?? Embarrassed? I'm still not sure and it didn't matter to me anyway. I was going to make Stan keep his hand off of her.
I threw myself bolt upright in the bed. Instantly, my vision narrowed into a pinhole that only allowed a tiny light from the TV to enter. Then that went out too. Damn, that was a bad idea…..
I fell back on the bed. Just a second, just a second…..I gathered strength to sit up again……
A horrendously bright light instantly filled the room! What the hell?! For a split second I thought of a vampire movie where one of the undead is blasted with sunlight until he combusts in showering sparks and flying ash. I could hear empty cans being rattled around.
That's when I realized I really was sitting in the sunlight. Pete had thrown open the curtain and was tossing empties into a paper grocery sack. We were alone in the room.
"Where is everyone?" I moved my fingers around my temples for the handles of the ice picks that surely must have been driven into my head but found none. My body felt like I'd been hit by a truck.
"It's just you and me man, everybody else is gone. I'd have let you sleep longer but it's already 10:30 and we need to finish cleaning up and split before check-out."
"What? 10:30 in the morning?" My head was splitting in half but the blurry events of the previous night were coming back to me. "How did I get out of the tub?"
"You were in there for 2 hours until we had to go in and pull you out. It was hell trying to get you back into your pants!" Pete smiled his big, country smile. "I told you to slow down on those." Yeah, yeah, he had.
"What else happened last night?" It seemed I was missing something here.
"Nothing…" he was busy again with his paper sack and the cans scattered around on the filthy carpet. "We drank some beers and went to sleep."
"When did Stan leave?"
"I couldn't tell you man; you gonna help or what?"
I struggled to get my feet around on the floor. God did I hurt everywhere. This was the payoff for the whole bag of popcorn. I couldn't count how many times I greeted a day feeling this exact same way. Water, I needed a lot of water and fast.
After making it through getting dressed and helping Pete finish up………I have no idea how I got back to the dorm on base. Did I walk? I must have but I can't remember. What I do know is that I stayed in bed until sometime on Sunday afternoon when I finally started to study for the block test. I wasn't really in any condition to absorb material. Sergeant Dawson said it was going to be an easy test though, right?
I got my uniform and boots ready for the next day and went to evening chow. I'm not sure I'd eaten since sometime Friday but hunger wasn't exactly what I'd been feeling. Joey, my roommate finally came in sometime Sunday evening but I had already showered and hit the bed by then.
Monday morning march to class at 6 AM. The pounding of heels along with the cadence call was at least the only pounding I was feeling this morning. I was ready for a cigarette by the 9 o'clock break.
There were at least 15 of us from different classes out back by the butt cans. Stan and I were standing there together when an under classman came up, "Hey, did you guys hear about Katie yesterday?"
"No" I replied flatly, "what about her?"
"She said she wanted to borrow a friend's Mustang yesterday morning but she stole it!" he was getting worked up like a news anchor on a big story. "She was speeding through Oklahoma and the cops started chasing her! THEN, she crashed the car, totaled it, and now she's in an Oklahoma hospital in ICU!" He kept going, "Stan, weren't you and her "buds"; what would make her do that?"
Stan was blowing out a cloud of smoke while shrugging his shoulders and wobbling his head from side to side and mumbling, "I don' know." I was looking at him. Looking right into his stupid eyes…….
That's the exact instant when everything from Saturday morning came back to me…..sure Stan knew why. He knew why she had done it because he had raped her! He had raped her and she had stolen a car yesterday morning and had run for home. She was going back to Kansas.
I felt my hands clenching into fists. Typically when this had happened in the past, I was going to hit someone. Hit them as many times as humanly possible and I was planning to thrash Stan out here on the smoking patio.
I guess owing to my recent military training, my mind flashed forward to my certain court martial, "So Airman, tell me, how many beers would you say you had that Friday night into Saturday morning?" the prosecutor would glibly ask.
"I'd say at least 12, Sir."
"At least 12? What would you say if I told you that there are witnesses that will testify that you consumed well in excess of 12 beers?"
"It's possible, Sir." No shit possible.
"Did you actually see Airman Stan(?) assaulting his fellow airman that night?"
"Did someone tell you that he had?"
"She didn't tell you that he had?"
"And yet, you still took it upon yourself, without any evidence, to beat Airman Stan, that next Monday morning, to within an inch of his life?!!"
That certainly wasn't gonna play well on the highlight reel. What do I do? My nails were starting to dig into my palms.
"Hey, Buddy!" Stan was talking to someone. It was to me! "Hey, you OK? Break's over, we gotta get back." He turned and headed back inside through the ATC brown double doors. As brown as the tub at the motel. I was trembling.
Wednesday came and I completely bombed the test. Well, completely for me. I made like an 86 or something. Senior Airman What's his name went away with honor graduate and I threw away the class picture I bought from when we were in Block Three. I couldn't have anything around me with Stan's stupid face on it reminding me of how completely I had failed, and as a result, a young woman's life was destroyed.
What's my take away? I don't really know. I kept this event "locked in box" for a very long time. Why didn't Katie yell out that night? Why didn't she scream? Surely one of the others would have woken up. Did one of the others wake up? I don't know. Stan could have easily snapped her neck if he wanted to. Why did I get so drunk? Why wasn't I able to stop it? Whatever became of Katie? How badly was she injured, physically, mentally?
Women need to know that there are monsters among men. Certainly not a majority but some. They are also very slick. You have to be when you're a monster.
Dear God, Katie. I'm so sorry….
"Well I'll keep on movin'-movin' on, things are bound to be improving these days-One of These days--
These days I sit on corner stones and count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend
Don't confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them"