The Most Important Things...

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them--words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to where your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.

~Stephen King~

Castle Air Force Base

It was a different world back then.

I was stationed at Castle Air Force Base from October of 1982 until I was discharged in March of 1984 after 4 years of active duty. My years in Merced and at Castle AFB were spent in a different world, not just geographically speaking, but in what is known as "pop culture" and what we see on shows like "I Love the 80s" on VH1, which, by the way, was non-existent when I lived there.

I was 20 years old when I arrived at Castle with my new bride, who was also in the Air Force. Cell phones, texting, and pagers for us common folk were unheard of as of yet. Same with cordless phones. Answering machines were brand new and then they were in very few homes. I can't remember leaving messages on machines for any of my friends. If someone called me while no one was at my house, the phone just rang and rang until the caller got tired and decided to call at a later time, I actually missed a call and lived through the experience, and life in general somehow continued. Weird, huh?

When we wanted to call our families back home (Houston, TX. for me), we had to be aware of when long distant rates went down, and then we still didn't dare talk for more than a few minutes for fear of an enormous phone bill. If we chose to write instead of calling, it took 4 or 5 days for our correspondence to get to its destination, instead of the mere seconds it takes for an e-mail to reach its intended target today.

And speaking of e-mail... and the internet... please ! ! ! Home computers were in the homes of geeks and the elite (who were usually also geeks), and weren't much more than Radio Shack's TRS-80. We called them trash-80s. Oh, they might be able to keep a rudimentary form of a checkbook ledger, or help to write a letter with a primitive form of some sort of word processor. Windows were what you looked out of to see if it was raining, apples were what you were supposed to eat each day to keep doctors away, laptops were where we placed our children to rock them to sleep, and notebooks were made of paper and usually had a wire spiral holding those papers together.

Our vocabularies didn't contain words like blog, e-mail, e-zines, e-commerce, e-(insert whatever you can think of here), chatgroups, dot-com, or any other words we now know as "netspeak". We didn't know the phrases LOL, LMAO, OMG, IRL, WTF, BRB, BFF, IMO, BTW, J/K, ^5, :), and the list goes on and on. If you really want to know what the hell your kids are talking about, check out
All we really needed to know back then was UA, AWOL, TDY, and BYOB.

When we wanted to know where to find something, we let our fingers do the walking through the yellow pages. We didn't know how to "Google" information yet. Neither my name nor my address had an “@” in it. And seven digits were all that was required to make a phone call, unless you wanted to shell out some serious coin.

Cable television was the latest in home entertainment technology, at least until the VCR came along. Some people called them VTRs. If one were among the fortunate few who could afford one of the early models, (we had to buy our first on credit and make monthly payments for 2 years I think), the decision still had to be made between VHS or Beta. DVDs, BluRay, Satellite television, TIVO, and DVRs were still at least a decade or so away.

Television programming was quite different too. Reality television was the 6:00 news (or the brand new 24 hour news channel called CNN), or perhaps a live sporting event. M*A*S*H was must-see TV and that last episode "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" remains the most watched television program of all time. Hill Street Blues changed the television landscape. Charles married Diana which was watched by most of the world on live television. Luke and Laura's wedding was watched by almost as many. When my enlistment was over, Miami Vice was just getting started, the Huxtable family was welcomed in more homes than not, and MTV was brand spanking new, as was Late Night with David Letterman. It wasn't uncommon to see Dave wearing jeans and a sweatshirt while doing his show.

MTV was a revelation of epic porportions to us baby boomers. I remember wondering why people would want to "watch" music. As it turns out, I might have been right about that after all... I can't remember the last time I actually saw a video on either MTV or VH1. And speaking of music... what were we thinking? Didn't we learn anything from disco? Let me run down a few of the bigger hits. Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science", Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance", Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon", Dexy's Midnight Runners' "Come on Eileen", and I'm still not sure what Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy" is all about. Madonna was just revving up for her assault on the collective psyche.

These songs filled the airwaves, or at least were fillers between Michael Jackson, Kenny Rogers, and Lionel Ritchie tunes. And what if you wanted to purchase your own music to play whenever you wanted? One would have to trudge themselves down to the record store, my favorite was somewhere in the Merced Mall, and then browse through, pick out, and purchase actual vinyl records. Sometimes a cassette tape if that's what you preferred. CDs were still a few years in the future, and buying your music without ever leaving the glow from your computer monitor was something that far more advanced beings from other worlds could do. Not us though. And you usually had to buy the whole album just to have the one song you really wanted. What a waste, huh?

Then there was the kind of entertainment that you planned in advance and had to leave the house for... movies. Those were the days when a movie would stay in the theaters for more than a couple of weeks, unless it was a real bomb. If you missed it while it was showing, you might have to wait years before it would show up on television, and then it was only the blockbusters. Video stores weren't needed yet, but video game arcades could be found on every corner. If you wanted to play video games at home, you were limited to the original Atari or Intelevision.

During my time at Castle AFB, we watched Spock die in the 2nd "Star Trek" movie, we witnessed the rebellion finally defeat the empire in the 3rd "Star Wars" movie, we were introduced to Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and other memorable characters in movies like "Porky's", "Young Doctors in Love", "Valley Girl", and "Creepshow". "A Christmas Story" came out in '83 but took years to become the cult classic that ranks right up there with Rocky Horror. And speaking of Rocky, we watched the Italian Stallion battle and beat Mr. T's Clubber Lang, but only after he introduced us all to Hulk Hogan.

We knew who our enemies were, and they had a face. The USSR and communism were known to us all as the evil empire. The tensions of the Cold War were at its highest. We were routinely trained to look for signs of communism and communist spying. Our troubles with Iran were just ending and Iraq was still our friend. We had no idea what or who an Al-Qaeda was, and the same goes for Osama Bin-Laden. I loved Ronald Reagan because he was my Commander In Chief.

Karen Carpenter died while I was at Castle and we learned what Anorexia Nervosa is. John Belushi overdosed and "Just Say No" became our battle cry. Princess Grace of Monaco is killed in an automobile accident. We were scared to take Tylenol. Beruit, Lebanon is all but destroyed. A truck bomb destroys the Marines barracks at Beirut International Airport, killing 241 American soldiers in what would become one of the first of well publicized suicide bombings. War breaks out over the Faulkland Islands. The US storms into Granada. Russia invades Afghanistan. Michael Jackson releases "Thriller". Marvin Gaye is shot. And the U.S. Supreme Court finally rules 5-4 that it is legal to record television broadcasts with a videocassette recorder. I could sleep without fear once again.

In some respects, those years I spent stationed at Castle were spent in unknowing and naive innocence. The Challenger explosion (and the subsequent hearings), the worldwide implications of AIDS and the Ethiopian famine, Iran/Contra, Saddam Hussein, Monica Lewinski, and 9/11 were events that we couldn't have dreamed of in our worst nightmares. On the other hand, who would have thought that I could buy almost anything I want (music, movies, food, the latest news, clothes, flowers, real estate, etc...), or watch the entire 7th season of 24, or play poker or blackjack, or even communicate instantly with people I've never met (whoever reads this, for example), all while sitting in my bed with my computer laying across my lap? Who would have thought that I can call whoever I want, whenever I want, and wherever they are? Who had the foresight to know that I would have over 200 television channels, as well as over 200 radio stations in my car, one of which plays nothing but music from the 80s?

People come and people go, friends enter and then leave our lives, our lives are improved through technological advancements, we become more efficient and accurate in waging war, our tastes in music, movies, television, clothing, and housing have evolved to the point that we need to tune into "I Love the 80s" just to see how far we've come (and if we miss it tonight, that's ok... it will rerun again next week)... and Castle Air Force Base closes down for good. That the way things are supposed to be, I guess.

Time marches on and carries us along with it. Could we stay behind if we really wanted to? I’m pretty sure we can’t. Do we really have a choice? I'm pretty sure we don't. But that doesn't keep me from double clicking on the file icons in the memory banks of my own grapefruit sized circa 1960 computer located conveniently directly between my right and left ears and remembering how it felt to drive from the base to Merced through fog so heavy it could only be described as solid white air... or remembering how eggs and bacon and fried potatoes and biscuits smothered with gravy tasted in the chow hall at midnight... or remembering the ever present smell of onions and jet fuel... or remembering how I stood at the fence and looked across the flight line as the sun came up over the mountains... or remembering the roar of the B-52s climbing to altitude over Merced... or remembering especially those fine men and women with whom I served that I called friends.

I have recently found and contacted a handful of those old friends and am excited at the thought of finding more. There is so much that I'm sure I've forgotten about my time there and look forward to swapping stories. There seems to be something very therapeutic in nostalgia, and I'll willingly stroll down that path from time to time. My two and a half years at Castle Air Force Base was an experience that I will cherish as long as I live.

25 years have gone by since I left Castle Air Force Base and the Merced - Atwater area. A quarter of a century. Oh man... when you say it THAT way, YIKES ! ! ! My daughter Jessica was born at the base hospital while I was stationed there, and she recently got married… as if these little trips down memory lane didn’t make me feel old already. I plan to go back someday soon. I am sure that I will be simultaneously amazed, astonished, and saddened at how things have changed and at what has become of what was once a vital and proud member of our armed forces community of bases.

Oh yeah, it was a different world back then. And sometimes I miss that world…


Until next time...