The Prisoner Has a Phone Call

I was in the United States Air Force from August of 1964 to January of 1966. Anyone who can count on their fingers (and even some who can’t) will tell you that that only amounts to about 18 months.

“The standard hitch for a volunteer in the Air Force is four years. So, what gives?”

The simple truth is that the Air Force, unable to stand it any longer, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, marched me to the door, and threw me out into the street. This happened under the auspices of section 39-16 of the United Code of Military Justice, to wit: “sloth, defective attitudes, and inability to expend effort constructively.”

Basically, I couldn’t get up in the morning. At least not at 5:30 or whatever ungodly hour they were expecting me to be upright. Never could. Still can’t. Oh, I can do it under special circumstances – like if there’s a fire, or the dog is throwing up on the bed – but as a daily habit? Um… no.

After I had completed Language Training in Indiana and spent two weeks at home on leave, I was ordered to report to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas for Voice Intercept Training. The trip down there was not one of my stellar moments. I missed two planes out of four – one I was asleep as the plane took off, the other I missed because I was engrossed in a comic book – and I arrived, instead of the six hours early as I’d planned, three hours late.

The lateness resulted in me losing the small promotion I’d gotten two weeks earlier. It also meant that there was no more room in the barracks with my friends from the Indiana school and  I was assigned to a bunk in another barracks among strangers. With no one to pull me out of bed at the crack of dawn, it wasn’t long before I’d slept through some mandatory early morning formation and I was once again in hot water.

Voice Intercept was, at the time, some pretty secret stuff and all of us had been preliminarily vetted for a Top Secret security clearance. We were all on “casual status” – doing KP and mopping floors – while we waited for the final okay before we could start school. Seeing this propensity for tardiness on my record, I was ordered to undergo a Psychiatric Evaluation.

I was half an hour late for the appointment.

The psychiatrist decided that I wasn’t dangerously deranged, I was just a “doofus” (I think that’s the clinical expression).  The Squadron Commander decided the best way to deal  with doofusness was to get tough. And so I was Court Martialed.

Right now you are probably imagining a military courthouse full of uniforms covered in gold braid and an angry Prosecutor yelling, “Why were you late? Tell the truth!” and me yelling back, “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!” That is called a General Court Martial and they are somewhat rare. What I underwent was a Summary Court Martial consisting of me and a lieutenant who acted as judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense. There were “extenuating circumstances” (I had had Baker’s KP the night before one of these heinous offenses against common decency and had only been allowed three hours sleep) so instead of the usual sentence of four weeks at hard labor, I only was required to serve two.

I was taken to the base Law Enforcement Center and escorted into the Stockade. This took up about half of the building’s available floor space, the other half being devoted to the Front Desk, offices, and meeting rooms of the Air Police. The Stockade consisted of a bunk room with eight or ten bunks, a recreation room with five jigsaw puzzles, all with multiple missing pieces, and two solitary confinement cells which were never locked. Why were they never locked? Because I was the only one in there. Both the recreation room and the bunk room had barred doors into the Air Police’s front desk area so Goodfellow AFB’s Finest could keep an eye on me. I guess they wanted to make sure I didn’t start any one-man prison riots or beat myself up in the shower.

I was actually looking forward to the “Hard Labor” part of the sentence, figuring at least the time would pass quickly. I did spend a day or two on the floor of some building scraping up years of accumulated dirt and floor wax with a razor blade, but for the most part it was two weeks of Hard Boredom.

I did have company for three of those days. A Sailor was picked up on his parents’ nearby farm for being AWOL from the Navy for the previous two months and he was dropped for safe keeping at the nearest military prison – mine. His name was Andy and he was jaw-droppingly stupid. He and a friend had sailed into the Port of  San Diego, climbed off their ship, cashed their paychecks, and with the proceeds obtained a motel room and a full, twenty-four bottle case of cheap whisky. He said they drank until they passed out and upon waking, drank until they passed out again. When the whisky was gone, so was their ship.

“As long as I was already AWOL, I figured what the hell I might as well go see the family.”  So he used the last of his money to buy a bus ticket to Texas.

Andy had two hobbies. Most of the time he spent with a Big Chief Tablet and a pencil designing bad tattoos. After he had finished one of his creations and proudly showed it to me, he was a little disappointed that I couldn’t make out what it was. “It’s a damned skull that’s on fire and has a dagger stickin’ through it. Anybody could see that!” His other past time was crawling on his belly as quietly as he could under bunks and around furniture so he could grab me by the ankle and shout, “Gotcha!”

I moved into one of the Solitary Confinement cells until  a couple of Shore Patrolmen arrived to take him back to San Diego.

One evening, about ten days into my sentence, I heard a telephone ring.  It barely registered with me because the telephone out on the Duty Desk rang frequently. Had I known it was my Mother on the other end of the line, I would have given it more attention.

Since she had not heard from me since I left home the last time, Mom had decided to get on the phone and track me down. In my defense, I had vowed to myself to call her as soon as I was out of the jug and tell her everything was hunky-dory. If I mentioned my little contretemps with military law at all it would be to dismiss it as an amusing misunderstanding.

Not having much information except the name and city of the Air Force Base, she called Base HQ which referred her to Wing HQ which referred her to Squadron HQ which, not being able to find me on the list of Active Personnel referred her back to Wing. She was getting pretty rattled by then and the fellow who said, “Oh. I think they’ve got him over at Base Security. Let me connect you,” didn’t help.

The phone rang. The man who answered it said, “Air Police. Desk Sergeant Jones,” then held the receiver up over his head and yelled, “Hey! The Prisoner has a phone call!”

By the time someone had opened the gate and walked me out to the telephone, Mom was a hopeless, sobbing wreck. All she could say was, “p-p-p-prisoner?” It took about eight minutes of the ten minutes I was allotted to calm her down, reassure her that I was being treated well, and my only crime was not being able to get out of bed in the morning. I promised her I’d call as soon as I was out and, as Sgt. Jones was tapping on the crystal of his watch, told her I loved her.

She hung up with, “Well, just remember, we love you…” leaving unspoken the rest of the sentence, “…even if they don’t.”

As soon as I was released, my Squadron Commander informed me that since I had, during my year-and-a-half in uniform, accumulated two non-judicial punishments and a Court Martial, I was eligible under the above-mentioned Article 39-16, to be booted out of the Service. And that he was starting said proceedings forthwith.

For about an hour I was devastated. Then several of my friends became so jealous they were angry with me and I began to think that maybe things would be okay. By the time we got to the bottom of the second pitcher of beer at the bowling alley, my future had been lit by a rosy glow.

They teach you in Basic Training that getting out of the Air Force in any other manner than completing a full four-year hitch meant that your life was ruined. No college would ever accept you, no employer would ever hire you. I am happy to say that this is a complete bag of lies. My particular Discharge was classed “Honorable,” meaning, I suppose, that I did my best but I was just not cut out for military life. I have never had any employer or institution so much as ask how long I served or what class of Discharge I was given.

It took a month of being bounced around among a myriad of different departments and offices before I was finally escorted to the front gate.  There were no drums, nobody ripping insignia from my shoulders, no lines of troops turning their faces away. Just the click of the gate closing behind me as I walked to the bus station.

 

“Kinney Tales” by guest blogger George Post

George Post is a LaramieBoy™ at heart, having grown up there until age 13. He has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1977, where he has worked as a freelance photographer, writer, and teacher.

http://www.georgepostphotography.com
http://playa-messiah.com ~ my Burning Man coffee-table book

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Wayne Kinney was my best friend during the time my family lived in the town of Laramie, Wyoming. I suppose we must have originally met in the 1958 Summer Orchestra program in the old original Laramie High School building; Wayne played violin and I was learning viola. Besides classical music, we quickly discovered that we shared interests in chemistry, electronics, math, chess, science fiction, numismatics & philately, homemade root-beer, general mischief, and practical jokes.

Wayne was a certified genius, with a tested IQ of 180. He was also a piano prodigy, having played an entire Beethoven Piano Concerto in recital at age 8 on the University of Wyoming campus. His grandmother, who lived with the Kinney family, had begun teaching him piano just about as soon as he could sit upright. Even as a teen, his reach from thumb to pinky was an octave plus three; when he held up his hands his thumbs and pinkies jutted out perpendicularly at nearly 180º to each other.

My family moved to Utah in 1960, but Wayne and I corresponded regularly by postal mail, sending each other “funvelope” packets of things like cartoons, trading cards, stickers, and Mad Magazines. And my family did return to Laramie during a couple of subsequent summers, so I would get to hang out with Wayne and other Laramie friends during those visits.

After high school, we both started college, me at CSU in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Wayne at UW in Laramie. I heard from friends that Wayne’s life had grown troubled, and eventually he dropped out of college. In fact, he was developing the early throes of organic scizophrenia.

I last saw him whole and relatively normal in the summer of 1967, when he visited me at my first wife’s family ranch at Stove Prairie above Rist Canyon. (At that time I was married to Linda Steadman, eventually the sole fatality of the horrific High Park Fire in 2012). Wayne had taken the Greyhound from Laramie to Ft Collins to tell me GoodBye Forever. He said he was becoming a mystic, he’d given up music because it used up too much valuable memory-bank space, and basically he was disentangling himself from The Past and anything that could remind him of it. Clearly, in retrospect, he must have already felt himself slipping into mental illness. I wish there had been more effective medications back then!

He told me that he’d recently been out in Berkeley and had smoked some really strong pot that kind of knocked him out of his senses for 5 whole weeks. “It was if my brain had been run through a meatgrinder and spread across the Golden Gate Bridge at rush hour,” he said. Maybe it was laced with something, or maybe he just had such a high-powered brain (genius-level IQ) that he should never have even smoked pot. And one of his first experiences with cannabis in Laramie during his UW days was rather traumatic; he’d just been turned on by married couple Rick Kogan and Cathy Thomas when the Laramie cops raided their house, and apparently Wayne went out the window and managed to escape but was very freaked out by the whole thing.

I saw him one other time, in Denver in the early 1970s. He was living in a big, mostly senior, residence hotel. He had, at one time, checked himself into the State Hospital in Pueblo, but they only wanted to medicate him so strongly that he felt unable to effectively confront his demons, so he eventually left there and moved into the hotel. I have no idea what he was doing for money at the time, but I suppose that his mother Phyllis was helping him financially. Anyway, the desk clerk had directed me to an upper floor, west-side hallway; I found him there pacing nervously back and forth, wearing a huge full beard and a thick bundle of hair way down his back. I offered him a little gift I’d brought along, but he just grunted uncomfortably, turned abruptly and walked away. I could see that my presence disturbed him considerably, so I left. Later I heard that he had taken up residence in the basement of the family house on 12th Street in Laramie. And when he died (from a fall during a seizure) it was Wayne’s and my Laramie High School classmate and fellow LHS Symphonic Orchestra member Trevor Thomas, brother of the above-mentioned Cathy Thomas, who phoned me with the sad news.

Phyllis told me that near the end of his life Wayne had somewhat come out of his shell and would occasionally walk downtown and have a beer at one of the many bars there. I have this fantasy that I might have bumped into him in a tavern on one of my occasional visits to Laramie back then; I’d sit down on the stool next to him and strike up a conversation…

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Wayne was an astute observer of the human condition. There was a big fat guy at the Boomerang office to whom we paperboys paid our weekly bills every Friday afternoon. One day we read on the front page of the Boomerang that he’d been arrested and charged with embezzlement! Naturally, he was also fired. Not long afterward we saw through the open door of a Grand Avenue saloon that he was out on bail and working there as a bartender. Always after that, as we peddled our paperboy bikes past that particular watering hole (between 3rd and 4th as I recall, on the south side of the street), Wayne would say, military style: “Prepare to learn lesson! Eyes…Right! Learn….Lesson!” and we’d look in through the open doorway to see the poor fat-man at work in his wonderful new career.

Legal Disclaimer: Please note that the Statute of Limitations has run out on all of this, many years ago.

Wayne Kinney and I were teenage pranksters of the worst kind, with no consciences and apparently little or no empathy for our victims. For example, one time we put a time-fuse firecracker in a cream puff in the front window of the bakery on Grand Avenue. We retreated to the shadows of the alley across the street, and collapsed in rollicking laughter when the firecracker splattered the entire plate-glass window with cream. Probably not so damn funny to those poor bakery ladies who had to clean up the mess.

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We were both Laramie Daily Boomerang paperboys, and (at least during the homework-free summers) voraciously devoured the daily news, looking for local oddities and fun stuff. One summer, probably 1960, we read that the downtown banks were discontinuing the practice of throwing coins from their roofs during the Jubilee Days Parade. Evidently a couple of people had been hit in the faces and slightly injured the previous year, so clearly the long beloved local tradition had to end. Wayne’s devious practical-joker mind immediately kicked into overdrive, and he came up with a diabolical plan to exploit this situation.

On the day of the parade we assembled a handful of nickels & dimes, which Wayne stuffed into his pocket. We also had our paperboy bags and a package of small colorful balloons. Sneaking into the mens’ room of the Conner Hotel, we filled the balloons with water and loaded the canvas Boomerang bags with them. We carried them across the street and down the alley behind the Boyd’s Stockman Supply, where it was feasible to get onto the roof and where we had stashed our paperboy bikes. We hoisted the bags full of water balloons up onto the roof and carted them up to a position behind Boyd’s false front. It was a great place to watch the parade from, and when the last float had passed the parade-watchers spilled out into Second Street. Wayne tossed a bunch of small coins into the street, setting off a feeding frenzy. Those who didn’t get a coin turned their faces skyward and raised their arms in supplication: “Me, me, ME!” That’s when we unleashed a barrage of water balloons, emptying both of our newspaper bags in less than half a minute.

Quickly then we ran back down the roof, retrieved our bikes and headed towards Grand Avenue. Just then an angry mob of drenched parade-watchers rounded the building and came charging into the alley, so we did a U-turn and pedaled the other direction, easily outrunning them while cackling hysterically at the success of our prank. I am quite certain that it was not nearly so amusing to anyone who caught a water balloon full in the face that day.

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In the summer of 1959 Wayne Kinney and I found a way to sneak into the old High School after hours or on weekends. Near the northwest corner of the big building was a coal chute, unused since the installation of a modern natural-gas-fired boiler in the basement. We found that if we jiggled the latch just right it was possible to lift the heavy steel door and then climb down a ladder, closing the door again behind us on the way down. Once in the basement, we had to crawl on our bellies under some furnace ducts–in near-total darkness–until finally emerging in the Boys’ Locker Room. From there we had the run of the place.

We were never interested in destructive vandalism, but we sure enjoyed exploring. One fascinating discovery was that there was a long-unused swimming pool in the middle of the basement. Legend had it that the pool had only ever been filled once, because when it came time to change the water and the drain was opened, it belched raw sewage, the drain being lower than the neighborhood sewer system. So the pool had been pumped out and never filled again; it was being used as a storage repository for retired student desks and other dusty old furniture.

We could also make our way up the stairwell at the southeast corner of the building, and at the top (the third floor) was a door with the brass doorknob removed. We were easily able to open the door, though, by sticking a Boy Scout knife’s screwdriver blade into the square knob-shaft socket, and were rewarded with full access to the school’s roof. Being nasty little prankster hobbitses, we used to throw water balloons and firecrackers at passing cars from that roof!

But the best destination was the gym. There were two thick exercise ropes dangling from the high ceiling, and when the bleachers were collapsed the ropes could be used as “Tarzan” swings. We could grab the big knot at the bottom end of the rope, walk it up the steps to the balcony, climb over the steel railing, hold on tight and then swing waaaaaay out across the entire width of the gym. Once we got good at it we discovered that we could sit on the ropes’ knots and swing back and forth at will, grabbing the balcony railings with one hand to rest briefly on either side of the arc. Unbelievably good fun!

One Sunday afternoon that fall, soon after the 1959-60 school-year had started, we sneaked into the school and were in the gym merrily swinging away; suddenly a janitor walked in. He chastised us for an activity he perceived as inherently very dangerous and threatened to call our folks. But in the end he just said, “You boys are in a lot of trouble. I’m gonna let you go for today, but first thing tomorrow morning I want you to find either Mr. Mack [the principal] or Mr. Rony [the athletic coach] and confess this incident. They’ll figure out some appropriate punishment.” Wayne and I completely cracked up with laughter; how could you take a grownup seriously who’d just told you to go “find either Mr. Mack-or-Rony?”

Bullets in the Buckhorn

In December of 1970, I suddenly found myself without a place to live. The three other guys I was sharing a house with had all decided to go their separate ways and I only had a few days to figure out a new landing place. Several people recommended I try at one of the old second-floor rooming houses downtown near the railroad tracks.

Laramie, Wyoming got its start as a “Hell on Wheels” tent town during the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1868. Most of these temporary towns – created to separate the railroad workers from their pay – picked up and moved  West as the rail head moved. A few, including Laramie, hung on. As the Turn of the Century approached, foundations were laid and the town of Laramie grew up around the Railroad tracks. General stores, saloons, hotels, livery stables, and more saloons went up. On many of these a second floor was added that contained a warren of smallish rooms. Railroad workers – Brakemen, Conductors, Engineers, Switchmen, and the like – would need a sleeping room for a day or two until the next shift.

By the early part of the Twentieth Century these rooms had added plumbing. There was a small sink in the corner of each room, a bathroom down the hall, and a common kitchen. But by mid-century, the diesel engine was replacing steam on the railroads. The trains needed less labor to run and were faster, so there were fewer layover points and the railroads rented entire hotels for that purpose. So the little one-flight-up rooms by the tracks in most places went away. But in Laramie, a university town, poor  students  kept them fairly-well rented.

On Ivinson Avenue, half a block from the tracks, I found a door lettered “Slyko Rooms.” I went up the long flight of stairs, knocked on the Manager’s door, and for $35 a month, found a room with a lovely view of the garbage cans down in the alley. After two years of getting high on nearly every recreational chemical in the book, I had resolved to completely quit all that and, instead, to practice Transcendental Meditation twice a day. I had already faced the fact that doing this on my own would be a tall order when I realized that 6 or 7 people I knew who had also started TM were living in rooms just down the hall. We became fast friends, fellow meditators,  and comrades in crazy.

The Slyko Rooms were located just across the street from the Buckhorn Bar. The Buckhorn is one of the oldest continuously operating dive bar saloons in the state of Wyoming. Nearly every other bar you can name has only a door facing the street. If the building had windows they would  have been painted over, perhaps to keep angry housewives from driving by and seeing their husbands inside drinking away the money for the gas bill. But for the Buckhorn it is not so. The length of the street frontage is covered by large, clear glass windows. This was great for us because one of our rooms was in the front of the building with large double-hung windows looking out on the street. On any given night, you could open our windows and spend time just watching what was going on in the Buckhorn.

In fact, one night we got so carried away with the spectacle of it that the guys carried furniture down that long flight of steps and set it up on the sidewalk while the girls made popcorn. We had a couch and several overstuffed chairs all lined up on the sidewalk where we sat, laughed, ate popcorn, and enjoyed the show across the street.

Rod, one of the Slyko crew, was stopped one afternoon as he walked down the alley behind the Buckhorn by one of the shabby, local homeless guys. With his long, uncombed hair and ragged tie-dyed bell bottoms, Rod must have made the old guy feel sorry for him because the fellow gave Rod a paper sack that contained two pickle and mayo sandwiches on Wonder Bread.

One Friday Night in May of 1971, I happened to be upstairs in the front room by myself. The windows were open and the Buckhorn was in full swing. Then I heard a “bang” out in the street that sounded like some yayhoo had set off a cherry bomb out there.

“”it’s pretty early for fireworks,” I said to nobody in particular as I got up and stuck my head out the window to investigate. I didn’t see anybody up to no good around the Buck. In fact, I didn’t see anybody at all inside the place. Drinks were on the tables and the bar, chairs were knocked over, but I couldn’t see a soul in there. I decided  I might get a better look at what was going on from street level. I ran down the stairs, opened the door, and peered out. About twenty yards to my right, by the light of a streetlamp, I could see a man behind the front fender of a parked car holding a hunting rifle.

I then decided that this might not be a safe place from which to watch,  so I jumped back inside and raced up the stairs to the front room. As I ran I heard what sounded like two or three more of those loud “pops.” I cautiously poked my head out the window far enough to see. The shooter was hunkered down behind the car, his left hand resting on the hood and cradling the forestock of the rifle while he looked through the scope into the bar.

Suddenly a Sheriff’s car, lights ablaze, blew out of the mouth of the alley. The driver slammed on the brakes and with tires smoking, the car slewed a quarter turn to the left as it skidded to a stop. Before it had stopped rocking the Deputy inside was opening the door to step out.

At that moment a man’s head poked out around the bottom corner of the front door of the bar. “Across the street! Behind a car!” the man shouted, then pulled his head back out of sight.

Then the Deputy did what was probably the bravest and the stupidest thing I have ever seen a man do. He stepped out of the squad car and faced the shooter full on. He held a shotgun in his right hand – no vest, no protection from the .30-06 bullet that was surely going to hit him square in the sternum – and yelled, “Put your weapon down and raise your hands over your head!”

Whether it was the sudden weight of Authority, the adrenaline that was practically squirting out of the Deputy’s ears, or the display of cowboy bravado, whatever it was – it worked. The shooter laid the rifle on the hood of the car and put his hands up.

The next day it came out that the shooter – a construction worker on a new campus building – had got himself a snootfull and decided that the female bartender was the love of his life.  Both she and her boyfriend, who was sitting at the bar, vehemently disagreed. The construction worker went home and came back with his hunting rifle.

The man’s first shot went through a window and into the ceiling, another slammed through the back mirror. They had the window replaced, but left the mirror with the bullet hole in it as part of the ambiance. Nearly fifty years later, it is still there.