Rhino Talks and Elephant Walks
Rhino Talks and Elephant Walks

You can never go home

This evening, while weeding through an old box of papers searching for I'm-not-sure-what, I happened upon a yellowed line-up card. No date, but Duddy 11 was launching at 0800 with a Zab range period thirty minutes later. Flounder and I led in 560, Sanford and Roock were #2 in (smudged), Wages and Peacock were #3 and it doesn't appear they got a jet--any surprises? And Taylor and Swartz filled out the card in 708. Set the stage for the lines that follow.

They say you can never go home, though that has never stopped me from trying. I left in late ''79. Perhaps two years later, my Ramstein unit was at Zab the same time as the Squids, and Bill Christian and I sat soaking up rays in the courtyard of the "Q," debating the merits of pulling the upper or lower handle. It would be nearly another decade before I'd make contact with the squadron. In December 1990, en route "downrange" and to the show, I was stranded three days in a TJ hangar while awaiting an engine replacement to be flown in from the CONUS. The massive ramp was horizon-to-horizon C-5s and other assorted heavies. I managed to escape the confines of our restricted area one afternoon and walked the few knolls to our old squadron building. With no disrespect to you Viper drivers on the net, it was a humorless group that now occupied our house. That long brick building was never designed for the singles crowd. Mid-afternoon and the duty desk was empty. There was no laughter, certainly no lies. There were hardly bodies. Only about 8 lines were scheduled. Only the walls seemed willing to talk.

In September 1994 I was appointed investigating officer for allegations against Torrejon's last commander. By now, not only had he left, but the USAF base population numbered about thirty and had consolidated its real estate to the old 612th and 613th buildings. The rest of the campus was boarded up and overgrown. I was given an office on the second floor of the 612th ops. Across the parking lot, our own fighter ops housed what base support facilities remained. The years had not been kind to the white marble Squid out front--he was missing his head, and I think an appendage or two. Inside, structurally little had changed in nearly two decades.

Those NCOs last to leave were real neighborly and gave me the nickel tour. I helped myself to the glass-covered map of the Mediterranean that survived the years on the front left main briefing room wall. Several months later, I was much surprised when the building's last tenants mailed me the heavy 5'x6' "Welcome to the Squids" mat on which we all wiped our boots--it now sits on our back porch and reminds me daily of good times and great people past. But it was the ghosts that met me in our old life support--by now the base post office--that prompted these lines. A scant few of you, those with whom I maintained Christmas contact, heard this story in December '94.

I tried to remember which was my old locker. Was always in too much of a hurry to spend much time there. Was far easier to remember where I sat while the "withstands-nuclear-holocaust" helmet mold was poured, or where Starjet set up his ski-tuning operation. It was while I was walking around, blabbering to the mailman about what and who had gone before him, that shadows appeared under the florescent lights and each locker took on a life of its own. For if I moved my head ever so slightly to the left or right before each, I could make out the impression of a stenciled name: Teak, Bennett, Milne, Green, Emery, Wells, Hodnett, Ellis, Jacobs, Miller, and many more--I expected their owners to walk through the door at any moment, bitching about quarters owed. I believe the stencil job was Flounder's work--a former Grunt, he was driven by the code to paint it if it didn't move. So while I had been trying to reach out and touch the past, apparently the past had found me. I left the building that day realizing I would never return, accepting also that I could never truly "go home."

But it didn't get much better than that.

Bubble Babble.

Those who do strange and sometimes dangerous things for a living create special bonds with friends who share the experience. The bonds last long after the time, so we tend to reunite and try to recapture the foolishness and exuberance of the period. Recently a reunion was held by a small group of such men who were flying the F-4 at Torrejon AB Spain in the late ‘70s. They gathered in Orlando Florida, drank too much, attempted to be rowdy and tried to relive their memories.  Here is an AAR or after-action report written by one of the attendees. He waxes eloquently without revealing the details of the crimes that might have been committed by the group either then or now. Some of the language might be indecipherable to those outside the fraternity, but the sentiments are strong and easily can be related to by all who have enjoyed friendships forged through life. (Ed Rasimus, writing in Thunderblog)


Bubble Article (by Babymac, outlined on a cocktail napkin en route home to Colorado following the 2004 Orlando Reunion hosted by Hooter.)


I initially I planned to pen the typical After Action Report (AAR) upon returning on March 14th from Orlando. You know the kind—where the target audience is unevenly split. On one hand are the folks who were there and, much like a Squadron Officers’ School written assignment, I’m stating what they already know. On the other hand are those precious few with an excuse that conceivable supports water, along with the much greater unwashed—those who Flounder has frequently and fervently trashed for being weak, vacillating, or simply MIA. And so I asked myself, what would Sammy Small say, and thus have taken the road less traveled.


That Sunday morning, while most were en route home, and after having that rare opportunity to see old children at play, one of the ladies had a quiet chat with her guy. Reflecting on his weekend with the boys, she pointed out what made him special and different from the rest of the world as she knew it—he didn’t grow up the same way and learn the same things at the same time, and perhaps he was protected by the confines of a “bubble” for so long that maybe he now had trouble leaving it. His bubble maybe protected him from having to deal with similar struggles in a civilian world. Yet within that bubble, the realities of life and death, she realized, could be so much more harsh. It seemed, she told him, that he was allowed to stay young twenty years longer than those outside his bubbles. She said that the night before she had witnessed a celebration almost thirty years old, as though transported back in time and space into a special and secret fraternity. And within that fraternity bubble, he still shared with his kind that something special any thirty years couldn’t dissolve.


What follows is a timeless AAR. It is dedicated to those who were together that weekend in Orlando and get it. What follows also applied to that and every one of our past gatherings, mini-or-otherwise, and is as easily written in advance of all that follow. It helps me understand why Flounder comes close to committing reunion seppuku following repeated failed attempts to move the immutable. Why Bill later wrote “that was a great mini-reunion and I hope to get to each and every future one of them…it really was the best time I’ve had in a long time. Damn, thirty years behind us and it was as if I’d never left the squadron.” Why a recently retired commercial airline pilot, deemed too old by law to fly, will cross much of our fruited plains to lead us in truly disgusting song. Yet why some may never cross town, much less the street, for that same opportunity. Why an 80-year old  ”Doc” will make the trip, but a persistently ill hamster keeps another home.


The world may be stage, but is first and foremost a very large Universal Bubble (UnB). Within that UnB exist a great many Umbrella Bubbles (UmB)—one such might be the US military complex, our education system, professional sports—your call. Free-floating within each UmB are nearly unlimited Master Bubbles (MaB); for example, within the military, the “Fly and Fight” community. Inside each of these drift the most important bubbles of all--Shared Time & Space (StS). Its membership all shared similar experiences that are therefore known to one another. You must have “been there, done that.”  Together. You earned the decoder ring as well as the tee-shirt. Ours says Squids, circa 1976-1980. Bubble membership at this select level is limited by definition. In the fighter world, these personal bubbles are called Goatskin (GsB), the name derived from the tough, salt-stained outer protective covering.


Who, then, inhabit these Goatskin bubbles, and why do so many continue to deny and defy the conventional wisdom that “you can never go home.” StS bubbles are a byproduct of both time and space. Entry requirements are strict—you have to have shared that very same space and time. All bubbles that came before or after may have impacted or influenced a fellow bubble’s growth and formation, but these pre- and post- bubbles will forever remain slightly different. They shared the space part of the equation, but not the time, Thus, bubbles from the 1976-1980 era continue to gravitate to Orlando, to Phoenix, and to the next one. In most cases bubbles more than likely hold membership within other STS bubbles (such as their current workplace, their community, certainly their extended family), all with similar membership, traits, attributes and warts. But danger lies in confusing goatskin bubbles with any associated norms and values from another STS (i.e. a similar fighter squadron). Cross-pollination of concepts, protocols and (Maybe most dramatic of all—hair will fly!) music from sister STS bubbles seldom take root. Mixing membership may work when multiple master bubbles are represented (say at an AFA or River Rats convention) but generally introducing bubbles or alien bubble-babble from another STS bubble, say at a Squid reunion, may cause intimidation, polarization, resume fabrication, and unfettered scratching.


So who then is this person inside that ageing goatskin? Don’t be surprised if he breaks off conversation and departs an Orlando party in mid-thought to gravitate to and operate within a far-flung and totally dissimilar master bubble, to then return in a year or two and to pick up the conversation where it left off. For the player bubbles, the prospect of finishing the conversation at a later date adds renewed energy, momentum and motivation to the life of the bubble. It also gives those damn lies a chance to germinate, to return in later years as heroic facts and specific achievements. When bubbles do get together, they tend to trash-talk those bubbles not present. That’s fine. Doesn’t matter if it’s not. They recognize that, more often than not, dick bubbles are probably still dick bubbles. As to appearance, over time goatskin bubbles shade towards gray, develop protruding pouches, move about slower (when at all), and hold grossly inaccurate or expanded recollections of past bubble encounters. Mercifully, all bubbles age at the same relative rate, and so it’s OK to look one’s age, though it’s a foul to act so. Consider the synchronized choreography to Swing Low, accompanied by the occasional unchecked tear. No tummy tucks or face lifts in this crowd.


Goatskin bubbles are also positive charged and tend to lean to the right. When grouped, bubbles speak their own language. Fighter bubbles can weather unlimited verbal abuse…of themselves, their lineage, their sexual inadequacies, their athletic ability or their memory, but only from like bubbles. Shared experience means free access to toss stones, mud, horse manure or arrows. Fighter bubbles have thicker skins and little penetrates. Skin thickness, however, is generally proportionate to shared experience. Party crashers may find this same skin has a rubbery, rebounding effect. In early formation, agitated hand movements complemented the spoken word. Over time, mere nodding (and often nodding off) may replace such animation. “Shooting down” one’s watch may be replaced with “looking for” that same watch. Visitors to the bubble may not always understand what they see and hear, nor perhaps wish to.


Goatskin bubbles have enormous egos. They must, to survive among equals. Something about having cheated death daily and made it to tomorrow. However they control their own “internal” pressure. And so in a perfect world, all bubbles within the Squid bubble would maintain equilibrium. This is because, without “peer pressure,” goatskin bubbles cannot expand nor contract on their own. They will, however, show imperfections resulting from poor personal decisions. Bubbles held in high esteem are given room to expand by the others—though ego inflation comes with both a warning and a caution—while those who make little effort to stay up with the pack or try to self-inflate are given push-back, usually in their less-dominant presence. Rank and position may have been commensurate with earlier responsibilities, but both cease to have importance or hold others in awe when those responsibilities are gone (as happens upon retirement). And so in time, all goatskin bubbles find themselves on equal footing, whether they understand that or not. Labels such as BTZ, “fast-burner,” and DG are transient, along with blemishes such as DUI, LOR, a “controlled 3,” and the like. Such tags no longer have significance among peers. Go impress some lady.


A few special bubbles are coated with solid gold, which prohibits them from moving about. Frozen in space and time, they are gone from the present, but live forever. Other bubbles simply appear dead, and discarded goat-bubble skins are all that remain. We once knew the occupants but they have chosen to exit the squadron bubble entirely. Quite possibly these folks never recognized there was a special bond between themselves and the rest. Who really knows what happened, though each loss is lamentable.


All too often, a visitor may believe he/she has penetrated the squadron bubble but in reality, they remain on the outside, looking in. Unable to comprehend the bubble-play, they are confused. Maybe bored, even uncomfortable. Much understanding is denied—while they may make every effort to recapture that time or the space, such opportunity has forever passed, the language growing more foreign with time. And so a visitor they forever remain.


Some spouses have proven to be an exception to this rule. Master bubble mandates often required frequent and extended bubble separations from mating bubbles. Bubble bonds were stressed and stretched, resulting in a strengthened bond, a rip, or an outright breakaway. Sometimes the “what went on TDY stayed TDY” axiom (which more often than not was myth to perpetuate an image) forced a separation where earlier had only been a rip. As a result, different bubble-mates were seen entering or exiting the StS bubble, often leaving scars on the one left behind. Still, many of the ladies who stayed earned their own tee-shirt and will quickly enjoin telling the tales of the Friar, the Mayor, O’Leary, Mary-Ann Burns, Sammy Small and Mrs. Schmidt and those other historical figures renowned in song. These ladies, too, get it.


And so the question remains “why,” approaching forty years, do we so easily thumb our noses at Father Time for an Orlando night or two? Perhaps it is this. Bubble skins need periodic movement or calcification sets in. When bubbles calcify, like-minded bubbles can’t get in, nor can the occupant any longer see out to recognize like bubbles. Without occasional stirring, that StS bubble will stagnate, membership aimlessly drifting to the dark recess of some larger bubble, perhaps never to return. Stirring may involve cyberspace, cell phones, or mini-reunions. Passing even the occasional well-worn joke can be healthy—those who view such to be unsolicited intrusions into their very important lives are hopelessly and forever humorless (What’s that you say, Sammy?). And so causing even a small percentage of bubbles to occasionally move about tends to incite stagnating bubbles to participate, or to eat shit and eventually die. These mini-reunions may not have worked back when we all thought we were really something, but today they sustain life. And—heart, be still!--they now involve the spouses, who as often take lead, dragging their protesting and to-date absent bubble spouse in tow.


O’Leary was on to something.


Click now on the link below and reserve your place at the next Squids reunion in SAT in Nov '17!

613th TFS "Squids"            Association

This is the official web site of the 613th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) "Squids" Association. The unit was first brought on line in 1943 and deactivated in 1991. The Association was formed in June 2015. The vast majority of its membership served at Torrejon AB, Spain,  throughout the 1970s and early '80s when the F-4 "Phantom" was the unit's weapons system.

Questions, Suggestions, Comments, Photos-- Feedback of any kind to Babymac, 613th TFS Association Secretary. 




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Jim (Babymac) McCormick / Jimccor@Tampabay.rr.com