The Virginia heat and humidity were a little strange to us, having grown up in Upstate NY. Our tiny bedroom in the apartment had no air conditioning and precious little breeze in the tightly packed complex that we called home. The summer months began to drag a little with the onset of ordinary life in the Military. Temperatures caused us to rise slowly most mornings and dress into clothes that were damp from the night air that had been pressed unwillingly through the window screens. My fatigue uniform wouldn’t hold a decent press, even with starch, frustrating my new bride as she adjusted to married life. So you don’t think poorly of me leaving that task to Olga, I had way less experience with that particular appliance than she did.
I left for classes at 0600 most days, putting the top down on the blue Rambler convertible we had purchased from a reassigned Army Officer. I had “neglected” to remove the Lieutenant’s parking permit from the front bumper. The sticker’s blue border indicated that it was an Officer at the wheel and solicited a crisp salute every morning as I passed the MP at the main gate to the Post. The air was so saturated that I would have to use the windshield wipers, even though it wasn’t raining. The translucent windshield probably kept the MP from seeing this lowly Airman First Class driving the car. I certainly didn’t mind the little undeserved respect. Anyway, I returned the salute on most days.
We made some new friends and spent a little of our free time traveling around the area, touring the Civil War sites. Tech school was plodding along when we were told that duty assignments would be given out based on academic ranking at the school’s conclusion in October. That particular incentive made us married guys work all the harder, hoping that we’d get a decent assignment at a permanent duty station where we could have our wives tag along. Like so much of military life, things may appear to be running along smoothly but they could change rapidly, depending on the current needs of the Air Force.
Around 10 August that year, a couple of fellow GIs that I worked with in the Day Room, asked us if we interested in going to a music festival near Woodstock, New York. I told them that it was supposed to rain and Olga and I thought it would be a bust anyway. Nor, did we want to do the seven-hour drive back from there on Sunday night. I was right. They were all AWOL on Monday but, then again, I heard that we had missed a pretty good party.
It was particularly hot and oppressive as the twilight began to give way to a hazy sunrise on that mid-August morning. I met the two fellow servicemen in the parking lot that rode with me from the apartment complex in Colonial Heights for our 15 minute drive into Ft. Lee. They generously gave me a few dollars every payday to supplement my oil purchases. The Rambler had a bad habit of burning a quart of oil with every tank of gas. We pampered our little car, hoping it would be serviceable until we got back to New York in October. Like so many things since our arrival in May details like constantly checking the oil, had become part of my usual pattern. I’d get to the base, drop off my riders and head for the barracks Day Room where I had a regular assignment to mop floors and empty trash before my classes started at 0800. Like I said, it was a day like most other days.
That’s when the news came. The NCO in charge of our class approached me and my friend Bob. We sat in the front row of the classroom next to each other and were doing quite well, learning our new skills. We were about half-way through our 26 week tech school when the instructor dropped the bomb. The Sergeant told us that he had been ordered to provide one student in the class to fill a slot in Turkey and we could decide between ourselves, which one of us was going to “volunteer”.
If you have served, you know that word was often used in a different context: “Congratulations; you’ve been volunteered”. Anyhow, Bob and I looked at each other with dismay. We were both newlyweds and didn’t particularly want to spend the next 13 months on isolated duty (no spouse or dependents). So, we asked him “Why one of us?”. There must have been 30 guys in that classroom to choose from. He told us that he needed someone that he was sure would graduate and it was up to Bob and me to decide which one of us was going. It wasn’t going to be neither-nor, as one of us was bound for the tour. It was one of those times when doing well was not rewarded the way you’d like.
In the row behind us, sat Rojulio “Roy” Garcia, a young Airman from Texas, who we all were friends with. Roy, along with a number of other GIs we were stationed with, were frequent Sunday guests at out apartment in nearby Colonial Heights. Those guys were always eager for a home-cooked meal and our families enjoyed the ruckus and laughter that came with entertaining them all.
So, as Bob and I sat there contemplating our impending duty station, Roy couldn’t avoid overhearing what the Sarge had said to us. Quite casually he said “I’ll go”. To which the instructor replied that there could not be any doubt that the Airman to be chosen would graduate, as our instructor was required to respond to the Command request immediately. Roy was doing pretty well enough in the course but this one was on the Sarge and he wanted no part of chance. Bob and I looked at each other again, then at the Sarge. We told him that we would guarantee that Roy would graduate. The instructor reluctantly agreed. We moved apart on our bench and put Roy right there, in between us. Bob and I “coached” Roy and did whatever was necessary to see to it that he completed every assignment on-time and perfectly executed.
We all graduated that October and Roy took the posting for us in Turkey. Turned out that he only served a few months in-country and our specialty was discontinued at the Base. Uncle Sam sent him to England, a fifteen minute train ride out of London. Anyway, that selfless act of substitution for us by our friend from Texas, gave two young married couples an opportunity to spend some time together. Bob, Lynn, Olga and I thanked Roy for what he and will always be in his debt.
Life is certainly made up of many seemingly insignificant choices that have larger impacts, as we look back. That’s how it was that afternoon when I joined my classmates who were gathering around the bulletin board in the hallway. A list of available duty assignments were posted and I would be fortunate to have the first pick. Olga and I wanted to go back to the east coast but the closest was Tinker AFB in Oklahoma. Not quite near to the Atlantic Ocean. Bob and I had become good friends, so when I saw Davis-Monthan AFB on the list, I knew he and Lynn would be able to be nearby their home in Tuscon, Arizona. I looked further on and thought Edwards, California might be nice. That decision would shape the next 3 years of our lives in ways that only God knew.
Sometimes the Lord gives us illustrations of His love that couldn’t be understood at the time but now we can see how He was speaking to us through those events. There was another time some two thousand years ago when Someone else took my place. That was on Calvary’s Cross where Jesus took my sin on Himself and paid a debt that I owed and could never have paid. We are eternally grateful for what He did.