Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Living it up at the Top of the World
I was assigned to Sondrestrom AB, Greenland from October 1979 to October 1980. I think it was OL-A, Alaskan Broadcasting Squadron. (I have most of my military records in storage at the moment as we complete our house so many of the details are hazy.) It was my first remote assignment if you don’t count Loring AFB in Maine which as close as you could get to the northeast frontier of the U.S.

I was a cross-trainee to Broadcasting and older (24) than the average DINFOS graduate, as well as higher ranking as an E-5. In some ways I was actually a bit grateful for the remote tour which would give me a chance to break in to the biz more easily than at a bigger station.

It would prove to be one of the wildest rides of my early years. The first evening of my arrival fairly well set the tone for the next 12 months. I was met at the C-141 by Dick Partlow, the station manager who helped me settle in. The weather was expectedly chilly, but the reception was genuinely warm and informal. With approximately 80 military personnel at the base, no one stood on military ceremony that much. We demonstrated the appropriate decorum as needed, but everyone from the Commanding Officer on down knew it was a gloomy locale and we might as well make it bearable.

I believe the station roster was six people. Names I recall include: Brent Bowler, George Michael Burton III (GMB 1-2-3), Partlow, Becky Wise, David Dyar, Wyolene Gilbert and Russ Casey.

Russ was headed out of Greenland after serving as Detachment Chief I believe. Though we had never met previously, we had some mutual acquaintances in other fields. Besides that, everyone in AFRTS knew “Wild man” Casey. I was about to be formally introduced. (His passing a few years back was distressing but I seldom saw him without a cigarette…those were the days when we smoked everywhere in the station without impunity. We probably should have known better but cigarettes were about 25 cents a pack.)

And that brings me back to one, if not the most extreme hail and farewell I ever attended. After a tiresome trip on that chilly military transport, I was glad to be on the ground and ready for some sleep, but I was informed that I was the guest of honor at the NCO club for a welcome dinner.

The food was very good as I remember, but the real focus of the evening was toasting and tossing back nearly every form of alcohol available including some I had never sampled previously such as Aquavit and an herbal cough syrup tasting liquor from Hell called Jagermeister while yelling “Skoal.”

Now, as any military veteran will tell you, there are those rites of passage and excess too often performed in vain attempts to establish one’s character. While I did well keeping up with the pace of the toasts, I was really getting blitzed.

That’s when Russ unleashed the final salvo. He complimented me on my capacity, but then said he was ready to go mano a mano with me. As the new kid on the block, I foolishly figured this could not pass. Russ ordered two full water glasses of vodka, his favorite poison and handed me a glass.

Though my head was spinning and stomach burning, I figured vodka would go down easily…it’s tasteless, don’t you know. I lifted the glass and started to chug. About half way through, my stomach thoroughly disagreed with the task and I rushed for the door to ostensibly get some air, knowing full well I was ready to upchuck.

Russ and Dick caught up with me there and figured the damage was done and returned me to a room in the barracks. I had been drunk once or twice in my life prior to this event and have puked with the best of them. But never, never had I experienced that level of intoxication where the room would not stop spinning. I lost count of how many times I had to crawl to the latrine to empty my guts. And I seem to recall that it took more than 24 hours for me to recover so I was not prepared to process in on the next day…and no one seemed to be concerned.

Years later, Russ confided to me that his glass was only filled with water!

This was only the first and most severe of several memorable drinking episodes. (perhaps it can finally be revealed how I reputedly destroyed the last tree in Greenland. And everyone stationed at Sondrestrom has had a ride on the ATC beacon atop Black Mountain, generally after closing down the club. ) Though I can honestly attest to never drinking on duty, I would be headed to the NCO club or some barracks bar (yes, we had a number of private after hours establishments) when the shift ended. Alcohol was something that was never in short supply except for beer sometimes because they didn’t stockpile it for freshness concerns. There was a rumor that the alcohol storehouse was incredibly large…several years worth.

Not surprisingly I returned to a more stable level of drinking after leaving Sondrestrom and didn’t really carry any problem in later years. Though, to this day, the smell of cough syrup still makes me sick and I never touched another drop of Jagermeister again.


Well, here we go. If you have found your way to this site, thanks for looking in and I hope you will take the time to contribute as this project proceds.

Here's one of my last on-air appearances at NBS Keflavik in 1990.

But to paraphrase Ted Baxter, "it all started in a small 5000 watter in Des Moines, Iowa." For me, it was actually Sondrestrom, Greenland.
I remember one particular radio board shift when the most peculiar thing happened. As a recent graduate of DINFOS, this was my first assignment and I like to think that I was trying to adhere to the training received there. Live local radio shows were meant to appeal to practically every segment of the listening audience, hence the magical mixed music format was supposed to be well considered to create a well balanced show. But as most of us can attest, in the days before computers, one often snagged a number of P, W, and TP (and maybe an L or N if we were especially adventureous) disks in last minute attempt to survive two or more hours on the air. And while other locations may have been more strict on the actual backtiming of a show or possessed a librarian who could review adjunct canned shows for playlists, in the liberated air of the wilds of Greenland, it didn't seem to matter. Except on this one particular day when I closed out my last hour with a great golden oldie...really one of the best in my opinion...Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" Had I been more alert, I would have realized that the filler following my show was Charlie Van Dyke's "Backspin." But what were the chances that of all the potential oldies, that Charlie would play something of Orbison's. I didn't even think about it until that highly charged guitar riff started thumping... "Pretty Woman." Oh my God I thought, I hope the listeners like this song as much as I do.
I prepared for the hourly 5 minute newsbreak and cued up the next canned program, Charlie Tuna. Backcuing records was a task that became akin to scratching one's nose so that we seldom actually listened to what was on the record. And Tuna if I recall correctly had his little jingle before the first song actually kicked in.
So there was no one more surprised when I finished the weathercast, hit the carted local station ID jingle and slapped the turntable, and following Tuna's jingle, Roy Orbison's mean guitar riff jumps up with "Pretty Woman."
I don't know what the mathematical odds are of this happening. I seem to recall that one listener did call in to comment that we really should play more of a variety of songs or that the show hosts should compare their playlists. (After all, some listeners did actually believe that Wolfman and Charie actually came in to do their shows on location.)
This AFRTS memory may not be spectacular, but it is one of my first and apparently lasting ones. In any event, perhaps it will spur you to share something and spark some other interest and discussion. I am sadden slightly that I don't recall the specifics of those days as much as I'd like, but it's been 25 years. For example, was it SI, SA, SC or SA, SC, SI on the program sheet? Perhaps your memory is clearer than mine.
Thanks for tuning in.