U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 1973
Walking on the Moon. . . in Your Skivvies
A Remembrance of Boot Polish, a Father, and Armstrong’s “Giant Leap”
Bruce D. Slawter, Colonel, USAF (Ret.)
Veterans Day 2019
I will never forget the moment when man first stepped on the moon. It was shortly after one military call-to-formation that was equally memorable. Approaching 2100 hours, it was time to hit the showers after the evening lecture on Air Force Heritage, and the “uniform-of-the-day” (or evening I should say) was nothing more than cotton briefs, flip-flops, soap in a plastic dish held in the left hand, and a small white cotton towel draped over the left arm like a waiter.
* * * *
I was about halfway through Basic Cadet Training (BCT) at the Air Force Academy; and I have to admit that, looking back five decades, my initiation into cadet life seems a bit of a blur. Known by Academy grads simply as “Beast” (for BCT), I can recall just a few “happy” details about my “summer vacation” in 1969, which began a mere 10 days after I graduated from high school. I remember, though, the experience as punctuated by all of that constant shouting by angry strangers – those upperclassmen ostensibly masquerading as modern training officers, but who seemed better suited to have served under the likes of General Torquemada during the Spanish Inquisition.
For some reason that I couldn’t understand at the time, I could never do anything to please them. “You worthless smack, get down on all fours.” Holding a variation of the basic push-up position until one was about to pass out was the preferred form of “inducement to learning” back then. Since all basic cadets were by definition dehumanized smacks, any new cadet was subject to a command to “hit it” at any arbitrary moment. In this respect, you can say that the corporate culture for the entering class of 1973 was one of equal opportunity.
Moreover, there was the constant running everywhere on the 7,300-foot-high Rocky Mountain plateau.
By this I mean that, as a stubby, short-legged fellow, one of my greatest challenges seemed to be all that incessant running, whether it was done in formation transiting the hard “terrazzo” of the Cadet Area (main campus), wading through the muddy creeks of the obstacle course at Jack’s Valley, or just being forced to scale one of those sloping Colorado embankments with an M-1 rifle held high overhead as punishment for failing to keep one’s chin locked in place and eyes fixed straight ahead. “Slawter, you dumb wad! I warned you before about gazing,” remarked one upperclassman with what I thought was uncharitable hostility. “Do you want to buy this place?”
Not sharing my tormentor’s enthusiasm about developing my peripheral vision – or his humor, for that matter – I remember being more concerned about being sent home in disgrace, because I hadn’t yet discovered the technique for making the toes of my ravaged combat boots shine like mirrors made from ebony.
* * * *
I’m sure that every American man or woman who has ever gone through a form of basic military training has considered his or her particular experience far worse than anyone else’s. However, Beast in the summer of 1969 occurred mid-point in the Vietnam war, not too far removed from the Tet Offensive; and reports were flooding in about the North Vietnamese torture of downed U.S. Navy and Air Force airmen. Most of us would become pilots, if we didn’t wash out over the next four years; and there was no end to the war in sight. Our trainers thus believed that they had special sanction to make the next 12 months as “challenging” as possible, including the capstone Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion (SERE) training, which was designed to prepare us for the POW experience that everyone hoped to avoid. Over the years, cadets have lost their physical qualification for pilot training as a result of the “realism” encountered during Academy SERE training. Moreover, it was always considered best to weed out those who were perceived as not possessing “the right stuff” during the first few weeks of Basic Cadet Training.
* * * *
I can’t recall exactly why we had returned from field training to the main campus the night before. Maybe it was because we were so filthy, and we just needed to refresh and get our muddy uniforms cleaned up.
I was so distraught about being incessantly hazed for not having shinny boots that, on the march back to our dormitory, I whispered to a fellow classmate, Gary Clemente, “What did you do to get your boots looking so good?” Unlike most of us, Gary had several years’ experience in the Air Force as an enlisted man. Identified as a promising future leader, although he had been a lackluster student in high school, Gary had spent the previous year at the Academy’s Prep School, honing his academic skills. The prep school guys always seemed to have the inside track on how to survive that first year.
Although Gary was as exhausted as I, that night he risked cadet purgatory by sneaking into my room after taps, with a flashlight and a small bag. He asked for my boots. Trusting this more experienced fellow, I felt around for my boots in the dark, and handed them to him.
I then watched in silent wonderment as Gary pulled out a can of Kiwi boot polish, two cotton balls, a small vial of rubbing alcohol, and a cigarette lighter. My jaw dropped as this wizard skillfully poured the alcohol over the toe piece of one boot, and then lit it with his cigarette lighter.
Poof! The boot fired up in the dark like some amazing flambé dessert. I remember the bright blue and yellow flame shoot up like a Saturn booster about to be launched from its pad at Cape Kennedy. And I can recall that mystical aroma akin to Cherries Jubilee – except that the cherries were replaced by the pungent smell of caramelized leather.
Holding his flashlight in one hand and using a cotton ball smothered in boot polish with the other, Gary quickly started making tiny little circles on the toe, gradually expanding his motion like a practiced surgeon to cover the rest of my boot. After about half-an-hour, he applied his alchemy to my other boot.
In the morning, my boots looked spectacular; and thanks to Gary, the expected abuse from upperclassmen – at least on that front – ceased.
* * * *
Another issue – this one external – continued to weigh on me: My father had stopped talking to me about six months earlier – after I had accepted my appointment to the Academy. As a World War II veteran, he had been blown nearly in two by a mine while attacking entrenched Japanese positions in the Philippines. Although he was severely wounded and had initially been left for dead, the piece of shrapnel aimed at his heart was caught by his breast-pocket Bible; and this miracle gave him a few more decades with us.
Typical of many soldiers who had experienced traumatic wartime experiences, my father seldom spoke about his time in the Service, except to say, “It’s not like in the movies. War is no fun.”
Dad was clearly disappointed with my decision to enter the Academy, although he never mentioned anything one way or the other about it. Just the silent treatment. I could tell. A gentle being, Dad would never utter a word to hurt another person’s feelings; and he would never tell even a white lie just to make you feel good. The most honest man I ever knew, it wasn’t in his DNA to lie.
Whether it was in silent protest – or just to maintain his solid record about never attending any school event during my entire growing up years – Dad did not attend my high school graduation.
That summer, the only training officer who did not engage in the collective harassment – at least not directed at me – was a Cadet First Class Bjorklund. A tall, handsome Swede that looked like Steve Canyon, he always seemed to glance down at my nametag as he passed by for morning inspection, never stopping to berate me for some fabricated infraction, like the others. He was the chief training officer for my flight of new cadets. No doubt, he already knew everything about me in advance.
One day, during one of the inspections, Bjorklund decided to quiz me on some trivia. . . seemingly another mind-game played by the upperclassmen. However, in this instance, Bjorklund started to ask random questions about the landmarks of my home neighborhood in Venice, California. Of course, he always knew the answers in advance.
Then one day, right after we had gathered for morning formation, Bjorklund asked me if I knew what business was located at a particular intersection in neighboring Santa Monica. It was my dad’s automobile repair business! A light then came on in my head, as I gave him his expected reply. “Right answer, Cadet Slawter,” he said.
My morale first soared to new heights – and then took a brief nosedive – as Bjorklund walked slowly around to the rear of my rigid frame, my chin-locked head facing forward. I instinctively waited for the blow. Then, he circled once more to my front. With his nose now less than six inches from mine, I could see a brotherly grin form on his boyish face. Astonished, I couldn’t help smiling back. I recognized that Cadet First Class Bjorklund had just informed me in his own nonverbal way, “Don’t worry, your dad is now O.K. with all of this.”
Much later, I learned from my mom that Bjorklund, a cadet who had also hailed from southern California, had stopped off at Dad’s repair business for a tune-up of his new Corvette. It happened just as I was being processed in at the Academy in Colorado. Bjorklund was about to head back after taking some leave back home. Evidently, Dad struck up a friendly conversation with the self-possessed senior cadet; and he spent 2-3 hours learning first-hand what the Academy was all about. Sensitive to my dad’s fears, Bjorklund re-assured him that I would be receiving the best preparation imaginable for anyone entering the military – plus a first-class college education. That did the trick. After basic training, when I could make calls home, Dad started talking to me again.
Because Fourth Class Cadets (freshmen) weren’t allowed any vacation time before Christmas break, Dad overcame his fears about flying to join me for Thanksgiving dinner in the Cadet dining hall. And what a wonderful Thanksgiving it was! Dad had never been on a plane before, except for the C-47 that had transported him home on a stretcher after he was severely wounded 25 years before.
In June 1973, Dad was so happy that he bought tickets for the whole family, including his brother and my grandmother, to attend my Academy graduation – and my marriage to a beautiful young woman named Suzanne the very next day.
. . . And one year later, he even made it down to Del Rio, Texas, on the Rio Grande, to attend my graduation from Pilot Training. Dad bought himself a ten-gallon hat to celebrate.
* * * *
During that night in the summer of 1969, I have to admit that it was a comical sight: several dozen cadets, each with shaved heads, lined up on both sides of the long hallway, standing in a ridged brace in flip-flops, skimpy USAF-issued briefs, soap, and towel. I thought, “Why are they having us wait so long before marching off to the showers?”
Then, Cadet First Class Bjorklund announced, “Change of plans, gents. You’ll get your showers a little later. Now, we have a little surprise for you.”
Bjorklund then commanded “At ease,” and he asked each of us to file one-by-one into the Squadron Ready Room, a small lounge used only by upperclassmen. The TV was on, and you could see a poor but clearly identifiable black and white video feed from the “Eagle,” the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, sitting on the surface of the moon.
Jammed shoulder-to-shoulder into the small room, Bjorklund told us to relax, sit on the floor, and watch history being made. As we sat down mostly naked in our collective scent of sweat-laced dust and bar soap, he said, “Cadets, this is what your training here is all about.”
After an interminable 15 minutes, the Squadron Ready Room suddenly went from muted conversations to complete silence. It was approaching 9 PM at the Academy, 20 July 1969. Neil Armstrong opened up the door of his spacecraft, and after a few minutes, we watched him descend down the stairs carefully but boldly. I think each of us held our breath as Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and uttered the immortal words, “That’s one small step for man. . . . one giant leap for mankind.”
* * * *
Years later, a number of graduates of the Class of 1973 (those of us who entered the Academy that summer of 1969) would be inspired to become test pilots, and several would fly to the fringes of space. Two would rise to the ranks of America’s Astronauts and pilot the Space Shuttle. Another classmate would never make it into space, but he would save 155 lives by landing U.S. Airways Flight 1549 safely in the Hudson. His name is Sully Sullenberger.
Several decades before then, several of us from the Class of ’73 would be thrown into the chaos of real-world military operations. It was during the period of America’s “strategic retreat” – a byproduct of our failure in Southeast Asia and self-doubt as a nation during the post-Watergate years.
In April 1975, in an effort to save some of our South Vietnamese allies from Communist death camps as enemy forces surrounded Saigon, President Gerald Ford, with little backing from Congress, ordered into operation the greatest wartime evacuation since the British miracle at Dunkirk in 1940. Several hundred thousand refugees would escape the North Vietnamese noose in a major air-sea campaign led by U.S. forces; and over 50,000 would be flown out by U.S. fixed-wing aircraft in just three weeks’ time, during two seamless phases – Operation: Babylift and Operation: New Life.
Dave Cleland, a close friend and classmate was on his “dollar ride” – his first-ever operational flight after qualifying as a C-130 “Hercules” copilot. Taxiing the tactical transport aircraft towards the terminal after landing at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport as the North Vietnamese Army closed in, one of the C-130’s engines was hit by a mortar. Dave and his crewmates barely escaped with their lives as they egressed from their fiery cauldron and ran to another C-130 about to take off. Dave explained to me later that, although he had always been in perfect health, he started experiencing heart palpitations and began failing flight physicals right after that experience. Several years later, I sadly learned that my friend had suffered a fatal heart attack, and I could understand why.
About a week before Dave’s dramatic introduction to combat, another ’73 grad, a recently qualified co-pilot on the larger C-141 strategic transport (known as the “Starlifter”), was on his second of eight evacuation flights into Vietnam (two had to be aborted due to the intensity of the battle being fought below). Flying bigger targets than the smaller Hercules, C-141 pilots were instructed to enter Vietnamese airspace at the aircraft’s maximum ceiling (39,000 feet) to avoid the deadly shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles issued to enemy grunts below. Upon reaching the confines of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport, aircraft commanders were to then perform an improvised maneuver not found in the flight manuals: to pirouette their 150-ton behemoths into a tight downward corkscrew, spiraling like a rock racing down to the surface, with engines at idle and spoilers fully deployed, hoping to pull out of the curling dive at the precise point on short final, just in time to drop the flaps and landing gear before touching down. This air-show stunt worked fine during the crew’s first flight to Saigon.
It didn’t go so well the second time.
The C-141 was about to coast into Vietnamese airspace on the next day’s run from Clark Air Base in the Philippines. When it was his turn, this newly minted C-141 co-pilot jumped out of his seat to make his way down to the small latrine located under the cockpit in the avionics bay. Just then, the navigator siting above him in the cockpit alerted the aircraft commander that the acquisition radar of a high-altitude SA-2 surface-to-missile system, just deployed by the North Vietnamese as part of their noose tightening around Saigon, had locked onto the aircraft.
Without warning, the pilot banked the aircraft nearly 90 degrees and began a rapid nose-dive down toward the Mekong Delta to get below enemy radar. As the pilot began his violent maneuver, the unsuspecting co-pilot, just shutting the door to the latrine below in habitual modesty, noticed the handle suddenly break in the fully-locked mode. He was stuck in the coffin-sized toilet for the duration of the flight.
The co-pilot then began pounding on the ceiling of his confined space for rescue, but there was no reaction from the cockpit above. For a second, he wondered if someone even noticed him missing . . . whether a co-pilot was as redundant as an extra cargo tie-down strap on crashing airplane.
No longer was this co-pilot concerned about keeping his boots as shiny as Gary Clemente had taught him. Instead, his passing thoughts were: “What will they tell my family? Will I go down in history as the first aviator to be killed in combat in a commode?”
Suddenly, he heard a shout, “Sir, stand back!” Splinters flew as he bore witness to his savior, a quick-acting loadmaster, hacking the door into pieces with an emergency ax, as if he were fighting back an advancing Birnam Wood of Vietcong.
The co-pilot managed to jump back into his seat just in time to lower the flaps and landing gear on final approach. Right before he touched down in a picture-perfect landing, the aircraft commander, who had been Bob Hope’s pilot during his many USO tours to Southeast Asia, leaned across the console, and with his characteristic coolness, asked, “What were you doing down there, co-pilot? Looking for a new Road to Saigon?”
* * * *
Five years later, that co-pilot, now the chief pilot of his squadron and a flight examiner aircraft commander, led a two-ship mission across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to Pakistan. By then, I had learned to always keep the latrine door of the C-141 slightly ajar.
It was three weeks into the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and our mission was to pre-position in the desert several Delta Force helicopters for a possible rescue mission inside Iran.
The last leg of our journey called for a circuitous route from the Philippines through the Strait of Malacca and around Sri Lanka. In using that longer flight plan, we had hoped to avoid detection by the Soviet navy and land-based Indian radar sites.
I had previously made two flights into Tehran transporting Americans out of Iran before the Ayatollahs returned and shut things down for good. During my first mission, flown at night, the Iranians ordered that the approach, landing, and airfield lights be turned off on our final approach, tempting us to land at a parallel military strip, where our aircraft and crew could be impounded. Departing on my second flight from Tehran in a blizzard with little visibility, Iranian air traffic controllers deliberately tried to vector us into the granite of the 13,000-foot-high Alborz mountains located just to the north of the city.
Therefore, as our two C-141s departed from our home base in southern California for our trip half-way around the world, I was highly doubtful that our aircraft with our sensitive cargo would be receiving a warm welcome when we touched down near Karachi.
My fears were realized when I learned from the sole American meeting our C-141s upon landing in Pakistan that militants had just burned down the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, and another group was rioting at the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, just a few miles away.
Before we offloaded the helicopters and bedded down for a sleepless night, we repositioned our two aircraft – now painted in camouflage livery and looking like giant lizards – behind a decrepit hangar that only partially masked our presence.
I looked back as we drove off toward our dingy hotel, located on the edge of nearby Karachi. The dark green noses and towering whale-like “T-tails” of our two C-141s stuck out like sore thumbs from behind the small beige-colored hangar. I thought of a riddle circulating when I was a kid: “How do you hide an elephant in a cherry tree? Answer: You paint his toenails red.”
Lockheed C-141B “Starlifter”
* * * *
Several months later, I began a four-year sabbatical from aviator duties, which featured my first of two postings to U.S. Embassy Moscow. While studying Russian with the State Department, I learned of the dramatic news of the failed attempt to free the U.S. hostages in Tehran.
Disaster struck at a place called “Desert One,” which was located inside Iran, several hundred miles away from where my team had previously dropped off the Delta Force helicopters. In the confusion of a windstorm, one special forces helicopter (not one of those flown in earlier), careened into a EC-130 Hercules, which was specially equipped with bladders containing jet fuel for the final assault team.
The rescue mission, Operation: Eagle Claw, was aborted, as eight U.S. servicemen became engulfed in flames. Their chard remains, including that of close friend Charles McMillan, another ’73 Grad, were released by the Iranians several months later.
There was no King Harry to give a rousing Saint Crispin’s Day speech on that lonely desert in Iran. . . and there are few from that band of brothers who care to remember America’s dystopic Agincourt.
Most pilots and navigators of that era had already bailed out of the Service due to force cuts, and more would leave to seek a better life for their families after that low point in our collective morale.
Still, a few of us who lived through those events would remain . . . we dazed and disenchanted few. . . for no apparent reason other than we had become accustomed to a larger sense of family – our military family – and perhaps because of that false sense of adventure and illusive concept of American patriotism. We would “bugger on” (as the Brits would eloquently put it) until America’s first military-aviator President, George H.W. Bush, redeemed our souls and refreshed our spirits by leading us to a swift and limited victory in 1991, called “Desert Storm.”
But that would be more than 20 years after America’s astronauts, backed by the best minds and the best technology of the age, would first conquer a more distant and desolate desert.
* * * *
Back in 1969, after the shadows of the Rampart Range had blanketed the Cadet Area in summer dusk and scent of pine, the morale of the Class of ’73 buoyed upward as we watched those amazing pictures from the Lunar landscape.
Looking back 50 years, I am convinced that those images of that first walk by Neil Armstrong carried many of us through the rest of Beast and well into our careers. I give credit as well for my survival during that demanding first year at the Academy to the many acts of kindness shown to me by classmates, upperclassmen, and faculty members.
But I will never forget those lifelines tossed to me that summer by Basic Cadet Clemente and Cadet First Class Bjorklund.
And yes, we all made it to the showers after watching that astonishing historical event on the distant Lunar surface.
Marching out of the Squadron Ready Room in our flip-flops – wearing our skivvies and our American pride as our only spacesuits; and bearing our soap dishes and towels as our navigation aids to the stars – I am certain that each of us felt that we, too, were walking on the surface of the moon.
Several months after I first circulated this story, my wife and I attended a book talk by noted Evangelical author Max Lucado at DC’s Museum of the Bible, where I volunteer as a tour docent. My wife had read several of his children’s books to her students; and I was interested in what Pastor Lucado had to say, although I had known little about the author beforehand. While I am not an Evangelical myself, I do share many of the beliefs and values common to most Christians – most notably a love of the Bible. In addition, I believe that one should always be open to new ways of becoming closer to God.
Briefly introducing the premise of his latest book, How Happiness Happens, Lucado remarked that one of the many ways in which the Bible teaches us to be happy is to reach out to others. There is always someone whose need is greater than our own. Sure, in some instances, we can offer something tangible. However, more often than not, it’s just a matter of listening – and encouraging.
While most of us have heard this message before, I found Lucado’s talk to be both inspiring and a gentle reminder of this important Biblical principle; and the book talk caused me to consider this message in a new light – and to remember the example of someone I had the privilege of knowing two decades earlier.
Driving home that night from the Museum of the Bible, I suppose that I wasn’t very good companion for my wife; for I was deep in thought recalling a young friend, who I had left out of the foregone essay. His name is Jonathan Briese, and Jonathan was an Eagle Scout along with our son Andrew in our local Boy Scout troop. Let me tell you about him now.
Jonathan had dreamed of becoming a U.S. Coast Guard Officer.
In the summer of 1995, while sitting on a rocky promontory in the middle of a lake during a canoeing trip in the Adirondacks, Jonathan asked me, as a serving officer at the time, to write a recommendation for him to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. Without hesitation, I replied that it would be my honor to do so.
As the sun was setting over the calm waters of Lake Saranac, I then asked Jonathan if, in return, he could remember to do something for me – if it turns out that he was indeed offered an appointment to the Academy. He responded immediately, “Sure, Colonel Slawter.”
Jonathan listened intently as I told him the story about Cadet Clemente and Cadet Bjorklund – what their help had meant to me; how I learned the essential cadet survival skill of shining my combat boots. I asked him, when he entered basic training at the Academy, to try seeking out the kid in his unit who was struggling more than he was. He should do this although he was about to collapse with fatigue – or he was ready to give up, due to his own discouragement. This would help give himself the strength to persevere.
Jonathan said he would try his best.
As Jonathan returned to camp, I remember feeling somewhat hypocritical having given him such advice. Looking back on my own lengthy military career, I realized that despite all of my excuses – the stressful command environment, the priority always given to “mission accomplishment,” the overseas assignments, the managing of egos, or just the blatant career “coup-counting” – in practice, it was advice that I had only honored in the breach. I was ashamed that I hadn’t tried harder to find the extra moments in each day to be a better listener and to provide encouragement, particularly to those who served under me and looked to me for leadership.
In any event, that evening would be the last time that I would have a conversation with my young friend.
Several years later, just a few months after I had retired from the Air Force, I received the devastating news that Coast Guard Cadet Second Class Jonathan Briese had suddenly died due to a reaction from a sedative used in an elective medical procedure.
Although I had already separated from the Air Force, I put on my “Class-A Blues” for Jonathan’s funeral – and that would be the very last time I would wear the nation’s uniform.
I sat dazed in the pews of the synagogue until the eulogy got to the part about my young friend’s achievements at the Coast Guard Academy; and then my eyes welled up with tears.
Evidently, a number of Jonathan’s classmates had written tributes to the young man, and the theme was always the same: Beginning with his basic training, Jonathan had indeed made a consistent effort to reach out to the weakest cadet in his unit, offering practical support and encouragement, no matter what the circumstance. Because of his reputation of always being willing to lend a hand to others while struggling with his own challenges, he had just been elected “company morale officer.”
Jonathan had been looking forward to training incoming cadets that following summer during a cruise on the famed “Eagle,” one of two sailing ships still in service in the U.S. military. It was his chance to teach them everything he knew.
My young friend, however, had already set sail on a voyage of a different nature.
Wrapping up the eulogy, the Rabbi noted that Jonathan seemed to have developed a particular specialty during his brief time at the Coast Guard Academy: It was teaching new cadets how to make their boots shine like mirrors made from ebony.