On the Road Again: In Germany
By Mike Boudreau
Mike Boudreau grew up crisscrossing the city of Boston before settling in Tyngsboro, MA, in 2002. After a 28-year career in the U.S. Air Force, he returned to New England and earned a Masters in Community and Social Psychology at UMASS Lowell in 2004. This post is part of a memoir, “Acts of Contrition.”
It was the early, chilly spring of 1986, and finally, after almost three days of back-breaking preparation, our convoy was ready to roll. And we were only ready that quickly because of the constant, in-garrison training we did. That was the primary mission of my unit, the 6913th Electronic Security Squadron Mobile, Augsburg, Germany, to ensure our ability to deploy to the field and set up operations at a moment’s notice whether to conduct exercises or on a “real world” mission. Our motto was “On The Road Again,” and everyone was going around humming the Willie Nelson tune in anticipation.
Those three days were as they always were when we got the call. A blur of men and women in camouflaged uniforms working in bucket brigade fashion from dawn to dusk to load a convoy’s worth of M-Series, diesel-fueled trucks. Grunts and groans could be heard as dozens of one-hundred and fifty pound “double dynel” tents, bulky space heaters, folding cots carried like stacks of wood, dangerously sharp concertina wire and every other thing needed, including most critically, one truck stuffed full of beer, a couple of refrigerators, and card tables and chairs were loaded up.
Any extra motivation we might have needed to meet the ticking deadline was provided courtesy of the booming voice of Chief Master Sergeant Ed Bocklage, our beloved senior enlisted leader, daily operations superintendent, and unforgettable mentor to so many of us. Everyone knew it was he who held the de facto ultimate last word of all that went on in our squadron. All while making everyone else, including the commander, look good.
The next morning a long line made up of “deuce and a halfs,” and their whining engines, “refuelers”, mobile operations “I-Huts,” and assorted other camouflaged or olive drab vehicles would roll out the tight gate of Flak Kaserne and head up the Autobahn to our ultimate deployed location. It wasn’t uncommon that we often wouldn’t even know in advance where that would be, for security reasons, until the lead vehicle brought the convoy to a final halt, its walkie talkie crackling to life, squawking to let each vehicle know we’d arrived and would soon begin the download and set-up of what would be our “tent city” and home for the next week or so. This time though, we knew we were headed to meet up with a British Air Force unit to conduct a joint exercise.
I woke up at 0400 to shower and shave, put on my Battle Dress Uniform, and get myself organized and ready to drag my two A-3 duffel bags stuffed with my helmet, canteen, chemical warfare gear and all I’d need for a week to ten days over to Flak Kaserne by “zero dark thirty.” That was our expression for “falling out” and assembling any time before the sun came up. I made sure the contents of my bags always included hidden snacks, like cans of Pringles or Slim Jims, to compensate for the diet of issued C-Rations, which later would became pouched “Meals-Ready-To-Eat,” that lie ahead.
I was among the first arrivals, and milled about the rally point with the others many of whom, like me, had shown up early hoping to be selected to ride with Chief Master Sergeant Bocklage in the “lead vehicle,” a very spacious pick-up truck with nicely padded seats. We never knew how long the ride would be sitting on the wooden benches within the canvassed covered beds of the “deuces.” It was bad enough to be the driver or co-driver, but at least that was in the heated cab. For those unfortunate enough to be in the back huddled under Army blankets to keep warm, the constant bumping combined with the infrequent rest stops made it a downright painful experience.
We were shooting the breeze as we walked up and down the single line of vehicles kicking tires and checking the tightness of tie down straps. Seeing that Chief Bocklage had arrived and was placing one of his A-3 bags into the bed of the lead vehicle, I casually sauntered over so that he’d notice me but was careful not to make it obvious that I was hoping to be one of those selected to sit with him and the three other lucky people he’d choose to ride in style with him.
Chief would often make his selections as a way of rewarding those who perhaps had done something great on the job or in the squadron or community. Or, he just might randomly select the first person he saw, so that was my hopeful strategy. I knew the Chief was happy with me since we’d recently had an inspection by our headquarters, and I was singled out as strong performer in their final report. He’d praised me in the office just a few days before, so I allowed myself to think I was now one of his fair haired troops.
Just as it seemed the Chief was paying me no mind and I was walking away cursing my luck, he yelled “Boudreau! Come over here!” In a quick about face, I was at the pick-up truck in seconds.
“Yes sir, morning Chief!” I said hopefully.
“Morning, and don’t call me sir! You’re in the six-pack with me today, get your gear in the back, then I’ve got something important that I need you to do,” he half-barked.
“Yes sir!” I said, wincing, and raced back to my car to drag my bags. I hurriedly hurled them into the bed of the truck, and then went to find the Chief who’d by now sauntered down the row of trucks to talk with the Commander, Lt Col Washburn. I waited patiently for them to end their conversation and receive the Chief’s orders. Finally he turned to me.
“Boudreau, before we roll out, I need you to put that big cooler that’s sitting in lobby of the squadron building into the back of the six-pack. You got that?” he asked.
“Yes, Chief, got it!” I said still excited and in disbelief that I’d soon be sailing smoothly up the Autobahn in cozy comfort with the Chief. I headed for the cooler wondering how heavy it would be and if I’d need help hauling it. Just as I approached the door, I heard a yell from one of my buddies asking if I could give him a hand getting some last minute things loaded up into the back of one of the trucks. Abandoning the Chief’s mission, I ran over to help. It turned out to be more work than I’d bargained for, and now the convoy was getting ready to roll.
I ran over, breathless, to the lead six-pack, hopped in the back and buckled in. Chief finally got in the passenger side, giving instructions to the convoy through his walkie talkie, then turned to the driver and said, “Let’s roll.”
We snaked out of the gate and were on the Autobahn in no time. As always, we stopped about an hour in at a rest stop to conduct a final safety stop. Chief got out, checked the tires, etc., and looked in the bed of the truck. I was joking with my buddies in the six-pack about the poor souls huddled in the back of the deuces when I heard the Chief.
“Boudreau!” he bellowed, and I could tell this wasn’t going to be good.
I jumped out of the truck in a panic, realizing in the same breath that I’d forgotten the cooler! How stupid could I be?
“Where the hell is my cooler!” the Chief was now screaming, leaving me feeling a little less like the fair haired boy I’d imagined myself to be just a couple of hours before. All I could do was stare at the spot where I knew the cooler should be as the Chief continued a blue streak towards me before I finally, and stupidly stammered a reply.
“I’m sorry Chief, I got distracted helping Smitty, and we were leaving and I forgot about the cooler?” I said, hoping that sounded good. I continued to dig my hole deeper saying, “I’ll just find ice somewhere when we get where we’re going Chief!” I was now getting the glare that only the Chief could give, and there was nowhere to go.
“You idiot, that wasn’t ice! That was about one hundred, grade-A, T-bone steaks for the barbecue with the Brits at the end of the deployment! Do you know what it took to get those from the Commissary?” he ranted.
By now a bunch of people had heard the Chief yelling at me and were snickering at a safe distance. I could hear them in the background as they continued to enjoy the show at my expense and I could hear them softly chanting “where’s the beef, where’s the beef?” The Chief continued.
“When we get on site, you’d better figure out a way to fix this! Now get in and let’s go” he said as we all climbed back into the vehicle and the Chief slammed his door with gusto. Needless to say the rest of the ride was quiet except for the occasional “damn it” the Chief kept muttering under his breath. I spent the “quiet time” wisely, wracking my brain to figure out what to do when it finally hit me! Our Commander, Lt Col Washburn, didn’t accompany us on the deployment but was driving up in his own vehicle to join us for the barbecue.
Surely he’d not only save the day, but he just might save me some last vestige of the Chief’s good graces. Oh how quickly the mighty have fallen is all I could think, but I moved on quickly from that thought to focusing on how I’d find the very first phone I could once we got where we were going.
It was a British base, thankfully, so we enjoyed many more amenities than we otherwise would, including access to a phone. Frantically, I called back to Flak Kaserne and spoke with the squadron NCO on duty who told me to calm down, and that the Commander was already aware of my snafu and would be bringing the steaks up in time. I proudly informed the Chief who, unimpressed, merely reminded me that I was an idiot, and with a wink, asked laughingly if I thought he was one as well since he’d already arranged it.
Then, with half a smile, he said, “Now all you have to do is hope the boss gets here on time, or you’ll be looking for a cow.”