It was 1977 and only the second airplane trip of my life, although I was almost 21 years old. The first had been several weeks earlier when, after a quick induction into the military, I was first uprooted from my sedate midwestern hometown and deposited in San Antonio, TX, to begin what would turn out to be a 17 1/2-year Air Force career. This second aerial journey was taking me to my first permanent duty assignment, the northern tier bomber base at Plattsburgh, NY. It was a place I had only recently located on a map.
The military assignment system is loaded with irony and droll humor if you look for it. A permanent change of station, or PCS, means that you are being sent to someplace where you are slated to stay for no more than three years. I had been required to fill out a form in technical training school requesting my preferences for places I would like to be PCS'ed. Everyone in the service knows the form by its nickname: the dream sheet.
Since I had enlisted in the Air Force seeking travel and adventure, my dream sheet was a catalog of every exotic and enticing locale that captured the fancy of a bored young college dropout raised in a tiny house in an Illinois factory town. I asked for Hawaii, Germany, Japan and England, among others. My friend from training class was a Puerto Rican kid who had grown up in New York City. His dream sheet only listed New York and New England. He wanted to stay near home. When our orders arrived at the end of training, he was headed for Europe, and I was going to New York. Trading wasn't allowed.
I was now sitting in a tiny seat aboard a small, twin-engine turbo prop with three other passengers, bouncing through the skies of central New York State, dodging the electrical storms that flashed around us. We had departed from Albany after a lengthy delay and were now headed due north. Around midnight, we landed at an airport that sported a terminal no bigger than a large garage. It was pouring rain, and we were soaked when we ducked through the door of the tiny waiting lounge. Since our flight was late, only one airline employee was on duty, and she was out on the ramp with her slicker on, pulling our luggage out of the baggage compartment.
As I shook my coat and ran my hand across my brush cut, I spotted a guy in fatigues wearing a government-issued raincoat. He tossed his cigarette butt in the ashtray, and as he exhaled a last lungful of nicotine, he growled, You McCumber?
Yes, Sir. Airman John McCumber reporting for PCS to Plattsburgh Air Force Base, I said, proudly remembering what I had been taught.
Save the formalities for your commander tomorrow, he relied blandly. I'm just the on-duty motor pool auxiliary driver. You're the only one on our pick-up list tonight and you're late. Get your duffel and get in the truck outside, he said without an introduction or handshake.
We drove the roughly 20 minutes to the base, mostly through the small town of Plattsburgh. The driver seemed annoyed and tired, so I tried to keep my observations to myself. The town looked shockingly like home. In some ways, I was disappointed. As we turned on to the base, we were waved through the gate by a sentry and drove down the main road toward the large hangars looming in the darkness.
The feature that caught my eye in the late-night gloom was the gleaming silver pipeline that ran along both sides of the main road. Each pipe was about eighteen inches in diameter, and the system ran at about waist height for several hundred yards before it plunged into the ground only to emerge a few feet later and run for several hundred more yards. My curiosity overrode my desire to avoid a caustic reply from my testy chauffer.
Hey, what the heck are these huge pipes running along the sides of the road? Is that how they pump fuel to the aircraft? I asked, trying to sound reasonably perceptive. He began his answer by laughing at me.