Off-the-wallBy Bob Spiwak

When I got off the train at Havre, Montana, the thermometer read 54 below zero. This was in February 1953, and I was headed for a U.S. Air Force radar and control station 43 miles north of Havre on the Canadian border. It was ironic that the night of my arrival marked the coldest recorded temperature in the state, minus 69 at West Yellowstone.  Only a few days before, I was marching down the flight line at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, wearing my Class A uniform that required a huge wool overcoat because the temperature was at plus 35 degrees.

With many others, I had graduated from Technical School at Keesler and assigned to Havre, to a tiny radar installation on the border. My intent when I enlisted was for flight school, but a heart murmur quashed that idea. Being an air controller was the next best thing Uncle Sam found for me.

An Air Force bus took us to our duty station. It being night, we could not see any of the scenery but I knew there was none. A year before, I had finished my freshman year at Montana State University in Missoula, and gotten a persona non grata certificate: “Don’t come back.” I was not a good student.

Also stationed at the Air Control Station was Rick Demarinis. His name may be familiar; he’s published 10 novels and a bunch of short stories, and has won a lot of awards. We became friends because we were both budding writers and our birthdays were on the same day. He was born in New York, I came from across the line in Connecticut.

We had heated two-man barracks, like a small motel room, and while we did not room together saw a lot of each other around the base and when in town on our off time. He was some kind of technician; I was in air control and at times in communications, being the only newbie who could type. The military complement was about 125.

Our mission was to alert and attack any Russian bombers headed to bomb Mazama (for example) via Alaska. We had constant drills, some planned for and some by surprise, any hour of the day or night and when the enemy was sighted on our radar we’d scramble intercepting aircraft from Rapid City. These were Strategic Air Command B-47s. And once we detected a huge goose migration.

In town, many of us hung out at a burger place called The Super. There were quite a few bars and brothels, but Rick, I and others were of the intelligentsia or so we thought, and at The Super were girls to our liking.

Rick married one of them.

The point is that Rick’s latest novel, Mamma’s Boy, just came last month out and I bought a copy. It is, I’m certain, mainly autobiographical, and names and places have been given different identification in the text. Havre is called Milk River, for example. That actual river flows north of town into the Missouri somewhere.

Rick and I decided to whoop it up for our mutual 21st birthdays — legal drinking at last.  We began at The Super. In his novel, he wakens the next morning under a car and in pretty bad shape. I got excited when I read this because I awoke that morning and the first thing that came to my blurry vision was the large chrome bumper of a big Buick above my head. I was surrounded (as was Rick’s character) by a pool of my own barf. I don’t know when or to where we separated at the beginning of our binge, but we reunited about mid-morning in not very good condition. That was the first clue of my own biography in his book.

The second clue was that his mother had petitioned our commanding officer to arrange for him to live closer to her. Mind you, this was during a time of potential world war. My mother petitioned the C.O. to have me transferred out of the country because I had dutifully written home about a growing love affair and she did not approve of her 21-year-old son “getting involved with a pregnant older woman.”

I later transferred to another base and lost track of Rick. We got together briefly here in Washington in the 1960s. I have tried to contact him several times since, but never got a response. Maybe I need to write a novel.

 

PREVIOUSLY, OFF BOB’S WALL