Lake Superior, Gitchigumi in Ojibwe, was once much larger than it is now. Its Northern shores reached all the way up to the Laurentian Divide. The taconite was formed in the sedimentary rock of its lake bed, and where it met the air at the shorelines, it rusted, and became what we call iron ore. After all the iron ore was dug from the ground, we went after the lower-grade-but-plentiful taconite, but there was a problem: the bowl shape of the lake bottom meant that the taconite sloped down to the south under the ever-increasing amount of top soil, which had to be removed. Eventually, mines began shutting down for good because it wasn’t cost-effective to remove so much surface to get to the taconite anymore. What does this have to do with the Air Force?
Well, before the mines finally had to shut down, they had a regular cycle of Boom and Bust; they always had since iron ore was discovered here in the late 1800’s. It was during one of these down periods, before Erie Mining became LTV, that I came upon the idea of joining the military. I talked to a recruiter, and he really “pumped some sunshine up my ass” (as my friend Dac used to say), painting such a rosy picture, that before I knew it, I was signed up for 6 years, and downing a highball on my way to Lackland Air Force Training Center in Texas for basic training.
In basic training, the whole idea is to break you down totally and utterly, and then mold your quivering mass into the person they want you to be, you know, semper fi and all that. Most of the guys in basic training were 18 or 19, while I was 26 with a family, so I thought it wouldn’t take: oh, but they were thorough. By the time I left for Jody to pick me up at the Minneapolis Airport, I was ready to die for my country, and didn’t want anything to do with alcohol or drugs ever again.
The Air Force was thorough, but they had never ran up against a Jody. She picked me up in a sleek Trans Am she’d borrowed, complete with a case of beer and a bag of weed. By the time we were half-way home, I had rediscovered my hippy roots.
After my schooling in Illinois, my first orders were for me to go to England and become part of the Royal Air Force. I’d like to believe it was because of my proficiency and high scores, but it really was because the Air Force is so inept: they wanted to send a single guy who wanted to go to England, to Florida, and send me, a guy with a family, who wanted to go to Florida, to England.(They didn’t pay to send your family overseas.) So we swapped, and Jody, Aaron and I headed for Florida.
I was originally supposed to have the cushiest job ever in the tropical Florida Keys, but my recruiter didn’t mention that his picturesque scenario all hinged on my being able to get a top-secret security clearance. I had been busted once “importing illegal drugs into the United States” or, as I called it, “forgot I had half a joint in my pocket on a fishing trip to Canada.” So I picked another job, Fuel Specialist, from a video showing a dude in a lab frock pouring chemicals together. Turned out all I did was fuel jets, and mow lawns, and paint trucks–mostly the latter two.
My tropical dreams were dashed when I found out Florida is a huge stinking swamp, where its 100 degrees with 100% humidity almost every day. I have a fear of snakes, and yet managed to find myself living on Rattlesnake Road. There was a playground next door with a huge sign in the middle of it that read: “Danger: poisonous snakes in this area.”
The Air Force had already told me, “If Uncle Sam wanted you to have a family, he would have issued you one!” and he meant it. They gave me $90 a month for rent, (I found a rat and cockroach infested shack for $250) and little more. My recruiter had told me I would be able to live on base for free, but he forgot to mention that there was a two-year waiting list. In no time we were destitute, and starving. One day I got so fed up with it, I went to the supermarket and stuffed the biggest, juiciest-looking steak down my pants and walked out.
I was born an atheist, and Jody was a heathen, but we had become so desperate and hungry one day, that when they turned us down to charge some food at the store, we decided praying couldn’t hurt. We bowed our heads right there in the parking lot and asked God for food. A few minutes later, we watched as a car pulled off the road and into the parking lot. He drove right up to us, rolled down his window, and said, “You folks hungry?” I shit you not. We loaded a cart up to over-flowing, and he paid cash for it. Then he opened his trunk and it was full of fresh produce. A miracle?
Not long after, the mines started up again, and I wrote a long letter to the base commander explaining it all, and to my surprise, I was honorably discharged 5 days later, and headed home, where I resumed my mining career.