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  • Writer's pictureSteven Cornelius

Buenas Noches Coronel

It was the fall of 1980, and I was charging headlong into a new decade, young, full of optimism and busy as the dickens. It had taken a couple of years hard work and well meaning abuse by a longline of fighter pilots in my squadron, but, all things being equal, I had learned most of what I needed to know to accomplish my job and settled nicely into my first operational assignment. Thanks to the cold war and a bubbling cauldron of unrest and rebel activity across a great deal of Central America, I was flying my butt off. Four years into my Air Force career, I was still learning all the particulars of a demanding, complex and very satisfying assignment. The Air Force was determined to recoup their investment in me, because my bosses kept me busy as hell. Somehow, in spite of all the moving parts and bad actors we had to keep track of around the world, I found a way to make each day in the service of Uncle Sam rewarding and mostly enjoyable. I was still too young and dumb to know that I could occasionally say no to my bosses who kept adding me to the schedule, fly me all over hell and gone; away from home for weeks at a time.

My boss at that time was a lieutenant colonel that I liked and admired very much. He worked me hard but I was okay with that, because he also taught me a lot. Apparently, he thought I was doing a reasonably good job and was trainable, because whenever he had a tough or unusual mission, he tapped me to accompany him. So, one hot and humid gulf coast Monday morning, he walked into the cubicle farm where a bunch of us company grade officers’ hung our hats, made eye contact and motioned that I should follow him. As we speed-walked down the long gray tiled hallway that bisected our football field length squadron building, he glanced over at me, “You up for an out and back to South America?” I hesitated and then nodded warily, “Yes sir…sure. How long will we be gone?” The colonel grinned broadly, “No more than a week…ten days tops. Oh, by the way, we leave tomorrow, so you need to get busy.” I slowed my pace and called to his quickly disappearing back, “I need more details.” He kept walking and gave me a thumbs up as he turned into the Director of Operations (DO) office, yelling over his shoulder, “I’ll know more in about five minutes.”

No matter what, I had a long list of things to get done and a short time to knock them out. I turned and scooted back down the hall to my cubicle, where my first action was to call my wife. It took several rings for her to answer. I figured she had to stop chasing our two infant sons for a minute before picking up the phone. Hearing her soft “Hello” on the other end of the line, I plunged right in with my news, “Hey sweetie, I’ve just been tagged for another TDY. We leave tomorrow and will be gone about a week. Please start pulling my stuff together.” My long suffering wife, sighed and after a long ten seconds of silence, quietly said, “Okay.” I knew she was far from thrilled. So far that calendar year, I had been gone 170 days and we weren’t even out of September. She was a good wife and mother, but how could she not grow very weary of playing single mom to our sons, one still in diapers and both of them energetic and a complete handful for the two of us on a good day. That evening, as we ate dinner, I successfully persuaded her to take the boys and drive four hours north to her parents for the week or so that I’d be away on this latest trip.

The next morning, I arrived at the squadron an hour early. Our pre-mission briefing was set for 0700 and since I was briefing, I wanted everything to go off without a hitch. The briefing went well, and by 0745 we were preflighting an EC-130E, our aircraft for this trip. After that, the wheels came off the wagon, so to speak. On an unseasonably hot September day, one maintenance delay after another kept us on the ground, standing around on a hard concrete ramp until noon, praying for a breeze and crowding under the 130’s slender wings looking for a patch of shade. Wearing dark green flight suits and heavy leather boots in that hot sun kept the sweat pouring out of us. Before long, the entire crew smelled like a group of bums straight off Bourbon Street. Many of my squadron-mates smoked like chimneys and loved a beer or twelve. No amount of deoderant or after shave could mask that much beer and cigarette sweat. Unpleasant as the prospect of spending hours inside an aluminum tube with a stinky crew might have been, that wasn’t our primary concern. Most of us had been up since 0500 and according to current Air Force regulations, we had to find a place to remain overnight (RON) before 1900 to stay within our twelve hour crew day. None of us wanted to call back to base and ask for a waiver to that standing requirement, and we couldn’t really lie about how long we were in the air, our aircraft instruments would tell on us. As we turned south, climbing to our cruising altitude, heading south over the Gulf of Mexico, a now setting sun provided slanted, golden rays over our right shoulders. About thirty minutes after takeoff, my boss called over the intercom and informed us that he’d come up with a nice compromise. We would stop at Munoz Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico for the night and resume our journey across South America the next morning.

I had flown over Puerto Rico on a couple of occasions, circling a couple of times, looking down enviously from 26,000 feet before heading north, punching through ten mile high cumulus buildups on our five hour flight back to Keesler. On this day, there were no teasing orbits over San Juan; instead, we landed at just after 1800 and spent a few wonderful hours on the island. We caught a ride downtown in a blue Puerto Rico Air National Guard van and spent several hours exploring old town San Juan, which for a history buff, was an amazing experience. My only real regret was that we didn’t have time to hike around El Morro. El Morro is a huge pile of stone and coral built in the early 1700s; the fort’s footprint covers almost five acres and anchors the northwest shoreline of San Juan. The fort was designed and construction supervised by an Irish engineer. Another wandering Irishman leaving his mark on the world. The next several days passed in a blur. We launched out of Munoz IAP the next morning and crisscrossed South America, first stopping in Bogata, Columbia. This was well before the Medellín Drug Cartel was on the US national radar. The cartel was smuggling vast amounts of cocaine into the US, primarily through south Florida. The two days spent as guests of the Columbian Air Force were quite enjoyable and an education for me; then we were wheels up to Panama City, Panama, landing at Howard Air Base. I thoroughly enjoyed touring the Panama Canal and mission planning for few hours out of Quarry Heights. Little did I know that in less than a year later, I would be back in Panama for another much more serious operation into Central America. Two and a half days in Lima, Peru came next. All our visits with Central and South American Air Force compatriots went well. Leaving Lima, we turned south, headed for Bolivia, our last stop before heading north toward home.

Our schedule called for us to spend a couple of days at Walter Arze Air Base, with Grupo Aéreo de Transporte 71 (TAM 71) near La Paz, which is located in the west, very near the Peruvian border. TAM 71 flew an earlier versión of the Lockheed C-130 aircraft that we brought in for a static display (meaning the aircraft sat on the ramp with an Auxillary Power Unit running the air conditioning and lights, as we hosted visitors interested in our specially modified aircraft). We climbed out of Lima and once at 31,000 feet, flew south; the vast blue Pacific over our right shoulder, and the coastal plains of Peru out our left window. After three hours of flying, we banked left, turning inland, skirting the edge of Lake Titicaca, began our descent before finally shooting an approach into El Alto. As we descended from cruise altitude, the southern Andes looming straight ahead, splayed in an awesome snow capped crescent. Maintenance gremlins had yet again made us late departing Lima. We were four hours late going wheels up and didn’t arrive into El Alto until almost 2100.

As we descended, the night was so dark it felt like we were flying into a railroad tunnel. Landing and taxiing to our tie down spot was uneventful. Everyone was hungry and tired, spaced out from too many hours in the air and on an unfamiliar airbase with a lot of rapid fire Spanish being flung at our ears. En route, we received a radio call from our liaison officer, a Bolivian Air Force major. Somehow, in the middle of a static filled VHF radio transmission, he was able to assure us that the officers’ club would remain open and the cook had volunteered to stay late and prepare dinner for us. After we landed, shut down and secured the aircraft, our Bolivian friend rolled up in a crew van, apologizing profusely; apparently we would dine on sándwiches instead of choosing from the usual full evening menú offered by their officers club. My boss assured our Bolivian friend that sándwiches would be fine. After we climbed aboard the transient crew van and rolled through the darkness toward the club, small talk was a bit difficult. Our friend and host spoke perfect English, but the van was so loud that no one could hear a damned thing. As the four of us walked inside, our liaison officer pointed toward the far end of the hall where we saw a portly, half-lit Alfred Hitchcockesque outline; the club cook who waited to whip up sándwiches and fixings. Both the club manager and cook asked us interesting questions as we walked along, such as, “Senor, what wine would you like with your sándwiches and sides?” I glanced at my boss and grinned, that was a new one for me.

As we approached, the dining room was dark. The major shot us an apologetic look before commenting that we’d be dining informally at a table in one corner of the kitchen. After seven hours without chow, we were so hungry, we would have happily sat on the floor. We walked through a large, mostly dark dining room, our backlit shadows reaching the cook before we did; our chef for the evening gave us a smile as he turned and pushed the stainless steel double doors open, flipping the light switch to the on position as he did so. The fluerescent lights sizzled and flickered for a moment before coming to life. Both the cook and the major were looking at us while the colonel and I peered past our hosts, curious to see their kitchen. We both saw the same thing and exchanged a look. The cook had rolled out a magnificent steamship round of roast beef that smelled indiscribably good. However, once out of the cooler and unattended in the dark kitchen, a couple of univited diners had found the roast and were helping themselves. Perched on top of that roast beef mountain were two of the biggest Norwegian grey rats I’d ever seen. They both stopped gnawing on their little section of roast, beady little red eyes fixed on us with interest and concern. A couple of seconds later as the cook turned and gestured toward the roast, they jumped down and quickly scurried away; two grey shadows melting into the dark behind a large stainless steel refrigerator. My heart sank. There was no way I could bring myself to eat anything from that kitchen. My boss leaned over and whispered, “You’d better think of something to get us out of this situation, and right now.” It took me about two seconds before a single, desperate idea bubbled up inside my pea brain.

I bent over, grabbed my stomach and groaned loudly, “Oh God, colonel, the cramps are back.” My boss turned to the Bolivians, extended his arms, palms out, in a what can I do gesture, “I was afraid of this. The captain has been sick since we left Columbia. He needs to go lie down. The Bolivian major frowned and gave me a long doubtful look, before nodding stiffly. He turned to face the cook and spoke in rapid fire Spanish. The cook nodded that he understood, softly saying “Si, si,” under his breath. I walked out of the kitchen and across the large dining room still bent over and groaning loudly. Ten minutes later the major dropped us off at billeting with a promise to come by at 0800 for breakfast and a full day on the flight line. As we walked down a long hallway headed for our rooms, my boss looked over at me, “I sure as hell hope you still keep a stash of goodies in your helmet bag. I’m starving.” Our dinner that evening consisted of a Cadbury’s fruit and nut chocolate bar split between us, along with bottles of wáter from the min-bar in our room.

By 0800 the next morning, I had miraculously recovered, and ate a hearty breakfast in that same club. Neither the “coronel” nor I suffered any ill effects, but the image of those giant rats didn’t leave my mind until we were wheels up and headed well north of Bolivia.

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