October 22, 1962. We watched President John F. Kennedy on TV. He grimly announced that the Soviets had installed nuclear missles in Cuba, which was not exactly news to us, since we’d been following the unfolding crisis in the Top Secret CIA briefings sent over the SAC teletype. As soon as the president’s image appeared on the screen the 4128th Strategic Wing—and indeed the entire Strategic Air Command and all the US Armed Forces around the world—went to DEFCON 2, the highest state of military readiness short of a declaration of war.
I was ordered to report for 24-hour duty in Intelligence Division. Leon and the rest of the crews ran from their living quarters in the underground alert facility and climbed aboard our B-52 bombers loaded with nuclear weapons. Within 15 minutes of the sounding of the klaxons they took off and headed east to the Atlantic, over the strait of Gibralter, across the Mediterranean and the south end of Sardinia, past the Naples area, and then took a hard left up the Adriatic. The aircraft flew in formation on a long narrow loop, awaiting the command to proceed to their targets in the Soviet Union.
Colonel Cridland entered the briefing room. He looked pale. “Gentlemen,” he said quietly, “This is it.” We all knew that if WWIII began we’d be dead before sunset. Mutually Assured Destruction: That was the policy, and that was the fact.
But then after a while it was over. We resumed our little dramas.
Several months later Beth got worried about Leon’s drinking. It was getting out of control. At two thirty in the morning he’d walked into the Squadron orderly room and was heading for his office when the Charge of Quarters, an Airman First Class, told him, “Whoa!”
The Airman didn’t know who this guy in civilian clothes was, but he sure as hell knew a drunk when he saw one. Leon told him to stand at attention. He told the Airman he was an officer, and what’s more he was the goddamned fucking Squadron Commander.
The Airman laughed, and reached for the phone. “Sure you are,” he said.
Leon, infuriated, picked up the phone and threw it across the room. It struck and shattered a window. Just then a few other Airmen came in, wondering what the racket was all about. Didn’t take them long to wrestle the uncoordinated and stumbling drunk to the floor, while the CQ called the Air Police.
I was summoned to JAG headquarters. A second lieutenant in a buzz cut—who by the way looked even younger than I did—told me he was going to take my sworn deposition. I asked him what this was about. The lieutenant replied that his investigation revealed that I was, uh, socially involved with Major Leon Hensel, the former Squadron Commander who, I may know, faced charges of assault, destruction of Government property, and conduct unbecoming an officer.
“Airman, put your left hand on this bible and raise your right hand.”
“I’m an agnostic,” I said.
“Do you AFFIRM that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
“You must say ‘I do.’”
“All right. I do.”
(More to come)