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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Up in Smoke

Greetings fellow riders of the merry-go-round,

We have been busy trying to get all of our "To-do's" done before we scoot over the hill to attend a gathering in the San Francisco area. We are nearly ready and will be after a couple of errands tomorrow.

Mr. S. continues to recover and is getting grumpier by the day about having to be around other people and do things like eat all of his meals with the group. He is faking not feeling well and then sneaking back to his old room when the attendants aren't looking. He may be losing his memory, but he can still con the staff pretty well.

Anna had a pretty good birthday today and is still playing with her new 24" computer monitor. I didn't realize how bad her old one was until I saw the new one in operation. Going from 15 inches to 24 is also a major bonus.

In response to a very special request I have just written the story you are about to read. It has been told a few times but has never appeared in print anywhere prior to this. With a nod to the movie title of the same era, I give you:

Up in Smoke

The year was 1974 and all of us in this story were in the U.S. Army stationed at Ft. Benning, near beautiful Columbus, Georgia.

This story is about two draftees from Minnesota; Spruel and Jorgensson. Both were my own age (21 Years old), and both educated, pale-skinned, church going Scandinavians. They were also both talented air traffic controllers who worked for me.

“Spooky” Spruel stood five feet eight inches and was so skinny that everyone wanted to feed him, but the boy must have had a tapeworm because he ate more than anyone else and never gained a pound. He had brown hair that stuck out in multiple directions on top of his head like he had just gotten shocked. Military issue black frame glasses with a fairly large nose under them rounded out his looks. This city boy was a bookworm and science fiction fan equal to anyone that I have ever met. Now days he would be considered a trivia master.

“Jorgee” Jorgensson seemed taller than his five feet ten inches and had a solid athletic build from growing up on a working farm, but was not a sports player in spite of his body. He was a handsome blonde haired, blue eyed Swede that was always laughing, even when it got him into trouble. The girls called him "adorably goofy" because he laughed at everything they said, but got tongue-tied when a pretty girl spoke to him directly. He also had the deepest red blush I have ever seen on a man. His “friends” would often embarrass him just to see the pale skin go bright red, except for Spooky, who always defended his pal.

As I said, I was 21 years old myself, but had the added responsibility of being a supervisor with my own crew. I had qualified very quickly and passed all of the requirements for duty officer plus Non Commissioned Officer (enlisted) Academy so I advanced quickly. I had a good reputation and worked hard to live up to my responsibilities. I was the off-going watch commander on the day in question.

IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) in the Car

I was just finishing a scheduled review of an incident tape for another crew (you couldn't review your own) when I received a call from a friend at the Military Police Station regarding a radio call from a patrol crew that he felt might interest me.

The Military Police patrol the base constantly, just like civilian police do in cities, only more intensely as it is a secure area in most respects. This particular unit just happened to be cruising through the back parking lot for the enlisted barracks where two of my crew, Spruel and Jorgensson lived, along with several other single air traffic controllers.

As the MP's rolled through they noticed a bright orange VW bug parked in a spot close to the sidewalk that seemed to possibly be on fire, based on the smoke they could see, but there were no flames in evidence. The MP Sergeant stopped his car behind the smoke filled pumpkin and could plainly see two guys inside of the car singing along with the radio, which he could also now hear. The sergeant got out while his private called in the license plate to see who owned the car. Once the officer got close to the car he knew that he wouldn't need the Fire Department.

Both MP's approached the VW, one on either side, and when they were even with the front seat occupants, knocked on the windows, trying to get the guys inside to open the doors.

Inside of the car were my boys, Spruel and Jorgensson, and yes, the smoke was indeed, happy weed. The car was filled with so much smoke that you couldn't see through it. This obstruction to vision must have lead to the words uttered by Spruel who according to records said in a very loud whisper, "Shhh, don't make a sound man, they can't see us, the windows are tinted" (They were not.)

The MP Sergeant again rapped on the glass with his nightstick and said, "Come on boys, open the door like nice fellows so we don't have to break your window."

Spruel says to Jorgensson, "Shrink down really small man; they won't be able to see us!"

Whereupon the 5'10" Jorgensson tried to make himself smaller somehow and crawled into the leg space of the passenger side and attempted to get under the seat. If you have ever been in a VW bug you know how well THAT worked. Of course, Jorgensson was giggling the entire time like a bus load of ten year girls on a sleep-over, and Spruel was doing all kinds of gyrations in the driver's seat including getting the bright idea of taking his glasses off, because if he couldn't see, naturally the MP's wouldn't be able to either!

Having gotten the telephone call right after the initial license check, I was already on my way when the first attempt to get the boys to respond was tried. I arrived as the gymnastics show was in progress and fortunately the MP Sergeant was someone that I had stood watches with at the NCO Academy. I asked to be allowed to retrieve my men without any window breaking or more units being called in to make it any more of a mess than it already was. My request was granted provided that I could get them out right away and could guarantee cooperation from them. I agreed to both. What choice did I have?

I walked up to the driver's side window and said, "Earth to Mr. Spruel, come in please." He popped up like a prairie dog out of a hole with his glasses crooked on his face and his hair looking like he was part porcupine. He says, "Sarge, is that you?" And then turns to his partner and says, "Jorgee, Sarge is here, get big again so he can see you!"

We (Spruel and I) had to discuss how to do it for a minute or so, but I finally got him to open the door and the MP's stepped in and pulled my two space cadets out of the car.

It was late and the two patrolmen had already been on duty for more than hour past the end of their watch, so it wasn't real hard to get them to agree to let the two offenders be taken into the barracks and put on "quarters arrest", thereby becoming the responsibility of the duty officer there and getting them out of the booking paperwork (which would have to be done before they could get off duty).

The barracks duty NCO signed for the two young men who were so saturated with weed smoke that people were getting high just standing next to them. It was funny how quickly they had a crowd wanting to stand next to them! We got them up to their room (they roomed together) and put them to bed for the night and told them that they were not allowed to leave their room. They both collapsed into a pile of giggling goofballs on their beds and I thought that everything was under control. I had NO idea how I was going to get them out of this mess, but at least I could drive the 30 miles home to my house now.

I had just walked in my door and laid my hat and keys down on the counter when the telephone rang; I immediately put my hat back on my head and picked up my keys as I went to answer it; I knew it couldn't be good. It was the company First Sergeant and to say that he was not a happy camper, would be accurate, if understating, his mood.

After a short nap, my stoned friends woke up, still high and looking for amusement. Spruel, (ever the resourceful one) had a stash of bottle-rockets hidden among his possessions and it took no effort at all to get Mr. Happy (Jorgee) to play. They lived on the second floor of the barracks and there was a long and straight (something needed to be) hallway down the center of the building.

They each took an end of the building and proceeded to ignite the little fireworks rockets one at a time and fire them down the hall at each other. Evidently there were some "screamer" rockets in the pile too, which brought people out of their rooms and into the line of fire. As they did "combat", they drew an ever increasing crowd and anyone who tried to stop them was "fired upon". Spruel opened the window at his end of the hall and knocked the screen out, which allowed the next rocket shot his way to continue out into the front parking and across to the Command Headquarters (HQ) building.

That is where the First Sergeant came in.

As "Top" (the senior enlisted person or "top" sergeant as it were) left the HQ building to get into his car, a bottle-rocket went past one of the junior officers walking by, scaring him into screaming like a little girl who just saw a spider. This caused immediate embarrassment to the young Lieutenant, who looked around to see who noticed and spotted the gray-haired veteran First Sergeant. Being young and inexperienced in how the Army really works, he immediately lashed out at him. 

The image of a young, (very pink around the edges where his too-fresh haircut met his too-new uniform), white boy trying to intimidate the large, grizzled, middle-aged black man who had many, many combat service hash marks on his sleeve, was beyond ridiculous. If "Top" was momentarily amused by the nearly pants-wetting fear shown by the Lieutenant, I would bet my paycheck that he didn't show it. As anyone with any time in the service knew, you never, ever, get on the bad side of the thirty-year veteran senior enlisted men. THEY, run the Army, not the Generals. Sure the Generals play politics and issue the sound bites, but it is the "Top Sergeants" who make it all happen, just as the secretaries really run the offices in the civilian world.

The Lieutenant tried to be a tough guy, briefly yelling at the First Sergeant about the "missile that nearly killed him and how he (the First Sergeant) better handle it or else", and promptly got his ass handed to him by the older, more experienced man who didn't appreciate being yelled at. I tell you all of this to explain the mood that Top was in when he called me.

I was automatically standing at attention in my own home while I listened to the First Sergeant rip my head off on the telephone and I do remember quite clearly being thankful that I was not within arm’s reach of the man. When he got tired of yelling, I was able to respond, "I will be there in 30 minutes and handle it, First Sergeant." He said "See that you do!" and slammed his phone down.

It was a fortunate fact that eventually the guys had to run out of rockets to ignite. By the time that they did, the barracks was in turmoil as people were running down to report the disturbance and others were joining in on the merry making; any excuse for a party, as it were.  The two young men were still in their fatigue pants and boots, with t-shirts on, so they looked just like everyone else. Without their fatigue shirts with the name tags, no one had any reason to stop or identify them as they wandered down the stairwell at the back end of the building.

I made the thirty minute trip in twenty-three minutes and was just parking in the front lot when the Duty NCO who had signed for my stoned troops came running out of the building in a panic; he had lost them! "What do you mean lost them?" I asked seeing my stripes disappearing along with theirs as I imagined the court-martial convening.

The poor man was sweating profusely from running up and down the stairs searching rooms for two guys who were barely able to stand when he signed for them just over an hour earlier, but he shivered as he looked over my shoulder and spotted Top walking towards us. He whispered, "I can't find them anywhere. They're gone like a puff of smoke!" His choice of words provoked an involuntary laugh from me (I thought of their car) just as the senior sergeant reached my side, causing Top to ask if my laughter was something that I wished to share, because he definitely needed cheering up.

Did you ever have one of those moments where you were totally on the spot and wishing for a miracle? I was there. The light went on just as my mouth started to attempt to form words for an answer and saved me.

"Top, Sergeant Smith has just reported that the building is secure and my men are out of action."  I didn't lie; they were out of the building and had quit terrorizing the occupants.

The First Sergeant turned to the Duty NCO and asked him if this was true. All Smith could do was stand there with a blank look and nod his head. The poor man probably saw his career passing before his eyes too.

Top said, "Alright then", looking at his watch and back at me again, "I am late for dinner and the Mrs. is pissed off, so I am going home to eat and I will be back at 20:00 hours to read your report. I will also be calling your Command Sergeant Major (CSM) to discuss what will be happening to your boys." With that he turned around and got into his car and drove off.

Sergeant Smith collapsed onto the hood of my car once the senior man was gone and rolled over to look at me and say "now what?" I replied, "one miracle at a time my boy, one at a time."

I had a good idea where the two smoke warriors had gone and took off around the building with the Duty NCO reluctantly following me at a distance. He obviously just wanted to go back in time and return things to the previous TV watching status quo in his barracks.

My hunch was correct and as I rounded the corner of the building the two knuckleheads were visible in the once again, smoke filled VW. Being very resourceful, young Mr. Spruel had hidden a supply of his favorite Cannabis in a plastic bag under the passenger seat in the coil springs. It took them no time at all to get happy and start singing as the smoke filled the car.

Sergeant Smith had gone into self-defense mode and called the MP's to come after the guys this time; and who could blame him. I knew that they weren't going to cooperate and so did he.

As we waited for the paddy wagon to arrive I had to reflect upon who these two men were and what they believed. Both were draftees and had lives back in Minnesota that they were taken away from when their numbers came up in the Selective Service lottery. Both were formerly long-haired peace-nicks (their words) and really didn't want to be a part of the War Machine. To their credit, neither man had ever given any reason for criticism of their behavior, nor shirked any duty or responsibility until this event.

The van arrived and four (a bit too eager for my liking) young military policemen piled out with batons in hand ready for a brawl. I was between them and the car and their leader told me to get "my ass" out of the way as they advanced towards my unknowing men. I felt the presence of Sergeant Smith as he came up behind me as I stared at the Corporal with the big attitude and waited to see if he would side with them (he called them) or me. He didn’t say a word but he did take up a position next to me, as we waited to see which way this tense situation would go.

By normal rules, as we outranked the young Military Policeman, it should have been a cut and dried situation where we gave the orders and the junior people carried them out; but dealing with a slightly power-mad young man who felt like his authority trumped rank, it took a little more people skill to control the situation.

It was a little bit distracting, (although in a very funny way) to have my two stoned goofballs in the car singing “Give Peace a Chance” at the top of their lungs. If I had been a spectator I would have been laughing at their antics.

I tried to explain to the Corporal that I had no intention of interfering with the two men being taken into custody, but I was also not going to allow a violent apprehension of them. I asked them to “stand down” while I got the men out of the vehicle. While I was making this plea for reasonable behavior, the driver of police van had called for backup.

Unbeknownst to me, one of the other controllers had returned to the barracks and seeing the standoff taking place in the parking lot, had quickly made some telephone calls for help from our side.

As military police cars with lights and sirens descended upon the parking lot from all directions including across the grass between buildings (the call made had been; “officer in trouble”) the smile on the Corporal’s face broadened.

He stepped towards me and said, “You are going to get your ass kicked and then arrested boy…”

A booming voice from behind me said, “Oh, I don’t think so. Sergeant Wright, do not react to the threat. Corporal back away and stand down before this man kills you in self defense.”

There was no mistaking the voice of the First Sergeant and no denying the authority of his words. Pretty quickly both he and my own Command Sergeant Major passed by on either side of me walking towards the Corporal and the arriving MP Duty Officer.

Taking this chance to peek back at the VW I was rewarded with two “moons” showing in the windows. Would they never stop adding fuel to the fire?

A quick and quiet exchange of words took place and the officer spoke to the Corporal who jumped into the van and sped off. I did hear one loud sentence as Top ripped the MP driver (who was summoned) a “new one” regarding the car driving across his grass. He ran back to his car, drove very carefully off of the lawn and also sped away.

One military police sedan remained as all of those who responded cleared the area and my CSM looked at me, pointed at the VW where my two grinning idiots were peeking out the windows at me, and then pointed at the MP sedan. His meaning and instructions were abundantly clear to me and I headed for the orange bug immediately.

Sergeant Smith walked to the car with me and apologized for calling the MP’s; I told him that it was OK and not to worry about it. He continued on into the barracks from there, to begin his lengthy report.

I tapped on the glass and Spruel rolled down the window and with a big grin on his face said, “Hi Sarge!”  Looking past him I could see Jorgee asleep in the passenger seat with an empty bag of potato chips on his head like a hat. There was no energy left to be mad at them; all I could do was shake my head and think what a mess they were in.

Both guys got out of the car and loaded into the MP sedan with no further incident and were taken away into the night, bound for the jail at MP headquarters.

Unknown to me, while I was getting the two men out of their car and into the police vehicle, our CSM had driven ahead to the MP booking desk. There he spoke to the senior enlisted man for the jail and arranged for the two to be kept together and away from the general population of tough guys who would harm our wayward hippies. He was a very kind man beneath the gruff exterior.

I finally got a chance to call home and inform my wife that I was not dead or deployed and would indeed be there on this same night. It was after 8:00 p.m. and I had been on base since 05:30 a.m.

I am sure the question is; so what happened to them?

Naturally multiple charges were brought against the two, including possession and use of drugs, fireworks, resisting arrest, etc.; it was a veritable laundry list.

Both Spruel and Jorgensson were; demoted to Private First Class, had to serve thirty days of community service labor (painting and trash details) during what would have been their off duty time (but still report for work), were suspended from air traffic control duty pending clean blood tests and re-certification (which wasn’t going to happen) and after an A.C.L.U. lawyer got involved, were discharged from the service on a General Discharge (not a Bad Conduct one) citing inability to adjust.

I credit both the First Sergeant and Command Sergeant Major with keeping them out of prison. It was the right thing to do and unusual at that; such charges usually brought at least thirty days of jail time plus other punishments. Both men made convincing written arguments against incarceration and spoke to the Judge on behalf of the offenders.

Spooky and Jorgee never wanted to be in the Army to start with and when they were drafted they both elected to serve rather than run off to Canada. They did their best to adjust and get along but they were both total pacifists and hated killing anything. They could just no longer tolerate what they stood for in those uniforms (no disrespect for the soldier, just the war machine itself).

On the day they left the base and the U.S. Army, Spruel and Jorgensson confessed to me that they had done the whole smoke and rockets episode on purpose hoping to get out early; even if it meant jail time and a Bad Conduct Discharge. They had picked the day to do this based upon when I would still be on base to keep them from getting killed by the MP Nazi’s (their words). They had tremendous belief in my fairness and ability to somehow protect them.

I asked if the whole “too high to think” thing was an act and they laughed and said, “Oh Hell no, we were higher than Cheech and Chong on payday!”

Spruel and Jorgensson went back to Minnesota as fast as that orange bug would carry them and when last I heard from them Spooky was teaching at a Lutheran Church primary school and Jorgee was still farming family land.

Some people are just not meant to be soldiers and that doesn’t make them bad citizens. Give Peace a chance!


The names used in this story have been altered to avoid problems, however the events are accurate as told.

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