Russ Ringsak

Nukes, Steaks, Rock & Roll

October 22, 2013

Lincoln, Nebraska brings back memories. I left my small town home in northeast North Dakota after graduating from high school a smidge short of magna cum laude. My dad offered me a deal: he wouldn't give me a free ride through college but he'd match whatever I earned on my own for the purpose. So construction work filled my high school and college summers. In the Cold War of the late fifties I was working at the Lincoln Air Force Base for an electrical contractor, installing the flush lights you see along taxiways and runways.

We were on a rush schedule, usually working well past sunset. In a fading July light out by the far end of the main runway I was running a junior-size trencher cutting a trough for the underground electrical lines that ran from one light pit to the next. The digger had a bucket chain on a boom that pulled the overburden up to an auger kicking it to the right side, leaving a ridge as it moved along. It looked a lot like this one but without the goggles:

Trench digger
Trench digger at daylight.

At some sudden point that dark fresh dirt blossomed into a bright bouquet of dozens of colorful little tubes. This wasn't Christmas. And it couldn't be a good thing. I shut the machine down and called the foreman over.

In the dusk the trencher headlight showed shards of a major coaxial cable running crosswise to and at a shallower depth than our trench. I had cut clean through about fifty low-voltage signal wires without feeling so much as a tug. But we had no time to stand and marvel at the meaning of such a thing because the entire base quickly erupted in wailing screaming sirens and the cracking thunder of F-86 Sabre fighter jets firing up. I had cut the main communication cable to Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Base in Omaha and as far as the guys at the control tower knew the Cold War just ended and World War III would start RIGHT NOW. There was no time to mess around. They hit the switches.

The Sabres came screaming down that runway almost nose to tail, the entire flight, maybe five, leaping into the air in what seemed like two minutes.

F-86 Sabre Jet
A howling F-86 Sabre Jet takes to the sky.

And as wicked serious as these guys were, they were only a prelude to the mighty B-47 Screaming Nightmares of Total Shock And Destruction, one after another, loud all the way into your bone marrow. Loud all the way to Kansas City.

B-47 Stratocruiser
The B-47 Stratojet: Deadly Grace, Power, Speed and Purpose. Rocket Assisted Take Off. Skullcracking Loud.

The amazing thunder eased a bit as they went roaring into the darkening sky, until I could again hear the sirens getting closer and now they were very close and I turned and here came two fully padded and armed Air Force policemen just climbing out of a Beware Of The Dog midnight blue van, one closing fast and gripping the handle of a harness holding back a yowling howling big German Shepherd utterly committed to ripping me into strips of jerky.

That frothing dog didn't like anything about me, not a single thing; wearing no more than a t-shirt and jeans I had just launched a nuclear bomber attack with fighter escorts and he hated me for it. I asked the young and thankfully sturdy Air Police Man if the dog would attack me if he were to drop the handle and he said, "Eff Ah drop this here handle this sumbitch is gon' KEEILLL YEW."

There was no reason to doubt that. The dog had our full attention. We didn't fall into casual conversation about how a previous contractor might have messed up when they set that big coaxial cable to Offutt Air Base at that depth. Or maybe it was just laid to earlier specifications. I stood there frozen until more help showed up. It only occurred to me later that for him to call that dog, or any dog, a son of a bitch was not really swearing. Not only was it linguistically correct it seemed correct in the general sense of the word. That dog might have been the great great great great grandfather of this dog. It looked just like this one:

Snarling German Shepherd
"Whassup, nice doggy? They don't feed you?"

They checked our IDs and took nice doggy away and more lights and a generator were hauled up; a working pit was dug and two or three electricians and cable splicers set to getting it all back together.

We figured the tower and the commanders at both bases had known exactly what had happened before the jets were even up to altitude; Strategic Air Command had likely set up an automatic protocol to immediately launch with the loss of the land line and then get on the radios and the radars. The entire flap would become nothing more than another useful exercise in readiness. The planes came back after a while and we missed not a day of work over it. Nothing about it in the paper either.

Doing some searching I found that each of those B-47 bombers could carry up to a 25-megaton nuclear bomb, which is the power equivalent of 25 million tons of dynamite, more than a thousand times greater than the Hiroshima obliteration. And of course the Russians had the same thing aimed at us. Aren't we glad we've managed to put that stuff behind. Maybe.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

How to launch a nuclear attack wasn't the only thing I learned that summer here in Lincoln. I also learned about steak. My mother was a terrific cook and we were the only family I knew of that had chocolate eclairs, glazed doughnuts or upside-down cake. We had great meatloaf and candied sweet potatoes, and exotic veggies like artichokes and asparagus. Turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie were magnificent. All pies were magnificent.

But with beefsteak we were pretty much like everyone else. We seldom had steak and when we did it was cooked through. In Lincoln with a construction crew I finally discovered the magic of full inch-thick juicy rare steak. Even the names were exotic: Porterhouse, Tenderloin, Filet Mignon, Boneless Top Sirloin; the classy New York Strip and the bluesy T-Bone. Spicy beans, Texas toast.

And of course with the steak came the whiskey and not the cheap back-alley wino-supplied stuff right out of the bottle like we'd get in high school. And nothing mixed with soda pop either. Just real Kentucky bourbon straight up or on the rocks and nothing less. I was growing up fast here.

~ ~ ~ ~

And for further post-graduate study there was that big wild dance hall. Small towns around my home county offered a few general purpose halls where an accordian or concertina and a saxophone or clarinet and a trumpet or two, plus a tuba, would be pumping out polkas, waltzes and schottisches on a Saturday night. And they were fun, but the irresistible megalith of rock and roll had newly arrived and at the big-time dance hall just beyond the Lincoln City Limits there were full-frenzied electric guitars and a driving thumping electric bass and a crashing drummer and a big exuberant crowd.

I liked it but wasn't sure of how to dance to it. But I was about to find out how, and to also find that with a construction-worker tan a rangy barely-legal kid can easily be considered fair game by a woman ten or more years older. And she was not shy. And she knew how to boogie. I could go on.

Better to stop right there. But I will say that it never occurred to me to tell her that I had launched both fighters and bombers earlier in the day.

Heck, I never even told her about that crazy dog.


© Russell Ringsak 2013

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