By Brian M. Howle
As a resident of the Socastee area of Myrtle Beach, one tends to become oblivious to the constant buzzing of all types of aircraft which scurry in and out of the Myrtle Beach International airport. My apartment seems to be directly under the flight paths of most of the larger military aircraft, as the huge behemoths lumber overhead at what appear to be too-slow-to-stay-in-the-air speeds. This alone would cause most folks to feel alarm – but for me, the mere sight of the planes brings back much more than that.
During my college years, several of my friends and I worked for the S.C. Dept. of Parks, Recreation and Tourism during the summer. For three glorious months, studies and term papers were but a distant memory, lost in the haze of sun, sand and the never-ending waves of bikini-clad young ladies in need of company. Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet was our domain, and as lifeguards, the converted garage of Atalaya (the main restidence of philanthroper Archer Huntington; the name is Spanish for “Castle in the Sand”) was our home for the summer.
The pay was not that great – in fact, it was probably below minimum wage. But the pay wasn’t the single most important factor in our decision to work there. In some lines of work, there are “perks” that go with the territory, and, well … let’s just say there are some pretty neat perks associated with this particular job. And at some point in future columns, I will share some of them with you, depending on my research into some statue of limitation issues. But for now, here’s the story of why I’m leery of the big planes:
One of my buddies, Joe Bouknight, was the head lifeguard. Actually, the title was more for show than anything else, as we all shared the same duties and pay. The only time I can remember that title coming into play was when a group of very attractive young ladies happened by the lifeguard stand one day, and as the five of us jockeyed for attention and allowed the testosterone to influence our demeanor, Joe suddenly remembered his title. A couple of us were instructed to make our rounds up the shoreline while he – in his position of great importance and authority – made sure no one stole the 400 lb. lifeguard stands. Which was always a real threat, since it was common knowledge those stands were virtual babe magnets.
Joe’s father was a retired Air Force Chaplain. His family moved to my hometonw of Andrews, SC, the summer before my senior year of high school, and we became fast friends right away. Joe was an excellent student, replete with all the honors – STAR student, National Honor Society member, Marshall – and an academic record that made him a Who’s Who shoo-in. Of course, all of this meant he was a perfect canfederate for youthful mischief, and we bonded immediately.
As fate would have it, Joe’s dad decided to take a long-awaited sojourn to Europe with one of his old Air Force buddines during the summer. Both men could take advantage of one of the constant military flights – known as “hops” due to numerous layovers and plane changes – across the big pond for a few weeks of sighseeing and retracing steps from their service during World War II. Al the plans were arranged during the school year, and the two men were giddy with anticipation as the big day neared. The only item that escaped their attention during the planning stage was how to get to Charleston Air Force Base for a midnight flight to Germany.
Ever the helpful son, Joe volunteered to take his dad to the airbase. After all, it was a midnight departure time, and with our schedule of beach duty – stumbling to the stands around 9am in the morning, give or take an hour – it was a perfect plan. Of course, Joe would need a co-pilot for the long drive back late at night, and there was never any question as to who would be best suited for the task.
So, on the appointed day, we packed up the floatation rings and zinc oxide and headed for Andrews to pick up his dad and his dad’s friend. They had their luggage sitting out in the driveway as we pulled up, and before poor Joe could even give his mom a hug, they were in the car, honking the horn and hollering “Let’s GO!” It was bernusing to see these two older gentlemen acting like a couple of kids going to the fair for the first time, especially since I had Joe’s dad as a teacher during that final year of high school. None of my other classmates ever saw this reserved, quiet, soft-spoken man in the light that I now observed.
An hour and a half later, we were passing through the gates of the airbase, with Joe’s dad navigating our route to the boarding area. We hauled the luggage to the check-in while his dad tended to the paperwork and obtained his passes for the flight. As is usually the case at any airport – military or civilian – there was an unscheduled delay, estimated to be around an hour or more in duration. We offered to stay during the wait, but Joe’s dad told us to go on back to Huntington so we would be well rested for the next day’s work. We wished them a safe flight and headed back to the car. On the way out of the parking lot, Joe turned off of the road to the main gate, driving slowly as he alternated his attention from the street to something he seemed to be searching for up above the surrounding buildings.
“What are you looking for?” I asked, as I peered out into the dark silhouettes of unlit, unmarked buildings.
“I want to see the C-5As,” came the reply. “I saw their tailfins when we were driving in.”
For those of vou not familiar with military aircraft, the C-5A is the Air Force equivilant of the Boeing 747 commercial airliner, and as we rounded a corner, four massive tailfins – 5-stories tall – loomed over the last row of buildings. Awash in high-intensity lighting, these impressive giants dwarfed everything around them, including a nearby C-141 Starlifter (which is what usually flies around my neighborhood when the military is conducting training maneuvers in our area). Joe wheeled his Volkswagen Squareback between two buildings that boardred the tarmac where the planes were parked. He turned off the headlights and ignition, which launched a teeny little red flag somewhere deep within that part of my brain (not often used) that had – on many previous occasions – vainly attempted to tell me something that I never seemed to quite grasp.
“Um, Joe … How long are we going to sit here looking at the big white planes?”, I asked as I began to take in the enormity of these gleaming goliaths, the fine hair-like tentacles of the onset of nervousness lightly making their presence known as they ventured out a little further from the recesses of my brain.
“Who’s sitting?” was the answer that trailed off as Joe shut his door and began walking towards the tarmac.
“Um, Joe I began again as I fumbled for the door handle, hurrying to get out and feebly attempting to bring the matter up for discussion, “Joe, what are you doing, Joe?” It occurred to me I sounded like the HAL 2000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Joe didn’t notice the analogy, though, as he was fixated on the big planes, steadily walking towards them as if under some Svengali-like trance. I hurried to catch up with him, glancing around for some sign of life that would discourage any further advance, but it was the dead of night and nothing was around but us and the big planes. The I suddenly remembered – with a justifying reassurance – that Joe had been on numerous airbases, as his dad was a career Air Force man. Surely, he knew the parameters of what was allowed and would proceed only as far as needed.
About that time, I saw a small, red nylon rope on the pavement before us, held up only a few inches off the ground every thirty or so feet by small red cones. The little flag began to flutter in my head.
“Um, Joe,” I once again droned, coming to a stop at the rope, feeling that there was some significance to its presence. “Joe, I don’t think we should cross this rope.”
“Naw, it’s O.K., if it was restricted there would be armed guards on duty around the planes,” came another trailing reply, as he maintained his steady gait towards the now REALLY huge aircraft.
“Um, Joe … I dunno about this … I think …” Now my voice trailed off as I noticed a blue Air Force pickup heading in our direction, although it wasn’t speeding towards us. Al the same, I wasn’t feeling quite as adventurous now.
“Um, Joe … I think that truck is heading for us”, I emphatically implored as I came to a complete stop.
Sure enough, the truck pulled up beside us, and an airman stuck his head out the window and asked, “What the hell are you guys doing out here? I looked at Joe with a “good question” face.
“We just wanted to take a look at the C-5As,” Joe stated matter-of factly, smiling his usual boyish-charm smile, completely unphased by our position between the red rope and the planes.
“Well, you guys better clear outta here before …”. Now his voice trailed off as he cocked his head to look past us. “Um, never mind”, were his final words as he put his truck in gear and turned around, leaving us to look in the direction he was looking before he abruptly left.
What we saw were two more Air Force pickups heading towards us, but they were not just cruising the runways. They were going very, very fast.
“I think we should head back to the car now,” Joe said as he began a brisk pace in that direction, not noticing that I was already about 10 feet ahead of him and noticeably faster. We managed to make it about halfway back when the trucks skidded to a stop, tires squealing, one in front of us and one behind us. Then the door of the truck in front of us flew open, and an extremely tense, loud voice bellowed through the still night air.
“FREEZE! HANDS ON YOUR HEADS!” came the order, as the beam of a spotlight blinded us. “I SAID, HANDS ON YOUR HEADS! AND WALK TOWARDS MY VEHICLE. DO NOT MAKE ANY SUDDEN MOVES OR I WILL BLOW YOUR HEADS CLEAN OFF!”
Apparently, he was addressing Joe, as I was in front of his truck before he got to the “sudden moves” part. Content that I was following orders correctly, I turned slightly to look at him. That was when I first noticed the .45 automatic pistol in his hand.
The little flag was starting to whip around pretty good now.
And with good reason, for as I turned to look at him, he jammed the pistol into the back of my neck, pushing my head towards the hood of his truck. “HANDS ON THE HOOD, SPREAD YOUR FEET, DO NOT MOVE OR I WILL VENTILATE YOUR BRAIN.”
For some unknown reason, the surrealism of the moment overtook my thought process, and I turned towards Joe and sorta half-laughed, “Man, I don’t believe this.”
Surrealism quickly gave way to reality as a hard, heavy boot kicked my right foot out, widening my stanc even further, followed by, “I SAID DO NOT MOVE!” As the M.P. frisked us – while we stood barefoot, in pocketless shorts and tank tops – I heard the sounds of boots hitting the pavement behind us, accompanied by many metallic clicking noises. Since my head was almost touching the hood anyway, I very carefully tucked down a little more to look under my left arm, to see what the noises behind us were. There I found 12 fully equipped M.P.s, each with a fully loaded M-16 assault rifle pointed directly at us.
The little flag was now horizontal in a gale of fear.
At some point, Joe managed to stammer out our reason for being there, but it didn’t have much impact on our captors. We were ordered into the back of the truck behind us, all the while inches away from full metal jacket encounters of the close kind. We sat down in the bed of the truck, encircled by a dozen barrels which remained trained on us. Then the M.P. with the pistol – who was much older than the others, and very much in charge – walked to his truck and led both vehicles away from the planes.
As soon as he was in front of our truck, helmets and rifles went slamming down to the floor of the bed. “Man, what is it with you people?”, came a disgusted inquiry. “You guys make the THIRD set of idiots tonight wanting to see the big, shiny planes!”, was another M.P.’s comment. It was only then that we could see the faces of our captors, and along with their apparent lack of interest in blowing us away, we noticed most of them were just kids – even younger than us. For the first time since “FREEZE”, we relaxed a little.
“No crap, man”, volunteered another guy, “I had just made a sandwich, ‘cause I haven’t eaten yet, ,cause the first two sets of morons kept us out for two hours. When the alarm sounded, I tried to grab it on the way out the door, but I lost it jumping into the truck!”. As we rumbled along through a maze of buildings and sidestreets off of the tarmac, we asked them what was going to happen to us. “Oh, probably, ‘Don’t do this again’”, as he slapped one hand against the back of his other one. They all had a good laugh over that one.
Then the truck came to a stop, and helmets and rifles were quickly returned to their previous places, as we were marched into one of those foreboding quonset huts. A buzzer was pressed, a red light came on and the door clicked open as we were led inside.
We sat in complete silence as mufled voices were heard from behind a door which had a sign on it which read, “No Weapons Beyond This Point”. About 20 minutes later, the entry door opened, and more M.P.s came in, followed by Joe’s dad. He paused for a moment, giving Joe one of those looks that my dad has given me on occasion, then proceeded thru fhe “No Weapons” door.
About 5 minutes later, he emerged with the Base Security Commander, and he ooked at us and said, “Yes, that’s my on Joe, and that’s his friend Brian; I’ve known him his entire life. I promise if you let them go, they’ll never try this again”. Amen, Rev. Bouknight.
They held Mr.Bouknight’s plane until he got back, so at least we only embarrassed him and didn’t ruin his trip. The two blue trucks took us to Joe’s car and then escorted us to the main gate, ensuring the U.S. Air Force that their C-5As were safe and sound.
As we drove down I-26 through North Charleston, heading for the safety and sanctuary of Hwy. 17 and Huntington Beach State Park, we approached an interchange. On one of those big, green highway signs overhanging from an overpass read, “Naval Weapons Station”.
“You know”, Joe began as we slowed down slightly, “I’ve always wanted to see a Polaris submarine up close”.
I’ll bet you that to this day, you can still see the scar from my big toenail on the top of his right foot.
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, March 25, 1999.