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Darkness had not yet released the quad from its frosty stillness as the 18 -year- old cadet surveyed the close- cropped turf below. From his vantage point, he could see the vague outlines of the decommissioned  fighters that were parked on all four corners of the center square as the first hint of morning sun brushed the towering peaks of the Rampart Range.

On one corner, closest to his squadron quarters was the stout shape of his favorite fighter. One that had nicknames like “Rhino”, or “The Lead Sled”, but the first time Matty had seen it in person, during his initial days at the Academy, he had been awed by the sheer power the airframe implied. He fell in love with it and its anointed name, the F-4 Phantom. And so, on many mornings, he viewed it on  the center quad and dreamed of the day he might command a beauty like that. The deep shadows of the early morning made it all the more mysterious.

The young cadet’s gaze shifted to the northeast corner where another stalwart was parked. This one a warrior, that the F-4 was quickly replacing in the current struggle in Southeast Asia. The ‘Thunderchief’, as it was called, was equipped with a sleeker- looking fuselage than its nearby sibling, but looks aside, it was still a deadly fighter bomber, capable of supersonic speeds and heavy payloads. Matty could barely see the outline of the F-105 until the flickering lights of a patrol car ricocheted off the nearby dorm and briefly illuminated its background.

Air police. Matty shuddered. It had only been three weeks since the incident, and it had all turned out well, but his heart beat faster to recall the situation, and what could have happened.

To his left, the boy’s roomie suddenly stirred in his bunk,  turning onto his side, still deep in sleep. Matty glanced at Billy, trying to see his face, but could only make out some vague features. It was enough. His breathing alone indicated that he was still in the grasp of the Sandman, probably deep in the woods of his native Kentucky, or perhaps even at the Paducah moviehouse where he had worked  and fondly described time and again, as the boys sat side by side in Arnold Hall, watching movies that were screened there for snowbound cadets. Matty smiled, recalling how Billy simply couldn’t help himself when there was a ‘reel change’ during the movie and it was just a bit sloppy. Imprecise. Apparently, he had proudly honed his skills at that little cinema and would never again watch a film without counting down as the time approached for one projector to take over for the other. Reel changes. Something the young cadet from Connecticut had been mostly unaware of, until Billy came into his life.

There was no doubt that living with other people had opened Matty’s eyes to many things. Some that were comforting, but others that confirmed his worst fears. Billy had fallen into that first category, thankfully. The two young men had become very attached to each other in a short time. There was a strange simpatico born of something indiscernible, that the blond cadet struggled to define, because it bridged differences that might have made the boys incompatible. For one thing, Billy was straight, or appeared to be. And, while Matty enjoyed their closeness, he had quickly shrugged off any sexual feelings about the wavy- haired boy from Paducah.

Billy was handsome in a simple way, if that makes sense. Medium to tall in height and built like an athlete, altho he had only participated in a few sports and not as seriously as Matty. His real interests lie in the world of all things aeronautical. There was no single person the tall cadet had ever met with the deep knowledge that Billy possessed. He might seem ‘backwoods’ and casual, but there had never been a question about an aircraft that he couldn’t answer, and, in great detail.

He was like an encyclopedia.

Matty recalled one such conversation.

“Hey Matty boy…”

“Yeah, Bill.”

“What -alls your favorite World War II fighter aircraft?”

“Uh… Well… I’d say the P-38 Lightning. Probably. That, or the P-51. The ‘Mustang’. But, I guess if you’re talking about the coolness factor, I’d say the Lightning. I always thought the twin engines and the way the central cockpit looked, flanked by those engines, was crazy- cool! There’s just something about it…”

Billy’s face lit up. “Y’all got good taste… Y’know, that beauty had two 1,000 horsepower, turbo-supercharged Allisons in those pods! Top speed of 450. Not bad. Not great. But Bong and McGuire shot down a hell of a lot of Zeroes and Oscars in those babies… Did you know that they had counter-rotating props?”

“Yeah. I kind of remember something about that…”

“Yeah. That was t’ kinda balance the engines… y’know, so that the torque from one engine balanced out the torque from the other. And the way they had the cannons mounted in the nose meant that they could hit targets a fair bit further than most. Great idea! Slicker’n pig snot on a door knob!”

“Huh?” Matty turned to look at the grinning boy. “How slick is pig snot?”

“Slick!” Billy chuckled. “When those guns lit up, things happened faster ‘n a knife fight ‘n a phone booth!”

“Oh my God”, Matty groaned, feigning bewilderment. “You’re such a freakin’ hillbilly! I can’t believe you got an appointment here!”

Billy cackled at that, completely enjoying the back and forth. He was a real character. Down home. Loyal. And probably one of the most genuinely funny guys Matty would ever meet. To the tall young man from Connecticut, he had become a third brother. In their brief quartering together, they would rescue each other in completely different ways.

           They both yearned for the places they called home. Billy for his little movie house and the girl he left behind, Matty for the rolling farmlands and the boy who had saved him from himself…

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{Summer, 1970}

         “Damn, Koles! That freakin’ gol- durned fly is gonna die!” Bobby exclaimed, swatting wildly at the darting horsefly that had appeared suddenly from the deep woods to the boys’ left. What had been a tranquil stroll down the grass farm path to the northern fields, had now deteriorated into a hectic battle against a relentless demon fly for the two friends. Neither boy was immune, as the brown- colored pest buzzed them both, searching for exposed areas to feast on. And, there were several, as the boys had earlier shed their sweatsoaked shirts and were now clad only in cut- off jeans.

          “Crap! Don’t send him over here!” Matty laughed, pirouetting and waving his arms wildly as the fly ricocheted off his face. “RUN!! Head for the pond!”

            With that, both boys started the sprint for the sheltered pond in the low lying pasture beyond the treeline. Bobby cackled hysterically as Matty’s long legs carried his taut upper body in uncharacteristic panic down the uneven terrain that was pock marked with tractor- created pot holes. One such hole almost sent him sprawling, and Bobby didn’t help! instead of helping the stumbling boy, he added a little nudge along with a hysterical laugh as the race to the pond intensified.

            In typical fashion, it had become a competition, like many other things in the boys’ friendship. An innocent jog became a race; a simple goosing became a game of dominance that often ended in trampled meadow grass, flushed faces and heavy breathing.  These were the things that Matty would remember forever. The passion borne of a sacred connection, when the world hunted “their kind”and found nothing redeeming in their love.

               Bobby reached the pond ahead of his blonde 15 year old cohort, and ran full tilt into it, diving after two or three steps. Matty was on his heels and dove atop his silk skinned back, laughing so hard he inhaled a mouthful of murky water. He came to the surface clinging to Bobby’s shoulders, choking and gasping for breath. Sputtering, and still laughing.

                 “You ain’t supposed to drink it, Koles! Cripes! ” Bobby turned, grabbed the thin boy by the shoulders, and slapped his back a few times, but it only made things worse, as Matty’s face turned red and he struggled to catch his breath..

                  “Good God, Matty! You OK? Whattid you do? Swallow the horsefly?”

                   Matty waved his hand at the grinning boy, gesturing him to stop, because he knew what was coming and it was only prolonging the situation.

                    “I told you not to swallow! Bad enough you took the whole thing…”

                    This was all part of the dance… If Bobby had swallowed the water, Matty would have been compelled… expected to give him a hard time as well. Outsiders often looked at their relationship with puzzlement but that just made it all the more entertaining. After all, their world was one of furtive glances and mind reading. Something the Others would never understand…

                      At long last, Matty recovered and was able to speak. He looked at his best friend and trying not to laugh, replied. “Jerk!”

                      “Jerk? Me ? How dare you call me…” With that, Bobby leaped at the tall boy, knocking him backwards into the shallows and landing atop him, more or less, tho he remained upright. Matty was not. Upright, that is. He found himself sitting in the sandy shallows, looking up at the bulging denim cutoffs inches away from his face. It was obvious that the warm waters of the pond had done little to tame what was desperately trying to escape those shorts !

                        “Geezz! I can’t believe you haven’t wrecked the zipper on those yet! Matty said horsely, trying to act nonchalant.

                         “Like Ma says, I’m a growing boy! ” the athletically built boy retorted. With that, he moved even closer, straddling Matty, until he had no place to go, if he was to keep his head above water. “Well… whatcha waiting for Koles? Nobody’s around…”

                       Matty reached up and suddenly pinched the inside of his friend’s left thigh. It had a momentary effect, but Bobby already knew that trick, so he gasped but quickly regained his composure. “Good try! Using that old karate trick again! Nope! That ain’t gonna work THIS time! Come on now… ” He grabbed the boy’s right hand and pulled it to the wet bulge.                 

                     

 

                 The blond boy looked up. Bobby was looking down at him, blushing. It was apparent, even on his perfectly tanned face and neck. Matty swallowed hard and fumbled with the  zipper. It was starting to come down by itself anyways, so…

 {October, 1972}

             The fall semester had been a grinding combination of tough classes and military training for the tall cadet. It had not gone unnoticed that the atmosphere on campus seemed to have soured as the pressure of academic achievement became the focus of every steel- spined, future officer at the mile high, fun- filled school in the sky, affectionately called ‘The Blue Zoo’.

                Matty had first heard the moniker as he stood in his military issued white briefs in a long line of his fellow underclassman, inches away from another nearly naked boy a half hour before taps. He was standing in a ‘brace’, like the rest of the 18 and 19 year old basic cadets, as they endured the hazing so amply doled out in those first months, even if it had been a lot worse during the summer. Now that classes were officially underway, the hazing was more focused and sporadic. It came at times deemed ‘necessary’ by the upperclass, in what seemed to be an arbitrary and mean- spirited way to keep morale and teamwork intact. To most of the 4th classmen, it seemed more vengeful than anything else. A chance for those once abused by the system to extract their pound of flesh, now that they were in charge.

                To the blond cadet from New England, this was one of the biggest disappointments he found in this institution tucked into the Rocky Mountains. It was more like a fraternity on steroids at times, than the place he had envisioned, where boys became men and the country forged the next generation of razor sharp officers. Instead, he found testosterone driven young men who might someday have their fingers on that red button in places like the nearby Cheyenne Mountain, where NORAD’s mission to protect its hemisphere from missile attack was active and disconcerting. Part of every cadet’s indoctrination to the new world they were learning about, was a visit to that facility and a tour of its most sensitive areas. There are things that he learned then that he cannot talk about even today.

                 But, in this pressure- cooker that was derisively called ‘The Blue Zoo”, there were, by necessity, venting measures. Some were devised by the upperclass so that they could escape the grind of the ever present military training. Parties at various places off campus, that the underclassmen were excluded from.

                 It was up to the imagination and daring of the underclass to create their own distractions and to establish a sort of legacy for themselves. It was during one such effort that things got a bit out of control. But then, the road to hell is paved with good intentions…

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Tuesday, October 24th, 1972  {midnight}

               There were 10 of them, dressed in black. Black sweatshirts, black sweatpants, black combat boots, black watchcaps, and camouflaged, black painted faces. …

               For all intents and purposes, the team of young cadets could have been a recon squad. They wore nothing identifiable, like the athletic jackets they often wore in formation or the dress blues reserved for formal occasions. Each were accepted forms of dress depending on the occasion, and each had attached insignia denoting rank or squadron membership. In fact, the usual outerwear during the cool months, was the athletic jacket, and on the left breast of that was proudly displayed the squadron patch. In Matty’s case, it consisted of a futuristic looking black cat with a yellow eye, standing  in the center, in front of the golden contrails of two jets, flying side by side. A leader and his wingman… Blazoned boldly across the bottom of the patch, were the Roman numeral numbers assigned to the squadron. XXV. The 25th. “Redeye Squadron”.

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                   It was that patch that was the focus of the mission that frosty night in October. The plan had been hatched a few weeks earlier after a successful raid that the 10 underclassman had pulled off, at a nearby squadron across the terrazzo. It was in the SAR (squadron assembly room) of the 28th, the ‘Blackbird’ squadron, that the stealthy cadets had ‘reacquired’ the 400 pound, decommissioned redeye missle that had been ‘captured’ in a similar raid some years back, and held hostage, like some war prize. It had been mentioned in derisive comments during intramural sporting events, and for years, nothing had been done about it. Until the Class of ’76 made its presence known, that is. But, that is another story…

                 On this dark night, the young men of the 25th had decided to do something that had never been done before, as far as they could tell. There had been a brainstorming meeting during which the idea came to the fore, modified from its original form. Refined.

                  The original idea had been to create a giant sign made from sheets, or perhaps a flag fabricated from the same material upon which the 25th’s insignia would be meticulously inscribed. That sign might be posted where everyone on that side of the campus could not escape noticing, perhaps atop Spirit Hill, in the center quad,  famous for wild speculations about exactly why it was named Spirit Hill! But this night the young cadets schemed to emblazon their mark on the landmark, and give future classes something to remember. But what they planned, and what happened, differed slightly in results, albeit minor ones, if one considers drawn .45s and livid AP’s (Air Police) , minor distractions…

Cont’d in part 2 

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