I found this little Air Force Bearista Bear in a garage in Renton, Washington.  As I wandered amongst a permanent garage sale maze of cups, tumblers, a rounder of old clothes, bags, and even very old coffee, I found this little bear.  This blog post is just my personal stories, not really related to Starbucks, so please STOP reading now if you’re only interested in Starbucks content.

I picked the bear up and had a rush of memories fill me.  It was an Air Force Bearista Bear.

(One more warning to readers to click away now – The content below deals with some of the very most memorable experiences in the Air Force, and it’s serious content.  For new readers to this blog, this is not normal content!)

In the mid-1980s, as an 18-year-old fresh from Orange County, California, I joined the Air Force.  I didn’t know where I was going, or what I was going to be doing, but I was ready for an adventure.  I signed on the dotted line, and the next thing I knew, I found myself at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.  It was so hot. August for basic training was brutal.  We started push ups early in the morning because it was cool out but the good thing was that it was still dark.  I always thanked the Air Force for that. I was no good at push ups, because my natural inclination is to be a couch potato.  The dark Texas sky hid the fact that for six weeks I always did a few fewer push ups than what was actually required of me.

From Lackland Air Force Base, I was sent to Shepard AFB for a “training school”.  I learned how to be a dental assistant.  It was brutal marching to class so early in the morning, but somehow I made it through that.  By January of the next year I was ready to be shipped to my first real permanent assignment.  I was still 18 years old, and I received orders that I would be going to Torrejon Air Base, which is near Madrid.  Off I went.  Being at Torrejon Air Base was an amazing experience for me.

One of the unique things about Torrejon was that it had a morgue on the installation.  The military (as I understood it) had a rule that before a body could be shipped home to the states, if the person died an un-witnessed death, the body had to go through an identification process.  This meant that when a body arrived at Torrejon, a dentist and a dental assistant would be summoned to the morgue to take a few dental x-rays to make comparisons against existing military dental records.  Once in a while other medical type personnel would be called in also.  This morgue serviced Rota Naval Station personnel, Zaragoza Air Base, and Torrejon.

I was young (I turned 19 and 20 during my two years at Torrejon) and I easily just did as I was told without question or complaint.  Somehow someone decided that “Airman O” (me) should be the dental assistant on the morgue team. And so once in a while I’d get an odd phone call telling me to run to the morgue, and I’d get there and find a dentist waiting for me, and I simply waited for instruction and did exactly as told.  “Take an x-ray of tooth #30, Airman O.”  And so on and so forth.

While I was stationed at Torrejon I would have these moments where I would think things like, ‘so this is what it looks like if you drown to death.’  The body smelled bad and had a grossly distended stomach from having taken in so much water.  The skin was stretch and bloated, and it looked like an awful way to die.

When I arrived, I would have no idea what to expect.  There was no preparation before I walked into the morgue.  I had only one job: Be ordered around to take dental x-rays.

I remember one time walking into the morgue and seeing a larger than usual group of people standing around.  I didn’t see a body.  By now I expected to see a dead body on a gurney.  There was none.  I leaned over to my familiar dentist and whispered, “Where’s the body Dr. So and So.”  He merely pointed at a cardboard box with several men standing around it.  And then I realized: There are only a few pieces of a body.  A man pulled tiny ziplock baggies out of the box and passed them out to the team of people.  A foot doctor walked away with a ziplock bag with a clump of brown leather and some completely unidentifiable body fragment.  ‘I guess that’s a piece of foot,’ I thought.  And then finally, out of this cardboard box came two teeth in a plastic little bag.  We have a couple of teeth.  I asked my dentist, ‘what  happened?’ How did the person (or persons?) die.  And so I learned, ‘this is what it looks like if you crash in an F-16.’

Only once out of this haunting experience was I left with lifelong chills.  Still to this day, this memory is very real.  I walked into the morgue and saw a young man laying flat on gurney.  He was missing part of his right side.  It looked like a wild animal or a shark had simply taken a big bite out of his mid-section. His name was Seaman Ronald Strong, of the U.S. Navy.  In one news article he is listed as 20 and another he is listed as 22 years old.  I remember him as 20. I too was 20 years old in 1987.  I looked at this kid on the gurney, and all I could think is, “He is just like me. He enlisted probably thinking he was going to serve a few years and move on.”  And again I thought, “he is just like me.”  To do this day I feel a weepy and sobering feeling as I think of my own mortality and the young Seaman Strong.  He was sitting in a U.S.O. facility near Rota Naval Station.  The version of the story that I heard was that Basque separatists threw hand grenades into the facility. And so I learned the lesson, ‘this is what it looks like if you die because you were sitting too close to a hand grenade.’

Of course there were lots of happy and amazing experiences at Torrejon too.  It was great exploring the city of Madrid.  This piece of my job function of taking x-rays on dead people was just a very tiny slice of my life at Torrejon, however, very memorable.  Shortly before I left Torrejon, some superior recommended me for an Achievement Medal.  I don’t really feel like I achieved anything great but I think that I received it partly for being the low man dental assistant always willing to be a part of the mortuary identification team.  If it hadn’t been me, somebody in my dental clinic would have had to have done this task.

In very early January 1988 I received orders that my two-years overseas tour had come to an end, and that the Air Force would be sending me to McChord Air Force Base, in Tacoma, Washington.  I stayed at McChord until I finally came to the very end of my four-year enlistment.  I separated with an Honorable Discharged, and moved to Seattle in 1989 to begin school at the University of Washington.

I apologize for the heavy and sober tone of voice to this blog entry.  We will return to light-hearted Starbucks chatter soon.  The moral of the story is hug the ones you love everyday.