Chester Martin Remembers Norm, One Of His Best Air Force Buddies

Monday, April 17, 2017 - by Chester Martin
Norm (Sketch by Chester Martin)
Norm (Sketch by Chester Martin)

"Norm" was already working a shift in the control tower at Sewart AFB (northwest of Murfreesboro, and southeast of Nashville) when I arrived there in late 1957. Our small squadron was assigned to one barracks, and that is where I met my new friend.

Norm was interested in all things scientific, and all things mechanical, constantly reading magazines like Popular Mechanics, the Scientific American, and any other such literature he could find. Midnight shifts in the tower provided the perfect occasion for such reading.

 For transportation, he owned an ancient rag-top jalopy of a car - as non-descript as any car I've ever seen - a two-seater of some sort.

Due to the base's remoteness from both Nashville and Murfreesboro - and due to the scanty pay of an enlisted man, it was easier to remain on-base - so on his free days he enjoyed nothing better than taking his old jalopy apart and putting it back together. He asked me to join him in this fun on several occasions, but I always declined. (I tell this detail just to prove his interest in mechanical things; ask your grandfather to explain the word, "Jalopy", in case you do not know!).

Norm was from Bowling Green, Kentucky, and of similar upbringing to my own. He had been a Boy Scout, Eagle Scout, and a member of the Civil Air Patrol. (I was none of those things, but our family, and social lives were very similar). The thought of flying a plane was always with him. His former college, like my own, had not had Air Force ROTC, so he believed that by joining the regular Air Force as an enlisted airman he might eventually find a way to become a "Cadet", and ultimately a pilot.

Time passed, however, and he was so busy with the constant requirements of control-tower and squadron duties (studying for ratings, etc.) he neglected filing the necessary paperwork for the Cadets program. Half his enlistment went by before he got up the courage and energy for something so ambitious that could have major life-changing prospects. But, with a little prodding, he did indeed file the paperwork.

Nothing in the Air Force (or any other branch of government, for that matter) works very fast, so Norm virtually forgot that he had ever filed those papers. Precious time passed, and I remember asking him about it - more than once. He began to wonder also. So, being a clever and resourceful type of guy, he took it upon himself to find out the present status of those papers. Asking a clerk in the squadron's Orderly Room would have done no good, as it could have created a minor, un-wanted confrontation, which could have presented a counter-productive situation. He needed to "grease the skids" instead of creating friction.

Next time he pulled "CQ" (Charge of Quarters) duty - a usually very dull night of sitting alone in the squadron's Orderly Room waiting for the 'phone to ring, or for someone to either sign in or sign out on leave - he determined to do some "midnight research".  Norm had learned a few tricks in his civilian life before joining the Air Force. Yes, he had indeed learned how to pick locks, so he illegally broke into the filing cabinet where he believed his documentation to be - and there he immediately found it. Those "magic" papers had the potential power to raise him from the lowly Enlisted ranks to the status of a USAF Jet Pilot. They were just lying there, exactly as he had filed them months before. He could not openly admit that he had broken into the filing cabinet, so had to figure a diplomatic way around the predicament -  somehow managing to do so. With his paperwork at long-last submitted - and accepted (!)  Norm soon was saying his farewells to our 1999th AACS Squadron, and was whisked away to the Cadets program he wanted so badly. No one ever explained why the paperwork had lain there so long without action. When norm DID finally leave, we never saw or heard from him again....

UNTIL, one day - a good 30 years later, (and many years a Civilian), I was sitting in my home studio in Brainerd, busily working on one of my many projects. The phone rang, and a cheerful voice uttered a few syllables - a catch phrase that only Norm ever used in my long-past Air Force career. I instantly knew who it was - and friend Norman was IN CHATTANOOGA! I couldn't believe it, as I had actually checked to see if he might have been killed in Vietnam. Yet here we were talking on the phone now, and I needed to know exactly where he was, so as to meet him for at least one lunch. Turned out that he and his wife were at that small marina on Riverfront Parkway, just west of the Aquarium - aboard their 32-foot HOME-MADE sailboat! Parking the car was no easy matter, and accessing his boat-slip was quite a chore, as the Parkway was still largely unfinished. There were large clods of mud and dirt to navigate through, on foot,  but I finally got there.

Norm and wife welcomed me on board like a long-lost friend! They had not been married too many years but were eager to do some creative things with their lives, so had meticulously built themselves this very fine sailboat - sailing it AROUND THE WORLD - west -from their home-port of PORTLAND, OREGON! They had notebooks filled with pictures of how they had constructed their craft. And they had true stories, plus photos, of how frolicking whales had been seen diving beneath their little boat while far at sea. They told of going ashore on Turkish islands - un-noticed by either Customs officials or police - to climb around on Ancient Greek ruins! A good radio and GPS system kept them apprised of location and weather conditions, insuring their safety at all times.They were returning to the U.S. via a second home they owned on the Mississippi River - a kind of storage place - before continuing further on to the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. They had stopped over in Chattanooga specifically to see if I might still be alive, before continuing on up-river to the Knoxville area. They called me by phone when they passed through Chattanooga on their return journey, but I never saw - or heard from them - again.

Other boat people on the river were absolutely consternated to see that their home port was Portland, Oregon, (lettered on the back of the boat) and Norman had to explain many times that, No, they had never been transported overland; it was all done by water!  An ALMOST incredible story, I would say.

*          *          *

Norman filled me in on a bit of his life after departing Sewart AFB. Over lunch he told me what I already knew: that the Cadets program he went to was one of the roughest schools on the planet, where there was no time to focus on anything other than learning to fly. This required both physical and mental concentration, and many a candidate soon washed out of the program. Norman, however, was determined to make a success of it - so he did indeed earn his wings, and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He was now "Lt. P., the Jet Jockey"!

Early in his new career as a pilot there came the horrible Kennedy Assassination event - and his training on the correct type of aircraft qualified him to participate in the USAF's salute at the end of the funeral. Norm related how his team of Airmen had carefully rehearsed all the necessary maneuvers for this honorary salute - and the cue for them to begin their approach above the funerary cortege was the minister's "Amen", which ended the prayer. They were "holding" in a spot very remote to DC - perhaps even over the Atlantic Ocean, and hearing it all via radio. They knew precisely how long it would take them to fly inbound and perform the salute. Their flight commenced on-cue, and on-target into the DC area, BUT, the minister suddenly added an un-scripted and unexpected element at the end, which, although very brief, threw the flight totally off their carefully worked out timing!  They immediately had to collect their wits, re-group, and try again. There WAS a minor glitch in the final outcome, according to Norm, but it was not detected by the public!

Sadly, Norman never got any higher than the rank of Captain before he retired. Higher ranks, both for Officers and Enlisted personnel were notoriously clogged up, as many AF personnel of the day had entered service during the Korean War and made high rank very soon. Now, those people were simply sitting on their high rank and waiting for retirement, making it impossible for new men to advance. Too bad that someone so brilliant as Norm could not have been treated more fairly...

But those are the "breaks of life".   And, no, I have still not heard another word from him...

***

My pencil sketch of Norm (in February, 1958), and here, was made during down-time in the barracks, and a good while before he shipped out to his better life. When I saw him again, over 30 years later, he had changed but little; most noticeable difference was that his hair was now cut longer than the 1950's "crew cut" shown in the sketch.

---

Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.


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