What to write about? Now that I’m 91, time moves slowly and yet quickly. Slow, as we sit in doctors’ offices, waiting to be seen, fast as sunsets seem to come very quickly every day. (We’re never up for the sunrise.) At least, I’m not. Charlotte seems to think that if she gets up early, she can accomplish anything.
Fortunately, memories turn up when you least expect them. Last week, Nicole, our daughter, brought us a faded article about my flying career that had appeared in the Wichita Falls Times newspaper. The date was May 2, 1976. Talk about a trip down memory lane.
We were stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls for two years in the mid-seventies. This was not our choice but as we had learned seven years earlier with my tour in Vietnam, the Air Force does not always fulfill personal requests for assignments.
I was finishing my second and final year as a Fellow in the Department of Developmental Therapeutics at M.D. Anderson Hospital when I received a personal call from the officer in charge of physician assignments. The Chief of Medicine at the Sheppard AFB hospital had been “reassigned unexpectedly” which usually means something untoward had happened and the person in question was sent somewhere else. Generally, those situations usually mean unhappiness with personal or professional conduct or performance of said officer. Let’s call a spade a spade here . . . he or she was fired, although not technically because a regular officer can only be “reassigned” unless the unhappiness is due to military malfeasance.
That’s a long introduction. The assignment officer asked if I would make a visit to Sheppard AFB, meet with the hospital commander and look around the area to see if we would like to be assigned in Wichita Falls. Of course, you don’t say no to these requests so Charlotte and I drove the 350 odd miles from Houston to this small north Texas town to meet with the hospital personnel. It was a good weekend. We were treated well, driven around and shown the area. It was a two way street. I was also being interviewed by the hospital commander.
It was a uneventful spring weekend; the temperature was already in the eighties. In summer, the thermometer can touch 110 without difficulty. The terrain, to be honest, has little to offer in terms of natural beauty. Dry, with little rainfall throughout the year, the town sits in the middle of tornado alley, a corridor that stretches from the upper Midwest, through Oklahoma down into central Texas. The landscape, at best, looked bleak. (For historical context, watch that old classic, The Last Picture Show, modeled on an even smaller town, Archer City, Texas) My overwhelming memory of the 70’s landscape remains that of mesquite trees and tumbleweed.
This description of the town should give you an idea of our impression and lack of interest in an assignment to Sheppard. In fact, I remember that as we watched the town disappear from my rear view mirror, Charlotte and I looked at each other and assumed that it would be our first and last visit. We were both hoping for an assignment to a base near the water in Florida. You can well believe that a dry, arid semi-desert location with no distant mountains to disturb the line of sight would not be our number one choice.
However, as before, when I received my assignment to Vietnam, I got another phone call from personnel center officer, this time informing me that Sheppard Air Force Base Hospital would be my new duty station and I should report July 1.
There was no point in getting worked up about it. I was a USAF officer. I had received my orders. End of story. To sweeten the pot . . . I received assurances that if I could find a medical assignment with an opening, we could move in two years. That was a good carrot because most changes of duty station occur only after three years.
As with all our other Air Force assignments, Wichita Falls proved to be a good place! Certainly not attractive as a city; the weather was challenging, but as we have always found, Texans are a special lot. Wichita Falls’ residents were no exception. We were warmly received. We met and made friends with many townspeople in addition to our fellow Air Force officers, so time passed quickly.
Life at Sheppard turned out to be a positive experience. The base population of 15,000 active duty personnel along with their dependents, created a need for a medium-sized hospital with both specialty outpatient clinics and in-patient care. Within one year of my arrival, I was promoted to Colonel and elevated to the position of Chief of Professional Services. In this position as the officer responsible for the medical staff, I was gaining the experience I would need for my next assignment, hopefully as a hospital commander.
While I was busy with my medical work, Charlotte began teaching French cooking classes at the Wichita Falls Museum of Art. That activity led us to the social side of Wichita Falls; the locals worked hard in an uncertain environment (it was an oil and gas town and the boom and bust times are legendary.) Fortunately, during our mid-seventies stay the energy sector was booming so we were able to see first hand what real parties, Texas-style look like.
True to the promise made by the assignment officer, an opening became available at Peterson AFB, Colorado Springs, Colorado in two years. We moved on, but as always in our career, the unexpected detour to Wichita Falls led to wonderful experiences.
This article, long-forgotten, brought those memories back. Click here to see the article: Wichita-falls-times