I have moved around a lot in my lifetime so far. I think I counted over 50 times I have moved in the span of my 55 years. I’m sure that isn’t a record but I have had the opportunity to experience different places. I was thinking recently about the worst places I have lived and here are the three that stand out in my experience:
Just saying the name of this place makes me think it should be a town somewhere in Nebraska. If you ever lived here you might think it was and not a Florida town. My wife and I moved there in 2012 when I transferred to the Tampa office. Ruskin is located approximately 24 miles south of Tampa. In our exhaustive search for a place to live, we ended up purchasing a home in a community in Ruskin. Within our first month, we knew we had made a mistake and wanted to leave. It took two years to get out of there.
What’s so bad about Ruskin? It is probably the worst small town you could ever imagine. There’s nothing there. No Target, no shopping, no downtown area and no beach. Yes, you read that right. You would assume that a Florida town located on the bay would have beaches. Nope. There were areas that had sand nearby but it wasn’t a beach. They even have a place called the Inn at Little Harbor which looks a whole lot better on their website than in person. In fact, when my wife went for a job interview there she was told that she would need to be able to address guests who were disappointed when they arrive. That about sums up the experience of living here.
Ruskin has about 17,000 people there and is located right on the edge of Tampa Bay. Some notable people from Ruskin are Aaron and Nick Carter and Willa Ford.
The positive experience of living in Ruskin was that we were about an hour from Walt Disney World. We were 30-minutes from Bradenton and Sarasota. We made it work. We would often go to the areas on the bay and on a clear day we could see both St. Petersburg and Tampa.
We moved in June 2014.
My first assignment after basic training and technical school in the United States Air Force (USAF) was Dyess Air Force Base outside of Abilene, Texas. This wasn’t the first time I had lived in this West Texas town. I was born there and left when I was three years old. I returned when I was 18. I realized very soon it was a mistake. Abilene was about 17 miles away from the base but it was your typical small town. At the time, there were about 90,000 residents but many of my fellow airman called it “cow town” and it felt about like that.
There wasn’t much to do in Abilene so it was a long year there. Dallas was about a two-hour drive away and I made that trip once. I also drove to Odessa which was west of Abilene on a trip that was even worse.
Some of the most notable people from Abilene are Jessica Simpson and Case Keenum,
The biggest event in Abilene was the annual high school football game between Abilene and Cooper high schools.
In November 1983 I left Abilene, Texas for……
Thule Air Base, Greenland
When I was making my rounds fulfilling my requirements to check out from Dyess AFB, I was often asked when people heard about my assignment to Thule, they said: “Who did you piss off?”
I actually volunteered to go to Greenland. Yep, another one of my bright moves in my younger days. Some of the older military guys joked: “Hey Hooper, I hear there is a girl behind every tree there….there are just no trees.”
I made the long 13-hour trip to Thule in mid-November. When the plane landed, it was in the middle of the afternoon and it was total darkness. My sponsor met with me a parka and told me I would need it. That parka (and my mukluks) became my best friends. The next day, the base was put in a “Phase 3” which meant that the weather conditions were so bad that no one was allowed outside. I was told the temps got to -90 below zero and it was a total white-out for my first 24 hours. I had wondered what I had gotten myself into.
Fortunately, that was the worst weather during my year there but it was interesting going through the six months of darkness in the winter months and six months of light in the summer months.
As you can imagine, this place was remote so there wasn’t a town or city there. Just the base with it’s bare necessities. I got two 15-minute “morale calls” to the states each week. There was no Internet back then so we were cut off from civilization.
I also worked at the base post office. Yet, another one of my bad decisions. Looking back I think if I had a better job that it wouldn’t have been as bad. Working in the post office was a forgettable experience. The highlight of the base each day was when the radio announced that the incoming plane was 40 miles out. That would be the delivery of supplies and mail each day.
Although it was one of the worst places I have lived, it was perhaps one of my most unique experiences to have lived inside the Arctic Circle and about 900 miles from the North Pole.
Contrary to the myth, there were also women there both American Military and Danish even though there weren’t any trees.
Thule Air Base is home to the 21st Space Wing’s global network of sensors providing missile warning, space surveillance and space control to North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and Air Force Space Command (AFSPC).
In November 1984, I left Thule and returned to the states.
When you live in some of the worst places, you do your best to get through it and wait for the opportunity to move on to a better place. These were the three worst places that immediately came to my mind in my own experience of my life’s journey.
I’ve been cold but in the cold winter weather I have encountered, I have never experienced anything which compares to the year I spent in Thule, Greenland. To say it was cold is an understatement. You haven’t experienced cold until you have been at a place like Thule.
From November 1983 to November 1984, I was stationed at Thule Air Base in Greenland while on active duty in the United States Air Force (USAF). An assignment to Thule was considered a remote tour. I would say it was remote wouldn’t adequately describe it. Thousands of miles from civilization and about 800 miles from the North Pole is pretty remote especially for a place that is nicknamed “the top of the world”.
“THERE’S A GIRL BEHIND EVERY TREE…”
Anyone that knew me then was probably very surprised that I volunteered for the assignment. At the time, I had this notion that I wanted a future working for the United States Post Office (USPO) so I applied for a special duty to work in the military post office at Thule to give me some experience to prepare me for the postal test in the years ahead. I had NO idea what I was in for. None whatsoever. While I was going through the process of checking out from my base before transferring to Thule, many people asked if I had pissed off the commander or what I had done to get an assignment to Thule, Greenland. Needless to say, folks had a negative feeling about going there. The common thing I would hear is that “there’s a girl behind every tree — there’s just no trees there.”
As a young, naïve 19-year old kid, I certainly didn’t know what to expect and all the negative vibes I was getting from people didn’t make me feel any better.
After the 12 hour flight from New Jersey to Thule, Greenland, we landed in the middle of the afternoon and it was already dark outside. My sponsor met me at the plane and tossed me a huge parka. She said, “You’re gonna need that” and she was right. I needed it from the moment I stepped off of the plane. The parka swallowed me up but was still not enough to prepare me for the piercing negative degree temperatures I met for the first time. In addition to the parka, I also got a pair of what they called “bunny boots” or “mucklucks”. I learned very quickly that my Air Force issued shoes were ineffective to the ice and snow of Thule. The mucklucks saved me from many falls on the ice. Those two items of clothing became my best friends during the year-long exile in the Arctic.
On my first night at Thule after I moved into my room in the barracks, the base encountered “Phase 3” conditions which was an extreme blizzard. I was told that temperatures dipped to -90 degrees at one point during the storm. No one was allowed outside. It was a total “white out”. Looking out of the window, I couldn’t see anything. We were confined to our barracks and although the dining hall was in the building next door, we were not able to go that short distance. My first meal was a box of C Rations. (It still makes my mouth water thinking about it.) Fortunately, that was the only extreme storm I experienced during the rest of the time I was at Thule.
A “Selfie” With The Mail Truck
Remember me saying I was assigned to the Post Office? Yeah, that was a mistake. I walked into a mess. The post office had recently had an inspection and three people were reassigned due to poor performance. Instead of walking into a fully staff post office, I became the third person to join a short-handed operation. I would end up working six days of the week during most of the time I was there. No, there was no overtime pay. Once I started my job, I began to notice a growing pile of outgoing mail on the back table of the room. When I asked about it I was told that it was first class mail to go out and no one was handling that responsibility. I was totally taken aback at that and I voiced my opinion how mail was not getting out to people. Somehow I ended up being volunteered for the responsibility of taking care of preparing outgoing mail.
GOING POSTAL AT APO 09023
I now have a little insight now on how people “go postal”. The post office is an awful place to work. The worst part for me was working the window. Even to this day I despise being on either side of a postal window. It was brutal. People are impatient and downright rude to postal employees. Several times I was accused of holding people’s mail and called many names. It wasn’t pleasant. I’ll add more to the postal experience later.
The saying I heard about “there’s a girl behind every tree there’s just no trees” was partially false. There were females there both military, civilian and Danish living on Thule but there were no trees. The only “tree” was some sort of man-made pipe thing to resemble a tree in front of base headquarters. In addition to having no trees, there was also no grass for the most part. When the snow melts in the summer, it’s just mud and dirt underneath it all. If you didn’t know any better you would think you were on another planet. It’s that different.
And the day and night thing….you have several months where it is total darkness and months where it is daylight all the time which really messes with your head. The biggest morale boost would be in late March when we would see a slither of sunlight over the distant mountain ranges. The warmest it reached was in late July when the temps soared to 40 degrees. Yes, it was quite the heat wave. In fact, our television guy was spotted jogging around the base in his shorts.
ADVENTURES (AND MIS-ADVENTURES) IN THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
One of the adventures most would take was the climb up Mount Dundas which was a small mountain near the base. In the summer the base would have a golf tournament at the top which was flat and littered with rocks. Again, no grass. I decided to take the trip to Mount Dundas one of my days off in May. Instead of the long way, me and a buddy of mine decided to walk across the bay which was still frozen. Halfway across we stopped to take pictures of icebergs which had been trapped in the bay. The walk across the frozen bay was somewhat safe. The ice road was still open but there were parts I stepped on where I remember hearing the cracking of the ice. Looking back now it was probably a dumb move on my part but we managed to cross and climb to the top of Mount Dundas.
Standing On An Iceberg Frozen In Baffin Bay (Mt. Dundas in the background)
I wasn’t so lucky on another adventure to the location where you could see the merging glaciers a few weeks later. I slipped an fell down an icy mountain side and ended up spending a few days in the hospital with some nasty bruises but thankfully no broken bones or anything more serious. That was the end of my adventures around Thule. It was good that I never encountered a polar bear and I never heard of any sightings of polar bears during my time. The only critters we had were Arctic Foxes. The “archies” were run around the base looking for food much like Raccoons do here. They weren’t friendly and we were cautioned that they were carriers of rabies.
I settled for my daily adventures working at the post office. As I said before, we were short handed most of the time I was there. Since I was so good at processing the outgoing mail, I also inherited the duties of handling the registered mail. The only good thing about this was that it took me away from the window duties but it had its own challenges. With the registered mail, I had to meet the plane every morning and wait for the plane’s loadmaster to sign for it. Some loadmasters would sign it right away but many would not. I would have to wait on a cold airplane on the flight line until they decided to accept the registered mail.
The arrival of incoming mail was quite the event each day. When the daily arrival of the airplane was 40 miles out, the radio station would make the announcement. I would normally drive the mail truck to pick up the mail. Sometimes it barely took up an entire pallet unless it was during the Christmas season. Since we were shorthanded we would usually recruit volunteers to help us with the mail and putting the mail up in the mailboxes. Our phone lines would be busy with people calling to ask if they had received any mail. We would repeatedly tell people that we were too busy to personally check their mail. Even when the radio made the announcement that the airplane was 40 miles out, people would still call at that announcement asking about the mail. The airplane had not even landed yet and they would ask! Yes, that was grounds to go postal I’m sure.
I have to say that I was very defensive about criticism people would have about the post office. They had no clue how hard we worked and everything we did being shorthanded. I developed a feud with one of the radio guys who publicly got on the radio and actually made negative remarks about the post office. I had nothing back and called him out on it. Then, of course, he played the rank card. He reminded me of this fact and I was forced to let it go. Working in the post office at Thule was very stressful and a very thankless job in the eyes of the military and civilian customers of the post office. I think I would have enjoyed my tour much more had I not been assigned to the post office.
DRINK OR FIND GOD
Being assigned to a remote base like Thule drove people to do different things in their spare time. Some would turn to alcohol and the opportunities available for that and others would turn to God. I did neither but I did have one guy that would knock on my door every Sunday (my only day off) to “invite” me to church. Church was either Catholic or Protestant services. I finally had to tell the Jesus guy to stop knocking on my door.
In the spare time I did have, I would go to the base theatre or watch movies. These weren’t current movies. It was also just one movie until a new one came in. I’m sure it is nothing like it was then. Our entertainment options were from the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. For the radio programs, we would have a different genre each hour. Our television service would not be anything current. While we would be able to hear live sports programs on radio, we wouldn’t actually get to see the televised until weeks later. So we heard the Super Bowl live but didn’t actually see the game on television until two weeks later. There was no internet, smartphones or even personal computers at that time. Yes, those were primitive times. In fact, I bought my first VCR at the Base Exchange. Yep, that’s the one with the tapes.
One of the entertainment highlights of the year at Thule was when the USO tour made a stop at the base. Of all the images you might have of the USO tour such as Bob Hope or other entertainers during that time we had a visit from the Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders. Yep, that was it. They came. They sang. They danced and they made a lame attempt at comedy. There was nothing else going on so most of Thule was there at the show. They kinda had a captive audience.
Besides the mail, we were allowed two “morale calls” to the states each week. These phone calls were 15 minutes calls at scheduled times during the week. You don’t know how fast 15 minutes goes by until you in these calls. The operator would break in and give you a warning when the call was going to be ended.
One of the things I learned during my spare time was how to play foosball. One of my co-workers at the post office got me hooked on the game. He was an excellent player who taught me the rules and tricks of the game. For the first few months I lost every single game I played against him but eventually I caught on and became competition for him. When he left, I took over as the king of foosball in our barracks. I still love the game to this day. I’m a little older and slower but I can still play.
In the years that have passed since spending that year in Greenland, I didn’t fully appreciate the experience. Every winter I think back to that time. Instead of taking it in, I spent my time counting down the days to leave it. It was the most unique experiences I have ever had. Yes, it was cold and remote but it was amazing.
This week I have been thinking back to my own personal experience with the sport of softball. Before you get excited about this story, I will tell you up front that I was never any good at the sport and never thought I was compared to some people I have known through the years who played softball.
What position did I play? Catcher. Yep, that probably tells you how “good” I was at it.
Getting on the flashback machine, I remember the summer of July 1984 when I was stationed at Thule Air Base in Greenland. We had a one-month softball season when the temperatures were in the tropical 40s. Our softball field was made up of dirt and rocks where a ground ball could easily become a home run depending on how many rocks the ball bounced off of in the outfield. Because of the field conditions, sliding was not allowed. In one game the fog was so thick, you couldn’t see the outfielders. It was quite an experience to play softball in the most northern location you could play it. In the postseason tournament, we played the Security Police Squadron which was always a tough team to beat. As fate would have it, the game came down to one batter with the bases loaded and two outs. Yes, that batter was me. What happened? I struck out. In my opinion of course, the third strike should have been called a ball. To add to my legendary at-bat, the opposing pitcher was a female. Not a good start to my softball resume.
I played a lot of pick-up games after that but no organized leagues until I was coerced by my pastor to play in a church league in Macon, Georgia years later. At the time, Macon was definitely a popular place for softball. The church league was pretty competitive. One church – which I will not name – was a powerhouse. Mostly because I think they had a team made up of softball ringers. All their players were big and beefy and could easily swat home runs without much effort. They also cussed a lot which was a good sign that they may have been ringers. They dominated the league and games we played against them. In fact, everyone dominated us that season. We won one game the entire season as I once again took the position of catcher. I got to play mostly because we barely had enough players to field a team. My pastor was the pitcher and he took the game seriously – very seriously. He would get irritated if my throws back to him were a bit off the mark. He was very entertaining even if we weren’t very successful on the field. After the season, the person who sponsored our team decided not to do it again the next season.
I tried to play with another church the next season but I quickly learned the harsh reality of my lack of ability and being on a church team. I was again talked into playing. The coach told us at the beginning of the season that players who showed up for practice would be the ones who would play first. Well, that wasn’t true. Shocking right? When a popular guy (cough…deacon’s son…) showed up only for games, he was always inserted in the game while I ended up riding the bench in spite of showing up for every practice. Before the season was over, I decided to retire from softball.
In the mid-1990s I worked part-time for the Macon Telegraph newspaper and was given the opportunity by the sports editor (Thanks Kevin and Ivan) to cover local sports teams and write game stories. During this time, Macon hosted the Flag City Shootout which was one of the nation’s largest softball tournaments. In the years I covered the tournament, they boasted having over 900 teams in the tournament. I had the opportunity to cover some games and write stories along with our photographer. That was a lot more fun that attempting to play. Some of the games were exciting. Central City Park was filled those weekends with a buffet of softball. Teams like Jus Us, Deuces Wild and Forsyth Sharks would be in my reports. It was fun to see people who were awesome players and those, like me, who were just there to make sure the team had enough players to play the game. I was definitely suited to report on the game rather than play it.
Years have passed and I can’t say that I have played or watched a softball game since the 90s. I read recently where the sport of softball is suffering a decline. Quite honestly if you aren’t playing or know someone who is playing it is difficult to be a spectator of the sport. This week our office sent around an email to recruit players for a team in a local softball league. They need players but I’m not biting. Lesson learned.