GUEST OPINION: 'Keep your wings level:' interview with a master sergeant
It’s Aug. 31 and I’m sitting alone at the Yreka Library with pen and paper at ready, contemplating how to even begin the story of Master Sergeant Gene Mansfield.
This year has been hectic and hard for me. But amidst my own personal troubles I received respite in the form of a letter from a gentleman, who exactly 51 years ago today, had been stationed at Siskiyou County Air Force Base (Aug. 31, 1968-July 27, 1970). He reached out to the Montague Branch Library, where I happen to work, in hopes that he could make a stop there along the way to familiar places in Siskiyou County that he still remembers from his youth.
The “Jet Mech,” a Master Sergeant, USAF/USN retired after 26 years, made the long drive from Ohio to California the week of the Siskiyou Golden Fair. He stepped into the Montague Library and told us about his qualifications and history in the military. Most importantly, I think, he provided advice, which is what every person needs.
When I told him a bit about myself he told me not to settle. To not just take the first choice. To ask questions, discover. And that reinventing oneself is a must at any age. Oh, and in this life we may not know what the future holds but one thing is for sure ... we’re all going to die. “Let’s just hope it don’t hurt.”
I laughed. I cried. I like good conversation. Basically, he said, don’t be afraid to live (even though there’s wars and rumors of wars).
“Top Gun” is true, Gene said. All men have egos. Between the Air Force and the Navy, he said, the Navy is worse for this trait.
Gene’s all smiles and has a hardy laugh. There’s a lot of hard work being done, but a lot of hard play and tricksters too.
Gene served during the Vietnam War era, in the Gulf War, and during Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He’s traveled greatly and received the National Defense Ribbon three times, as well as the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and countless more. He’s had the joy of working on aircraft such as the F-106, the S-3 Viking and F-14, the CH-46 Helicopter and the P-3 “Orion,” just to name a few. As Crew Chief, he was selected for a wild back seat ride in an F-101 B “Voodoo” Fighter Interceptor during a Flag Pole Run where the pilot, a Vietnam veteran, took them into a crater and out again in Oregon.
“It’s the pilot’s job to do all kinds of flips in the sky to make the Crew Chief throw up,” Gene said. “But I didn’t get sick. I turned the oxygen full blast to 100 percent and survived.”
Sadly, in 1968, an F-101B crashed on takeoff at Kingsley Field, Ore., killing two air crew. The F-106 “Delta Dart” took over and the F-101s were sent to Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona (my home state) to a place called the “bone yard.”
Master Sergeant, as I like to call him, admitted he became a little emotional and almost cried when he set foot in Siskiyou County. The reality is, time flies and memories may fade a bit, but the feeling of it all remains the same.
He recalled the Montague Hotel and how the rodeo cowboys, while still on their horses, rode up to the bar and got their liquor just like out of a John Wayne movie. I couldn’t help but smile. I would love to have seen that myself! I’ve lived in Montague for more than 11 years and I keep asking myself, “Where have all the cowboys gone?”
Gene continued, “Did you know that I-5 wasn't finished back then?” Besides beer, planes and country, rock n’ roll was a big part of Gene’s 20s. All the guys would save money and once a month go to San Francisco and listen to bands at The Fillmore. Their civilian clothes didn’t give them away, but their short haircut and baby faces did.
I wish I had pictures from Gene’s youth to show you, but they didn’t have Instagram back then. Can you imagine? Hippies and GI’s got along okay. Music connected people. But once he did get a busted windshield due to the AFB decal. Reminds me of today in Siskiyou County, most decals are of ducks or horned deer. And you better not bust up someone’s truck window because they might be carrying.
I asked him what he thought of gun control.
“Good people with guns stop bad people with guns,” Gene said. “Mental illness is the problem.”
Other things I learned from the Master Sergeant are: military chaplains are great to have; a message over the speakers at the bunks every night, for a soldier, is peace. And so are the chapels with double insulation so they can hear themselves think amidst the noise of jets and life. And aliens aren’t real, but Area 51 is!
“What’s in there?” I whispered, eyes wide. I always wanted to know.
“UFOs,” he said. I gulp. He explains that a lot of what people see flashing at inexplicable times and at high speeds are just high tech planes and things the government has been working on for years. We are living in the age of such and it’s really nothing new.
“Oh,” I said, sitting back into my chair. I almost fell off.
We trailed off into other talk about me and my kids and I feel like this interview was meant to be. I hope ya’ll enjoyed the reminiscing as much as we did. And in the words of Master Sergeant Gene Mansfield, “Keep your wings level! Over and out …”