On September 7, 2011, John Michael Greer, on his blog, TheArchdruidReport
, issued a challenge for people to write "realistic" peak-oil fiction or science fiction. The primary rule is that there can't be an "Invasion of the Space Bats
" -- in other words, no miracles from space or inconceivable solutions that will get us out of the future. So I put my mind to work, and this is what came out. I don't know if it meets all the requirements of the challenge, but we will see. Enjoy.The Closing of a Radar Station, A Peak Oil Story
by Kevin Anderson
Master Sergeant (Promotable) Daniel Johnson, United States Air Force, was in his office early this morning. He stopped by to grab some papers he needed before heading over to catch his ride with the bi-weekly resupply and crew-change trip to the weather radar station north of the base.
Earlier this morning, he left his wife, Carla, for the five-mile shuttle bus ride to the squadron headquarters. Normally he would bike to the headquarters, but he had to catch the bus this morning as his bike was already at the office. He had left his bicycle at the office last Friday when it was raining, and instead caught a ride home with his wife, who had come over to the commissary that afternoon in order to purchase the fresh food that gets shipped in once a month and had been put out on the shelves that morning.
He had packed clothes for an overnight trip, as traveling to the radar site was no longer a simple visit, the kind that he used to do in just an afternoon. Although not that many miles away from the air base in terms of how people still think about distance, the Air Force now made trips to the radar site only every other week in order to save on precious fuel. Starting about ten years ago, when fuel was already really expensive and vehicles got harder to keep repaired, the Air Force made the decision to house personnel at the radar site. Before that, they used to drive out as often as needed, which could be several times a week.
Now, the crew of three airman that staff the site 24-hours a day spend two weeks at a time on site, exchanging with the replacement crew using the same truck that brings in their supplies. While at the radar station, they do all maintenance on the site. The replacement crew drives up on Sunday, with the afternoon spent unloading the truck with the help of usually two of the airman already there. The tired crew would then drive back to base on Monday. This two-day switchover of crews is why the Master Sergeant needed overnight clothes.
MSgt Johnson, soon to be the senior NCO and "First Shirt" in his communications squadron if he stays in the Air Force (which is debatable at this time), typically would visit the radar site only once or twice a year. His last visit wasn't very long ago, back in May, but this trip was an extra trip. He had news to bring to the site, on what could very well be be his final visit.
You see, the news he had to reveal is that the Department of Defense, in consultation with the Department of Transportation and the National Weather Service, had made the decision that they would no longer continue to maintain this particular weather radar, and so in just a month's time, they are going to shut down the site. The parts for this radar are now deemed more valuable in being used elsewhere in order to keep the remaining radar sites operational. Although not widely publicized, Johnson knows that his particular radar site is already the fourth this year to be closed, and the seventh since the government started this consolidation of sites in the middle of last year.
While in his office, which is quiet at this early hour on a Sunday morning, he happened to glance again at the calendar on his wall. Noticing the date, he shook his head, knowing something was significant about today's date, but it was slipping his mind. Earlier this morning, he also suspected something was different about the day, as Carla had cooked up an extra egg from the chickens out back to augment his breakfast. Usually he gets just one egg every other day, but for some reason this morning he got two.
"Oh yeah," he said out loud, after another glance at the calendar, the sound echoing around the empty office, "it's my Air Force anniversary date." Thinking on, "Twenty years ago I traveled to Lackland [Air Force Base] to start my Air Force enlistment."
That Daniel was still in the Air Force is a fact that caused him to eat several times the words that he had given his father. Dan used to boast he would serve only four years, and then it would be off to get that great job in industry repairing radars. But when four years passed, and then eight years, he reenlisted each time as those jobs just weren't out there -- too many out-of-work serviceman had already claimed them. And now its twenty years, and he is still here, and there are even fewer government radar sites now to repair than there used to be.
That he got two eggs this particular morning might also be Carla's quiet way of reminding him that it was time to retire from the Air Force. For Carla, it was time to move back to Midwest to be closer to family, while they still had the chance to easily get there. Her parents have been bugging them to come home now, worried that they won't otherwise see them again, and that Daniel and Carla might get "trapped" in California.
Twenty years ago, Daniel Johnson entered the Air Force as a fresh recruit at the age of 23, after a year of trying various jobs after college. A graduate of a “Big Ten” university with a major in Geography, Daniel tried several different types of sales jobs, helped with the national census collection that happened that year, and even worked as a barista for Starbucks. (What's Starbuck's, you ask? Back then it was THE big nationwide franchise of coffee shops that expanded out of Seattle. Everyone wanted to fork out $3-4 for a coffee. You don't hear of them anymore, not for at least five years now, ever since the cost of fuel and the needed protections against hijackers on the high seas more than quadrupled the cost of getting coffee from overseas.)
The year Daniel enlisted was a particularly bad year, as the economy continued to tank in the years following the burst of the housing bubble in 2008 and all the woes of banks, European countries, and a slow job market. It was around this time that the elected members of Congress seemed to become really ineffective in running the country, when party politics kept the government from agreeing on anything dealing with appropriations or jobs, and nothing has changed since.
None of the jobs Daniel tried that year out of school ever worked out very well, never earning enough to live on. No matter what he could do, economic ends didn't meet. In a desire to make more of himself, he joined the Air Force and was very pleased to be selected to train as a ground radar apprentice. This meant he was trained in electronics, an important and interesting field that he was happy to get. As a ground radar tech, he was trained in the maintenance of all the various airport surveillance, airport approach, air route, and weather radars that were then being used by the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Weather Service. These were all critical systems that the country needed, and he would have a role in keeping them going.
Usually by now, on this particular day of the year, Master Sergeant Johnson would have received an annual anniversary card from his dad, celebrating another year in the service.
"I wonder why I didn't get a card this year," he thought.
His dad, who was as excited as Daniel was about going into the Air Force, was a very proud parent. He always communicated somehow each year on his service anniversary.
"Something must have happen to hold up the mail," Daniel thought again.
This isn't the first time that postal mail has failed to arrive on time. What used to be an easy, guaranteed three- or four-day journey for mail by a combination of over-the-road truckers, and sometimes by airplane as extra baggage, now was a week journey at minimum from the Midwest to California, and often times ten days to two weeks. While U.S. Postal Service mail still had some priority as far as shipping space and access for fuel, often times the Postal Service couldn't outbid the other remaining companies trying to ship items, particularly food stuff needed everywhere. As a result, trailers filled with mail would often end up waiting someplace until a shipper could be found to haul the trailer filled with bags a few hundred miles further down the highway, where another delay might happen yet again. Delays were common place. Beale Air Force Base didn't have it too bad, however, as a railroad mainline passes not too far south, down near Sacramento, and often mail will come through on the California Zephyr and similar trains that still ran. And fortunately the U.S. Postal Service could maintain that the mail did eventually still get through, although one had to wonder if that will always be true.
"Oh well, can't worry about that now.” Time to get out to the transport.
Five hours later, the transport pulled into the small fenced compound that held the radar site, with its radome on top of a tower, an equipment hut, a generator shed, several fuel tanks, and a small barracks, plus some gardens in the wetter growing season.
What used to a be a fairly quick trip before now takes at least three to four hours one way on a good day (and much longer in the winter). This is largely due to the truck they use having a governor that limits travel to no faster than 15 miles an hour, a Department of Defense mandate. Initially put in place as a means to minimize wear and tear on tires (as rubber, and particularly its chemical substitutes, became hard to get), the mandated slow vehicle speed has also become necessary as the roads are breaking down from the lack of repair. The State of California, in their need to control budgets and loss of income, have made road repair a much lower priority. And calling it a "much lower priority" is putting it mildly; no priority is probably a better description in this part of the state. It amazes Daniel, who loves to drive, how quickly road surfaces break down when they aren't regularly repaired. And in addition to the mandatory slow driving speed, the DoD also stipulated the use of drivers who were also specialists in the repair of their own vehicles - no longer do the airman get to drive themselves to the radar site.
The Master Sergeant, after being welcomed by the personnel who were already at the site, headed into the main equipment room, leaving the truck driver and the radar crew to the task of unloading the truck. Boxes of food had to be unloaded, and barrels of oil transferred to the fuel tanks that fed the radar's generators.
The Master Sergeant had the equipment room to himself. Given that it was a clear, sunny, beautiful late-summer day, with no weather of consequence brewing outside, everyone could be devoted to the unloading process except for the night-time shift operator, as he was sleeping in the barracks. And the one crewman who would normally be on duty at the console was also helping outside, so Johnson had the room to himself. (Normally he wouldn't be alone, because if there was unfavorable weather of any sort, the airman on duty for this shift would be busy making sure the radar was working properly and the needed information was getting out to Weather Service offices and forecast centers.)
This quiet time gave Daniel a chance to continue his reflection on all that has changed in the years he has been in the Air Force. It also gave him a further moment to reflect on the news he was bringing.
Nineteen years ago, Daniel, then an Airman First Class fresh out of his technical school, reported to this same airbase, Beale, located in California's Sacramento Valley. He can still remember the day, about ten days after he first stepped on the base, when he first walked into this equipment room below the white fiberglass soccer-ball-like "radome." Exciting as it was at the time, he didn't expect this very same equipment would still be here today.
"His" radar, a WSR-88D (Weather Surveillance Radar, 1988, Doppler, also known as NEXRAD, for Next Generation Radar, a sign of how progressive this design was viewed at the time it was first developed), was still supposedly the state-of-the-art when he first trained on it, the primary weather radar used throughout the United States in an interconnected network of more than 150 sites at its most extensive implementation. Beale's weather radar was one of nineteen sites maintained by the Department of Defense in this national network. It's coverage area, a distance extending out to beyond 400 kilometers at its furthest extent, goes north all the way up to the Oregon state line, south to well south of Sacramento to where the Fresno radar takes over, and west over the Coastal Ranges and wine country to the Pacific shoreline, including San Francisco. This coverage west has always been helpful, as it is from the west that storms come on shore. To the east of the radar site, the tall Sierra Nevada mountain range cuts off this otherwise circular coverage area except for all but the highest altitudes of the atmosphere measured, where the radar near Reno takes over. This radar site to the east of here is why the Master Sergeant is making this extra trip this month - the keeping of the Reno radar operational has been deemed more important than the Beale site, whose equipment will be shipped to Reno as replacement parts. That, and the existence of the coastal radars at Eureka to the northwest and San Francisco to the southwest, both covering the approaching weather potential better by searching further out from the coast, make this radar site appear redundant and unnecessary.
Daniel would disagree, arguing that much can happen as weather systems approach the lofty mountains across the valley. But it is also hard to combat the biggest constraint of all, the lack of money and the fact that no new replacement parts are being manufactured, and haven't been for several years, for these radar systems. The only way to keep this critical network going is to cannibalize unneeded sites. Daniel has heard rumors that another six sites will likely get closed next year, including the San Joaquin Valley radar to his south, as it too is in a similar geographic area that is covered by other radar sites. The government can no longer afford this level of duplication and redundancy, even if it means an ultimate risk to safety and security. More of what you see happening every year in both state and Federal government.
The weather radar at Beale became operational in the mid-1990s, and was already starting to show its age when Daniel first saw the equipment on that first visit to the site. Now, years later, this same equipment is still here and well over thirty-some years old, and soon would be forty years old. While not terribly old in human terms, but ancient in technological years, the fact that this equipment is a few years younger than the equipment at other radar sites, those put in earlier because they covered areas of more active weather, makes these particular parts all that much more valuable for the longevity they could provide in a more needed radar site.
The equipment room where the Master Sergeant is standing, which houses the transmitter and receiver for the radar, a console for the operator, plus what's left of the communications equipment, is surprisingly quiet. It's quiet because the radar is on standby for this particular hour. Fans are running, but are no where as loud or active as when the radar is actually completing its scan of the skies.
It was quiet right now because ten years ago, before the need for scavenging parts was envisioned, the DoD and Weather Service had already made the decision to operate radars mostly on an as-needed basis. "As-needed" in this case was dependent on the weather. Daniel was a member of the team representing the Air Force that met to make that decision, which just happened to have occurred during a time when he was serving on temporary duty at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, near to where the National Weather Service Radar Operations Center is located. As a local Air Force “expert” on the WSR-88D, even though that was not the type of radar he was specifically watching over while at Tinker, the brass upstairs nonetheless assigned him to the task force.
Ten years ago it was decided that in times, and areas, where the weather experienced or predicted for the day was what meteorologists call "fair weather conditions," meaning that no rainy or bad weather was happening or forecast to happen for a number of hours, that the radar sites in those parts of the country would mostly stand down and only scan once an hour. The idea was two-fold -- to save on the fuel oil that was feeding the generators that were powering the site by reducing their load and allowing them to idle, and to save wear and tear on the equipment itself, particularly the rotating antenna and the expensive high-power amplifiers (which were starting to get hard to come by) that generated the bursts of energy sent out by the radar.
The electrical generators, which were originally put in at each radar site for use as a backup only, during times of power outages, became necessary for daily operation at most sites as the nation's electrical grid became unreliable. The radar sites in California were among the first hit by this need, brought on by California's long-standing problem with maintenance of power lines and the lack of reliable interconnects with the power sources outside the state. After several large-scale events that happened about eleven years ago, plus almost continuous brownouts and rolling blackouts during the summer months ever since, it was decided that it was cheaper to power the radars continuously on generators rather than risk their proper cycling on and off as the electrical power on the grid came and went.
With the nice weather being experienced this week, Daniel happened to arrive during one of the standby time periods when the radar sat idle. In about an hour, it will get noisier for a bit while the radar makes another scan. But for now it is quiet.
It was during the switchover to using around-the-clock generators that the decision was also made to staff the radar sites continuously. Prior to this time, most weather radar sites could be empty of people except for during maintenance, as the WSR-88D was also touted as the first fully-automatic weather radar system put into service. With the emergence of the DARPA's "Internet" in the late 1980s, plus the development of powerful (at that time) workstations that could do all the needed processing of data and control of the radar, the WSR-88D was developed to be remotely monitored.
When generators became necessary, initially mechanics began manning the site, one person at a time, with the sole purpose of keeping the generators going. All other operations of the radar were still done remotely, automated as they were before, with the technicians at Beale watching from afar. But that lasted only a couple of years, when, after the loss of two critical radar sites in the middle to the country due to major breakdowns during a heavy day of tornadoes, it was also decided that the radars were too valuable to trust to someone on-site not trained on the equipment itself. In that disastrous year, one of the radars had its antenna get destroyed when the bearings overheated and tore up the assembly before the generator mechanic could shut it down using directions telephoned from a technician. Another radar site was lost when its transmitter's amplifiers overheated and the automatic shutdown failed to happen. In the analysis of these two disasters, it was decided that trained radar technicians were needed on site for all hours of the day, ready to immediately fix a problem. Or at least shut things down before a disaster ensued. No longer could the radar technicians be several hours away, back on the air base.
That decision to continuously staff radar sites was further justified when it was found necessary to go to the alternating scan/standby schedule, as the added wear and tear from starting and stopping needed to be monitored, and the already old computers couldn't be trusted to handle the automation anymore. After years of putting trust in information technology, automation, and replacing people with technology, it was found to once again cheaper to use people, especially people in government and military positions, who get paid whether they are active or not. Better to keep people busy, as technology had now become unreliable and too expensive. And so with the small cost of building an adjacent barracks, complete with an fuel- oil stove for cooking, plus a backup coal heater for those few months in the winter it still gets cold here, the site got 24-service with on-site radar crews. This is actually a throw-back to the early Cold War years, when all radar sites were manned 24/7 by technicians and operators, in the days before much automation was available.
Later that evening, after supper was eaten and cleared away, the Master Sergeant gave his news to his airman.
"Come October 1, the start of the new fiscal year, this facility will cease its operational status. And then we will spend the remainder of the calendar year dismantling the entire facility, moving all electronics to storage at Beale, from where it will get shipped over the mountain next summer to Reno (unless they are needed sooner at some other site)."
Further, he gave the news that a couple of the radar technicians will likely get reassigned with a permanent change of station to another air base that still has their WSR-88D. The rest of the airman, the newer technicians still early in their enlistment, will probably get retrained as HF (high frequency) radio technicians or operators.
This last bit, actually can be seen as good news for these airman. High Frequency radio (aka "shortwave") has been in a resurgence in the last five to ten years. With the loss of a reliable electrical grid, and coincidentally at the same time the loss of a reliable telephone system due to neglect and lack of investment by the private companies we relied upon, it has become necessary for all of the military to develop (or more correctly, "rediscover") alternative methods of keeping in touch between bases. The military, once the leader in networking technologies, which allowed computers to talk to each other, was now relearning to use technology that dates back to the Second World War and much of the early Cold War periods.
The "Internet," once the global network of high-speed communications between corporate and personal computers, and previously used by almost everyone in the world for near-instantaneous communication with each other, has largely become history. Touted as the future, and the impetus for so many changes in the way communications took place and how people learned of news, plus how companies decided to hire workers, it is surprising how quickly it has disappeared again.
Today the Internet is almost gone. Or at least the Internet that Daniel used to know. Computer networks, which still do exist in critical areas, can no longer be counted on running on any particular day. Worse, there aren't that many functional computers left to connect to this network.
Daniel is of the right age to have been born at the start of the Internet and to have witnessed its heyday. Even though his parents were somewhat slow in bringing this technology into his house while he was growing up, Daniel embraced it completely during high school, college, and throughout his early years in the Air Force. Its unbelievable to think of it now, but he used to have several laptop computers, smart phones, Internet-capable portable music players, and a whole host of whiz-bang technological gadgets.
The younger airmen playing cards at the adjoining table this evening, on the other hand, have only known the Internet in its decline. Born at the peak of the Internet, by the time these airmen were in middle school, and certainly by high school, they had already experienced the decline.
First it was the rising cost of the service itself. When the economy tanked years ago, companies who made the Internet happen by wiring it together also discovered that could no longer afford to invest in the new and replacement equipment that was needed to make it happen. These Internet service providers, ISPs as they were called, started experiencing the same problems that are now hurting this weather site with the inability to maintain service. And five years after that, the actual manufacturing of electronics began to decline. Almost all of the electronics we depended on were made overseas, in Japan, Korea, China, and other places that experienced civil unrest, natural disasters, and loss in global trade that limited their ability to gather together resources to design and manufacture equipment. One of the problems with modern electronics is its manufacturing process, the small components used, particularly integrated circuits, "chips," which require clean rooms, steady electrical sources, and high quantities of clean water, plus caustic chemicals, in their making. When electricity itself became unreliable, so did the manufacturing of modern electronic devices, which by their nature and design can't be simple “backyard” productions. Companies quickly started going out of business.
And with it came the inability to reliably transfer data via this Internet "superhighway." The loss of this Internet quickly affected the national network of weather radars, as well as the extensive network of interconnected airport surveillance radars and cross-country air traffic radars, as they all depended on funneling data to each other and to large capacity data processing centers. The Internet both aggregated the data and in turn sent it back out to users. With the power outages and breakdowns in the Internet, data transfers in both directions began to fail more frequently. "Radar data not available from this site" became an all-too-common message.
So it became necessary to find alternative means of sharing this critical data. Alternate methods almost inevitably mean something slower than the previous technology it replaces. One of the results was a scavenging of equipment, particularly simple coding systems that could run over HF radio, or possibly an existing telephone wire, that could also work in the presence of high amounts of "noise" in the signal. Often that meant humans that could step in, both to encode, transmit, and decode the data. Even Beale AFB had to do something when the dedicated communications link between the radar station and the air base got cut; the microwave link that is currently being used is there only because the Master Sergeant's airman were able to recondition and re-purpose equipment from an earlier base closure in California, equipment that had been sitting idle for over twenty years and is older than Daniel. The MSgt went one step further at the same time, and found some unused solar panels for cheap, which the crew rigged up with batteries and a charging circuit to make sure his communications link will run 24/7.
Slow and unreliable communications was one of the reasons also behind not running every radar site continuously. By having fewer radar sites recording weather data every hour of the day, the Weather Service is able to still transfer the data from the scan at a much slower speed in the time available between the hourly or three-hour scans. Even in times of severe weather, when many more radars are operating to see where tornadoes and storm cells are located, they currently can only scan once every 30 minutes before the communication lines are too limiting (which is in stark contrast to the original network design of scans every 5 to 10 minutes from all of the 150-some radars).
"While not ideal, at least we still have radar," Daniel thought. He wonders, however, how many more years even this level of service can be kept up.
The ill-timed change in the economy, and therefore the overall loss in major amounts of money to invest like the government used to, plus later the loss in the production of electronics, also cost the U.S. Government their one opportunity to replace the aging fleet of radars, both airport and weather surveillance radars, and put us in this position today of having to shutdown the Beale weather radar.
Daniel thought, "If only we would have gotten MPAR everywhere. Maybe then I wouldn't be needing to close this radar site." Back when Daniel entered the Air Force, plans were being drawn up for MPAR, the Multipurpose Phase Array Radar, which was being designed to replace the entire fleet of installed air route, airport, and weather doppler radars in the country with a single unified system. Using thousands of integrated transceiver systems, each built as a single unified, and identical, antenna, transmitter, and receiver of microwave energy that were to be mass-produced at supposedly a ridiculously low price, these units were to be combined in arrays of thousands of units on a four-sided, non-rotating system. Controlled entirely by computers, each MPAR site, with these thousands of transceiver-antenna units functioning as a coordinated scanner of both airplane and weather information simultaneously, would have required very little maintenance and have no moving parts. Touted as the best thing to come, with each individual unit costing only a little, and made to work through sophisticated computers, software, and networking, we were looking at the replacement for some seven different forms of largely mechanical radar systems like the WSR-88D. This was to be the cutting edge of what he trained to maintain.
But, it never happened. Some test initial sites were set up in the middle of the country in "Tornado Alley" in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. But the sheer cost of a nationwide replacment became prohibitive, and then the actual manufacturing of the components couldn't happen, including the lack of up-to-date fast computers needed. So MPAR died completely, and now we are left with an aging mechanical radar system that is everywhere 35 years and older, which will die one radar site at a time.
2200. Ten o'clock in the evening.
Daniel knew he should go to bed, but Sunday nights at 10 was the start of an hour he looked forward to each week. On the radio in the day room where the entire crew was sitting, including himself and the truck driver, the AM radio station, KGO in San Francisco, had just switched its programming over to its once-a-week broadcast of an hour of alternative and independent rock music from the 1990s and 2000s. Daniel's ears and attention shifted to this music, as this is what he grew up on.
He had to chuckle to himself yet again, as he has reminisced all day, how much like his parents he has become.
Back when he was growing up, and especially in college, Daniel used to be annoyed, and amused, with how his parents could be willing to watch whatever shows were on the television, or listen to whatever music (or news) was on the radio. They took what was given to them by the broadcasters, and even would plan their day around a particular television show or radio program they wanted to watch or hear at the time it was broadcast. Occasionally they would use some more older technology, this time the VCR and a VHS tape, to record a show to keep.
Daniel, on the other hand, only listened to the music of his choice, which he could do with his iPod and computer, which were both stuffed with music he had downloaded from the Internet. Or he'd watch shows and movies using one of the many streaming services on the Internet, all without leaving his chair, and at any time of the day he wanted to watch.
But now, twenty years later, he has come full circle. His last iPod, purchased before he went into the Air Force, was thrown away long ago, unable to be replaced. Same with the fancy "smartphone" he had bought to take with him to Basic training. Those devices are no longer available to the average person; at least he can't afford them, as they are getting very scarce. Now he is forced to listen to an old AM/FM radio just like his parents did - in fact, the particular radio in the day room looks to be about as old as the one that used to sit on top of the kitchen refrigerator when he was growing up. No doubt a castaway that someone thoughtfully retrieved out of the garbage somewhere.
And fortunately there is a radio station to listen to. Most of the radio stations that he used to skip over on the car radio when he was a younger kid are now also gone, unable to afford the cost to stay in business or run the transmitter. There are only a few AM stations still going, plus the occasional FM station in urban areas. The good thing about AM radio stations, while they sound terrible without all the nice stereo sound we used to hear on our iPods, is that they can be received many miles away, even out here quite a ways from San Francisco. They come alive at night, after the Sun sets, when "radio skip" brings in stations from halfway across the country. It is this same idea, the use of radio that can travel distances, including over the horizon, that is re-surging in the military, and across the country, as the way we now keep in contact. And no wires to keep repairing every time the scavengers tear them down, Just a transceiver, antenna, and an operator trained to use it (like two thirds of the airman sitting in front him will be in six months), and we will still keep in touch.
"We won't have person-to-person private conversations like I used to have on my Verizon cellphone," Daniel thought to himself, "but at least we can be in contact." With radio, critical information, such as weather reports or the need for hospital care, and responding to a disaster, can still be relayed, albeit possibly slower. "And I can occasionally talk to my dad," Dan thought, as his dad was a licensed amateur radio operator. In fact, his dad passed messages to him on several occasions in the past at the various air bases he was assigned to by relaying a message through the volunteer "ham radio" operators who manned the base MARS (Military Affiliate Radio Service) stations. That was in fact the way Daniel got word that his mom had died a couple of years ago. That time, the MARS operators were able to set up a "phone patch" that allowed him to talk directly to his dad from his office telephone.
"Damn, this music is good," Daniel thought. If he was alone at home, he'd be playing an "air guitar" and showing off to his wife. But that is not the behavior a leader portrays in front of his airman. "Carla loves this music too, and I'll bet she is listening right now," thought Daniel. "It is nice to share this moment with her, even if I'm not back home." Much like staring at the same moon at the same time from two places on the Earth.
Five o'clock on Monday afternoon.
"Time to head for home and to see Carla again."
Three hours earlier, the truck he rode back from the radar site had dropped the Master Sergeant off at the headquarters for the Communications Squadron, along with the three radar technicians he had brought back. The truck driver then headed off to dispose of the garbage and recyclables they had also brought back from the site, which was a lot, two weeks worth, plus to return the now empty oil drums to the fuel depot for reuse on the next trip. After a debriefing, the radar technicians have also left, on their way for supper and rejoining their families or friends, and no doubt to share the news. Likely a beer or two will be consumed as well, since alcohol is not permitted at the radar site.
Daniel grabs his bike from the bike rack, and peddles down the main road toward the family housing areas that lie up against the foothills on the edge of the base. He was one of over a hundred such bikers that hour who were completing this same commute home. Airman, junior officers -- all ranks except the highest officers who still qualify for a driver and a car -- make this commute. Those families that still have a car, as he and Carla do, usually leave it home, saving it for when groceries are needed or during an alert. Most use a bicycle or ride the shuttle back and forth.
Along the way, he passes the treeless area on the edge of the main office area that now holds the "emergency replacement housing” that was hurriedly built a decade ago when it became necessary to move all airman, officers, and their families back on base.
Back when Daniel finished his tech school and first came out to Beale, he was excited that this was a base with limited on-base housing. The idea of not being confined on base was appealing. As quickly as they could, he and Carla (who he had met in his first year at Beale, as she was also in the Air Force) quickly rented a place in a nearby town as soon as they could get permission. Most airman sought an apartment down near Sacramento, some twenty or more miles away, where they could be closer to "night life" and jobs for their spouses. The daily ride to and from the base was an enjoyable break to the rigors of military life.
But then gasoline got expensive and cars harder to keep repaired. The State of California's mandatory drop in speed limits to 40 miles per hour, later dropping to 30 miles per hour, and then 20, also made the length of the commute unbearable. What really hurt, however, was the enforced limit of sale of only five gallons of gas a week per car. Overnight it became almost impossible for off-base personnel to make it to base when they were needed, even with carpooling.
And Beale wasn't the only air base having these problems. Air bases and army camps across the country were having a transportation crisis, which in turn meant a housing crisis.
So in desperation, the Department of Defense embarked on a hurried three-year building program at all air bases to construct emergency housing. In order to speed up the process and save on resources, costs, and access to qualified contractors and builders, the military resurrected plans from the last time such a major building program happened back in the WWII and Cold War years in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. These houses and barracks, barely meeting housing codes even back then, were no more than studs, plaster board, and tar paper, with minimal insulation, a roof, and a fresh coat of paint. The officer quarters got a brick or stucco exterior, but they still had the same leaky windows and roof as the enlisted housing.
The whole idea was that these would be temporary, as the economy was sure to recover. Except this time temporary is looking more permanent. But this housing serves an important purpose, which is to allow the entire base personnel to be in housing right there on the base, with minimal transportation needed for day-to-day operations. The Master Sergeant knows from his history about World War II, which his dad kept telling him about as he was growing up, that this type of housing, plus tire and gas rationing, and even shuttle buses for workers, were the same then as what he is experiencing now.
Thirty minutes later, Daniel bikes up to his home, fortunately one of the better-built, pre-emergency structures. Unfortunately, being older doesn't necessarily mean that the house is much better, not after the number of families that have passed through each house and induced their own wear and tear. But Daniel, after all these years in the military, is finally starting to learn not to complain.
Opening the front door, he calls out, "Honey, I'm home."
"I'm in the kitchen," Carla calls out. "Get changed. We are eating supper with Bill and Judy next door."
"By the way, there is a letter for you on the table from your father."