When I was in the Air Force I was stationed at Hickam AFB in Hawaii for most of my career. I was an Avionics Guidance Controls and Systems Specialist level 9. That meant I worked on all the cool electronics on the aircraft. I was trained on every aircraft in the Air Force inventory, one of three people at the time, so they put me in Hawaii because so many different planes go through there. All of that is in my service record, and I freely tell it to people. Occasionally, people want more. Last week I had to tell a person that I couldn’t really say any more. They continued to press, so I made it clear that I REALLY could not say anymore because what I did was top secret. There were many missions and things I worked on that I swore upon pain of imprisonment never to talk about. I imagine some 50 years from now they will be declassified, but for now that still holds.
Many military people face the same situation, but the funny thing for me was the reaction of the people who heard me. When I was younger, people would smirk and laugh like I was trying to sound important. Now, people conjure up that I was a spy or sniper or some such thing. The reaction and the sudden mystique threw me for a loop. I thought about it for a long time before I realized that when you are secretive or silent about anything, people fill in the void with really interesting theories. The reality is I was a glorified aircraft mechanic, which is pretty much the same job as an auto mechanic but with a bigger vehicle. You hook up diagnostic computers, you replace parts, you test drive stuff. Mainly you get cut on jagged metal, get bruised and doing a boring job. Sure, people’s lives depend on you, but its no different than the guy that replaces the brake pads on your car, and when did you think they were glamorous?
I did work in an area with red lines on the ground. If you crossed the red lines without your top secret clearance badge, you would be shot. No kidding. By saying that, people again are probably thinking it was some glamorous place. It was an old hangar that still had bullet marks from the Pearl Harbor attack, coated with paint some 50 years thick. Yes, we did things I can never talk about, but they were not worthy of any “knowing” looks or smiles.
The reaction did teach me something about writing though. Let the reader fill in the silent blanks. They will fill them with more wonder than you can. It’s one reason the movie is never as good as the book. The movie is limited by budget, time, acting ability, and ultimately reflects someone else filling in the blanks. They rarely fill them in the way the reader did when they imagined it. So, I will revel in the respect I receive for my boring military service simply because I can’t talk about it.