Making a Buck at Beale

“We have one job left.”


“It requires one year of janitor experience. Do you have one year of janitor experience?”

Sitting at the bottom of that missile silo that first night on the job convinced me having high connections that get you into low places can be a good thing.
Any time any of us wanted to make a buck at Beale AFB we would go to the commissary that was at the end of the runway.

Bagging groceries strickly for tips got real interesting when a B-52 took off. They were so low, you could count each rivet and clearly see the outlines of the bomb bay doors under their fat, white bellies.

They were not given the nickname Buffs till the Viet Nam era. The black exhaust caused by the supercharging effect of injecting water into the eight engines settled on us and all the cars in the parking lot. The days General Lemay called one of his famous alerts were not good for business and I knew supper was probably going to be late that evening.

We would run over to the Seviceman’s Club. During alerts it was easy to get a pool table. There was no teen club at Beale so it was every man for himself. An 18 year veteran brat could outwit a shavetail airman any time. If that airman was also 18, there was nooo contest.

One day a bonanza hit.

The Titan I missle silos in the region were nearing completion. They needed to get crews to clean the underground rooms and passageways. They would also clean the various buildings around base involved in the missile program.

The problem was, members of these crews had to have pretty high security clearances and they needed help right away.

Information from a family background trace is used for a security clearance. Somebody realized there was a base full of 18 and 19 year-old dependents hanging around waiting for their dads’ 20 year hitches to be up. We were the kids born just at the beginning of WWII. This “stay” was also extended when retirements were frozen due to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Getting us security clearances would be a slam dunk.

Word got out to us and we went down to the Martin-Marrietta offices on base and signed up. All we had to do was give them our dads’ serial numbers and most of us got our clearances within 24 hours.

Those years of memorizing dad’s number to pick up the laundry paid off big time. 50 years later, I still remember that number.

Most of you will recall the security clearance badges that clipped to lapels or pockets. It had the picture of the wearer and was enclosed in plastic like our ID cards. Around the border of the card were little boxes representing the different places on base. A hole was punched in each box that indicated a place the wearer was cleared to go.

All of our cards had EVERY BOX punched. Many of us had higher clearances than our dads. Basically, we were going to be janitors.

A handful of us were told to go over to a new hanger on the flight line. Earlier that year I was working in the operations coffee shop next door and saw the construction of this hanger each day. Never gave it a second thought. Construction was constant. SAC was our country’s first line of defense and the cold war was in high gear.

We all knew the reason why base housing was five miles from the flight line behind a row of hills. Dad was line chief but even he did not have clearance to go into this place. It was a medium size hanger with offices in a corner. Everything was brand new and there was nothing in the building except some desks in the offices. The engineers there were really friendly guys. One gave us a ride in his brand new T-Bird.

Eventually we realized no one had mentioned what the hanger was going to be used for. The engineers worked for Lockeed but, as friendly as they were, we could not get one clue out of them about its purpose.

That evening I asked dad the purpose of the new hanger. “Dad, you are the line chief, you have to know everything that is happening on the line and that hanger is on the line. What’s it for?”

“Don’ know, pass the carrots.” The wise ol’ geezer would not even let on it was secret. Like Shultz in TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, he knew “Nuuuuuthink” even though he knew everything.

They had us wash down the entire concrete floor area till it was spotless. Then we rolled on coats of sealer till the floor shined like an AP’s boot. It took us a week and then we were sent some place else… Clueless. We were so clueless we couldn’t even find the dictionary to look up clueless.

It was many years later I found out and I knew dad knew all the time but took it to the grave with him. Beale was a B-52 base and the hanger was too small for them or a KC-135. They had a T-33 on base that would fit but it was always parked outside. My primary “person of interest” was the commander. He was assigned a two prop light plane for his own (official) use. It would fit and it would keep his plane nice and shiny. I could not have been more wrong.

There it was one night on the television series Wings. The doors were opening and a plane came taxiing out. It was all black. The U-2 spy plane! They leaked fuel like a sieve until the body expanded from the heat caused by flying beyond speeds we will never see. No wonder that floor had to be sealed with ten coats. The sealer they gave us was probably impervious to JP-4 jet fuel or whatever concoction they used.

Beale is 40 miles north of Sacramento. Because dad was very close to getting out, he began the process of purchasing a home down in California’s capitol city; a place he fell in love with the first time he was stationed there 20 years earlier. Between Beale and Sacramento was a Titan missle silo in the town of Lincoln. It was the perfect place for me because I could keep the job after we moved to Sacramento. It would only be a 15 minute commute. I asked to be assigned there and it was approved.

They gave me a hard hat and sent me on my way. It was a night job so I wore dad’s flight jacket (I’m a junior so the name tag fit), blue jeans and the hard hat. Once down the silo, the jacket could be put aside. The gate was manned by civilian guards.

When they saw me coming with such a high security clearance tag and a spotless Air Force flight jacket, they immediately assumed I was an officer and saluted. What the heck, I saluted back remembering officers do not salute as snappy as enlisted men. (Wait till all the guys back at the base hear about this!)

Each day I would get my salute as I walked through the gate. I would also get my “Good evening sir.” When summer came, the flight jacket was not needed but everyone knew they were to salute me by then. Life was good.

One night I was underground mopping out the John and In came a guard in need of relief.

The next night I wondered if they would even let me through the gate. The salute may have gone but they were still a little wary of me and stayed cool. Actually, cold would be a better term.

Russia backed down, the missile crisis was over and we soon moved to Sacramento.

The job lasted long enough for me to get settled and find a local job in Sacramento. One day I got tired of working six day weeks and wandered over to the State employment office. There was a sign over a counter saying “Student Employment.” No one was standing in line so I went over. They asked if I was a full time student and I said “…Yep.” (Well, I wanted to be!)

“We have one job left.”


“It requires one year of janitor experience. Do you have one year of janitor experience?”

“Yep.” (Were they going to ask me if I had a secret clearance next?)

“Pack a lunch and report to the capitol building at 4:30.”

Luckily It was student enrollment time at the local college so the next day I ran over and signed up for a full load. I had been going part time so knew where to go. It was just a white lie I told the State the day before. After all, Sacramento was a dull place for a guy out of high school but not 21 yet. Might as well go to college full time. The president then sent another 100,000 advisory troops to Viet Nam.

Seven years later I had been promoted a couple of times on the State job and graduated from CSU Sacramento. The best job offer I got paid $30 a month more than I was getting from the State. I was given a B.S. degree. Often wondered if they gave that to me for way I got into the college rather than getting through it.

Dad’s serial number actually led to and paid for my entire college education. The only time I ever saw tears in his eyes were after the graduation ceremonies.

Sitting at the bottom of that missile silo that first night on the job convinced me having high connections that get you into low places can be a good thing. Fortunately it was my life that soared out of that hole and the Titan missile never had to.

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1 Comment
  1. This story really captures what it was like for us Military Brats growing up on bases (or posts, as we called them). Jobs were scarce on base and you could not afford to be too picky. We Army Brats wondered about the Titan missle silos . . . would like to take a tour of a decommissioned silo one of these days.

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