“Capt. Calico, you have a choice.”
Col. Robert Unger
United States Air Force Surgeon General’s Office, 1968
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
After eight or so months at Dover, I received an astonishing, out-of-the-blue telephone call that would forever alter the doors that would open and the paths that would unfold for me. It was from a gentleman whom I had never met, Col. Bob Unger of the Office of the Surgeon General of the Air Force. After a few pleasantries, he made known the purpose of his call: “You have a choice, Capt. Calico. You can be transferred to Vietnam for a year or you can be transferred to a city in the U.S. with lots of bright lights.”
“I am forbidden to provide any further information about either the location or the assignment,” he warned.
I had a decision to make. After approximately two thoughtful seconds of careful consideration, I chose Door No. 2, opting for bright lights over Asian swamps. I saw this as being entirely consistent with baseball legend Yogi Berra’s philosophy of “when you come to a fork in the road, take it!”
< p > & n b s p ; & n b s p ; & n b s p ; & n b s p ; & n b s p ; & nbsp; The call had come unexpectedly, as I said, and it immediately threw my prior expectations out the window. I had assumed that the Dover assignment would last at least three years and possibly to the end of my four-year military obligation, after which Pat and I would return to Kentucky. Now, great uncertainty clouded possible futures. As the next few years unfolded, however, my thinking evolved to the point that I would plan to spend a full twenty or more years in the uniform.
Following a number of trips to Washington, D.C., a polygraph test, a background investigation and conversations with several high-ranking Air Force and civilian personnel, it was settled: I would be heading to the bright lights. Why me? I have no idea, but one can speculate. My country-boy background--and resulting charm, of course--no doubt assured the screeners that I would have no trouble passing a security clearance that exceeded the “top secret” level. My academic record assuredly favored my selection. But, in retrospect, I just cannot escape the suspicion that there was more to it; things do not “just happen,” I am sure. In retrospect, I am convinced that providential intervention is real and that this is an example of its manifestation. Without a doubt, this door opened for me to enter and step on the path for which my life was destined and about which I had no knowledge; it was orchestrated by my Creator on my behalf. I did nothing to make it happen; it, indeed, came “out-of-the-blue” and was tailored just for me.
And about that security clearance: I was asked follow-up questions about only one item on the polygraph, and that involved homosexuality. The idea of men having sex with men was--and is--so repulsive to me that it had induced a visceral aversive reaction that showed up on the polygraph. The examiners had to make sure what my response meant! They accepted my explanation and all went well.
In early 1968, when I was twenty-seven years old, Pat and I drove west to Las Vegas, the city “with lots of bright lights,” where I would work at a secret Air Force installation in the high desert two hours north of the city. For the next year I would be attached--for administrative purposes only--to the 1129th Special Activities Squadron located (nominally for public consumption) at Nellis Air Force Base just outside Las Vegas, working as a flight surgeon on a highly classified assignment. Pat took her first teaching position in nursing at the University of Nevada Las Vegas—long before Coach Jerry Tarkanian made the “Running Rebs” famous in college basketball circles.
We found an apartment on Silver Dollar Avenue just off the Strip near the Sahara Hotel and settled in. Our routine was straightforward: Pat taught nursing and I worked from early Monday morning--usually leaving home about 4 a.m.--until late Friday at the secret base. I could not tell Pat many specifics about what I was doing; in fact, it was not until about 2005 that I felt free to discuss more of my work with her. We were prohibited from discussing super-secret information until such time as it was declassified by the U.S. Government. I have never been notified personally that our project was declassified, but in 2005 I found published information about the project of which I was a part and then for the first time I felt free to talk about the published information, but nothing else.
Pat and I thoroughly enjoyed our year in Las Vegas. We visited Death Valley, spent time with relatives who lived in Redondo Beach, had a wonderful anniversary celebration that November at the then-new Circus Circus Casino, saw the thermometer at the top of the Sahara Hotel hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit at midnight and experienced dust storms and flash floods in the desert. We occasionally escaped to Charleston Mountain north of the city to enjoy cool temperatures, green trees and snow.
While I enjoyed the new experiences living in the desert brought, a springtime flight eastward that year made me realize that I would never be a Westerner living in a brown world. When our plane landed at Wright Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, to refuel, the crew had lunch at the Officers Club. As we sat by the window looking out on a beautiful bluegrass lawn, a robin landed in the grass. From that moment, I knew I would eventually move back to a green land where robins live.
Away from the Strip in Las Vegas, real people live in real communities. Pat and I experienced this in a meaningful way in the church we attended, Trinity United Methodist. There we were quickly elevated to the position of leaders of the middle-school youth group. We had a blast with those kids. We went tubing in the snow on Charleston Mountain; we went camping beside the Colorado River below Hoover Dam; we met with the kids every Sunday and had great fun together. We did things that church youth leaders could never get away with today, like tubing on the mountain and showing off with our hot ’64 Chevy.