In October of 1966, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force for four years to avoid being drafted into the Army for two. It may seem that I had a problem with math, but the Army could send you anywhere, such as Vietnam, a likely destination at that time. I was fairly certain I didn’t want to go there, if it came to that. Earlier that year, I’d received a notice to report for a physical in Des Moines, which I passed. I was still at the University of Iowa at the time, but was told by the army that since I hadn’t graduated after four years in a liberal arts program, I was no longer exempt from the draft, because people “normally” got a degree in that amount of time.
My dad had been in the Army Air Corps during World War II as a navigator on a B-17 bomber, stationed in England. I remember watching a documentary television series called Air Power with him in 1956 and ’57. This connection made me lean more toward the Air Force than the other branches. Besides, by this time I’d spent several years in the film department at Iowa, and hoped to continue filmmaking in the military. Someone I’d known at Iowa had already enlisted and was shooting films for the Air Force at a base in Florida, so I knew it could be done. Then I found out from the recruiter in Iowa City that they had a delayed-enlistment program, which meant I could sign up, but not have to report for three months. This was perfect for someone like me; I could make this decision but not have to actually do anything about it until later.
I had six weeks of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. We were allowed to go into the city twice. The only things I remember were visiting the Alamo (of course), a trip to the zoo, and seeing Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie. One day several weeks into basic, we were herded into a building to pick our “career field.” Available choices were written on a blackboard at the front of the room. As much as I searched, I didn’t see anything related to filmmaking. I finally went up to one of the NCOs in charge and asked him about this. He said there wasn’t anything open in film production that day. The closest was something called “Precision Photo Processing,” but he said I probably wouldn’t get that anyway. Well, in the end I did get it. After basic was over, I was sent to Lowry AFB in Denver for six months training in this field, which turned out to involve the processing and printing of aerial reconnaissance film. So I’d be working in a film laboratory situation. At least it had something to do with film, though not what I’d hoped for.
The thing I liked best about being in Denver was that it was the first time I was in a big city environment with many more movie theaters than I’d had access to in Iowa. We could leave the base only on weekends, but I made the most of it. I vividly remember seeing The Professionals (with Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster in top form), an incredibly entertaining and repeatable Western directed by Richard Brooks. Seeing John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix in Cinerama was pretty mind-blowing. I was also attending late-night underground cinema programs that showed films like Mike Kuchar’s epic Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965). But the big one was Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, released that December. I’d been anxiously awaiting this one. It did not disappoint, and I saw it several times during its run.
When training was complete, I received orders to go to Beale Air Force Base in Northern California, near a town called Marysville. After a short leave back in Iowa, I decided to travel by train on the California Zephyr, which went from Chicago to San Francisco. The Zephyr was operated jointly by several railway lines (this was before Amtrak). The main feature of this train was the dome cars, which provided amazing scenic views. I loved trains, though I hadn’t been on that many. I couldn’t afford a sleeper on this trip, so I had to go coach for the two or three days it took to get to Marysville, which was about eight miles from the base. The route went through Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. For someone who hadn’t traveled much, this was an amazing experience. Going through the Rockies out of Denver really peeled my eyes back. The vast expanses of desert in Utah and Nevada gave me a sense of the country I hadn’t had before. I didn’t sleep much, but it was worth it.
At one point, I got into a conversation with an older woman on the train. This was on the last leg of my trip, not far from Marysville. I was traveling in uniform, and she asked where I was going. When I told her, she shook her head and said that people in that town didn’t like servicemen. As you might imagine, this didn’t exactly make me feel better about what I had to look forward to. I didn’t talk to her much after that (and, as it turned out, she was wrong). At another point, I found a newspaper someone had left behind and read a review of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, which was just being released. The review made the album sound great – a musical milestone. I couldn’t wait to hear it, though it would be a while before I finally did. But just reading about it provided a vivid connection to my other life, which I was missing more and more.
Marysville, California is located just east of Yuba City, directly across the Feather River. Yuba City gained a certain notoriety a few years later as the residence of Juan Corona, a Mexican serial killer who murdered 25 migrant farm workers in 1971 and buried them in shallow graves along the river. This was my first time in California. Beale would be my first base after basic and the additional training in Denver. It was a dry, dusty Sunday afternoon in June of 1967 when I got off the train. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but I didn’t have to report at the base until Monday, so I checked into a small hotel near the train station, which in retrospect makes me think of the hotel in El Paso where the final shootout takes place in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972). In the meantime, I was also thinking of what the woman on the train had said, which made me anxious that I might get beaten up by local toughs wielding pool cues. Needless to say, this did not happen.
The next day I signed in at Beale, which is about eight miles east of Marysville. After getting situated in a room in one of the barracks, I had a couple of days of in-processing. The only thing I remember about that was walking into the base education office and hearing the Doors’ “Light My Fire” playing on a radio, the long instrumental break from the album cut. I thought, well, this is interesting. It was 1967, remember. The counter-culture was getting to its feet, and there I was, in uniform.
My job was in a facility called the SAGE building, which was an acronym for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, whatever that meant. This was a virtually windowless concrete cube several stories high. I worked in a lab mixing photographic chemicals in huge tanks, and learning how to operate continuous processing machines that developed large rolls of classified reconnaissance film ranging from 35mm to 9 inches wide. Periodically, after higher ups had done whatever they did with the processed film, some of us would get assigned to “burn detail.” This required taking the rolls of film to a room in the bowels of the building and feeding them into large shredding machines. The tiny pieces that resulted were then put into bags that were sealed and taken to a landfill to be buried. Like I said, this stuff was classified.
I didn’t know it at the time, but a 1963 movie with Rock Hudson, A Gathering of Eagles, had been shot at Beale. It received poor reviews and didn’t do well at the box-office. The success the following year of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove suggested that audiences were ready for more critical — and hipper — material than the flag-waving in A Gathering of Eagles.
I soon learned that, in addition to B-52 bombers and F-4 Phantom jet fighter-bombers, Beale was also home to the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird,” which was the source of the recon film we were processing. This supersonic aircraft, designed for long-range reconnaissance, flew more than three times the speed of sound at an altitude of 80,000 feet. It was part of the 9th Strategic Recon Wing at Beale. The SR-71 was also called the “Batmobile,” for obvious reasons when you saw it. We weren’t supposed to talk about it to anyone off base, as if it wasn’t actually there. So I walked into a barbershop in Marysville one day and saw a framed color photo of the SR-71 on the wall. Everybody knew about it; it was the main attraction. You could certainly hear it miles away. I’ve never heard anything louder taking off. And I have to say, at the time it felt pretty cool to be even tangentially associated with an aircraft that seemed more like science fiction.
The barbershop I mentioned was directly connected to a bar called The Chiseler’s Inn (photo above), which had the tagline, “The House of a Thousand Curios.” It was filled with items like Winchester rifles, animal heads mounted on the walls, and jars containing two-headed goats and other freakish oddities. Per a reference I found, “This greasy spoon had everything from jackalopes to mannequins in the restrooms. You could visit many times and still find something new.” It was a great place to pass the time while waiting for a chair to open up in the barbershop next door. As I recall, the Chiseler’s Inn was down the street from the State Theater, where I saw Bonnie and Clyde that August. After the extended ambush at the end, I staggered out into the daylight, devastated and exhilarated.
I didn’t have a car, so to get into town I had to take a shuttle bus that ran between Beale and Marysville. From there I could catch a Greyhound to Sacramento, which was 40 miles south, or an express bus to San Francisco, three hours away. I usually went to San Francisco about twice a month (when we got paid), mainly to see movies and wander around the Haight-Ashbury district, which was in full psychedelic bloom at the time. Sacramento seemed like it could be any city in the Midwest, while San Francisco was, well, San Francisco.
It was a terrific city for movies. Seeing John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) at the Northpoint Theater stands out, as does D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back (1967), which was the first time I heard someone say “fuck” in a movie. A strange thing happened when I saw Bullitt (1968) the following year. I’d already seen it in Sacramento, but the film had been shot entirely in San Francisco, and I felt like seeing it again the next time I was there. There’s a scene near the end between Steve McQueen as the title character and Robert Vaughn as an ambitious senator. In the print I saw in Sacramento, when Vaughn says, “Frank, we must all compromise,” there’s a cut to McQueen looking disgusted. In San Francisco, after Vaughn’s line, McQueen says, “Bullshit!” They’d cut this in Sacramento. It was startling, because you don’t expect a movie to change from one viewing to another (unless it’s a director’s cut on a DVD, which didn’t exist then).
In November ’68, I went to an event at the San Francisco International Film Festival where Kirk Douglas was receiving an award. I think Lonely Are the Brave (1962) had been shown earlier in the evening. Then Douglas entered, strode down the center aisle and vaulted onto the stage. It was a real moment. I hadn’t been around this kind of thing before.
During one of my trips to San Francisco in either 1967 or ’68, I was approached on a street corner by a young man in a pea coat trying to recruit me into Scientology. I hadn’t heard of Scientology, but what this guy was selling and the way he was doing it gave me a really bad vibe. I walked away as quickly as I could, creeped out and disturbed. That was my brush with Scientology.
I was stationed at Beale AFB through the end of 1968, which was a bad year for this country, a weird time. The Vietnam war was escalating; Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; the Democratic convention in Chicago that August was insane; Nixon was elected president in November; and later we found out about the My Lai massacre. Everybody was going crazy. I was politically indifferent when I joined the Air Force, but was becoming increasingly radicalized the longer I was in. Proximity to San Francisco and all its hippie glory probably didn’t hurt. In mid-January of 1970, I was sent to Thailand for a year, leaving the SR-71 and the Chiseler’s Inn behind. But that’s another story. — Ted Hicks