About a dozen or so of us Airmen remained in the barracks, during the 1974 Christmas holidays. For us, it was too expensive to fly home for the holidays. I enlisted in Florida and now, my new home for a while at least, would be Washington state.
Snowshoeing seemed too tame for us and snow mobiles too expensive; so, the four of us quickly hatched an adventure with a rental six man river raft, from the Fairchild AFB Special Services Recreation center.
Outside of our the barracks there was now, about a foot of snow. In our planning session we surmised that the cold and snow would work in our favor; the fewer people that knew about what we were up to, the better.
Today, it’s known as MWR (morale, welfare and recreation) but, back in our day in December 1974, it was known as Special Services. In addition to equipment rental, gym, wood shop and auto mechanics, soldiers, sailors and airmen have always had a myriad of other civilian related activities on base, to keep busy, when not training or deployed.
The US armed forces uses codenames to refer to the execution of specific military operations. So, we quickly came up with a name, yet not a very creative one. Operation Bowl and Pitcher. Our goal was to winter raft the Spokane River, get back out and back to the barracks, before anyone knew we were even there.
Everyone in our barracks, even the ones now home for the holidays, flew to Spokane after basic training. From Lakeland AFB to Fairchild AFB. We were now waiting to join the USAF SURVIVAL School. The 3636 CCTW was right next door to Fairchild AFB; home of SAC (Strategic Air Command) and the infamous B52 bombers and KC135 air refuelers.
Most of us had never met before, let alone seen snow. We now primarily knew each other by our hometown and our nicknames; you either had one, or one was given to you. I was called “Easy” as in that late 60’s movies title, Easy Rider, an American countercultural motorcycle film.
One of the barracks rats remaining with a pickup, dropped the four of us, a case of Mt. Rainier beer and the rental raft, at the base of the Spokane River. We were just downstream from the dam spillway itself.
The River was not far from the road. As soon as the raft touched water, we each grabbed a paddle, and quickly launched amidst yells of aeeeeah Survival!!!
D day and zero hour had finally arrived. Operation Bowl and Pitcher was now at the mercy of the rivers current. Today I know that six miles downstream lay a unique rock formation. Back then we didn’t know how far we needed to travel to reach it. Our goal was to beach the raft prior to the bowl and pitcher, get out and celebrate our victory. No one in the group even owned a camera back then.
On the west side of the river, is this huge basaltic rock shaped like a bowl. Then there is another massive rock that is called the pitcher.
Just beyond this point is a suspension bridge. Silver, Joint, Goody, a case of Mt Rainier, and yours truly were now floating freely at the mercy of the rapids all around. I believe one guy in the group had experienced white water rafting before; to the rest of us, this was just another new adventure.
Silver was the guy from New Jersey, he was called silver because of a tooth filling. Joint was the guy from SoCal, to us he personified the surfer dude California image. Goody was the guy from Detroit; his last name was Goodrum. Looking back now we were a multiracial Vietnam era generation.
Major events that happened in our earlier year of 1974 included the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, and the resignation of United States President Richard Nixon, following the Watergate scandal.
Our following year 1975, would include the South Vietnamese stronghold of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) falling to the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong on April 30, 1975.
Ignorance is truly bliss, especially now for us 18/19 year olds. We truly had no idea of how far or how much warnings we would when we launched our rental raft.
It wasn’t long before the raft shot downstream atop the roaring rapids, as we now aimed this rental raft before it began to take in water and soon soaking us all to the bone. On the next set of rapids half our crew yelled with joy amidst complaints of feeling hypothermic. Wimps we yelled!
The Florida guy surprisingly enough, was not the first to yell uncle but, our black guy Goody did. Fortunately, with allot of effort, we successfully beached our rental raft. Soon we had a rip roaring fire going, started only using flint & steel. After all, we were now playing the part of future survival instructors.
Our judgments’ now impaired from the freezing ice cold water so; the irony of me holding and drinking an ice cold Rainier beer in one hand, while nearby wet garments hung on sticks; over an open flame; didn’t even faze me. Once the uncontrollable shivering from being butt naked on a snowy Spokane river bank started to subside, we got dressed and relaunched the raft, to the River of no return. They say that there is always a halfway point reached where success, failure or stupidity coincides. This was that moment.
Down river – picture this. A geologic two rock wonder known to Spokanites as the Bowl & Pitcher rather quickly compresses the river to a yet more powerful water force. All water flowing to the left of the (bowl) meant a whirlpool of death but, flowing water to the right of the (pitcher) meant that we would live another day. So, our goal was to paddle with all our might to defeat death once more, or if we failed risk the possibility of flipping over getting caught in the whirlpool that would suck us under and risk a likely drowning.
Just below the bowl & pitcher is a swinging bridge that crosses the River. On this very day this foot-traffic bridge now held a man and a woman. Both now looked down on us in amazement at the very spectacle yet to unfold before their very eyes.
The water was so high, we could almost touch the foot bridge. I remember us all ducking to avoid touching the bridge. After making it through the bridge safely we continued our victory yells of aeeeahhh! Survival for the entire world to hear. Still, we paddled on, as if our lives depended on it.
Downstream we soon beached the raft knowing there was another dam downstream somewhere that we did not want to face. On the road we waited for our ride that never showed, so we hitchhiked. Thankfully a pickup truck happened to pass by that offered us a ride back to the base. We came, we rode, we froze.
The following weekend two boneheads from our barracks tried to surpass our little expedition on a canoe. It took a military helicopter and Pararescue personnel to extricate the two from atop a large boulder sitting in the middle of the raging river while their “rental” canoe now resembled a crushed beer can, one end of the canoe pointed to the left and one to the right of the rock.
Did we die! No but, if we would’ve taken more time to plan that adventure out today, in our older selves, we would’ve stayed in our barracks and drank ice cold Rainier beer.