Life was considerably different in the late 80’s than today. We didn’t fret about birds dropping from the skies, fume over gas prices, or wonder why Paris Hilton was famous. We had “Miami Vice” instead of “CSI-Miami,” Qaddafi instead of Osama, and Madonna instead of Lady Gaga. And Dick Clark instead of...uh...Dick Clark.
So, ok, some things have remained the same. But, you have to admit, there sure was a lot of big hair going around.
The “Evil Empire” was still in business and few people did a better job of caging the bear than the U.S. military. Our influence was felt throughout the world and it could be argued that, like the Union Jack before it, the sun never set on the Stars and Stripes.
Each of the services had their hand in winning the Cold War: the Army held the line in places like Germany and Korea, the Marines scared people, the Navy ruled the waves, and the Air Force kept golf courses in business. Together, they promoted truth, justice, the American way, and MTV on bases throughout the world.
The Lajes Naval Air Facility in the Portuguese Azores was just such a place.
Perched nine hundred miles off the European coast, Lajes was a major stopping off point for forces crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The roar of aircraft pausing to refuel there was as common as flag burnings in Teheran.
In addition, Lajes was an ideal spot for launching aircraft to locate and track Soviet submarines going back and forth from the Mediterranean Sea. Crucial to this effort were groups of fixed-wing P-3C Orion sub-hunting aircraft.
It was also where Al Penwasser was born.
Petty Officer Penwasser was an enlisted aircrewman attached to Patrol Squadron Eleven during its deployment to Lajes during the final days of the Cold War.
Not many people actually saw him, but I knew he existed from the day I reported to VP-11 in 1987. Many people warned me to be on the lookout for this cocky individual who always seemed to be on “assignment.”
Even though I never laid eyes on him, I did see his service record, training folder, and the volumes of mail he received on a regular basis.
I never questioned why his picture board photograph always came up missing or why “Classified-Secret” was pasted across his face when it wasn’t.
It certainly drove the Commanding Officer nuts that Penwasser never checked in with him.
He did have a checkered career, unfortunately. Promoted to a senior rank, he was subsequently demoted for parachuting into Grenada armed with only a blow-up doll and a spork. The bad thing was, it was a week before the invasion was authorized by the federal government.
After the Cold War, he realized his lifelong dream of becoming a member of the Special Forces. Exactly WHOSE Special Forces we didn’t know; all we knew is he volunteered for only the most dangerous of missions. Ya know, like hunting with Dick Cheney or designated driver for Charlie Sheen.
He stayed in touch, though. We routinely got postcards from places as exotic as the Orient, the Gulf, or Daytona Beach at Spring Break. A sentimental rake, he always signed them, “Love, Al.”
Our last contact with him happened when an 18-wheeler pulled up in front of our squadron hangar. Evidently, Mr. Penwasser had placed an order for a manure spreader (which we thought was pretty appropriate). Luckily, we convinced the flustered driver that Farmer Al had transferred, to where we weren’t sure.
After that, he dropped out of sight. We sometimes saw his name in guest registers at places like the Pantheon, the Dubai Seamen’s Center, Mayan ruins, or bowling alley bathroom walls, but that was about it.
Like Vanilla Ice’s career, Al Penwasser just disappeared.
I never found out where he went or what he did, but his spirit lives on in this blog and elsewhere. No matter whether the subject is Old Man Toe, Columbus Day, or the Home Depot, I’m proud that Al has once more found a home for his wry take on life.
Oh, and as for that name. Comes from Portuguese bottled water: