Creek Nickel

I puzzled over “Holi,” today’s entry on my iMac’s calendar. I legit thought “holiday” had been pinched off partway, a glitch in the program, but nope, it’s a thing: Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, which marks the advent of spring in India and Nepal. Given the size of the Southwest Asian community in the USA, it’s only appropriate the calendar lists it. But what about International Women’s Day, also today? The calendar doesn’t mention it, yet I daresay women slightly outnumber those who celebrate Holi, and have far more impact on our lives. Including, for starters, my wife and life partner Donna.

Who’s a veteran of the battles women of her generation fought, and then some. On her own at 18, fresh out of high school in Ohio and working as a girl Friday in San Francisco, she found her way to Sacramento and community college, where we met. Married and a mother at 19, she ran a household while working full time, putting me through college, battling banks, utility companies, and landlords who in those days would only do business with “the husband,” questioning the restrictions placed on women in nearly every aspect of life, overcoming obstacle after obstacle placed in her way because of her gender. By the time she and I joined the U.S. Air Force in 1973 (and note I always say “she and I,” because while I may have worn the uniform we were definitely in it together), she was an experienced woman of 26. And not one to put up with any shit.

In our first year, when I was a student in pilot training, tradition called for wives of the about-to-graduate class to welcome wives of the incoming class with a dinner (it was wives, not spouses, in those days, since only men could fly military aircraft). Donna and I were the oldest couple in our class, and for that reason Donna was the senior student wife. For some reason the instructor pilots’ wives decided that for this dinner, the hosting wives wouldn’t be allowed to sit down to and eat with the new wives, but would have to hide in the kitchen after serving them. Donna led a strike and in the end it was the instructor pilots’ wives who cooked, served, and hosted. Fifteen years later Donna crossed paths with the wife of one of my instructor pilots, who expressed surprise we were still in the Air Force. She was amazed, she said, that Donna and her trouble-making ways hadn’t tubed my career years ago.

A few years after the great dinner strike, we arrived in the Netherlands for a new assignment. For the first couple of weeks, Donna and the kids and I lived in an off-base hotel with other new families. It was the dead of winter, 1979, ice and snow everywhere. Our commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ron Fogleman, unceremoniously put me and the other new airmen right to work, but welcomed the new wives at a special meeting. Part of his welcome speech was informing the wives that their husbands were on call 24/7 and would be working hard when on duty, to which end he’d instituted a program he called Creek Nickel. The central tenet of Creek Nickel was that squadron wives pull their weight at home, not to call if the car breaks down or a kid gets sick or the cat dies, but to take care of business so the guys can fly and work without distractions. Which, of course, Donna had been doing for fourteen years at that point.

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Donna in her rightful and well-earned place at the Soesterberg Air Base Officers’ Club Bar, with Hosem, C-Liver, and Skid (me).

One day after Fogleman’s Creek Nickel speech, NATO kicked off an exercise, and the men headed off to the base, where we started working and flying around the clock. Meanwhile, the ice storm intensified. Locals were skating on the frozen canals, something they hadn’t been able to do in years. The hotel’s owner decided to stop meal service because the husbands were all on base exercising. He also canceled the bus service wives relied on for transport to the commissary and BX, because the roads were too dangerous. The hotel quickly ran out of food, leaving the families of newly-assigned airmen stranded and hungry. Donna, once again the oldest, picked up the phone and called the squadron to ask when they could expect the men to be released. Fogelman answered. She swallowed hard and asked anyway. Fogelman gruffly responded with two words, Creek Nickel, and reminded her she was in charge of any and all home fires. Donna spoke right back: “Colonel Fogleman, I get Creek Nickel, but I don’t have a home, and neither do the other wives and children trapped in this hotel.”

Twenty minutes later a blue Air Force bus pulled up in front of the hotel, driven by Eddie Branch, one of the senior squadron F-15 pilots, to take the wives to the base commissary so they could stock up for the storm. I was flying and didn’t know any of this until much later, after the exercise had ended, and then only learned of it from other new unit pilots. Fogelman never mentioned it, and neither did Eddie Branch. Later in my career, lesser superior officers would pull me aside to demand I rein in my wife; not these two.

Forward fifteen more years: Donna and I met General Fogelman, by then the four-star commander of the USAF and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a receiving line at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas. “Hey, Skid,” he said, “and how are you, Donna, and Gregory and Polly?” He never forgot us or our kids, and I know it was because of Donna. The respect is mutual.

Donna had to go it alone. She may not have been part of an organized movement, yet she and other women of her generation, all on their own, forged a path toward equality and autonomy. It’s International Women’s Day, and I mark it by honoring the most important woman in my life.

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