Retired pilot Jay Laclan shares his reflection on a building that used to be the epicenter of pilot culture on Friday nights. It was a place to drink, talk with your hands, grapple, and eat dinner with your spouse or chat with a few attractive ladies…sometimes all of the above. Today, clubs are a mere shell of what they used to be. They are typically colocated with the enlisted club. Few pilots shell out the money to join. The drink specials are lame, the food is ‘meh’. And nearly every pilot is afraid to throw back more than a single beer for fear of getting involved in an alcohol related incident.
It’s a different era today. Not all changes were bad. It’s a good thing that men and women can both serve today. It’s a good thing that women are more respected and healthy lifestyles are encouraged. But you’d be hard pressed to find flying squadrons as close-knit today as they were back then. Here’s Jay’s reflection and look back at the ‘good ‘ole days’ at the Club.
Within one twenty-year military generation, the military clubs for separate ranks faded into consolidated messes that could barely keep themselves in business. While clubs at the more isolated bases struggled on and broke even due to lack of competition, those in larger metropolitan areas made so little money that other recreational centers, such as the golf course and recreational rental stores, had to support the clubs.
This degradation happened for two primary reasons—the OWCs and the social shift encouraged and embraced by the military services—which militated against smoking and drinking.
When I ventured into the Big Spring, TX, Webb AFB club during my first weekend in town, the O’Club pulsed with activity in all areas—the bar, the lounge, the restaurant, and, most enticingly for me, the stag bar, the nemesis for the OWC.
The stag bar, the smallest yet most densely populated club area, operated under the rule that women were not allowed through the door and were not allowed even to contact their husbands or boyfriends within the bar. If any wife should try to contact one of the pilots barricaded within the premises, that pilot would have to buy the bar an expensive round of drinks. This attempt at contact would be obvious in these days before cell phones, because the call had to come in through the bar phone answered by the bartender.
While pilots drank, sang, laughed, postured, and performed simulated aerial maneuvers with their hands inside the stag bar, their significant others fumed outside the door. Dinner reservations were missed, babysitters earned overtime, and women grew increasingly frustrated waiting for mates who had seemingly forgotten they were there.
I often found myself placed uncomfortably in the middle of this angst as a single officer. When I would venture out of the stag bar to see how long I had to wait to be seated for dinner, one or more wives would accost me sternly, instructing me to tell captain so-and-so to “get his ass out of there right now” because their name had been called for seating.
I would assure them I would do so and would then disappear back into the forbidden zone with the message.
Often, captain so-and-so would be in the middle of a self-promoting recitation of one of his incredible flying exploits and would not want to be bothered by a lowly student delivering an unwanted message. This also gave the captain a chance to display to his peers that no woman could tell him what to do!
“Tell her I’ll be out when I’m good and ready!” he would slur, to the cheers of his compatriots.
I could not deliver this message as dictated, of course. I would tell the wife he was in the middle of a professional discussion and would be out soon. This would only work once, however. The next round trip would be somewhat terser. I would only hold up my hands in self-defense and tell the wife that I had told him and there was little more I could do.
This pilot safe zone in the stag bar allowed the O’Club to break even all by itself. Liquor of all descriptions flowed freely and profitably for the bar from four in the afternoon until well after midnight. The (eventual) spillover to the restaurant allowed clubs to prosper.
Go-go girls provided the final straw for the OWC. I had first encountered this phenomenon at the OTS bar in San Antonio just weeks before. As the band played on a large stage before several hundred officer trainees and their instructors, two young women danced the frug, the watusi, and the twist on circular pedestals in front of the stage. As the girls pranced and twisted in their bikinis, tassels and fringe swaying and thrashing about, males who had suffered significant sensory deprivation for weeks and months at the school would surround them, offering rapt attention to their efforts. As I stood within easy reach of one of these sensuously writhing females, I had to use the utmost self-control to avoid doing something truly unfortunate.
The OWC finally went to war on go-go girls and stag bars. The hands that rocked the cradle could also rock the male establishment, starting with the wing commander’s wife pulling the chain on the commander. No more impenetrable safe zones for drunken pilots, no more go-go girls. Nirvana, from the pilot’s perspective, denied!”
(Excerpt from “Flying the Line, an Air Force Pilot’s Journey,” book one. Book series web site: saigon-tea.com.)
Photo of the Webb AFB stag bar in 1970 and Go-go girls.