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Doug Clark: Air Force band’s ‘inactivation’ sad

Being a former trumpeter and bandsman, I wanted to give an appreciative shout-out to the 560th Air Force Band for its decades of service, good will and great music.

Also known as the Band of the Northwest, the 560th is tragically being mothballed Sept. 7 in an “Inactivation Ceremony” at Fairchild Air Force Base.

The 560th has a rich history dating to 1942, when the band was officially activated in Alabama.

That nugget of news comes from the official Band of the Northwest website along with other facts like the band being deactivated in 1946. Then the War Department “allocated” the band to the National Guard, which later gave it a home with the Washington Air National Guard.

The point to remember, however, is that the band became a part of Spokane musical lore in 1948. Back then it was made up of primarily Eastern Washington University (then a college) students, I’m told.

There’s a lot more stuff I had hoped to tell you about the band being “inactivated.” But somewhere during my investigation I started focusing more on how glad I was not to be in the Air Force or, for that matter, any branch of the military.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but admiration for those who put their lives on the line to protect our American freedoms.

But my attitude started heading south when I took James Phillips up on his offer to chat with me about the aforementioned band.

Phillips is the “current (and last) Commander of the 560th AF Band.” That’s how he introduced himself in his email to me.

Phillips gave me his phone number and added that he’d be happy to talk to me “about the inactivation of the unit.”

That tune changed when Phillips apparently realized he hadn’t cleared being interviewed by me with his superiors.

Furthermore, Phillips told me during a Wednesday morning phone call that I would need to write down any questions I had and submit them so he could – and I’m totally guessing here – get them approved to avoid a court-martial.

Write down all my questions?

What a thin slice of crazy. I don’t even know what my questions are until they pop into my head while I’m jawing with someone.

Still holding out hope, I made contact with a National Guard public affairs officer who seemed quite happy to help me …

For at least a minute or so.

Our relationship soured, alas, over what sort of band story I was intending to write.

If, say, I planned to write something factual and newsy, she seemed agreeable with finding me a knowledgeable Air Force source to interview.

She wasn’t keen at all with the idea that I might use my columnist superpowers to comment on something an Air Force-approved source might say.

But …

But …

I attempted to explain that the crackpot opinions expressed in a Clark column are Clark’s and Clark’s alone.

She told me she was “picking up a tone” from me in a tone that told me she didn’t like my tone one little bit.

I know exactly what she’s talking about.

Ask my 90-year-old mom. She’ll confirm that the words “has trouble with authority” appeared on every report card I ever received.

But writing a nice, respectful swan song about the 560th Air Force Band was all I ever set out to do – honest.

I had no ulterior plan to divulge any national secrets or contact that WikiLeaks dude.

Not unless the price was right, anyway.

Fortunately, my mission was saved later in the day with a call from Mike Delaney.

He was the 560th Band commander from 1978-89. After that Delaney was promoted to chief of all Air National Guard bands from 1989-99. He retired a full colonel.

In other words, Delaney not only knows a lot about this subject, but his saluting days are over.

My kind of guy.

So what’s going on?

A recent decision was made, Delaney said, to inactivate six of the country’s 11 Air Force bands: Washington, Northern California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio and Missouri.

That will leave active bands in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Illinois, Southern California and Texas.

Much to my surprise, Delaney doesn’t believe economic pressures prompted the changes.

“It was a ‘force structure’ decision,” he said, meaning that the brainiacs decided to realign the Air Guard/Air Force structure in an attempt “to be most effective.”

It wouldn’t be the first bonehead move the military has ever made in the name of progress.

Somebody didn’t do his homework. Over the years, our Air Force band alone has spawned patriotism and thrilled the public with countless concerts, military funerals, tours both domestic and foreign, and an untold variety of public events.

Being under the National Guard auspices made the band pretty damned cost-effective, too.

As Guard members, members were only on active duty one weekend a month and for two weeks during the summer.

It’s impossible to put a figure on all the good will the band mustered, of course, but it must be considerable.

Take the Lilac Parade. Year after year the 560th Air Force Band led the way.

Until this year, that is.

“I absolutely loved every minute of it,” Delaney said of his days serving. “But those times are gone, and it’s absolutely a sad time for each of the communities that lost their bands.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or