I piloted a $34 million aircraft, and there was no place onboard where I could pee. There was only a urinal, and to get to it, I had to climb down the cockpit stairs and walk the length of the aircraft to a triangular vent about four-inches long.
I arrived in the blinding Texas sun in 1994 to my new assignment—Dyess Air Force Base. Everything was stark: a landscape of mesquite trees and strip malls and a whole lot of barbeque joints. The mascot for my 39th Airlift Squadron was the “Trailblazers.” Our shoulder patches boasted a covered wagon. I thought about how desperately it needed an update as I velcroed it onto the right shoulder of my flight suit.
When I was earning my Air Force wings in 1991, women were not allowed to fly in combat, and that included the C-130 Hercules. I was drawn to the “Herk” before I’d ever seen one. I loved the contradiction: an unarmed cargo plane that flew into combat zones. I thought about history and how it was changing, but I never thought about where or how I’d urinate.
As the second woman to fly the “Herk” in the 39th AS, I wasn’t about to complain about aircraft facilities or a lack of them. President Clinton had signed the Defense Authorization Act of 1993. A wordy bill that meant one thing to me: women could finally fly into combat.
I knew timing was everything, and that the women who had gone before me—like the WASPs of WWII, or the first service Academy classes of women in 1980—would’ve given anything for this moment in history. I was determined to cause as little turbulence on the ground as I did in the air. So I sought out the only other woman in the squadron.
“I’ve got a question for you,” I said. “How do you get into position on that urinal?”
“I don’t,” she replied. “I dehydrate myself prior to every flight over three hours. I never go to the back.” That seemed crazy, risky and against my own ideas of self-preservation. “Just know one thing,” she said. “The rule is, if you use the honey bucket, you carry it out when you land.”
The “honey bucket” was the affectionate name for the crapper. A small metal canister in the shape of a trash can lodged high above the area of the urinal. To lower it down was an ordeal, and it was lined with a black Hefty trash bag. Making things worse, I couldn’t reach it. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to reach it—anything in the back of the plane belonged to the Loadmaster, not the pilot. It was where Humvees were strapped down, Army tanks were fitted with parachutes, and food pallets were stacked ten-feet-high. It’s where the 82nd Airborne sat in jump seats awaiting a green light and open doors to jump out. It was where the work in the nickname “workhorse” took place. It was no place for an officer.
The temp was in the high nineties on the flight line. A scorching low-level flight was awaiting me. I knew from training that I’d sweat enough to turn my flight suit a darker shade of olive. I had to drink water.
We were en route for six hours to a remote airfield when my bladder first called uncle—it expanded in flight like a child’s water balloon hooked up to a hose.
“Loadmaster, Co-pilot,” I said over the intercom. We only referred to each other by crew positions when in-flight.
“Can you lower the honey bucket?” I uttered the six most humiliating words in my vocabulary. A long silence followed.
Eventually he replied: “Give me five.” I waited the five minutes then unbuckled and walked to the back of the plane.
Later, we landed at a remote airfield. There were no buildings, only dry scrub brush and flat Texas table rock. A few Army guys met us with the keys to a nondescript white van. The Loadmaster met me at the aircraft stairs before I deplaned.
“Here,” he said, extending a straight arm with the black Hefty bag that contained my pee. With a heavy pubs bag in my right hand and my helmet bag in the left, I added the cinched Hefty to my load. It was dicey. I exited the plane’s stairs into the warm afternoon sun and balanced everything like a juggler. I might have landed the plane that got us on the ground, but now, my crew sat in a running white van waiting for me while I hunted for a trash can.
I looked over at the van. Twelve beady eyeballs stared back. “Come on, Co,” the engineer shouted. “My beer’s getting warmer by the minute.”
So is my pee, I thought. I looked around. It was painfully clear that no one was going to help me figure this out. New strategy. There’s got to be a way to use that damn urinal.
The next day found us on another long flight. About three hours in, I asked the Loadmaster to come up to the cockpit so I could get some privacy in the back. Feeling confident, I also added, “No need to lower the honey bucket.”
My flight suit had one zipper that starts just under the neck and runs down to the groin. I unzipped and took my flight suit off down to my ankles. Looking up at the urinal, I pulled down the footstool. Without my headset on, the sounds in the back of the plane were thunderous. Pilots were taught to protect our hearing—any loss and our job was in jeopardy. I worried about my ears as I started to climb up the pull-down steps. Eyes, ears, hearts—these were the body parts we prized, we protected. Kidneys, livers, lungs—these were the body parts we abused. Bladders were not on either list.
I was naked from the waist down in the back of my plane. I prayed there wouldn’t be anything unusual requiring the Loadmaster to come back before I was done. My flight suit trailed behind me like a long, green tail of a T-Rex, bound to get in the way of my task at hand. I reached for the legs and tied them in front of my belly button. Determined to get my anatomy over the four-inch urinal opening, I grabbed an orange jump seat strap and hoisted myself up. Balancing on the plane’s sidewall, I got into position. I started to let out a tiny bit of pee—a test stream. I gave my bladder the green light and let it go. It backfired. The pee hit metal and ricocheted back at me. Angry that it had nowhere to go, urine sprayed all over my flight suit. I climbed down and tried not to cry. I wiped down my flight suit to try and dry it, hoping I didn’t smell.
By the time I returned from the mission, a good friend arrived to Dyess and was assigned to our sister C-130 squadron.
“Jackie, how do you handle the honey bucket?
“Simple. Take an empty can of Pringles with you. When you need to pee, use it, then pour it out in the urinal. Don’t forget the top. Prevents the last few drops from escaping.”
I decided on Sour Cream & Onion. The next flight, I grabbed my green Pringles can and headed to the back when mother nature called. The Loadmaster switched places with me. We were low-level over the scrub of West Texas. It was turbulent and I held onto the risers. I unzipped and held on tight as we bumped along. I was careful to hold as much of my uniform away from my body, just in case. Braced not to fall and clenching onto metal to stay upright, I was too tense to let anything out. I struggled to imagine the sound of a waterfall. The turbo-prop engines roared. I closed my eyes and tried to pretend I was looking out at Niagara Falls. It worked, but the Pringles can failed me. Maybe it was the turbulence. Or maybe it was operator error. I couldn’t fathom how Jackie accomplished this, let alone with such confidence. Once again, I was streaked with my own urine.
Back in the cockpit, we ascended to cruise altitude. The pilot took out his lunch, and I watched him open his plastic Tupperware. I had an idea.
When we landed, I drove straight to the grocery store.
With a slow drawl, a young man with a blue apron smock over his button-down shirt politely asked, “May I help you, ma’am?” I was wearing my flight suit. I looked both hurried and out-of-place.
“Yes, housewares would be . . . ?”
Pointing to his right he smiled, “Yes, Ma’am, aisle eight—right behind paper goods.”
I scanned the shelves for just the right container. There were lots of options to consider. I weeded out the obvious ones—family meal and snack-size were easy to rule out. I needed something that could fit discreetly in my helmet bag.
That night, I fell asleep thinking about my math teacher’s recent selection into the astronaut program. I hoped she wasn’t searching for plasticware in Houston. I hoped NASA had her covered.
Sipping my French roast coffee at 0245 the next day, I started to weigh the value of coffee in my life for the first time. Maybe it was possible to dehydrate and survive.
That day’s flight—instrument approaches. Four hours passed. Somewhere around the eighth turn in a holding pattern, I again asked the Loadmaster to come forward.
I developed a personal In-Flight Pee Checklist: wrap the long, green tail of my unzipped flight suit above my waist and pin it under my left armpit. Hold it there and use one hand to grip something sturdy nearby, because—turbulence. Position the Tupperware with the other hand. Imagine a waterfall. Breathe. Imagine a rainfall. Breathe.
I poured my Tupperware contents down the urinal and the pee vanished into thin air—a cliché I now loved. The liquid was sucked out of the plane and sounded like I had just rolled the window down at seventy mph on the highway. For the first time since being trained to fly the Herk, I heard the roar of differential air pressure. Delightful.
Screw ears, I thought, my bladder is finally an equal at the airborne urinal.
When I came back up front, I sat in front of the avionics—a panoply of gauges and readouts. These were old but versatile planes. Analog dials stretched across seven feet of cockpit space. Not many other planes in the Air Force inventory could fly “low level” a few hundred feet above the ground and drop an infantry platoon or several Humvees at an exact point. All while factoring in wind speed at altitude, winds on the ground—this was our thing. We could drop jumpers at high altitudes over 10,000 feet by opening up the back of the plane mid-flight. SEALS and other special ops could run or dive off the ramp into the cool, high air and parachute down. Probably the most unique mission, C-130s could land on a dime—a 3,000-foot runway—dirt or paved—it didn’t matter. Assault landings, we called them. To put it in context, a typical runway at Chicago O-Hare is 14,000-feet. An assault landing is like driving your car 60 m.p.h head-long into your garage, then slamming on the breaks a few feet from where you need to stop.
The plane could do almost anything. It was rugged, the workhorse. And to fly it, I had to match it. There was no other choice. I had to be willing to strip myself down in order to survive.
The spring before I learned to fly, I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for the first time. I re-read it on a deployment to Panama, and in the summer evenings of stateside Saturday nights. I couldn’t help but notice everything my crew carried: the three-month-old baby girl-in-pink snapshot tied onto Reedo’s helmet bag, the red and gold patch sewn onto Sparky’s kit bag, the Polaroid of Trapper’s pregnant wife pressed between his approach plates, my bulbous, opaque Tupperware bowl with vanilla lid.
This was not the thing I wanted to carry. And certainly not what I wanted to define me. And yet, it was my most can’t-fly-without, essential item for flight. I tried to picture Tim O’Brien humping through Vietnam paddies at night with plasticware sticking out of the top of his rucksack. I imagined it catching the light of the moon. I imagined it falling out, and the entire platoon stopping to search for it in the mud, knowing he couldn’t go on without it.
No one, I thought, would ever read that book.
I had a system. I could drink coffee without restraint and drink double the water to rehydrate. I’d made it. My work-around lasted fewer than 28 days.
I waited to pee on this mission until right before descent. I knew we’d be on the ground sweating in high summer temps. I knew I’d be drinking water during cargo off and onloading for quite a while in a remote spot with no facilities. I needed my bladder to last long enough until we were back at altitude after the next take off. I’d timed my bladder for the perfect spot in the flight profile. Then it happened—when I learned what the cliché meant to “see red.”
I grabbed my trusty Tupp. No one ever mentioned my bowl. No one teased me. No one asked a single question. For this, I was grateful. I didn’t try to hide it and decided to act like I wasn’t embarrassed by it. The only way I could conceal my utter humiliation was to adopt the “hide it in plain sight” espionage approach. I carried Trusty Tupp like the English carry a cup of tea—no fanfare, standard business, What are you looking at? style.
On this flight, I traded places with the Loadmaster, unzipped, and peed in my portable pot. I’d learned through trial and error that a critical step in the process was to pour it down the urinal right away. Otherwise, one bump of turbulence could land the contents over half my uniform. I also learned that a full, aching, screaming bladder was more than Trusty Tupp could handle. Overflows were as dangerous as bumpy air was. I learned to pee in shifts, emptying half-way through the process.
I half-squatted and filled the first round. I brought it toward the urinal to pour out.
“Shit,” I said aloud to the empty cargo hold of the Herk. What I saw was red-tinted liquid. I’d started my period. I poured it into the urinal and caught sight of a red blob, about a centimeter wide, staring up at me from the bottom of the basin.
I’ll wash it down with more pee, I thought. I refilled and poured over it. But it was too big to flow out one of the small holes at the base of the urinal.
“Damnit!” I said to the empty jump seat next to me. The next guy to use the urinal would see the red intruder clinging to the drain. Tupperware as The Thing I Carried, I could take. Leaving behind parts of my monthly egg shedding, No fucking way. I zipped myself up.
My heartbeat pounded underneath my flight suit like tuba players in a marching band. I had no idea what to do. I only knew I had to retrieve that blob. But first, I had to retrieve a tampon.
I zipped up and headed back to the cockpit, where I’d grab my “just-in-case” tampon in the right pocket of my helmet bag. Approaching the stairs to the flight deck, I realized Trusty Tupp had been stained. It wasn’t opaque anymore. Half of it was pink, the urinated-in half. I re-entered the cockpit. For the first time, I tried to conceal Trusty, wrapping my arm around it like a football. I placed it inside my helmet bag, then grabbed my Bose headset.
What’s the code word for Tampon time, I thought.
Before I could get the words out, the aircraft commander said, “OK, co-pilot’s back. How about a Before-Descent Checklist once you get strapped-in, Co?” I imagined the dark pool of blood that would encircle my flight suit by landing time if I sat down.
“I, uh, I can’t. I’ll be right back.” I reached for the old tampon stuffed inside next to my flashlight. I slipped it into my calf pocket. Passing the galley, I grabbed a handful of brown, industrial paper towels.
I raced to the back of the plane. Everything got quiet as my long green tail fell to the metal floor of the plane and the engines rolled back to idle. Feeling the Herk’s nose descend, I knew the pilot had initiated the descent for landing. I pictured my empty seat. Everything felt wrong and alien. I set a PR for fastest de-robing, tampon-insertion. Then I attacked the urinal basin with the paper towels. I had no gloves on and had never reached my hand into any urinal, let alone the urinal of my co-workers.
The ripe smell of the vessel rose with each paper towel I used. My mouth salivated in the style that made me feel like I would vomit any minute. I felt at war with my innards. As invisible as I tried to make my femaleness, it was as if my literal insides refused to play that game. I tried another towel, and another. I felt Lady MacBeth. Out, Out damn spot. I felt a scarlet letter replacing my dog tags around my neck. I felt the breath of all the opponents of women anywhere, everywhere in the military—in service academies, in combat, in fighter planes, in Pentagon war rooms, in POW cells, in C-130s.
Finally, I got it. I wrapped the trail of egg-shed and my tampon applicator into the scratchy brown paper towel. I folded it into the long pocket of my calf and zipped it, where no one could see.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/BlueForce4116
This story was a finalist in the 2020 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction.