You Need Clearance, Clarence

You may know that back in the day I had a cushy construction job building stuff for the U.S. military. I worked for the Marines, the Air Force, the Army and the Navy. I can tell you from first-hand experience, even if you have Secret clearance, it is not a good idea to take things that belong to the government even if you think it's trash.

I have told the story before, but for awhile I held a security clearance to be able to go to places that don't exist and I have no idea what you are talking about. There are several layers of clearance all with their riders for special circumstances. Whatever they called the level I needed, it involved a whole-life colonoscopy. Seriously deep, they contacted one of my elementary school teachers and neighbors from 2 states ago.

One of the jobs we had was installing security fencing and card readers in a secure location on the MCTSSA base in San Diego. Their mission statement says; "MCTSSA provides 24/7 global technical support for command, control, computer, communications, cyber, and intelligence (C5I) systems; and conducts engineering, testing and evaluation, and supports experimentation on C5I systems and amphibious platforms in order to inform acquisition decisions and make the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) more capable" and it was one of the most secure places we worked.

It was a fascinating and scary place that somehow made you feel safe, that someone was watching. Someone is. At all times. With cool toys. When we finished a job there it was inspected by no less than 14 uniformed, side-armed, officers. Cool hats, lots of brass, lots of medals and slick haircuts, these boys had seen some shit and they did not seem happy to be counting outlet screws. They took their jobs very seriously however, and knew that details matter and we fixed whatever they said needed fixin' 'til we passed.

My clearance had a rider that let me drive my truck to job sites and bring in all manner of tools and torches and welders. I got to park right next to where I was working, which worked out great for me. It also lent itself to tempting us into doing stuff we shouldn't. We knew better. It seemed like such a waste. We knew better. We did it anyway.

You see occasionally they would toss a couple of dozen ammo boxes in the dumpster. Now I don't know about you but I have used ammo boxes for all kinds of stuff mostly as tool boxes. In those days they were not available after market and could be found in bulk only at surplus stores. We were five hairy dudes with more tools than should be allowed and we LOVED them. 

The small ones were great for drills and bits and wrenches and stuff and the larger ones fit a worm drive skilsaw with a hundred foot cord on it like it was made to fit. The wooden missile crates just looked cool in your yard and made great toy boxes and planters. We stole every single one we could get away with. I admit it. It was an addiction really and the cat and mouse game of getting them through the gate was frankly kind of fun.

Turns out we weren't gettin' away with nothin' as anyone who cared stopped us and those that didn't care just let us have them and if you got as far as the gate with some they figured you were cool. 

We learned something else. They apparently inventoried the garbage and kept track of it somehow, in those days, with big clunky computers and manhours, lots of manhours. It's either that or somebody squealed.

We learned this the day I found an antique Megohmmeter in the dumpster. This cool old tool was a meter that measured very high resistance values by sending a high voltage signal into the object so you could test the insulation of wires generators and whatnot. This one was so cool. Made in the twenties it was housed in a dovetailed walnut box with a leather handle and was all brass and glass inside with a cool meter with cool lettering and fancy hand. On one end there was a brass crank that you could pull out a little, flip the knob around and it became a winder handle. Cranking that handle around generated the juice and the faster you wound it the higher the voltage and you could really get that thing going. The meter would tell you how hot it was. 

I have no idea what was inside but it made a spectacular noise as it wound up and it sort of wound down when you stopped. I had no idea what it was but the craftsmanship of this thing grabbed me. All the brass etched with designs, the hand- painted numbers and curved glass, it was a thing of beauty with a removable top on a hand-cut dovetailed dark walnut box. The top had breakable brass hinges and a latch with brass-ended leather handle. The hinges let you remove the top by sliding the pins apart. It was so cool I had to show it off and I knew that my boss, an older electrician, would know what it was. 

He did and told me but not before I showed it off to the receptionist by winding it up and fragging her old computer. Apparently, in the twenties, shielding was not as big an issue as it had become by then. I think we wrecked a couple of floppies on the desk and she had to reboot her old dos 3.3 machine with a different boot disk. lol To this day, we are not sure if it was supposed to do that or if that is why they threw it out. Either way, I was not in the office an hour when an armored vehicle with two uniformed MPs showed up at the door. They were very nice but they had paperwork that said we are going to come in and find our stuff and take that shit back while you sit there quietly and like it. We did and they did and then they explained the rules to me in no uncertain terms ending with government property is ours till we give it to you, you buy it at the surplus auction, or it goes in the ground and the ground it goes in belongs to us. 

It was not classified, it was not secret, it was not top secret, it probably didn't even work. It made no difference to anyone but me that it was a work of art. They made it clear that if I had kept it, concealed it and tried to lie about it I would have gone to jail that day. Not the regular jail either. Their jail, on the base, behind the gate with the guards that was behind several other gates with guards.

Now all of this happened a long time ago, before 9/11, when the world was such a different place. I have been in places that don't exist, I have seen stuff I shouldn't have seen, I've heard things no one ever said and I've seen our big beautiful and scary machine come to life in a moment of alarm replete with scurrying soldiers with big guns, lock downs and being removed from areas for our safety. I trusted those guys with my tools and my truck when I had to leave it behind. They guard our coast and though I had a moment there, I am so glad that they take this kind of stuff more seriously than I thought. 

Remember, there are things about how government works that you and I will never know. We'll never know how close we've come to the edge, we'll never see all the wheels in motion. There is a reason for that and procedures in place to prevent abuse. Though we could never know just how low the bar could be lowered it is comforting to me to know the system works. To a certain extent it works well and the bumbling fool who falls into the trap of sneaking materials out, for whatever reason, is going to learn the hard way there are consequences for being too arrogant to play by the rules. 


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