Steven Wacholtz’s book tells stories of an Air Force career full of adventures – and misadventures
Thornfield resident Steven Wacholtz enjoyed an extraordinary assortment of assignments, experiences and challenges during his 25-year Air Force career, most of them as a morale, welfare, recreation and services officer. He loved recounting all the stories – some funny, others heartbreaking and all of them insightful and encouraging – and his family and friends seemed to enjoy hearing them.
Shortly after his retirement, when Wacholtz was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a few years to live – or possibly just a few months – he was inspired to write down the stories for his future grandchildren, realizing he might never know or even see them. Through the stories, he hoped they would know him and be encouraged, knowing their grandfather was someone who viewed life as being “full of joy and God’s love.”
In a matter of weeks, he pulled the book together. He didn’t intend to publish it but to simply have a couple dozen copies printed as a kind of memorial gift to his family.
“But a few friends read it and said, ‘This is really good. You should publish it,’” he said in a phone call last week.
The result is “Doing Good Things,” a 400-plus-page book of stories and tales of adventure – and many misadventures – throughout Wacholtz’s military career. It was written in 2003 and released last year – 16 years after Wacholtz’s terminal follicular lymphoma diagnosis. Today cancer free, Wacholtz serves as pastor of the Hilltop Victory Chapel on Highway 95 in Thornfield and also as secretary / treasurer of the Thornfield Volunteer Fire Department. He and his wife, Sherry, live on their 100-acre farm near Bull Shoals Lake and Mark Twain National Forest.
After hearing the grim diagnosis back in 2003, he lost hope “for about 10 minutes,” he says in his book, where he also admits having “flabby” faith at the time. He credits his recovery to good doctors, both in Mountain Home, Arkansas, and at the VA Hospital in Little Rock, where he underwent six of the eight, 18-hour chemotherapy treatments they prescribed, even though they believed his cancer was incurable. (After the fifth chemo treatment, when the doctor couldn’t find any sign of the cancer, Wacholtz agreed to take one more treatment, “just to make the doctor happy.” And then he refused any more chemo.) He also credits the skilled medical treatment he received and also the all-natural products, called nutraceuticals, prescribed by a Christian doctor in California. But most importantly, he links his recovery to the hundreds of friends, relatives and strangers around the world who faithfully prayed for him.
The experience taught him“God can bless us during the most difficult time of our lives,” and “God still deals in miracles every single day,” he wrote.
Wacholtz grew up in Colorado outside Denver. He attended parochial schools and then graduated from Colorado State University with a major in outdoor recreation and a minor in forestry.
He enlisted in Air Force ROTC during his time at Colorado State to avoid the draft after getting a low number in the military lottery. After graduation in 1975, he spent four years in North Dakota “largely below ground” in concrete missile silos serving as a launch officer.
It was a challenging setting for a man who considers himself “an outdoors guy” and had just earned a college degree in outdoor subjects. In that regard, his next job was an improvement – and the first step in what would become the focus of his Air Force career. He became a support officer in the Air Force’s “Special Services,” a field that would later become the Morale, Welfare and Recreation Agency and then simply the Services Agency.
By then, Wacholtz had earned a master’s degree in business from the University of North Dakota, so it seemed like a perfect fit when the Air Force offered a job for “guys who have a background in business and recreation,” he said in the recent phone interview. In that job, he wrote, he would “see and do things I never dreamed of.”
His book is a description of memorable anecdotes – often funny, sometimes hair-raising – that occurred as he spent the next two-plus decades overseeing facilities on Air Force bases around the U.S. and overseas, and also at the Air Force Academy. The facilities and services he managed included dining halls; airman, NCO and officer club programs; golf courses; mortuary services; war materiel warehousing; guest lodging; RV camps; childcare; bowling centers and even horse stables, rafting programs and a host of other programs.
It was a field full of scheduling, capacity, planning, budgeting, personnel and personality challenges. “You never knew what was going to happen,” he said. “You think you have it figured out, and then …”
One notable “something” happened when he was serving at the Air Force Academy, and the officers club was preparing for a big Oktoberfest party, complete with sauerkraut, sauerbraten, schnitzel, bratwurst, apple strudel and a feast of other German food – enough for 700 people.
When he left the facility about 4:30 that afternoon, everything was ready. But by the time he returned a little later with his wife, a huge snowstorm had rolled in “with snowflakes the size of quarters,” he said. The snowstorm would paralyze the area for almost the entire week.
Only 60 people showed up for Oktoberfest, but nearby, in a large auditorium, 3,000 people had gathered for a Jars of Clay concert. The storm hit while they were inside, mostly unaware of the weather. When the concert ended, “a lot of people couldn’t get home,” Wacholtz recalled. “Many of them slept on floors.” Some made their way to the academy’s billeting, or guest lodging facility, where the clerks gave the stranded concert-goers rooms they were “not authorized to stay in,” he said.
The bigger concern, though, was that when the sun rose, those people had nothing to eat, and they still couldn’t get home. In fact, the snow was so deep, the snowplow operators couldn’t get to the academy to clear the streets. So, at Wacholtz’s direction, for three days, about 100 people ate the food that had been prepared for the Oktoberfest celebration while they waited for the storm to clear.
Normally, Oktoberfest was a big money-maker for the club, something that always came as a relief to Wacholtz, since he oversaw the budget. That year, it was a total bust because the food was given away for free to the snowstorm victims. There was a bright side, though, Wacholtz said. “We got a letter from a woman who said, ‘Thank you so much. We really appreciate you feeding us.’ And then she added that she probably wouldn’t be able to eat sauerkraut for at least a year,” he said.
And in the midst of that episode, Wacholtz got a call from a woman begging him to somehow get to the horse stables and feed her two horses (as well as the 125 other horses stabled there).
It was always something, it seemed, among the many facilities and programs he was responsible for at any one time. And he never knew what that next “something” would be.
Sometimes, he dealt with tragedy. In the book, Wacholtz mentions a death that occurred during an Air Force Outdoor Adventure program whitewater rafting trip on the Arkansas River in Colorado. It turned out that the death had occurred due to a heart attack, rather than drowning, but the powers-that-be still wanted to shut down the program. Wacholtz insisted it was safe. And to prove it, he invited his boss, the 10th Air Base wing commander, and his wife to join Wacholtz and his wife and their three sons on a whitewater rafting trip.
“I was supremely confident everything was going to be just fine,” he wrote.
It wasn’t, of course. Spoiler alert: the story includes words like “catapulted,” “nose-dived,” broad-sided,” “rammed” and “trapped.”
Wacholtz retired from the Air Force in 2001, and he and his wife settled on a 100-acre farm they had bought near Thornfield a few years earlier after a search for affordable acreage near a lake led them to Ozark County.
They thought they were heading into the retirement they had always dreamed of. Their three sons were grown. (Frank, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, now lives with his wife, Rebecca, in Iowa; Luke and his wife, Cat, live in Little Rock, and Matt, who also served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is still in the Army, lives with his wife, Maureen, in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, where he pilots Blackhawk helicopters. Steve and Sherry also have eight grandchildren.)
They were planning to remodel the old farmhouse and were busy making a big garden and planting 25 fruit trees when the “terminal” cancer diagnosis fell upon them.
They had worked to become acquainted with their Thornfield neighbors, and to be good neighbors themselves, and those friendships proved invaluable as Thornfield and church friends stepped up to run errands, fetch things from the store, encourage them with messages and phone calls during that time, and, most importantly, they say, pray for them.
Then, in the middle of the series of chemo treatments, when they were facing what felt like a death sentence, their contractor notified them that he could start work on their place.
“What would you do?” Wacholtz asks in the book.
His answer shows that his faith wasn’t so flabby after all.
“We started pouring concrete,” he said.
Steve Wacholtz’s book “Doing Good Things” is available on amazon.com. Autographed copies can also be ordered directly from Wacholtz by sending $20 and directions for the inscription to him at 883 County Road 871, Thornfield, MO 65762. For more information, contact him at 417-255-5188; firstname.lastname@example.org.