Fiddlin'missileer spends year with Tops In Blue

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Emerald Ralston
  • 341st Space Wing Public Affairs Office
After more than a year surrounded by the lights and buzz of nightly performances, costumes, make-up, lots of hard work and dedication, and many hours spent on planes and buses around the world, Capt. Alexander Ruiz, 10th Missile Squadron, is finally getting a chance to unwind and ease back into his former life as a missileer. 

Captain Ruiz was selected as a fiddle-player and tour director for Tops in Blue, the Air Force's touring expeditionary performing group, and toured with them during the 2007 rotation, from January 2007 to April 2008. 

Between the almost daily performances, the long hours and many sleepless nights, Captain Ruiz said it was an amazing experience but it's good to be back. 

"As far as the big picture of the Air Force, it was the largest, most all-inclusive snapshot of the Air Force I could ever have in my entire career," Captain Ruiz said. "I had a meeting with the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force and he was talking about how our experience likened in that very way. He sees every base and he sees a ton of Airmen. I feel very privileged I got to see our Air Force in the biggest picture possible, as well." 

While seeing Airmen in different capacities at different bases was an interesting experience, Captain Ruiz said the Airmen he worked with in Tops in Blue were what made the experience gratifying. 

"The best part, bar none, was the Airmen," he said. "We had an average number of 35 people on the team and these Airmen came from all backgrounds in the Air Force - vehicle operators, logisticians, medical personnel - no matter what, they were capable and very willing to pull out a miracle in the bottom of the ninth. They could really make the mission happen in the tightest pinches that I've ever witnessed in my career." 

Even with all the unexpected bumps along the way, the professionals in Tops in Blue made every performance go off without a hitch. 

"There were countless times where a technical malfunction would draw us very close to show time and give the team hardly any opportunity to get an on-time start, let alone perform a vibrant show," Captain Ruiz said. "A lot of people don't realize we're also the roadies, so if we have a problem, it's a very bad day for us." 

Captain Ruiz said one of the most trying situations they were put in was during Air Force Week, New England, where the group performed at 12 different locations in 12 days, performing back-to-back shows with only two- to three- hours of sleep per night. 

"At the time of Air Force Week, New England, it was close to the beginning of the tour so we were still kind of learning our equipment and it took us longer to set up," he said. "So with fatigue and the know-how still coming along, this led to a major campaign of having to persevere. I can't think of a moment in my life where perseverance from the core was so much my means of survival. But we did it, and made every show happen." 

Regardless of a hectic tour schedule and long hours, the group still made a little time to go out and explore the areas where they performed. 

"Moron, Spain, was really awesome," he said. "Moron has an interesting space mission; it's very geographically isolated and it's out on the Spanish plains. You can't help but feel like you're in a very unique spot in the world." 

Captain Ruiz said Lajes Air Base, Azores, was another spot he really enjoyed, along with Honduras and Thule Air Force Base, Greenland. 

"In each of those places we had enough time to get out and explore," Captain Ruiz said. "We got to see the local residents, see how they lived and have conversations with people. Thule was an interesting one for that especially, because I made friends with some of the Inuits that had lived there for a couple of decades." 

Not only did they get to meet the locals of the locations they visited, but Captain Ruiz said he also met most of the Air Force's top leadership, various heads of state in the middle east, and a few country stars, as well. 

Tops in Blue performed in conjunction with some popular country performers, but Captain Ruiz said he felt like people in deployed locations appreciated the Tops in Blue performances because they realized they were Airmen just like them. 

"You can see a big country singer roll in with his roadies, his crew and his guitar, and even though he gives a good performance, there isn't the same kind of bond," he said. "They see us come in, all of us performers setting up all the equipment and the stage, then performing on top of that - they see us pull off a miracle by actually getting it all set up ourselves and doing it well." 

Before the group gets the chance to start making those miracles happen, months are spent learning, planning and practicing. 

"There are two phases of the Tops in Blue mission," Captain Ruiz said. "The first phase is creating the show, which takes a couple of months. In this phase we worked 18 to 20 hours a day. Musicians memorized their music day in and day out, the singers and dancers learned their step routines and how to sing the songs, technicians and drivers learned their equipment inside and out, and leadership tried to get everything all squared away on all the administrative issues. This went on seven days a week for two or three months." 

After the first phase of planning and creating the show, the group began the actual tour. 

"When we hit the road, we woke up around six or seven every day and were on the road by eight (if it was a United States tour schedule) for hours," he said. "Then you get to the destination and have a little time to relax. First thing the next morning you set up, which is extremely technical. We're talking 60,000 pounds of gear in two or three tractor trailers. It's an all-hands-on-deck operation. Everyone has to pull their weight. Providing everything runs smoothly, you may have a couple of hours to shower and grab a nap before the show, because at this point you're physically exhausted. Then you get back to the venue and run through the equipment one more time, perform for 90 minutes to two hours, meet and greet with the crowd and base personnel, eat, and then put all that stuff away. It's about 2 a.m. at this point, you go to bed, and you're back up at seven and on the road at eight again." 

Captain Ruiz said it's mainly the same overseas, except instead of loading and unloading tractor trailers, they're palletizing they're gear and putting it onto aircraft to transport them from location to location. 

"Making pallets is the bread and butter of the Air Force," Captain Ruiz said. "It's what we do to load up the C 17s and C 130s we used to get around." 

With an almost constant, hard-working schedule, days off were few and far between, but appreciated as they came. 

"We got about 10 or 12 days off over the course of a year and a half," Captain Ruiz said. "We would just holdover at a location and instead of leaving in the morning we'd spend the day wherever we were. Those were the days we rested and enjoyed it." 

Captain Ruiz's experience as a missile combat crew member helped him be prepared to face the challenges brought on by this schedule, though, and gave him the skills to make the right decisions. 

"Working in missiles enforced a strict moral code with me and gave me the wherewithal to be a good judge of what the right thing to do always is, no matter the situation," he said. "I had a very good background to go into the job. I'd recommend the position of Tops in Blue tour director to anyone with good coping skills to deal with matters of flexibility - it is a 'think outside the box' job." 

Despite the challenges, Captain Ruiz said he has learned a lot from the experience and has taken some valuable lessons from it. 

"I can say, without a doubt, this has emboldened my interest in getting projects done rapidly and properly," he said. "Because I'm used to having a very tall order and usually not enough time, so my business ethics have just become a little accelerated. I think the everlasting thing Tops in Blue gave me was this quest to get back to seeing the Air Force with a big-sight picture. I've always appreciated being a specialist, and CGOs are specialists by nature. Now I've got this big interest in maintaining a very large vision of what the Air Force does day in and day out. I can see how our parts all fit together now." 

All in all, the fiddle-player of 21 years said he appreciated this opportunity to showcase his talent, and interact with a myriad of people and cultures. The experiences created and education gained will last a lifetime through his Tops in Blue memories.