VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE -- Every once in a while, life affords you the opportunity to meet someone who is, what I’d like to call, a genuine soul. A person who lights up the room with their infectious personality – equal parts kind and humorous.
If anyone frequents the Vandenberg Thrift Shop they undoubtedly have met one of these souls – a volunteer named Clarence Rollins, or as most people know him as, ‘Rocky’.
“My real name is Clarence Rollins, very few people know that,” said Rocky. “But when I first joined the Air Force I gave myself the nickname ‘Rocky’, because the nickname I had at home was ‘Clam’ and I didn’t like that because people would call me ‘clam chowder.’ I don’t know why the name Rocky, I just picked it up and it stuck with me.”
Sitting across from the retired U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant was a moment I won’t forget. His work ethic and positive outlook on life is inspiring, and has served him well throughout the years.
“I spent 26 years in the Air Force,” said Rocky. “First I started out at Biggs Air Force Base in El Paso, Texas, working on the tail radar system of the B-47 and B-52 bombers. Then they sent me here, to Vandenberg, in 1962 to work on the Titan missile. In 1969, they shipped me off to Johnston Atoll, an Island between California and Hawaii that looks like an aircraft carrier from an airplane. There was nothing at Johnston Island but the Thor missile, it’s an isolated tour. But I enjoyed it out there and the food was amazing – all the steaks and prime rib you could have! So we ran around the island every day so we wouldn’t gain weight, and would try to beat each other’s time.”
No matter what assignment the Air Force tasked Rocky with, he made the most of it. Even somewhere as icy as Minot Air Force Base did not discourage him.
“No matter where they sent me, I was going to make it my own,” said Rocky. “I wasn’t going to let anything stop me. While at Minot I was able to write a letter to the base commander there, and I got permission to build a photography studio in my house. So I had my studio and I taught photography for a while at the Base Exchange.”
This was the start of a 45-year, self-taught career, but Rocky’s passion for photography started much earlier.
“My love for photography goes way back to my childhood,” said Rocky. “For some reason I had this thing about cameras and taking pictures. It wasn’t until 1963 when I first started working out of my house, and then I got my first studio in 1965. My first studio was only about eight-foot by ten-foot, but I progressed when I moved from one place to another, getting bigger and bigger. I photographed everything from portraits, weddings, dances, and copy and restoration. You name it.”
I asked Rocky what the photography world was like before cameras became digital, and he seemed to get immersed in another time.
“When I was in Alaska for four months, they had a camera store there, and this was when they had the leather coverings on the camera, and I used to go in and just breathe in,” said Rocky. “There’s just a smell when you walk in there, and there were so many different cameras and I just won’t forget that. Nor will I forget what it was like in a dark room. To see that image come to life in the developing stage – I just don’t know how to explain that feeling.”
Rocky made an impact here on Vandenberg long before his days at the Thrift Shop – contributing to the success of Team V’s mission directly.
“My favorite assignment was here on Vandenberg while on the military launch team, because we got to actually be a part of the launches,” said Rocky. “We were the last ones to leave and the first ones back in after a launch. A lot of times people shy away from work, but we used to fight to see whose turn it was to do things on the job.”
The almost 83-year-old proves every day that age is just a number not meant to hold you back.
“I will be 83 years old in a few months,” said Rocky. “I used to think 83 was old, you know? But here I am, 83, and I just don’t feel it. I feel like I’m half that age, if not younger.”
When customers bring their items into the Thrift Store to consign, Rocky is the one entrusted with making sure the tags and forms are filled out properly before they are put on display. This position has become more than another job for him – it’s become his extended family.
“I’ve been volunteering here at the Thrift Shop for about nine years,” said Rocky. “When I retired and closed my studio, I started bringing stuff here and got along with the people here so well. I’ve been here ever since and I enjoy it. You get to meet a lot of people, all the constant customers who come in here all the time, and it’s like we’re all family. Vandenberg is home to me.”
If you are in the area, and are looking for a joyful conversation with a truly inspirational soul, swing by the Vandenberg Thrift Shop and ask for “Rocky”. He is sure to make your day.