MILDENHALL, SFK, UNITED KINGDOM
RAF MILDENHALL, England -- As the smooth and dulcet tones of Anita Baker's "Sweet Love" echo throughout the RAF Mildenhall Fire Department, most of the firefighters just shrug and say, "Oh, that's just Bobby..."
Airman 1st Class Bobby Lucas, a saxophone-playing firefighter, is regularly heard playing his heart out on the sax around the station.
"They call me 'musically inclined'," said the 100th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department airman. "Every chance I get, I'm in the stalls playing - the acoustics will just make you cry."
Tops in Blue is the U.S. Air Force's premier entertainment group. Lucas will soon share his talent worldwide when he joins Tops in Blue April 1, as one of only two saxophonists.
A native of Toledo, Ohio, Lucas auditioned for the tour group in December 2012. Out of the several hundred applicants, only 70 finalists went through to the worldwide competition. The top 33 most talented musicians and entertainers now form this year's Tops in Blue.
Lucas found out he'd made the cut on his first day back at work after the auditions.
"I'd only just got back from the worldwide competition and they put me on shift," he said. "There was a (squadron) formation that day at the fire department, and I was in it. The next thing I heard was, 'Airman Lucas - front and center!'"
It was Lt. Col. Scott Griffin, 100th CES commander, who was calling him to report.
"I thought I was in trouble! Especially when he said, 'You'll be leaving the station and the firefighters behind, and we're gonna pick up your slack ... '," Lucas said. "I was panicking until I heard him say, 'Congratulations! You made Tops in Blue!'"
Shocked into silence, Lucas stood dumbfounded not quite sure how to react.
"I just went brain dead," he said. "I forgot how to salute and I walked away - I didn't know what I was doing!"
But Lucas quickly got himself together and went back to salute his commander, before allowing himself to enjoy the moment and let the news sink in.
Playing the saxophone is Lucas' passion, and one which he plays in memory of his father.
"My dad passed away a few months before I joined the military. He was my biggest musical influence - he played the piano and organ," the firefighter said. "When I play, I hope my Dad is hearing me and seeing how I'm doing and is proud of me. He's where I get my musical talent from."
The 26-year-old said he's played the saxophone since he was 13.
"I wanted to play the trumpet but my parents got me a saxophone instead. The first song I ever played was 'Jingle Bells' and I memorized it," Lucas recalled. "Ever since then, I've been playing and playing and playing."
"When I went to high school, I was in the best band in the city - 'The Marching Dancing Machine,'" Lucas said.
The firefighter boasted that they were one of the biggest high-school bands around, bringing back trophies from everywhere they went, as they travelled all across the United States and put on shows.
Lucas became section leader of the trumpets and saxophones during his senior year as well as band president before he attended college.
The Airman happily plays anything asked of him, although his preferred genres are soul, rhythm and blues, gospel and jazz.
"Pretty much anybody that I've worked with musically has been an influence on me," Lucas said. "Everyone has unique skills and I take away what they bring to the table; if I work with them, I learn from them. This year during the tour, I know I'm going to learn a lot."
Not content with just playing the alto sax, the musician also plays the trumpet and has recently started playing the soprano sax, much to the delight of the other firefighters.
"He plays (around) the fire trucks!" said Airman 1st Class Kevin Brittan, 100th CES Fire Department firefighter from Long Island, N.Y. "It sounds really nice (in the bays) - especially at night when there's no noise, and all you hear is that. It's relaxing."
When considering performing with Tops in Blue for troops all around the world for one year, Lucas received full support from his "fire dawgs" right from the start.
"Bobby has a special talent and we're thrilled he's getting the opportunity to showcase that gift," said Master Sgt. Chris Gerwick, 100th CES Fire Department assistant chief of operations from Eaglewood, Ohio. "He's always playing his sax at the station and has been invited to play at many special events because he plays so well."
More poignantly, Lucas' passion for playing his saxophone reverberates from his soul.
"If you've ever met Airman Lucas, and talked to him for one minute about playing his sax, he lights up and can't stop smiling," Gerwick said. "It's his passion, and he's very good - Tops in Blue couldn't pass him up!"
Knowing how important playing music is to Lucas, his bosses fully encouraged him to apply for the elite position.
"It's not often that someone gets a chance to get paid to play," Gerwick said. "As for losing him for a year, it's really no different than having someone deploy. We'll just pick up the slack and carry on."
Lucas' achievements have not gone unnoticed by his leadership, who had no doubts about him joining the entertainment group.
"It will be a great experience for Bobby, and we can't wait to see him play live. When Tops in Blue visits the U.K., we'll be front and center cheering him on!" said Chief Master Sgt. Scott Knupp, 100th CES Fire Department fire chief from Scott City, Mo.
"Bobby is selling the Air Force and entertaining our airmen all over the world," the fire chief said. "I've enjoyed Tops in Blue as a spectator, and if I want to continue to enjoy it, sometimes you have to support it with manpower - it's just part of the deal."
While this is an amazing opportunity for Lucas - something he's sought since joining the Air Force - he realizes it will also prove demanding. The firefighter's wife and new baby have recently gone back to the United States for the duration of his tour.
"The biggest challenge will be being away from my family," he said. "Another will be getting sleep during the tour. We'll be pretty much working 18 hours a day, constantly traveling, and having to sleep on buses, planes and in airports."
While the challenges can be overwhelming at times, it's a small price to pay for being able to spend a year doing what he loves, according to Lucas. Looking forward to the new, life-enriching experiences are reward enough.
"I'm looking forward to going to Hawaii, and of course, England," Lucas said. "I can't wait for that day. I'm an ambassador, representing RAF Mildenhall and the Air Force. When (Tops in Blue) gets here, I might just take over the show!"
||MILDENHALL, SFK, GB
||TOLEDO, OH, US
This work, Sax on Fire: 100th CES airman sets ‘Tops in Blue’ ablaze, by Karen Abeyasekere, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.