Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ma Vie Militaire (Part III)


Through the magic of the internet I actually found this photo of my flight at Basic Training. I am in the front row, second from the left. Seems the Air Force is trying to build up a collection of photos of all of the Basic Training flights since the Air Force's inception/birth/creation in 1947.

Now I had heard about this project a number of years ago from a buddy of mine. So of course I went to the website to check it out. With great disappointment I discovered that my outfit, 3708 Squadron Flight 512, was not there. The project was in its early stages so I shouldn't have been surprised. However, to me that's like "What? No paintings of the Emperor when he was a child? What nonsense is this?" You see I hold myself in great esteem. (Yes, I have an over-inflated view of my own importance in the grand scheme of things.)

But as I sat down to put together Part III of "Ma Vie Militaire" I decided to search out this photo once more, and 'lo and behold there it was. So here it is.

For those who know me, they'll instantly note that I was a lot more "sleek" in those days. Not that you can really tell from those baggy fatigue uniforms but I was carrying a great deal less ballast in those days. Still had most of my own hair (I started going bald when I was 19, started going really bald when the progeny reached their teen years) and my hair had nary a speck of gray. Yes indeed, I was young.


My best friend in Basic, the "Boss" is the guy first from the left. He is also the second 
black person I had met in my entire life up to that point. Two other guys from whom I was inseparable were Mike K. (the tallest guy in the front row, standing next to the (ahem) "TI". And a couple of rows directly behind Mike is Manuel G. (the Hispanic guy with the big glasses and the even bigger grin).

Now Mike was one of "The Four" who made it all the way from Manchester to Lackland without getting lost in Houston. That is, Mike was most definitely not one of the knuckleheads. In fact Mike was an extraordinarily intelligent guy. I know this because we both went on to work Weapon Control Systems (WCS) on the F-4 Phantom. I on the C and D models, Mike on the E model. Manuel was also very smart, he too became a WCS troop, also on E models. You may note the distinction in my grading of these two guys' intelligence. Mike seems to get the higher grade. That's because when we got to Tech School (in Denver, yeah, I know "rough duty"), Manuel decided that he would have himself circumcised. Why anyone would choose to do that is beyond me. Prior to having the procedure done, we all thought he was out of his mind. After the procedure, even Manuel was questioning his own intelligence. Just sayin'.

So on with this epic tale of my Air Force career. (Epic! Are you insane, it's not like this is a tale of derring-do or anything! Really? Epic? Shaddup, it's my story and I'll call it epic if I wish!) Yes, I occasionally argue with myself. The Doc says not to worry, I'm essentially otherwise harmless.

My how one tends to drift in one's dotage.

Yes, back to the story.

The first week of Basic Training was something of a blur. We were in civilian clothes the first few days and we were referred to as a "Rainbow Flight". Due to the multi-colored civilian attire. Looked even worse once we got our first haircut. Well, actually once we had our heads shaved. Rainbow Flights were much looked down upon by those salty veterans who'd already been in Basic more than a week.

Finally we were issued our uniforms. And unlike all of those Hollywood movies, the guys issuing the uniforms actually tried to issue stuff that fit. More or less.

So the days were now a blur of PT, class room training and marching. Lots of marching. Fortunately I enjoy marching and am not too bad at it. There were many for whom marching was the most daunting experience of those early days. Until we were issued those aforementioned uniforms.

Now when I left for the Air Force I had a small gym bag (the old fashioned blue canvas type, not your fancy-dan modern gym bag) which contained two changes of underwear, shaving kit, toothpaste and toothbrush. I went to an Army-Navy Surplus store a few weeks prior to my departure to purchase some simple, yet rugged clothing for those first days in Basic. What I had was a pair of combat boots, some Navy jeans and the old Navy-style chambray shirt.

The clothing was simple, robust and designed for military use. That was my master plan and it worked out rather well. I was nowhere near as colorful as some of my flight mates during our Rainbow days. A couple of guys actually were wearing what we termed "hippie clothes" back in 1975. The training sergeants rode them most unmercifully. In effect, my intent was to camouflage myself and try not to gain the attention of the training instructors.

At some point in time during those early days, our TI assigned four of us as squad leaders and one guy was assigned to be the "Dorm Chief". (I know, I know but the Air Force liked to call the big buildings we lived in "dormitories", we always called it "the barracks".)

The process for determining who got to be one of these recruit leaders was one of the great mysteries of Basic Training. Primarily because of "McK". He was the individual who was initially assigned to be the leader of the 1st Squad, that is, my squad.

Shortly after being assigned the position, McK decided to begin acting like a raving lunatic. He actually came out of the sergeant's office and made a speech to us. You know the standard, "Men this is going to be a tough time, but if we all work together", blah, blah, blah. Kid had obviously seen too many war movies growing up.

But what really blew things up is that the kid would go through people's lockers and intentionally mess things up. And one day, my buddy Cookie, who had a great deal of trouble squaring away his locker and whom I gave a few tips to, (which helped a lot, so he said) came running to get me and said, "McK inspected your locker and found lots of stuff wrong."

Now I'm not perfect. I once had to hang my head in shame when our First Sergeant inspected the barracks and found my duffel bag improperly folded. All he did was shake his head and say, "I expected more from you Airman." And walked away.

One thing you've got to know, is that in the mid-'70s, AF Basic Training was essentially learning how to do things "the Air Force" way. As it was not practical to give us actual equipment to work on, our lockers and their contents became the end-all be-all of our Basic Training experience. Particularly our underwear. It had to be folded just so and placed just so. Any deviations and you were rewarded with unshirted hell.

So, there I was, headed to my locker to confront the Great Screwball, Airman McK. He was standing in front of my locker with his pimply-faced George Patton glare, asking me, "Can you explain this?"

Seems my overcoat was unbuttoned. Not just one button loose, that would have been clever. But ALL of the buttons were undone. McK had out-witted himself. Did I mention that he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He was definitely a couple nuggets short of a Happy Meal.

Seems at this point I went off on McK. Not physically, but I began to bellow at him in my very best command voice (something I'm inordinately proud of, but that's for a later installment). At this point, one of the other guys ran to get the sergeant because I think they thought I was going to physically dismantle McK.

The sergeant heard this, "Sir, sir come quick, I think the Sarge is going to kill McK!"

The training instructor, thinking that perhaps the guy was talking about the other member of our instructor team, ran ahead to see what the heck was going on. To find me in McK's face bellowing like a gored rhino. And about in the same mood. Once the TI had separated us, he turned to the guy who fetched him and said, "Who the hell is the Sarge? What sergeant are you talking about?"

Now, most of the flight pointed at me. The TI went (pardon the expression) ape-shit at this point. Now I was getting yelled at. "Why the hell do they call you Sarge? You're not a damned sergeant, you're just a little piss-ant airman!" All I could say is that he'd have to ask the other guys. They called me Sarge, 'twas not a name I gave myself.

Long story short. The guy who kept me from killing McK was our junior training instructor. He hauled me and the Dorm Chief into the senior instructor's office. (Note: whenever something goes wrong when the instructors aren't around, the Dorm Chief is responsible. Not a much sought after job.)

Well, both instructors were livid, there was much screaming and hollering and usage of less than genteel language. The Dorm Chief and I stood there silently, absorbing the abuse. Exactly as we'd been trained to do. Eventually the Dorm Chief had to explain why everyone (except McK of course) called me Sarge. I nearly burst out laughing when his answer was "Well, he acts like a Sarge. He knows his stuff and helps the rest of the flight learn how to do things."

The junior instructor at this point bellowed at me to "stop bouncing around". Seems I was bursting with the need to inform our instructors of something. The senior man then looked at me and said, "So Airman. What  do you have to say for yourself?" It seemed that my Air Force career was to die a flaming death at that very moment. My only thought was, "What the hell. If I'm screwed I may as well go out in a blaze of glory."

So I related the story of Screwloose McK. Indicated that most of the flight assumed that he was a raving lunatic planted in our flight for some sort of training objective. Said that he was a detriment to the flight's morale and ability to function as a team. Etc, etc.

Waiting for the boom to be lowered I ceased to speak.

The senior man just looked at me, the junior guy said, "So what the hell are we supposed to do?"

All I said was, "Fire McK. Get rid of him."

At this point the senior guy indicated that the solution was perhaps not that simple. Turns out it was.

A few moments later McK was led out of the squad bay and taken down to the administrative offices of the squadron by the senior instructor. McK was transferred to our "sister" flight (the guys across the hall from us). He did not do well there. I think there were members of our sister flight who actually wanted to kill him. Not sure whatever happened to McK. Rumor had it that he was tossed out of the AF. Probably with a psych-discharge. Guy was crazier than a bedbug.

After McK's abrupt departure, the junior instructor bellowed at me to get "my nasty ass into the office". I turned to my flight mates and bid them farewell, figuring I would be getting the old heave-ho. (And wondering if I could get my old job back!)

As I closed the door to the instructor's office I was almost immediately scrambling to catch the squad leader badge that the instructor threw at me. With the words, "Do. Not. Fuck. This. Up. Understood?"

I was a bit speechless as was the instructor a few moments later when I returned to the squad bay. When my flight mates saw the squad leader badge, they all burst into cheers. It was a fine moment for yours truly.

A few weeks later I graduated Basic Training as the Flight's Honor Graduate (#1 in the Flight) and went on to Air Force Technical Training at Lowry AFB, Colorado.

Needless to say. I had not fucked it up.

1 comment:

  1. So the days were now a blur of PT, class room training and marching. Lots of marching. Fortunately I enjoy marching and am not too bad at it.

    Heh. I sucked at marching in Basic and never got much better. I was SO bad our TI would routine bellow "Entire flight... EXCEPT for Pennington, Chaaaange-STEP!" Damn but that was embarrassing.

    Other than that... yeah. Your Basic experience pretty much mirrors mine.

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