Thursday, January 8, 2015

Back in the Day...

Jim Nabors and Frank Sutton in Gomer Pyle 1968 by CBS Television (Public Domain)
A long, long time ago I was a Staff Sergeant (SSgt) in the United States Air Force, with an AFSC* of 32172P. That number was eventually changed to something else. What the USAF likes to do periodically is change things. Why? Well, all those staff pukes need something to do. So they rename, reorganize, reclassify and reduce the operational side of the Air Force to tears.

So what does 32172P mean? I won't bore you with all of the details (yup, every number and letter means something) but the 7 means that I was a 7 skill level, which now-a-days is described as "Craftsman - Airmen with many years of experience in the specialty, responsible for supervision and training."

In my day, everyone knew what 3-level, 5-level, 7-level, etc meant. Somewhere along the way, some staff guy decided those things needed names. So now, they do. After my time.

Anyhoo.

I was a "craftsman" (heh) and my specialty was Weapon Control Systems on the F-4C/D aircraft. Think Phantom, think Rhino, think Old Double Ugly, ya know, this guy:

F-4C-20-MC Phantom 63-7623 USAF photo by Peake, William R

Those were the days my friend (yes, we thought they'd never end...). For those who must know, 32172Q would be my counterpart for the F-4E. These guys. (Extra credit for those who can tell me the quick points of reference to tell the aircraft apart. No Juvat, hold your water, you've flown them, thou must needs be recuse thyself.)

F-4Es 86th TFW in flight 1985 by SSgt. F. Serna, USAF

So, now that we've established all of that, what does my having been an aircraft maintainer type SSgt back in the day got to do with "the price of tea in China"? As my Dad used to say.

Well, when I was in Korea, most of us were SSgts, except for Skip, then Charlie, who were our shop chiefs (Skip, then Charlie**) in the 8th Component Repair Squadron (CRS), they were Tech Sergeants (TSgt). They were in charge and SSgts were a dime a dozen. I was a shift lead but "big deal" as we say. There were two of us SSgts, I was the more senior by date of rank but the other SSgt was every bit as capable as I. Really, I just got to do the paperwork.

Oh joy.

But then came the time when the F-4D Phantoms were leaving Korea, by dribs and drabs. We would check 'em out (does the radar work?), button 'em up and ship 'em out. Didn't take a lot of time. If a radar set was inoperable, well just make him the wingman, neh? And make sure lead has a good radar.

Our days were reduced to stripping, waxing and buffing the floors in our work spaces. We thought that playing pinochle all day would be wondrous and grand but Charlie (who was the bull goose loony at that time) had hopes of making Master Sergeant one day. Allowing us slobbering SSgts to play cards all day was probably not career enhancing for him. We didn't mind, even pinochle gets boring after a while and it's not like we were stripping, waxing and buffing every day. (More like every other...)

So gradually we all moved on, most of the guys went to Homestead AFB in Florida. I, lucky me, was transferred to Lowry AFB, in Colorado. Denver to be precise.


Now I know what some of you are thinking, Florida equals sun and fun, Colorado equals snow and cold. You couldn't be more wrong.

Florida meant working on jets. Outdoors.

Colorado meant working on radar trainers. Indoors.

In my old career field, Lowry was the promised land. The place of regular hours, no weekends and a location so far down the logistics food chain that to get parts for the radar, we had a better chance of pulling the stuff we needed off a jet crash landing in the parking lot than getting anything through Supply. (Not Supply's fault, the Cs and Ds were being phased out, all available spare parts went to Florida. Where my old colleagues sweated in the hot sun. Working on jets.)

So I arrive at Lowry. There are about 25 guys in the shop. Couple of TSgts and one MSgt. Five guys work 1500 to 2400, the other 20 work 0700 to 1600. Or thereabouts. The MSgt did MSgt type stuff, the two TSgts were essentially useless. They sat around doing paperwork and "planning" all day.

The MSgt decided that I would run day shift. Sweet!

I had some F-4E types (very few) and the rest were all fairly junior F-4C/D airmen types, most not long out of school. Not one, to my knowledge, had ever been overseas. A lot of rookies.

So instead of being one among equals, I was now the bull goose loony in charge. Not a problem. I was born for that.

First thing I did was determine which of my airmen was the best at doing paperwork. All the various maintenance forms, checklist and tech order stuff. One guy proved himself the best of the best. (Hell, he knew more than me!) Yup, he was now the AIC Documents (AIC = Airman In Charge, a position I created just for him. As I recall, the troop's name was Golden and he was worth his weight in that substance!)

Second thing, how much work did we really have? Well, seems there was enough work to keep five, maybe six guys busy all day on the F-4C/D side. The E-model guys? I put them on autopilot, they had two really sharp SSgts who knew the drill and knew how to get things done. So on the E side of the house, it wasn't broke, so I didn't attempt to fix it.

Third thing. One of the TSgts liked to come down to the dispatch area and tell the airmen what to do. Okay, technically he was authorized to do that. Problem was, he was out of touch with the day to day operations of the shop. Such as they were.

One of the airmen complained, so I threw the TSgt out. Nicely, but firmly.

He appealed the ruling on the field, the MSgt reviewed the tape and upheld my call.

So, I had established the hierarchy, made a couple of calls, took time to observe the day to day and see who knew their jobs and who didn't. I got settled in, so to speak.

Most of the kids knew the technical aspects of the work. Some of them thought they were civilians who just all happened to dress alike. In other words, they weren't in the military. Or didn't think they were.

So, out of necessity, I became something (shudder) of a martinet.

Example: Airman Schmuckatelli liked to sit at the dispatch board and talk on the phone with his girlfriend. Now Airman Otherguy might need to use the phone to call Supply, or one of the school instructors or a crew working in one of the trainer rooms. Well, he could just wait until Airman Schmuckatelli had settled his evening plans.

Not.

Airman Schmuckatelli was told that the phone was for official use only. The very next day he decided that he could now call his girlfriend, as perhaps my ruling only applied to the day on which I made it.

Nope.

The lads and lasses discovered that I had a very loud voice. Rumor had it that the base commander (over a mile away at HQ) could hear me inquire of Airman Schmuckatelli:

WHAT PART OF OFFICIAL USE ONLY DID YOU NOT EFFING UNDERSTAND, AIRMAN???!!!

The MSgt came down to see what all the ruckus was about. One of my airmen told him that now was not a good time to go near the dispatch board as "Sarge is tearing Schmuckatelli's head off. He's really mad. Maybe you should wait until later..."

MSgt McKellar (for that was his name) smiled quietly to himself and returned to his office.


(To be fair, once I got Airman Schmuckatelli on the right path he turned into a very good troop. He used to be late all the time. Yup, I "corrected" him on that behavior. After I left Lowry, I heard that Airman Schmuckatelli had made Airman of the Quarter and was one of the sharpest guys on the base. Yeah, made me a little teary-eyed. Ya like to see your guys improve.)

Now our area had a break room, two (maybe three, it was a long time ago) tables in a long line with chairs for the troops to sit, do their paperwork, study and/or eat lunch. The first few days after I had established my reign of terror authority, I'd noticed that my troops weren't necessarily the tidiest of creatures.

Chairs pulled out and askew. Candy wrappers on the table, etc., etc.

I suggested that the break area needed to be kept ship shape, as it were.

A couple of days passed. No change.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, YOU WILL KEEP THIS AREA CLEAN AND TIDY AT ALL TIMES!!! ARE WE CLEAR!!!


YES, STAFF SERGEANT!!!

The next day, better. The day after, still okay. Day three. YHGTBSM!

AIRMAN X, AIRMAN Y!!! TAKE ALL OF THESE GORRAM CHAIRS DOWN TO STORAGE!!! NOW!!!

"But Sarge, where will we sit?"

YOU WILL NOT, REPEAT NOT SIT AT MY TABLES!!! YOU WILL STAND BECAUSE YOU ARE ALL ANIMALS!!! ANIMALS DO NOT CLEAN UP AFTER THEMSELVES!!! ANIMALS EAT STANDING UP!!! AM I CLEAR???

YES, STAFF SERGEANT!!!

Later that day, the MSgt came down to see how things were going. Upon entering the break area, he noticed the lack of chairs. Airman X was in the room so the MSgt asked, "Airman X, where are all the chairs?"

"The chairs are all in storage because Sarge said we were all sloppy pigs and did not deserve to sit at a table like human beings."

MSgt McKellar smiled quietly to himself and returned to his office.

Yes, the troops eventually got their chairs back and became very disciplined, sharp troops. I loved them all dearly. So much so, that I committed the sin of allowing them to address me by my first name, my given name, that is to say, my Christian name.

The squadron First Sergeant came a'calling one day and asked to see me. As I was down in one of the trainer rooms, Airman X said "Chris is down in trainer 1, do you want me to go get him?"

The First Sergeant indicated that that would be nice.

Airman X came to collect me. Upon entering the room, the First Sergeant said, "So Sarge, you let your airmen call you by your first name?"

Before I could answer, Airman X replied -


BEGGING THE FIRST SERGEANT'S PARDON BUT SARGE LETS US CALL HIM WHATEVER WE WANT TO CALL HIM. AS LONG AS WE OBEY HIS ORDERS AND NOT DIRTY UP HIS BREAK ROOM!!!

While the First Sergeant was not happy with that answer, MSgt McKellar was. He shooed the First Sergeant out the door and indicated that I was simply doing the MSgt's bidding and did he have a problem with that?

The First Sergeant had to be satisfied with that answer. But he still "expressed his concerns" to our Commanding Officer (CO).

Later on, the CO and I had a few words about the situation. I told the CO that that shop was my shop. Those were my troops. As long as they did their jobs, I didn't care how they referred to me. As the CO was very pleased with that shop, he decided that I was good to go.

"Sarge, on your way out, tell the First Sergeant that I want to see him."

"Sure Sir."

As I left, I could hear the CO yelling at the First Sergeant.

Hhmm, I wonder what that was all about? First time I had ever heard the phrase "pretentious asshole" used in a sentence.





Epilogue

I mellowed somewhat in later years. Then again, as a SSgt I had 20 guys working for me, as a TSgt I only had five. When I made MSgt, I had one guy, one freaking troop! So yeah, I got mellow. The SSgt days were the highlight of my career.


(If only I had known about Turkish SSgt stripes, à la Buck. And that story is in the comments here. Good Lord I do miss that guy. I'm sure there is a comma in the wrong place or some other thing that only he would remark upon. Every time I type a quotation mark I wonder, "Now where did Buck say to put the gorram thing?" I'm sure he's chuckling about that in the Hereafter, beer in hand, stogie smoldering nearby...)

For Buck, heh.







*AFSC = Air Force Specialty Code, which is an alphanumeric code used by the United States Air Force to identify an Air Force Specialty (AFS). (S)
** Actually there had been another shop chief somewhere in there but him I don't mention. He was a politicking, ass-licking, thieving sum-bitch. He came within a hair of being court martialed for black marketing. Selling gubmint property downtown. Had two heart attacks while being questioned by the Office of Special Investigations. (No, not on the same day.) So USAF decided it was cheaper to medically retire the a-hole rather than finance another hospital stay for a bad ticker. His name will
not be mentioned by me, ever.

36 comments:

  1. And I can't believe they're making the same mistake again with the F-35!

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    1. Well played Juvat, well played.

      Did you see Skipper's post regarding the F-35. Seems software is the problem.

      It will take until 2019 to fix that in order to make the boom-boom thing go boom.

      I know a couple of teenagers who could code that up in a weekend. All they need is Mountain Dew, Skittles and Doritos.

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  2. Concur Juvat.

    Hey Sarge, those echoes are olden. Where's the tiseo and slats?

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    1. I know PA, the pictures you see here are those with no copyright restrictions (for the most part). So whatever I find that is representative and not beholden to some lawyer is what I publish.

      Besides which, I am olden too.

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    2. There's a lot of that olden going around. :(

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  3. You wouldn't have appreciated Army Combat Engineers. Selection was the lowest scores possible and the highest scores possible in a ratio of four or five to one. A more unruly collection of Roosevelt McSurly's would be hard to find. First Sergeant Womack had his after hours "volunteer working party". Your choice was volunteer, or see the Company Commander for an Article 15. I can remember as many as twenty of us volunteers on occasions.

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  4. Ah, this story sounds so familiar. Seems military discipline works the same whether the stripes are chevrons or Vs. :)

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    1. I do believe it does.

      You also learn to modify your leadership style based on who you're leading. I can lead a horse to water and make him drink. The horse might not like the way it occurs but, dagnabbit, if the CO wants the horse to drink than the sergeant / petty officer will make it happen. One way or t'other.

      There are times I miss those days.

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  5. "...I committed the sin of allowing them to address me by my first name, my given name..."

    I'm trying to remember if anyone knew the 'real' names of any of those I worked with.
    Everyone had a nickname or he was called, "Chief."
    (actually he was a Senior Chief).

    I do believe you've come up with the perfect title for those who'd be grammarians.
    We can just call them Turkish SSgt... and "hope they don't like it"*.

    *a favorite expression of the first E-6 I with whom ever had regular contact was, "...and I hope you don't like it!!!"

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    1. There were a few nicknames back then, but we usually were found only in small groups so we knew everyone's name.

      In Basic Training my nickname was "Sarge." Seriously. And yes, it drove the instructors nuts but they couldn't squash it.

      So we had nicknames there, but there were 40 of us.

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    2. In my corner of the USAF, if you didn't have a tactical call sign (aka nickname) that meant you were hated. If it was something manly (e.g. killer, stud) that meant you were not liked. If you had something funny, embarrassing, a play on your name, or cool, that meant you were good to go.

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    3. We enlisted types tended to have nicknames (sometimes) though usually the first name was employed. There were a lot of old school NCOs who had the first name of "Sergeant" - go figure.

      If we didn't like someone, they usually received a nickname that tended to be profane or scatological in nature.

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  6. I laughed 3 times reading that. Rather a lot.

    I started out wearing an Airman's uniform with stripes on the sleeve.

    You nailed the essential of leading. It is YOURS. You treat it like MINE. I may blog about it. Learned a lot from my Chiefs, the LDOs who ran my first ship and Captain Franklin D Julian.

    If you don't own it, who does? The heart of leadership. Find the one who owns, put him/her in charge.

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    1. You pick up a lot of things listening to your superiors. Some good, some bad. But you got it Cap'n, you have to own it.

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  7. You ran your shop the right way. As long as your troops properly do their jobs, reasonably conform to reg's and keep the higher ranks off your back, all is good.
    If you have a SMACK, you either educate them, train them or get rid of them (if you can).

    I surprised there was such a large support shop when you were there at Lowry. When I was teaching there, they only had 6 C/D/E techs (1 SSgt, 3 Sgt's & 2 A1C's) and 3 F106 techs.

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    1. By 1982 the F-4Cs and Ds were getting scarce. Some in Florida were still being flown, so the tech school had to stay up a bit longer.

      More troops than bases to put them, so Lowry had a lot. Surprised me too when I got there. In Korea there were times we were screaming for bodies and AFMPC would say, "Sorry, ain't got none." Now I know where they were.

      When did you teach there Russ. When I went through Bill Ames was my instructor and we had this awesome MSgt with huge beak of a nose in charge of the night shift at school. Guy was nuts but knew his business. We all loved him. Cannot remember his name!

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    2. I was at Lowry from '73 - '76. I knew Bill well, worked with him teaching at Fundamentals school and then we both moved to Sets school.
      I know the MSgt you're talking about, and if I remember correctly his name was MSgt Dillon. I was stationed with him at Udorn and
      then later he was my supervisor at Lowry on swing shift. Good ol' boy from Tennessee. The huge beak of a nose is a perfect description.

      By the way, I had one class that knew you well and they were always talking about a student in the barracks they nicknamed Bambi. I
      later found out that Bambi was the Chris Goodrich that I kept seeing around school. Any idea where they got the nickname Bambi?

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    3. " If you had something funny, embarrassing, a play on your name, or cool, that meant you were good to go."

      Bambi I think fit's the bill

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    4. Russ - I had forgotten that whole Bambi thing. Perhaps "suppressed the memory" would be a better description.

      I had to really think about that one. I vaguely recall how that all started, the details are slowly coming back.

      One memory involves Bill Ames turning slowly to look at me in class after I had made some smart-ass remark and just saying two words, "Okay, Bambi." Yup, that shut me up.

      I need to dig deeper into the memory banks to recall all of the details. Perhaps I can post that at some point.

      MSgt Dillon! That was the guy! (I have a story about him as well! Yes, you will see it here...)

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    5. Juvat - I'm not sure which category "Bambi" fits into, suffice to say I didn't like it much, therefore it stuck. For a while.

      Again, I'm digging through the mental archives for all the memories of that particular nickname. Awkward though that might be.

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    6. Definitely interested in seeing the story about MSgt Dillon. I've got one to go with from Udorn.

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    7. " If you had something funny, embarrassing, a play on your name, or cool, that meant you were good to go."

      Juvat is correct on this one. The reason your name came up so often is you were very well liked by your peers!

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    8. Just one more post, your nickname on the Rock was "Chuckles" and it fit you perfectly.

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    9. Ah yes, "Chuckles." I do believe that Mike Brown hung that one on me. Very well deserved it was. I still laugh at the drop of a hat.

      The MSgt Dillon story is a short one, it will be in a post coming soon to a theater, er blog, near you.

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  8. And just for fun...

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Gomer_Pyle,_U.S.M.C._characters#Awards.2C_Decorations_and_Service_Medals_Worn_By_Sgt._Carter

    There's actually something pretty profound there.

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    1. You're right PA, that is profound and pretty accurate given the time period.

      Impressive.

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  9. You made the mistake of telling them your first name? I thought that was SOP. Q: What does an E-1 call the Chief of Staff of the Air Force? A: It depends on what his first name is!

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    1. Tuna, remember, Air Force troops can read. They'd usually figure your first name out all by themselves.

      My philosophy was that of the big old dog: genial and easy going but step on my tail or otherwise annoy me? Watch out, there will be blood.

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  10. The muse is gorram back, happy am I and all the camp followers.

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    1. Thanks BSF. I'm trying to keep her busy. So she doesn't run off again.

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  11. "This is the F-4 Phantom, the preferred aircraft of Yesterday. It makes a very distinctive noise when the boarding ladder is deployed, especially in museum spaces."

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    1. Hahaha. I was telling that story to Big Time down in DC. He got a great chuckle from it.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)