|A B-52H Stratofortress taxis during an alert exercise at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Monday, March 6, 2006.|
(U. S. Air Force Photo by SSgt. Jocelyn Rich)
Minot is what we called a "Northern Tier Base," with good reason. Where is Minot? (You might ask.)
Not far from Canada. That's where Minot is. Not far from Canada.
While it's not Way Up North (H/T to Rev Paul) it's north enough for my tastes. Thank you very much.
So what does Minot have to do with today's post? Well, sit back boys and girls, the Sarge is about to tell you a story. All of which is true, at least to the best of my recollection.
Which, truth be told, gets more tenuous every day.
Or so The Missus Herself informs me.
(To read a classic Minot story, perhaps apocryphal, go here. Gave me a chuckle it did.)
So there I was...**
It was June of 1989. I remember the year because of the events which were taking place in Beijing, Tienanmen Square to be precise. You can refresh your memory here. The powers-that-be had decided that my captain and I must travel to Minot AFB, ND to discern the needs of a potential customer.
I was a software dude by this time of my Air Force career, safely ensconced in my comfortable office overlooking the main runway at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, the home of Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters (HQ). (The headquarters was in Building 500, I worked in Building 40. My building was much nicer. Much nicer indeed.)
You would think that software to put stuff up on a big display screen would be pretty simple, even back in the '80s when we programmed with vacuum tubes, stone knives and bearskins, it was a little different because these displays were going to be used in SAC Command Posts. Think places where the people sitting in the room control B-52, B-1 and B-2 wings. Where the people in the room have control over missile silos buried out on the lone prairie.
Serious people. Real. Serious. People.
Now the requirements for the project I was tasked with were being dictated by the aforementioned light colonel (slang for lieutenant colonel, also known as a "half colonel" in British parlance). This fellow was (from what I was told) simply a pawn of some big shot over at the headquarters building.
Because, you see, most command posts already had such software. But the software was not written by a guy who had formal training in such things. No, heaven forfend, this software had been written by a SAC crew dog. What's worse, a semi-disgraced SAC crew dog!
Oh my Lord!
Okay, first off, a crew dog, in SAC parlance, is an airman*** who is a member of a crew, most particularly a flight crew. Folks who manned the nation's aerial leg of the nuclear triad. Folks who would be penetrating Soviet airspace should the balloon go up and we were engaged in "nuclear combat toe to toe with the Roosskies" to quote Major T. J. "King" Kong from the movie Dr. Strangelove.
|That's Major Kong on the right, holding a copy of "Wing Attack Plan R." (Don't look, it's Top Secret!) (Public Domain, the photo, not the attack plan.)|
Now this particular crew dog (a major as I recall) was, what we like to say in New England, "wicked smaht." He had sat in on many command post exercises in his day and was very familiar with what would be useful. He was also "right handy" with a computer.
So why was he "disgraced"? (Only in the eyes of real serious people who don't actually have to fight wars was he disgraced. But those folks get to make all the "big" decisions. Because they are real serious people. You know. Assholes.)
Seems that during one long arduous SAC exercise he and his fellow crew dogs (a B-52 crew as I recall) decided to have a little fun. Seems that they decided to "attack" another crew for to better morale and make people laugh and be happy. (You can see where this is going, can't you?)
So the major and his fellows donned ski masks and equipped themselves with loaded water pistols and proceeded to "attack" a fellow crew. If memory serves, this incident actually occurred on the ramp. Where the aircraft live. It's also where these guys live...
|USAF security forces guard USAF photo by SrA Kenny Holston|
Now in my 24-year career, it was my experience that these chaps were not chosen for their acute sense of humor. They tended to see things in black and white. While on duty they tended to be real serious people.
So these guys see a group of fellows wearing ski masks and wielding what appear to be pistols engaging in what appears to be an assault on a SAC crew. I guess the thought that these chaps were also wearing flight suits and that their "weapons" were orange never crossed their minds. Oh well, heat of the moment and all that. I suppose the major and his cohorts should count themselves lucky that the beret-wearers didn't actually open fire.
They get hauled in before the SAC wing commander who is suitably unimpressed with their youthful hi-jinks. After all, "this is SAC, we are real serious people."
So while the major (and his fellow crew dogs) were taken off flight status for a while (for to punish them and reduce the load on their wallets) he wrote this software.
Apparently it wasn't good enough for the "real serious people" and this light colonel at Offutt was told off to find a software dude to re-work the software. I was chosen, I worked my magic, based on what the light colonel told me was desired.
I produced something which pleased the light colonel so my boss (Captain Gene Kelly - ISYN, we also had a Captain Phil Collins) and Your Humble Scribe were ordered to head for Minot and show off what we had done.
When we arrived at Minot we were issued a small pickup truck to get around in. We then discovered that my civilian driver's license had expired, so I could not drive said truck. That would be the good captain's responsibility. After signing for the truck, with the captain behind the wheel and me settled into the passenger's seat, I turned to look at my captain.
Before I could say anything, Capt Kelly said, "One word Sarge, just one word and I'll recommend that you get orders for Minot to really iron out this software."
"Certainly Sir. I wasn't going to say anything Sir."
With some grumbling (from the captain, I was smiling like nobody's business) we set off for the transient quarters and a meal.
The next day I sat down with the major who wrote the software currently in use. He showed me what it did, then he asked to see my software. I told him that he didn't really want to see it.
"Why not Sarge?"
"Well Sir. My software sucks. It does exactly what the light colonel asked for but it's obvious that the good colonel does not know shit from Shinola. Pardon my French."
"Let's see it anyway Sarge."
With a sigh I showed him what we had. He agreed with my assessment of the colonel's knowledge level of what was desired. 'Twas then that the major regaled me with the tale of the ski masks and his assumption that because he had done the software, it would never be good enough.
Ah ha, says I.
Then we sat through a command post exercise. We were told to sit quietly near the back of the room and only speak if spoken to. Seems the august personage of the Air Division commander was going to participate in the exercise. This fellow was a one star (brigadier) general and commanded the Air Division at Minot. Said Air Division comprised a B-52 wing (one each) and a Strategic Missile Wing (one each).
Yes, the fellow was in charge of some serious firepower. He was also a fairly serious person.
After the exercise the general himself asked for our assessment of the software they were using to display status and such on the "big board" and whether or not our software was better, the same or worse.
The captain looked at me.
I looked at the captain.
Captain Kelly (no doubt as payback for making him drive the truck) said, "What do you think Sarge?"
With the general looking intently at me, I sat up straight in my chair. Glanced at my captain, cleared my throat and said...
"Well Sir. Our software sucks and is so far from meeting your requirements that I should apologize for wasting your time. The software that you're using now is perfect. I would not change a thing. Maybe a faster computer would be nice, but that's it."
The room went silent. The general was staring at me and I was starting to wonder what job I would be doing there at Minot for the rest of my career. Then the general smiled.
"No son, I should be apologizing to you and the captain here. I suspected that this whole thing was just some headquarters bullshit and you've just confirmed that."
The general then stood (as did we) and shook our hands, thanking us for our honesty and wishing us a safe trip back to Offutt.
On the way to the airport, Captain Kelly said, "Jesus Sarge, but you scare me some times."
Frank and straightforward, that's me. Even with generals.
Of course, there's another story right there. I will tell it someday. Just not today.
*Freezin's the reason. (The standard Air Force riposte to "Why not Minot?")
*** Airman is a generic term for a uniformed member of the United States Air Force. It's also a rank but we're using the former meaning here. (Much like "soldier" is a generic term for Army personnel.)