Friday, October 30, 2009

Arrange Yourselves Alphabetically, by Height

Those were the first words that Air Force Staff Sergeant David Griffey uttered after our flight touched down in San Antonio, Texas, on my way to Air Force basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. It was the first indication I had signed up for a more than slightly different ride. It was the Spring of 1975, I had a new college degree, a first class radio-telephone operator's license, big time commercial radio experience on my resume and absolutely no job whatsoever.

The Air Force I was becoming a part of was that first version after the draft had ended in the earlier part of the 1970's (I almost said a 'first draft of the military' but thought better of it). I got tired of the recruiter referring to 'the volunteer force'. To me, the people who coached my son years later in soccer, or my daughter in basketball or who deliver the hot lunches for Meals on Wheels, those people are volunteers.

To the best of my knowledge, we in the USAF were actually getting paid. I asked again about the money part, because I'm a measure-twice, cut-once kind of guy. It was really my only concern. I wasn't joining to become a pilot or a mechanic (TWO really scary notions-me flying the two of us somewhere or you flying in a plane that I've worked on). I was joining to work in radio and television. I'd not yet heard of Adrian Cronauer (most of us had barely heard of Robin Williams as Mork, much less as Cronauer), but I had heard George Carlin had been an Air Force broadcaster, assigned to Lajes Field in the Azores (in the pre-snopes era, no way to confirm not true).

That was all yet to come. The trick tonight, standing in the here and now of the arrivals lounge in the airport was to survive this little uniformed fellow's bizarre directive that were causing people to scurry in all directions long enough to board the bus that would deliver us to the base (if not from evil) so we could all get yelled at, for our own good and esprit de corps before finally getting some sleep after which we could get up in the middle of the night and get our heads shaved.

"Alphabetically by height." I stood stone-like at midnight, not quite suspended in my masquerade. Staff Sergeant Griffey was on me like flies on the usual item that attracts them, demanding to know 'what is your problem, MISTER?' I replied that since about eight o'clock that morning (Daylight Savings Time-I remember making a point of that though the why eludes me now), I was an "Airman", so he repeated his question, louder, and somehow made my rank sound more like a familiar four letter descriptive. Then he studied his clipboard and his eyes narrowed.

He did that cliche schtick we've all seen in every military movie, standing beside me practically yelling directly into my ear, insisting I NOT turn to look at him, but keep my eyes forward, all the while demanding to know, 'are you that college boy?' I hadn't realized we were a rationed commodity, I'd have held out for more money, like that was gonna happen. Staff Sergeant Griffey was a tiny guy. Even with his Smokie the Bear DI (Drill Instructor) hat on, he only came to my temple.

I couldn't resist-and offered 'you sure have a lot of holes in Texas, assuming you're standing in one." I watched from the corner of my eye as he blinked hard, repeatedly, processing that someone was talking back to him and clearly not having any idea what to do next. And then he had his Eureka moment.

"AIRMAN," he said (and all caps doesn't do justice to the way he said it) "why don't you show me some of those college boy smarts, and get these maggots on the bus?" I called out loudly for everyone to fall in behind me. They stopped scurrying and did as they were told. He was dumbfounded and demanded to know how I'd learned to do that. "Spent two years in Army ROTC, Drill Sergeant," I replied, "about all I learned was how to say 'you men' in clipped tones." He laughed out loud all the way back to Lackland and for most of the eight weeks, as I remember it, we spent together on the drill pads of Flight 7126, learning to be blue.
-bill kenny

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