Inevitably I guess, someone asked me about a statement I made a while back, namely that three times while I was in Pakistan a great old guy named Abdul taught me the meaning of wisdom. I only mentioned one of them. "What," the question was, "were the other two times?"
The moment when an aircraft starts its engines, particularly back in those days when very volatile 115/145-octane gasoline was used, is a likely time for an engine to catch fire. Therefore, a man stands by with a fire extinguisher, not one of the puny little ones we civilians use -- one mounted on wheels with a bottle the size of a large oxygen tank. The man stands to one side of the engine with the horn of the carbon dioxide extinguisher pointed at it, then goes to the next engine as it starts, and so on.
I had been there in Karachi for about nine months when our headquarters in Tachikawa, Japan shipped us a new extinguisher. During all those months Abdul had been standing there with the extinguisher, poised for action as we started up engines.
We were supposed to send the old extinguisher back to be pressure checked, but Colonel Guelich wisely pointed out to me that this was a good time to train the men, Abdul in particular. I knew he was right because pressing the lever on a carbon dioxide extinguisher can be downright exciting the first time you do it. They call those funnel-shaped ends on the hoses "horns" with good reason. The gas escapes with a loud "BLAT!" that can actually make a man drop it the first time he pulls the lever, and the pressure of the escaping gas is strong enough to blow light materials away, spreading the fire in all directions.
So I gathered up some fairly heavy pieces of wood that would stay in place when ignited, got them going, and gathered the men for training, Abdul first. The flames were about three feet high. "OK, Abdul," I said. "Let it have it! Right at the base of the flames, like I showed you."
Abdul dutifully pressed the lever as we watched. Nothing.
"Go ahead!" I sang out.
He pressed it again. Still nothing.
"Let me have that," I told him, frowning. I pressed the lever. Also nothing. I looked at Abdul -- with my mouth hanging open, I suppose.
"Empty, Sahib," Abdul said in his usual laconic way, verifying what I already knew. He went on to explain. "Murray Sahib, who was here before you, used it to ice down a case of beer one night."
"You mean you've been standing here for nine months pointing an empty fire extinguisher at all those starting engines?"
"Yes, Sahib Garrett."
"For God's sake, why didn't you ever say anything about it?"
"You never asked, Sahib."
Wisdom: Making so many mistakes that you recognize them the second time around.