Sometimes We Ask All The Wrong Questions

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I once met a person I was certain I knew. And he was certain he knew me. And yet for 29 months we could not figure out where we knew each other from.

The barracks on Kadena Air Base in Okinawa where we met were H-shaped. The crossbar of the H was divided into two rooms. One of them was a place for the troops to watch television. The other room was a small snack bar with booths and game tables where military personnel met to drink coffee, play cards and talk.

It was great having a place like that right in the barracks. I only lived there while I was waiting to bring my family over to Okinawa, but during the time I was there, I certainly appreciated that little snack bar.

Civilians often have a few wrong ideas about military life. One of them is that whole units ship overseas together. That's true at times, particularly right now when reserve and national guard units are being brought into active duty. But in the regular service people usually ship overseas individually, and so a very common sight is two men or women who knew each other during some former assignment getting together and talking over old times.

I saw a lot of that in my 21 years in the Air Force. It seemed like I was continually running across people I had known at some base or other. It happened all the time.

I'll never forget two of those coincidences.

One of them happened in 1989 after I had been retired for 16 years. I was driving my wife and a friend of hers to a shop in Phoenix. Lolly's friend was riding in back, talking to Lolly about someone she worked with out at Luke Air Force Base.

She mentioned the name Sam, and the more she talked, the more my ears perked up. Finally, I had to ask the question that was on my mind, "By any chance are you talking about Sam McNutt?"

"Why how in the world did you know that?"

How, indeed.

One evening in Karachi, Pakistan, 12 days after I arrived for a tour of embassy duty in 1959, one of the other NCO's in my staff house looked at me and said, "How'd you like to meet a couple of nice British girls?"

Lolly is British. That's how we met.

What an incredible coincidence! Running into the man who introduced me to my wife 30 years earlier!

Actually, I'd be willing to bet that I have run into more people I knew than 99.99 percent of the people in the service.

I served as a drill instructor on two bases, Sampson Air Force Base in New York, now closed, and Sheppard Air Force Base in north central Texas. In Texas, I served in a squadron in which the basic trainees were going through one of two schools, either Air Freight School, or Air Passenger and Operations School.

When the Air Force phased out professional drill instructors and replaced them with NCOs who volunteered for a short tour as a DI, I was allowed to pick any school on base I wanted to go to.

I was broken hearted that I had to give up the healthy, active, out-of-doors life of a DI, and I really didn't care what I did, so I just picked the shortest school on base, Air Passenger and Operations, went to it, and shipped out.

I forgot that I was going through the same school that more than half of my basic trainees had gone through.

My first assignment after tech school was McGuire AFB. Of the 128 men in my squadron, I found that I had personally put 32of them through basic training.

Good thing I wasn't one of those rotten, loudmouth DIs you see in the movies!

Truth is, those folks don't exist, or they didn't in my day. We weren't there to yell at the men for no reason, we were there to teach them what military life was all about. Oh sure, there are some people who can't be taught anything until you get their attention, and a good chewing out does tend to get your attention.

So-o-o-o ...

My second assignment after tech school was Kadena, Okinawa. There I met 28 men I had personally put through basic training, so I spent a lot of time in that snack bar in the barracks talking over old times with some of my basic trainees.

One fine sunny day I again ran across a red-haired, buck-toothed character who looked very familiar. We grabbed some coffee, sat down, and began the usual routine.

"You look familiar too," he said. "Ever been to Incirlik?"

"Uh-uh. Ever been to Iceland?"

"Nope. Ever been to Ramstein, Germany?"

"Nope. Ever been to Guam?"

On and on we went. Through our permanent duty assignments. Through our temporary duty assignments. Travel. Everything. We drank a lot of coffee, but the only thing we found out was that we had never been in the same place at the same time.

Nevertheless, the guy's face haunted me. And vice-versa. Every time we ran into each other during the 29 months we were stationed together, one or the other of us had a question.

"Maybe you traveled through Taiwan at the same time I did?"

"Nope. Been through Dum-Dum airport in Calcutta?"

"Nope. Well-l-l, what about ...?"

I began to think we were both nuts.

But then ... This is going to kill you!

About two weeks before I shipped out, I stopped in the orderly room to pick up something. There stood a red-haired, buck-toothed man of mystery. We nodded but said nothing, having just about given up hope of ever unraveling the mystery we shared.

Then he heard me mention that on my way to my new base I was going to stop home in Connecticut to say hello to my parents.

You guessed it!

He sat in front of me in the assembly-sized homeroom in Chapman Technical High School, New London, Connecticut, for part of my sophomore year, along with 350 other teenagers. Talking was forbidden. I just saw that red hair and those buck teeth once in a while when he happened to look sideways at something.

Twenty-nine months of dumb questions!

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