The Toughest Nut I Ever Cracked


I once went through an Air Force tech school that was a whole three weeks long. In that school, in our big-time, 11-man class, I met the toughest nut I have ever had to crack.

His name was John French, and he was a master sergeant.

Sgt. French had put in his 20 years, retired, gone back to Boston, and started a taxi company. But like all 20-year retirees, he had a commitment to serve any or all of the remaining 10 years of a 30-year retirement should the Air Force call him back to active duty, which it did.

Sgt. French was not happy. To begin with, the Air Force decided it needed him in a new career field, and so he found himself in our 11-man class, along with nine one-stripe airmen, and one three-striper — me — being retrained after serving three happy years as a drill instructor. And so, poor old Master Sgt. French was the old man of that 11-man class by more than 20 years, something that really annoyed him.

It also annoyed Sgt. French that, try as he would, he just could not outscore me on the daily tests we were given. And it annoyed him that most of the instructors in the school were my friends, a perfectly natural thing because many of the basic trainees in the squadron to which I had been attached as a DI had gone through the same school we were now going through. And it annoyed him when we went to base personnel for our assignments and many of the people down there were also good friends of mine.

Frankly, I think it annoyed Sgt. French that I was alive.

It really annoyed Sgt. French that as the top man in our class, I was given my choice of the available assignments and chose McGuire AFB in New Jersey, the assignment he wanted.

He went roaring down to personnel. I swear I could hear him yelling all the way across the base. “But I’m a master sergeant!”

That didn’t matter, but my buddies in personnel did a favor for me. They brought a McGuire AFB assignment forward from the class following ours and gave it to Sgt. French. He never knew that I did that for him. It would just have annoyed him even more.

And so, not long after that, at McGuire AFB, Sgt. French became my boss.

That was fine with me, and it was more than fine with Sgt. French. It was the first time I ever saw him smile.

Then started what was, I rather suspect, one of the hardest 20 months of Sgt. French’s life.

To begin with, after working in control for about a month, I made the suggestion that we get rid of the system we were using to keep track of inbound and outbound aircraft. Why? The one we were using had obviously been designed by the Wright Brothers.

Well, the squadron commander liked my ideas, took me off the job to write them up, and then implemented them, which earned me a commendation and a promotion to staff sergeant.

That, to say the least, annoyed Sgt. French.

Then I got sent off to the NCO Academy for a couple of weeks of orientation as part of a program that was supposed to motivate young staff sergeants to get promoted so they could attend the NCO Academy, for which you had to be at least a tech sergeant.

I didn’t need any motivation for that, but I went anyway.

As part of the program, they gave my group — all of us new staff sergeants — a test on our first morning down there in Orlando, Fla. That same afternoon, as I was standing in a hallway with the group, the first sergeant pointed me out to a full bird colonel and said, “That’s Garrett right there.”

I wondered what I had done wrong and soon found out. The test they had given us was the final exam for the academy and it seems that I had aced it. When I was asked how come, with considerable suspicion showing on a bird colonel’s face, I couldn’t very well tell him the test covered the exact same things I had taught in basic training, could I? So I told him I loved the Air Force, which was true, and had learned everything I could about it.

The result was an invitation to teach at the academy as soon as I made tech sergeant, a letter of commendation to my squadron commander, and a long pitiful groan out of poor Sgt. French.

Then I made the mistake of pointing out that our Statistical Services Section wasn’t doing too well, which earned me the job of straightening it out. I won’t go into details, but I think the Wright Brothers had a hand in setting that place up, too. I started out with 18 men. I sent 11 of them to Sgt. French for reassignment because we simply did not need them.

Then I made the biggest mistake of all, I transmitted the monthly J-1 Report, due by the 10th of the next month, just after midnight on the last day of the month, got investigated by headquarters for fraud, and received yet another commendation.

I think that commendation was the last straw, the one that made up Sgt. French’s mind to get me at all costs. And so, one day he came storming into stat services, grinning from ear to ear.

“I’ve got you now, Garrett,” he bellowed. “I’ve been calling this place for an hour and no one answered. Where have you been?”

“Right here.”

“Then why didn’t you answer the phone?”

“Never rang.”

“Oh yeah? I heard it ring!”

I tried to explain that what he had heard was a breaker down at the phone company that puts a ring tone on the line so people calling a number don’t sit listening to nothing and wondering if their call has gone through.

I hope you don’t think he bought that.

But as he herded me toward the colonel’s office, presumably to have me burned at the stake, drawn and quartered, and shot at dawn, I spotted a telephone linesman up on a pole. When I stopped and asked him to verify my explanation, he not only did that, but pointed out that my phone had been disconnected for over an hour.

“Garrett,” Sgt. French said, “you lead a charmed life.”

Not long after that I received an assignment to Japan. The day I signed out, old Sgt. French came over, frowned at me, and said, “I don’t know how the hell you do it, Garrett. I’ve been trying to catch you up to something for almost two years and I’m hanged if I was ever able ever do it. I guess ... I guess I must be wrong. Maybe you’re straight after all.”

“Uh-uh, Sgt. French,” I told him. “I’m just sneaky.”

I didn’t want the poor old guy to die of a broken heart.


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