I arrived at Tachikawa Air Base, Japan, with a dual dose of odd reputation, one part deserved, the other totally insane.
Regarding the first part, there were 28 men in my squadron who I had personally put through basic training back at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.
Happened like this: The Air Force decided to break basic training into two phases, putting the troops through Phase I at Lackland AFB, and through Phase II at whichever base they went to tech school. At Sheppard, I was in the squadron which housed men going through the Air Passenger or Air Freight courses, so most men who went through either of those two courses had me for his DI.
When the Air Force did away with professional DIs, I was allowed to choose any school on base I wanted to attend. I was heartbroken. I didn’t care what I did. If I wasn’t going to be out of doors, drilling troops, running the obstacle course, teaching men how to shoot, and living the best part of military life — the military part — who cared what I did? I didn’t.
When I found out I wasn’t going to be a DI anymore, I took the shortest course on the base just to get out of there. That was the Air Passenger and Operations Course. When I got to my new outfit on McGuire AFB in New Jersey, there were 33 men I had put through basic training. And as I’ve already said, at Tachi there were 28.
The other half of my reputation — don’t ask me how it got started — was a rumor that I was a major in the OSI, the Air Force equivalent of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. It was idiotic, but the more I tried to convince people it wasn’t true, the more they smiled and said, “Sure, Garrett. We believe you.”
It probably didn’t help much that just a year earlier at Sheppard I had been a two-stripe DI, and suddenly here I was wearing four stripes and working in a new career field. I told them I’d just been lucky, and had twice been promoted in minimum time. They didn’t believe me, of course. Who would?
Anyway I wasn’t much worried about it. I had a worse problem. Some genius decided to put me in charge of — of all things! — the VIP lounge in the air terminal. What did I know about dealing with high ranking officers and civilian VIPs? I was used to working with basic trainees for crying out loud!
Can you picture a guy who loves the out of doors being stuck in the VIP lounge of an air terminal? Surrounded by high ranking brass and civilian weenies? Spending his day saying, “Yessir.”
I hated it! It was the worst job I ever had in my life!
I made up my mind to get out of there.
It wasn’t hard to figure out how to do that; all I had to do was screw up.
But that wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I had to be careful to screw up just the right amount, bad enough to be yanked out of the VIP lounge, but not bad enough to fix it so I’d be a staff sergeant for the rest of my very short Air Force career.
I thought about it for a while, but couldn’t come up with anything clever.
Then fate dropped the solution in my lap.
When I was first assigned to the VIP lounge it fell directly under the lieutenant colonel who ran the entire air terminal, but a couple of weeks later, the VIP lounge was turned over to a first lieutenant who was just about the worst schmuck I ever came across in the my 21 years in the service.
The minute I saw that bird brain I knew my day of freedom had arrived. To begin with, he had gone through West Point. West Point for God’s sake! I have never met any other Air Force officer who entered the service after the Army and Air Force separated who had attended West Point. And I’ve never heard of one either. Why would you go into the Air Force? Why not the Army? In the Army, being a West Point graduate is as close to a guarantee of a successful career as you can get. Check the background of the highest ranking Army officers. Try to find one who isn’t a West Point graduate.
It ain’t easy.
So what was my boy doing in the Air Force working as — of all things! — an admin officer?
Want to know what I think? About the time he graduated from West Point, Korea was heating up. And young Army lieutenants who serve in combat are not noted for living into old age. That’s one reason I respect them so much. They put their lives on the line.
Young Air Force admin officers on the other hand ...
Need I say more?
Anyway, the minute my new boss talked to me, I knew I had a free pass out of the VIP lounge. The very first thing he said was, “Now sergeant, I want us to give real service in this VIP lounge. The minute you see a briefcase you run and grab it.”
Yeah, sure. In a pig’s eye!
So I bided my time. Two days later the lieutenant was there when a bird colonel put down a fat briefcase. My boy pointed and whispered. “Go, Garrett! Go! Get the briefcase!”
I just stared at him, and when he said it again I told him, “Lieutenant, if you want someone to carry that briefcase, you’re going to have to go grab it yourself.”
There’s a section of the Air Terminal Squadron that sweeps and mops the passenger aircraft, vacuums the seats, and cleans the on-board latrines. It’s called fleet service. The very next day I was in charge of a shift in fleet service. I was also:
a. Famous because what I said to one very unpopular first lieutenant was overheard by a couple of men in our squadron.
b. Free at last of any suspicion that I was an officer because I had proven I had the right attitude for an enlisted man.
c. Happy as a pig in you-know-what, with which substance I was to become very well acquainted over the next few months.
Ah, but that’s just the beginning of the tale. Wait’ll you hear what a blast it was to be in fleet service with all the other misfits, ne’er-do-wells, and out-and-out nuts.
Next week ...