One thing that never fails to amaze me is that I was once the target of a communist conspiracy. That’s what I said, a communist conspiracy. Me personally! And my drill instructor partner, Hondo.
It happened at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas where Hondo and I were responsible for three barracks of basic trainees.
Hondo, as I’ve mentioned in another column was totally nuts, but he was the best DI I ever met, and the best partner you could ask for.
Most of the basics that came through Sheppard were right out of high school. Hondo and I were each 24. The six-year difference between us and the troops may not seem like much, but it was. We were grown men and the troops were just kids.
Once in a while an older trainee came through. One was an Irishman named Cletus J. Ryan who was earning his citizenship by serving in the military.
Ryan was different from most basics — older, quieter, more serious-minded. He often wandered over to the little office Hondo and I had in one of our barracks. He had four weeks to wait ’til his tech school opened and he’d drop in to chat. We enjoyed that Irish brogue of his so we made him welcome.
One day Hondo, who was always up to something, decided that our office needed painting. I had never seen a barracks room with walls which were anything else except bare unpainted wood so I asked him why. His answer was typical of Hondo. “Great gobs of greasy gopher gravy, Garrett! Does there have to be a reason?”
In Hondo’s world the reason for doing anything was to get it done. And once he made up his mind to do something, the fact that he had made a decision to do it was all the reason he needed for going to work. And let me tell you, wandering into a mine field of circular Hondologic is no fun. I tried it once. Never again!
I asked about the color, thinking Hondo would say something like olive drab. Ho! Ho! Ho! Baby blue and white.
A few days later Ryan dropped in, saw the paint and brushes, and volunteered to do the job, saying he was bored stiff doing nothing all day. A week later there it was: Our office. Baby blue walls and white trim. Prettiest barracks room I’ve ever seen.
Three or four weeks after the room was painted our squadron commander, Lieutenant Reyes, called Hondo and I in. We reported and saluted and he told us to draw up chairs and sit down. Then he began asking some of the craziest questions I had ever heard. One of them was, “Airman Garrett, have you ever had Airman Hondo kneel down in back of a trainee and then pushed the trainee over him?”
There were a lot of those. Hondo and I laughed each time we answered no.
Then I noticed that Lieutenant Reyes was looking down and reading from a letter. Frowning, I asked him, “If you don’t mind, Lieutenant, why are you asking all these crazy questions?”
He turned the letter around and pushed it across the desk. At its top I read Headquarters USAF. “This letter,” Lieutenant Reyes said, “signed by the Inspector General, says you two have done all those things. As of this moment you are both relieved of duty and are hereby ordered to report to the legal office.”
As we soon found out, seven of our basic trainees had gotten together and written a letter to the uncle of one of them, who was a lieutenant colonel in Headquarters USAF. At the legal office we talked to a major who was supposed to be our defense attorney. He looked like he didn’t believe a word we said. Surprise!
For six weeks Hondo and I “reported for duty” every day and sat in our pretty little office doing nothing. Oh we did something all right. We worried.
For six weeks straight. Worry, worry, and more worry. The worst six weeks of my life. And the longest. Hondo and I each lost a lot of weight waiting for the court martial that was coming. Naturally, our “defense attorney” only made it worse.
And no one would tell us the names of the %$#@! basics!
One day a runner came over from the orderly room and told us the First Sergeant wanted to see us right away. Needless to say we were there in about 30 seconds flat. And when Sergeant Adams told us to take a pair of seats near his desk and be quiet, we sat. By that time if someone had told us to jump up and stick to the ceiling we’d have been in there trying. Believe me!
A civilian in a gray flannel suit was sitting next to us, but we paid no attention to him. After about five minutes our buddy Ryan came walking in.
“You wanted to see me, Sergeant?” he asked Sergeant Adams, who looked and waved a hand toward the civilian.
The civilian stood up. “Are you Cletus J. Ryan?”
“Yes, sor, I am.”
“Born April 18, 1934 in County Cork, Ireland?”
“Arrived at Ellis Island on April 13th of this year?”
“Yes, sor. I believe that is correct.”
Handcuffs appeared. “You’re under arrest. Turn around.”
After they left, Sergeant Able smiled at us for the first time in weeks.
“You two are off the hook. Go see your attorney.”
Turns out that our Irish buddy Ryan was a card carrying member of the Irish Communist Party sent to the United States to enlist in the Air Force and create some kind of incident. He talked seven basics into signing a phony letter, saying that it was “for the good of the service and the country.” Idiots!
A week or so later Hondo and I, who were at last starting to relax a little, were told to report to Colonel Jakes, the group commander. Knowing that an apology was coming for the shameful way we had been treated, we argued about accepting it without letting the good colonel know what we thought about being kept out of the loop for six long weeks. I won. We decided to just say nothing.
Two hours later, we stood at a brace in front of a bird colonel’s desk as he said, “I just want you two to know that as far as I’m concerned where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
No, we didn’t leap over the desk and strangle the stupid SOB. We should have, but we didn’t. We just chalked it up to experience, happy our necks were off the chopping block and we could breathe again.
But please! Don’t ever tell me that where there’s smoke ...