Look Under A Helmet And You May Find Something You Don’T Expect

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I don’t know how many times I’ve had someone who has never worn a uniform look at me and say, “Oh, you military people are all alike!”

Talk about wrong! That is so wrong that someone should create a whole new category of wrong for it. It’s even worse than Neville Chamberlain coming home from his Munich tete-a-tete with Adolph and holding up a sign that said,

“Peace in our time!”

Every once in a while someone asks, “How wrong can you get?” “You military people are all alike!”

It does not get any more wrong than that.

I don’t exactly know why it is, but the average military outfit contains more oddballs, characters, kooks, wackos, zanies, and just plain nuts than the Kalifornia Legislature.

Well, maybe not that many. I don’t want to stretch it.

Take the first outfit I served in, the 103rd Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron, Connecticut Air National Guard. No, better still, just take my barracks up on Otis AFB in Massachusetts. That barracks had more squirrel bait in it than Jimmy Carter’s peanut farm.

Take Vinny for example, a kid I didn’t know because the 103rd was separated into three detachments before we were nationalized and only came together afterward. “Nationalized” meaning: “Nyah! Nyah! You tried to beat the draft but we got you anyway!”

Vinny was a kid who came from another detachment, so I didn’t know him when I first got to Otis after we were called up. At the time I met him I had already volunteered for food service to get out of a radio section with no radios. Food service is considered to be the lowest of the low in the military, even lower than whale manure, which is on the bottom of the ocean, but I didn’t care.

I was going nuts doing nothing. Baking gave me a life.

I was already living in the cooks’ barracks when I met Vinny, a place where things were a shade more sane than in the rest of the outfit because we actually had something to do — cook and bake. The rest of the troops spent their time “simulating training,” or so we were told whenever we asked what we were doing.

How do you “simulate” training? Easy. You do nothing.

A lot of gambling went on in the two small empty NCO rooms downstairs in the cooks’ barracks. Most of time the guys shot crap. I stuck my head in the door now and then, attracted by yells like, “Come on! Niner from Santa Catalina!” Or, “Feed me, dice! Gimme two strings of rabbit stuff.” (I found out that meant a six.)

Gambling didn’t interest me. I didn’t have to get down on my knees on the floor of a beat up old WWII barracks and throw little plastic cubes around to get rid of my pay. Thirty-two bucks a month managed to disappear without any particular help from me. But I did look in and watch every once in a while.

World War II barracks had a downstairs bay, an upstairs bay, two NCO rooms near the front door, and a small NCO room upstairs next to what was called a “squad room,” why I don’t know. Because I worked nights and had to sleep days amidst a barracks full of maniacs I was assigned to the small NCO room upstairs. One day, having just spent a few minutes watching money change hands as the dice flew, I went back up to my room to doze. I no sooner lay down than Vinny came in and grabbed me by the arm. “C’mon, Garrett.”

I didn’t even know he knew my name. “Where we goin?”

“Never mind. C’mon.”

So I went. Why not? Beats dozing.

A minute later we were back downstairs and Vinny was rolling dice.

Wondering what I was doing there, I watched in amazement as he raked in more money than I had made in the past six months.

When the game broke up Vinny patted me on the back. “Thanks,” he said, handing me sixty bucks.

“Thanks for what?” I asked staring down at two months pay. “You’re my good luck charm. Every time you’re in the room I win. Every time you leave, I lose.”

That’s right. That’s what the man said. And as crazy as it was, there was no way to get him to change his mind or take back the money, something I didn’t work at too awfully hard.

Two days later I had a new trainee baker on the night shift with me — Vinny.

I guess he wanted to stay close to his good luck charm. So I taught him how to bake and we shared my little room.

Yeah, I know. I shared a room with a nut. You didn’t have to tell me that.

I already knew it.

One night after Vinny had become a fairly decent baker he grabbed me by the collar with his usual, “C’mon.”

This time he led me to the empty bay up above our orderly room, which was in an ordinary barracks. There sat seven high ranking NCO’s. I had never seen so many stripes in my life. They were playing poker, which was against regulations, but then that bunch could do anything they wanted I suppose. I learned later that it was the monthly Big Wheels Poker Game. How Vinny knew about it I don’t know, but then Vinny knew everything.

After a while one of them dropped out, flat broke. Vinny asked to join in.

They laughed, but when he laid six twenties on the table they let him in. He frowned at me. “You sit, got it?”

So sit I did. Every once in a while Vinny passed me a twenty or two which I stuffed in a pocket. Two hours later, when the game broke up only one person was grinning —Vinny.

We took the loot and — believe it or no t—washed and pressed it. My half was $322, the most jinxed money I ever made in my life. Ever had every %$#@@! NCO in the outfit mad at you when you were wearing one lousy stripe?

Take my advice, don’t try it.

But that was just the beginning for Vinny.

For him, thinking that another human being was a good luck charm was perfectly normal. The next thing he did was....

Uh-oh. Running out of space.

See you next week. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

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