About a year ago I was talking about what it was like to live in an open-bay barracks with weekend warriors who have just been called to active duty, most of them just out of high school. Along the way I mentioned our resident barracks genius, Ross McDowell.
Ross, I told you, was not one of the loud-mouth know-it-alls everybody hates. Not by a long shot. In fact, he was the only person I’ve ever met who could go all day without saying a word.
When he was in the barracks he often stretched out on his bunk with a magazine and read. You could look over there at Ross and there he was, hour after hour, quietly reading. Every once in a while he varied the routine. He put the magazine on his chest and slept. That was about the only time he ever made any noise.
Nor was Ross McDowell some egghead, as we used to call them in those days. He was a regular guy, as proven by the fact that everyone liked him. In an open-bay barracks that says a lot.
Nor was it that Ross had nothing to say. He had a lot to say in fact. He just saved it for the right time. At times when we were packed into a car and going somewhere, or out on one of the beaches on Cape Cod up in Massachusetts where we were stationed, Ross was right there in the conversation with everyone else. As a result, when Ross talked, people listened.
People also listened when two, or three, or four, or even half a barracks of guys came stomping into our bay to refer to the squadron encyclopedia — Ross. We all gathered around to hear what he had to say, the reason being that all too often the guys were there to settle a bet and there was nothing funnier than watching the look on the face of the loser.
Happened almost every day for a while there during the fall of 1951 when we first got to Otis Air Force Base up on Cape Cod. In would storm a bunch of guys who had been having an argument. And with them came the usual fed-up demand from someone, “Ross, tell these guys they’re nuts. They think that ...”
The subject? Could be anything. The answer? Usually one of two things: a quietly stated fact or a simple, “I don’t know.”
That was the way Ross was. If he knew, he knew, but if he didn’t know he’d say so. And no amount of verbal arm-twisting would get him to substitute an opinion for a fact. He knew better. If he had done that the argument which had raged in another barracks would have started up again in ours, and we might never have gotten rid of the troops that had come storming in.
What kind of things did the guys in my outfit argue about? Name anything dumb and you’ve got it. Here’s a question I remember well because the loser didn’t like the answer — five bucks worth.
“Hey, Ross. Can some of those religious guys over in Tibet dry wet sheets on their bodies when it’s freezing outside?”
Follow-up (from the loser): “What? How can they do that?”
Answer: “I don’t know.”
Second follow-up (from the same loser): “So how do you know it’s true if you don’t know how they do it?”
Answer: “How does a fly walk upside down on a ceiling?”
“Huh? I don’t know. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“C’mon! Do flies walk upside down on the ceiling?”
“Sure. They do it all the time. So what?”
“How do you know it’s true if you don’t know how they do it?”
See what I mean? Satisfied with that, the whole mob trooped out again, losers and all. The guy was a genius. If you challenged him he just took your words and turned them around on you.
But the best things happened whenever Ross voluntarily said something. Ross didn’t just sound off to be heard. When he said something he had a good reason for it. Usually a very good reason.
For example, our squadron was assigned three mess halls. We only needed one so the second one was used as a bakery and the third one became a break room for the cooks and bakers, who chipped in and bought an old, used TV set and a ping-pong table.
It was winter and the only heat in the mess hall used as a break room came from three large potbelly stoves that stood five feet tall and burned soft coal. Only one of them was ever lighted, the one nearest the TV set. It took a long time to throw a warm glow over the place in the evening after work, so they used to jump-start it with a couple of pounds of lard. Worked great. The lard caught fire, got the soft coal going, and soon the the break room was toasty warm.
One night some of us were sitting around watching a program. It was getting late and the fire in the potbelly stove had burned down low, but we didn’t refill it because we were ready to head for the barracks. But in came some cooks off swing shift.
“Hey,” one of them said. “It’s cold in here.”
“So put some coal on the fire, dummy,” someone told him.
The dummy shoveled a lousy two scoops of coal into the large potbelly and sat down. But a few minutes later, complaining that the stove wasn’t heating up fast enough, he jumped up, went over to the kitchen and came back with five one pound packages of lard. Tossing them in, he clanged the door shut. “There! That’ll do it.”
Five minutes later, as smoke streamed out of every crack in that old potbelly, the dummy jumped up again. “Dang it!” he said, reaching for the fire door. “It still ain’t throwin’ no heat.”
As he went to open the fire door Ross turned his eyes away from the TV set and said, “I wouldn’t do that.”
“Why?” the dummy asked, opening the door.
Before Ross could answer a loud WHUMP emerged from the stove along with a huge ball of yellow flame that enveloped both the stove and the dummy. I swear, Johnny, it lasted only a second but all we saw was flames — no dummy. Then the door clanged shut and the dummy turned, black from head to foot, but unharmed.
“That’s why,” Ross said, quietly turning back to the program.
Next week. The Ross-mobile. A piece of true genius.