Last week we talked about life as an un-learning experience. We took note of the fact that we may start out as the center of the universe, lying on our backsides, stamping our feet, messing our diapers, and wailing until we get attention, but there comes a time when all that has to be unlearned.
It’s supposed to happen by the time we’re out of our teens.
For some it does. For some it doesn’t.
It’s unfortunate when it doesn’t because it’s our nature to chase off bird brains who insist on staying children beyond their allotted years. In a “state of nature,” as anthropologists so nicely put it, the clan would put up with a grown-up-kid for just so long. Then it picked up some rocks and drove off the offender.
Too bad we can’t do that now. Life would be a lot simpler. The overgrown brats could go off somewhere and live on their own.
Hm-m-m-m ...? I wonder ...? Could we? California?
How about it, Johnny? Could we pass a law?
Nah! Supreme Court would get us for sending people over there. Cruel and unusual punishment.
Anyway, I reached my 19th year and found myself living in an open-bay barracks at Otis Air Force Base, Massachusetts. And I’ll tell you what, I’m glad I did. I learned more during the 34 months of my first Air Force hitch than I did in the next 34 years.
What did I learn? How to get along with people. We all did. Some of us learned it the hard way though. First there was the bully. Name: Charlie Burns. Height: 6-foot-7. Attitude: Bad.
The minute we arrived in our new barracks Charlie claimed the bunk down at the far end of the lower bay, the one up against a solid wall. A short kid named Pinkie Reams had it first. In fact, Pinkie had been there in the bay for two weeks because he came up as a member the advanced party that set up all our barracks.
Thanks to the advanced party, when we got off the trucks, all we had to do was walk into a neat, clean, warm barracks and set our barracks bags down on a bunk. The heat was on. Our bunks were made. The footlockers were in place.
The floors were mopped. The latrine was spotless. And the windows fairly sparkled.
Most of us flopped down on the first bunk we came to. Who cared? They were all alike and we were happy we had missed the work of getting the barracks all spruced up. But not Charlie Burns. He swaggered down the center aisle, bent down, picked up the footlocker of the bunk nearest the back wall, dumped its contents on the floor, and said, “This bunk is mine.”
Five-foot-4-inch Pinkie Reams, who just a minute before had been smiling and enjoying the thanks of the other guys for setting up the whole barracks all by himself, saw what happened.
“Hey!” he said. “That’s my stuff. What are you doing?”
Charlie Burns put the toe of a size 13 boot against Pinkie’s stuff and gave it a shove. “Get your crap outta my area!”
In less than a minute Charlie was surrounded by 15 guys, all yelling at him. His response was to grab poor little Pinkie by the face and shove him half way down the barracks. Then he stuck out his jaw, towered over us normal-size slobs, said the bunk was his, and asked us what we were going to do about it.
Never before had I seen such a fast answer to a question. I will say that Charlie got in a few good shots — one of which almost took my head off — but in less than 10 minutes, Charlie became an ex-bully. I’m telling you, we beat on his 240-pound carcass with everything in that bay — including the mop bucket.
From that day till the last day I saw him, a week before I left Iceland, Charlie was the most mild-mannered person on Planet Earth. And you know what? He actually enjoyed the change — after he could walk on his own again, which took a few days.
What did our illustrious leaders have to say about all this? Not a word. Our barracks chief, an NCO, dropped a few hints with the first shirt, and as long as we helped Charlie out of the barracks and into ranks he was counted as fit and ready for duty.
Next came Sammy Collins, aka Joe Armpit. He was another big guy. And the green haze that followed him around was even bigger. Didn’t last too long though. About a week. Scrub brushes. A dozen of them. My was he clean! And pink! He was so pink he glowed in the dark for a day and a night.
But the most satisfying unlearning lesson I ever watched was one that happened the day the whole base was snowed in. Pete — our resident barracks nut — made himself a cool 40 bucks by running naked, during a blizzard, through 21 inches of snow, all the way over to the stockade and back. After we defrosted him, he was sitting on his bunk when some wannabe nut, looking to make a buck, made the bay another bet. He pointed at a beautiful model airplane and said, “Hey! For twenny bucks I’ll eat that model plane.”
Now it happened that in one corner of our bay there dwelt a snob by the name of Harold Willet. Harold spoke to us on occasion, but he always let it be clear that he was at least 10, or even 20, levels above us — in all ways. That Harold was still alive was solely due to the fact that he worked in the orderly room and did the payroll, which we did not want smeared with blood.
Harold hated barracks life — and us — and he showed it. He kept to himself in one corner of the bay, spending his time making model airplanes. Nice ones.
Flying models made of balsa and tissue paper. His latest one had a wingspan of over two feet.
Now, when the wannabe barracks nut offered to eat same two-foot wingspan aircraft, Pete — never to be outdone — said, “Shoot! I’ll eat that for nothing.” And, eying the look on Harold’s face, the rest of us chimed in and said that, by God, we’d join him!
“No-o-o-o-o!” yelled our resident barracks snob.
Too late! Down the the collective barracks hatch went one model plane. I had a piece of wing. A bit dry, but very crunchy.
After that, when Harold raised his snoot in the air we only had to say, “Hey! Anybody feeling hungry?”
Took us a whole week to lead a sinner into the light.