A few weeks ago I ended a column by saying “the best learning experience may be the one you never have.”
I’d like to add a word to that. Amen!
I will admit that I have pulled some genuinely dumb tricks in my life. Like the time I bit down on a piece of metal that I should have known had 110 volts on it.
Whew! Talk about lighting up your life.
But there are some things I’ve seen people do that I can’t even come close to matching. Truth is, I could sit around thinking all day and I couldn’t even come to the ones I’m going to tell you about today, especially the last one.
We’ll start with something small that seems to make the point as well as anything else. The “point” being that there are some things you do not want to learn from firsthand experience.
Mauripur Air Base, Pakistan. I dash up the steps to a C-118 which is waiting to take off. The loadmaster is standing at the door as the aircraft commander revs up his engines, waiting for the signal to get out on the runway before we have an official delay. I hand the loadmaster the manifests he’s waiting for. He takes them, turns, and calls out, “Clear to roll.” I wave to the crew handling the stairs, telling them to roll the stairs away with me still on them so we get away from the tail fins.
As the stairs roll I watch the loadmaster turn, step forward, and say, “Hey, what about ...?” He steps out of the aircraft into thin air. Down he goes.
Eleven feet down! Result: Two broken legs.
What was worried about? Coffee. If he had been on a regular Air Force base the Fleet Service section would have brought out coffee for the aircraft.
Seems he forgot where he was.
Too bad. I’ll bet he never forgot again though.
Think that’s dumb, Johnny? Try this ...
One January morning I come strolling into work at Sampson Air Force Base in upstate New York, which may not be the coldest place on the planet, but it tries.
“Watch the falling glass!” someone yells at me as I stroll the path next to a barracks where I have a room I share with a lame-brained DI named Billy Dille (pronounced Dilly).
“What gla ...?” I start to ask, but I look up and the question kinda sorta answers itself.
The glass from all the burned out, blackened windows in the also burned out, blackened barracks.
Seems that Billy Dille got too warm the night before. And Billy, being a Dille, and also the laziest creature on the planet, decided it was too much trouble to adjust the damper in the hot air duct, so he stuffed a pillow into the duct, with perfectly predictable results.
Unfortunately, he woke up when the fire started.
Fortunately for him, so did the 128 basics living in the barracks. I was gone off to a new base when Billy’s court martial took place, but I hear it was a — you guessed it — dilly. I have no idea how many years they gave him, but rumor has it they charged him for the barracks and he had to stay in until he paid for it.
But Billy, as dumb as he was, didn’t even run a close second to Charlie Latham, a dodo I met at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. Charlie, who could not have found his behind if you let him use both hands and gave him the whole day, thought he was the greatest motorcyclist who ever roared down the pike.
I’ve seen people who made me nervous, but Charlie and that beat up old bike of his worried me half to death. He seemed to be determined to die. Every day, every single day, he had another hair-raising tale to tell. And he never seemed to realize that each one of them should have ended in a funeral.
To be honest, I know nothing about riding a bike, but I had two good friends who were bikers and they told me that the things Charlie did on his old junker were nothing short of suicide. They even talked to him about it, but it did no good.
Between Sheppard Air Force Base and Wichita Falls was a long, empty stretch of scrubby countryside. Just about halfway along that stretch, a dirt road went out into the scrub, running up and down hill to a stone quarry. My two biker friends were out putting along that road one night. It hadn’t rained for a long time and the road was hard and solid. It had been a blazing hot day and they were enjoying a cool clear night under the sky.
But who had to show up? Charlie, of course.
By that time they were so tired of Charlie’s antics they told him to get lost. He took off, and for a while they thought he had gotten the message and actually left. But knowing Charlie as they did, they wondered if he might pull one of usual dumb tricks, like pulling out of the brush and racing off in front of them, just to shake them up. So they putt-putted up to the edge of a bluff, turned off their headlights, and had a look around.
And sure as heck, there was Charlie, headlight on, hiding in some brush up the road half a mile or so away. Obviously, he was sitting there waiting for them to come by.
Engines off, they quietly rolled their bikes down off the bluff, cranked up, and rode off in the opposite direction.
Charlie, being the patient type, apparently sat there off the road and waited until he saw two headlights coming. Then he gunned his engine, swung into the road, and drove between the headlights to “shake up the troops” as he used to put it.
It was a dump truck carrying a load of stone from the quarry.
I’ve always wondered what went through Charlie’s head as he saw that big old radiator coming at him out of the night.
We’ll never know, of course, but I’m willing to bet he wasn’t thinking about having the last laugh.