Some People You Can Never Repay No Matter How You Try

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Eighty years is a long time to live. It gives you a chance to have a lot of fun. You not only get to do all kinds of things you never imagined you would get to do, you get to do them in places you never imagined you would see.

That’s fine. Wonderful in fact. But there’s a downside.

By living so long you accumulate a lot of debts, very special debts, debts you owe to people who have had such an impact on your life that without them it would have been altogether different.

Obviously, we can never fully repay such debts. No matter how hard we try they will always remain unpaid. Still, I’ve always hoped that if I opened my eyes one morning and discovered that I died quietly in my sleep, I’d at least be able to say that I did my best to acknowledge my debts, even if I could not repay them.

This is a chance to do that, so here we go, Johnny.

We’ll skip my beloved wife, of course. There aren’t enough words in the language, or enough paper to print them on, for me to even begin to say how much I owe Lolly. She hasn’t just made our marriage everything a marriage can be; she has been, still is, and always will be, my life.

There were other people who did great things for me — one in particular. His name was Chuck Dunlap. I have never mentioned him in these pages, and yet without Chuck Dunlap, I would be a different person, leading a different life, in a different place.

I guess that qualifies Chuck as having had a slight impact on my life, wouldn’t you agree, Johnny?

I met Chuck Dunlap at Tachikawa Airbase, Japan. I’d been transferred there as an Air Passenger and Operations NCO from McGuire AFB, New Jersey. I’d only gotten into the Air Passenger and Operations field because the Air Force had done away with professional drill instructors. I had to choose some school to go to, and not caring much what it was because I hated to leave the job I had, I chose one of the two schools that roughly a thousand or so of my basic trainees had gone through.

Surprise! When I got to McGuire there were 28 of my ex-basics in my squadron, and when I got to Tachi I was looking at 35 of them. I’ve always suspected it was a good thing I hadn’t been one of those DIs who were nothing but loud mouth and bad attitude.

The troops have their ways of evening the score. You know?

Anyway, as I reported in to the First Sergeant he looked up at me, smiled, and said he had just the job for me. I suppose he meant it, but he sure had the wrong man. I ended up in charge of the VIP Lounge in Tachikawa’s very large and very busy terminal.

Remember now, what I loved about being a DI was the fact that it was a no-nonsense job. I had 60 troops to train, my main task was to teach them what it meant to be in the military (simple: the mission comes first), I spent most of my time out of doors doing that, and I didn’t have to depend on anyone else to get the job done. It was just me and 60 men. If I didn’t do well I had no one to blame but myself, and if I did well, the credit was mine.

That’s my kind of job.

But run the VIP Lounge? Hell, all they needed in that place was some flunkey who had excelled in Bowing & Scraping 101, and that was not me. Not only that, but my boss was a First Louie who had graduated from — of all places! — West Point and had yet to snap to the fact that he was wearing Air Force blue.

The Army is one thing; the Air Force is another. The Army has the hard job in a war — to fight and die. And in peace it has an even harder job — to train, train, train, and train. And when you get done with that, to train some more. Mind you, the Air Force, taken as a whole, trains, but 95 percent of the time, 95 percent of the men in Air Force blue are not training; they are doing the same jobs they do during a war. It is only those who fly combat missions in a war who train during peace, and that is a very small part of the whole force. The rest of the men do all the things that enable the real combat people, mostly officers, to fight and — sadly — to die.

Our West Point man did not understand that. He could not shake off the idea that all military outfits train all the time. And he had the idiotic idea that the chicken-spritz needed to keep the troops in line in the Army had a place in the Air Force.

Let me tell you, Johnny, it doesn’t. Jumping on some poor mechanic about the state of his uniform when he just came off the flight line and is covered with grease he got into making sure some plane is not going to fail in combat is not a way to endear yourself to the troops. Nor is trying to convince me that while regulations neither require — nor allow — earning brownie points by carrying hand baggage for VIPs it is the way up the career ladder.

Oy! Me and my dud of a First Louie! Talk about oil and water!

But along came Chuck Dunlap. He showed up in my workplace, said he was in charge of Wing Training, and told me that one of my troops (to whom I will forever be grateful) had mentioned that I had a background in training. That verified, he arranged for me to take over the training office. With a new boss too — First Lt. Jim Irwin. Ever heard of him? The pilot on Apollo 15? The eighth human to ever walk on the moon?

Did we get along? Has a cat got a tail?

That training office literally hummed. Jim Irwin was smart enough to know that all he had to do was stay out of the way and let me work. We do train in the Air Force, you know. Just like the Army, we train to get better at our job — which is to keep aircraft flying, radar and radio sets operating, ammo dumps filled, trucks and jeeps rolling, men fed, roads and runways maintained, supplies coming in, paperwork moving, and whatever.

I was a happy camper. Back in training and loving it.

Then came a day Chuck happened to look at me and say, “You know, Garrett, it’s too bad you don’t have a top secret clearance. Have I got the perfect job for you.”

“Who says I don’t have a top secret clearance?”

And so I was transferred to ...

Karachi, Pakistan, as a minor cog in the U-2 program.

Talk about a good job! They don’t get any better!

But Chuck did a little more for me than just getting me one of the most responsible jobs on the planet, something I could really sink my teeth into. He also got me stationed where I met Lolly one great November evening and fell in love.

How do you thank someone for that?

Next week: Chuck marches on ...

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