Last week I told you about Chuck Dunlap, someone I will never be able to thank enough even if I live to be a thousand. Not only did he get me out of a ridiculous assignment running a VIP lounge for a young officer who thought that the way to earn four stars was to spend all his time punching his career ticket*, but Chuck then arranged for me to work for a man who eventually became one of the few humans to ever set foot on the moon — Jim Irwin.
(*It wasn’t. That same year was his last in the Air Force.)
When he got done with that, Chuck arranged a transfer to one of the most highly secret, and important, programs the Air Force ran during my years in uniform — the U-2 project. It was there that I met and fell in love with my beloved wife. It would be fair to ask how much one man can do for another, but as remarkable as it may seem, Chuck found a way to do more.
Lolly and I spent two happy years together in Karachi, and we could not have been happier, but I soon found myself face-to-face with a problem, along with 867,000 other people in Air Force blue.
Peacetime is a wonderful thing. It is the ultimate goal of the military. In fact, the Air Force in my day had a sign on all Air Force bases which you saw as you passed through the main gate.
It said, “Peace is our product.”
For career people in the military, peace is something that has to be considered each time re-enlistment time rolls around. Promotions gush from headquarters like oil from a well during the buildup to war. My brother Frank went from slick-sleeve rookie to master sergeant in less than a year during World War II, and he did it without ever leaving the states. Then overseas to Europe he went, faced with the distinct possibility that his slot might soon be recycled to some other “lucky” rookie, which explains the fast promotion cycle. Luckily, that did not happen, but it could have.
During every peacetime era, Congress starts yelling about cutbacks — especially in men and women. That’s what I ran into immediately after my first re-enlistment. I made staff sergeant in a very short period of time — between May 1955 and August 1958, not a world record, but nothing to be ashamed of in peacetime. But then the truth became painfully obvious. I realized I had hit a stone wall. Promotion to tech sergeant was virtually impossible.
I was stationed at McGuire AFB when I made staff sergeant. The moment I sewed on that fourth stripe, the Air Force selected me, along with a dozen or so other fast burners, to spend a week at the NCO Academy in Florida. “In order,” they said, “to motivate you toward promotion.” We chuckled about that when we heard it. To motivate us to get promoted? Were they kidding?
Anyway, we arrived at the academy in sleepy Orlando, Fla., which back then used to roll up the sidewalks at 7 p.m. each night. We were shown around the academy for a few days, given the 25-cent guided tour and administered some test or other on our fourth morning. That afternoon the first sergeant of the academy passed us standing in the hallway. The academy commander, a full colonel, was with him. As they passed us the first sergeant pointed at me and said, “That’s Garrett, right there.”
The rest of the new NCOs looked at me, grinned, and began asking me what I’d done wrong. They didn’t have much time to rib me about it though because a minute later a master sergeant showed up and told me to come with him to the commander’s office.
Once there I saluted and reported, wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into this time. And how?
“At ease, Sergeant Garrett,” the colonel told me. He paused for a minute or so, looking up at me with a set jaw and a stern, almost angry, face. Then he frowned and said. “Sergeant, I have a question for you. You did very well on that test you took this morning. Very well indeed. Can you explain that for me?”
That took me by surprise. I had to think for a moment before I answered. “Well, sir,” I said. “Many of the questions were about military customs and courtesies, and quite a few were on Air Force history. I just finished a tour as a drill instructor and those were easy questions for me because I used to teach those things.”
His face changed from a deep frown to a broad smile. “Ah, I see.” Then he floored me with, “That was the final exam for the academy. You’re the first person who ever achieved a perfect score on it, and you haven’t even attended the academy.”
Then he added, “Sergeant Garrett, I’d like to have you here as an instructor. We need men like you. As soon as you make tech sergeant just drop me a letter and I’ll have you assigned here.”
I thanked him and said I would be very happy to do that, but even as I walked out of his office I knew that by the time I sewed on another stripe he would probably be sitting in a rocker on a front porch somewhere. I’ll bet I was right.
Four assignments and four years later in 1962 I was stationed at Travis AFB in California — still a staff sergeant! In spite of the fact that every performance report I’d had since I made staff sergeant went right down the right hand side — a perfect score, no one in either of my two career fields was adding the crucial fifth stripe that would guarantee his being able to stay in the service and make a career out of the Air Force. I was getting worried.
And I had another problem. I had been given a very responsible and high-profile job in the Air Terminal: Border Clearance NCO, and while doing that job I had been discovered by one fine looking WAF first lieutenant and transferred into her training office. That was OK, but I was now receiving very clear messages that she was single, available, and not at all concerned about regulations that forbid fraternization between enlisted and commissioned ranks.
Well I was concerned about them! Lolly, remember?
But guess what? I walked into the PX and there was — Ta! Da! — Chuck Dunlap, now at Travis AFB Headquarters, who immediately upon hearing about my dilemma got me transferred to Hill Air Force Base in Utah, where working in the largest squadron in the Air Force during a special data-gathering program set me up for promotion to tech sergeant, and soon after that to master sergeant.
With that taken care of, I applied for the best assignment in my career field — a rare plum — training and education advisor. In that position I spent six happy years traveling around teaching other people how to teach. And then I retired — 39 years ago.
I’ll ask it again, Johnny.
How much can you owe to one person?