You know a big problem with being young, Johnny? When we’re young we lack the experience to recognize that what looks like an easy job may turn out to be a lot harder. A great deal depends on an unpredictable human factor.
There are times when we sally forth full of confidence, happy to be who we are, and glad to be doing we’re doing. We just know that this job, unlike others that have preceded it, is going to be a piece of cake. A little time, a little effort, and — bingo!
And then comes the part that youth does not prepare us for: The human side of the job. The part that isn’t in the instruction book. The part you have to learn the hard way.
I was happy my first day behind the Border Clearance counter in the passenger terminal at Travis AFB, Calif.
At my prior duty station in Karachi there had been so many different problems involved in trying to get cargo, passengers and mail on and off Air Force aircraft I sometimes thought I’d blow a fuse. So when they told me that all I was going to do was check a few passports, visas, shot records and orders in an air-conditioned terminal I actually laughed.
“What?” I thought. “No monsoon rains hammering the runway so hard I can’t see the aircraft landing? No 120-degree weather threatening to melt my passengers as they climb the stairs into a 130-degree aircraft? No unannounced planes with 18-foot-high stacks of mail for me to unload at six in the morning on New Year’s Day after a New Year’s Eve that ended at three? No deadly little sand kraits intermixed with cargo during a night on load — snakes whose bite kills in minutes?”
No kidding? None of that? Hey, I’m ready! Bring on the passengers!
Have you ever had the good luck to look into the hope-filled eyes of the first passenger after lunch and seen a weary mother doing her best to keep track of six little kids? Have you ever had to face telling that mother that she — and the kids — are not going on that shining aircraft outside on the ramp? Not today. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not for a whole month.
I’ll tell you what, Johnny. That’s not an easy thing to do. Give me the monsoons anytime.
How could that happen? Cholera shots are given in three parts, one part today, one part in two weeks, and one part two weeks after that — six weeks all told. All it takes to delay a woman and her children traveling overseas to be with their husband and father is one bone-headed medic who doesn’t follow directions, and so gives them their first of the triple set of injections, and neglects to give them the rest.
That’s right. On my first day.
I knew there was no way out of the dilemma. Sending a woman and children into an area where cholera is endemic would be like pointing a gun at their heads. I know. I’ve been there. I’ve seen people suddenly stop talking, fall flat on their faces, and be carried off, never to return. Cholera, typhoid fever, plague, yellow fever, smallpox, and the other half dozen or so shots we got in such places were not wasted; they were lifesavers.
“Ma’am,” I said, thinking as fast as I have ever thought in my life, “let me get someone who can help you with your children as we handle a minor problem. I’ll be right back.”
I shot out from behind that counter, headed down the hallway, roped in a WAF captain who listened to what I had to say and came with me without the slightest hesitation. She took all six kids into her lounge, where she took care of them as I led their mother down the hall to the medic’s office.
It was a Navy medic who got the job of telling that mother she was going to be there at Travis for four weeks, but by that time I had told the NCOIC of my section that I was going to be gone for a while, had called ahead, gotten her a room in the Transient Quarters, called for transportation, checked on how and where they would eat each day, retrieved their luggage from the loading cart on the ramp and put it in a van, and was back at the medic’s small room to help the poor woman and her six little kids into the van.
It was still the worst day on a new job I have ever had.
Four weeks later, almost to the day, that poor woman and her six children showed up at my counter again. She looked at me and said, “Thank you, Sergeant Garrett. It took me a while to realize how much you did for us the last time we were here. God bless you for being so kind and considerate.”
I have no idea what I said in return. I know I smiled though.
I smiled even more another time I’ll tell you about next week.