Last week I told you the sad tale of a mother and her six young children who had to spend an entire month living in transient quarters while they each received two shots that had to be given two weeks apart. I felt bad about that, terrible in fact, but it wasn’t always that hard to do my job behind the Border Clearance Counter at Travis Air Force Base.
One bright morning I handed a shot record back to a young airman who was on his way to a place where he only needed his shots if he planned to come back standing up instead of in a box.
“Ready to go,” I told him, smiling.
Then I looked up and saw a gaggle of civilians frowning at me. They looked for all the world like a construction crew, and when I looked at the orders handed to me by the first one in line, obviously the foreman from the way he handled himself, I saw that was exactly what the eight of them were.
“Trip across the pond?” I asked as I scanned the orders.
“You bet!” the foreman said confidently as I eyed a red flag in their orders that said, “No, you’re not!”
“Uh-oh!” I said.
“Whatta ya mean, uh-oh?”
“Hold on a second,” I told him. I walked through the office, told another NCO to hold down the fort for a few minutes, and walked out to the civilians, now milling around and grumbling.
“Right this way, guys,” I told them.
Halfway down a wing of the terminal I stopped at the Army ATCO, or Air Transportation Coordination Office. A master sergeant sat at a desk.
“Got a problem with some Army passengers,” I told him.
“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”
“You got a secret clearance, Sarge?”
“Clearance? Why would I need a clearance for this job?”
“The major in?”
“Yeah, but I’ll bet he ain’t got a secret clearance either.”
“Could you check?”
Pretty soon an Army major came out and eyed the herd of grumbling civilians. “We’ll have this fixed in a minute,” he told them. He frowned at me, “What’s wrong, Sergeant?”
“Is it true you don’t have a secret clearance, sir?”
“What would I need one for in this job?”
“I’ll be right back, sir.”
I walked next door to the Air Force ATCO’s office, went in, and told an Air Force major whom I knew that I had eight civilians outside who couldn’t travel where they were going because they had to pass through a country that wouldn’t let them pass through it to the one next door, with which they were almost at war.
He asked me if I was sure, so we strolled down to a safe at the other end of the terminal, and got out the classified portion of the Border Clearance Manual. There it was in black and white.
It meant that the eight civilians had to go all the way back across the country to the East Coast and take a plane from there. The major nodded his head and groaned.
“Those feather merchants are going to stand around bitching all afternoon until we can get them out of here. And they’ll be calling everybody in the whole %$#@! Army!”
“Can I handle it?” I asked him. “I speak their language.”
He grinned. “Be my guest, Sarge.”
Back at the Army ATCO I grinned at eight by now genuinely hostile looking civilians. One of them started to say something, but I put my finger up to my lips and waved them to come with me a short distance away from the Army ATCO.
“I suppose we’re not going,” the foreman grumbled.
“Wel-l-l-l,” I told him, “yes and no.”
The whole crowd started grumbling.
“Hold on,” I told them. “Where’d you folks come from?”
“All the way from damn Ohio!”
“Trip been OK so far? Having been working too hard?”
One of them smiled from ear to ear and pointed at a small blond haired guy who looked barely 20. “Well, Charlie did — with that waitress back in Kansas City.”
I knew full well that they had been living the good life and eating high on the hog — all on Uncle Sam. “Been eating OK?”
After a lot of nods and happy grunts, I asked, “You up for an overnight in Charleston, South Carolina? A quick shot through Bermuda and the Azores? An overnight in Madrid? Another quick shot through Libya and Egypt? And another overnight?”
Later, the Army ATCO major asked me, “How’d you get that bunch looking so happy?”
“I told them it was their patriotic duty to spend a night in downtown Madrid.”
You know what, Johnny?
Sometimes you just have to know how to put things.