There is nothing as valuable on this stress-ridden planet as a man or woman with a natural sense of humor, someone who brings a smile to today and makes yesterday a thing to smile about. I’ve known a few people like that in my life, and I’d like to tell you about two of them.
First there was Roger, one of the 18 instructors in our small outfit at RAF Upper Heyford in England. If there was ever anyone who had a knack for putting smiles on faces, it was Roger, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t as smart as they come either. Roger was beyond a doubt the brightest all around technician I ever met. Because of the complexity of the aircraft and missiles they work on, Air Force technicians tend to be bright, but Roger was second to none. Not only did he seem to know everything there was to know about jet engines — his field — he had a firm grasp of literally everything involving mechanics or electronics.
Our outfit in England was an FTD, or Field Training Detachment. What we did was fill the gaps in the technical knowledge of the men who repaired and maintained high-tech F-111 aircraft, gaps that existed because tech schools can only be so long. After a time in school the learning curve flattens; it’s time for a man to get out there on the ramp or in the shop, get some practical experience under his belt, and take the kind of advanced training an FTD offers — practical, accumulated wisdom.
Although some instructors in our detachment had a problem keeping their classes full, Roger never did. His classes ran back-to-back. There was always a waiting list. I put that down as much to his vast sense of humor as to his knowledge and ability.
From time to time here in the column, and also on the online forum I do for the Roundup, I quote something humorous someone said. Quite often it’s what I privately call a Rogerism, because many of them came straight out of Roger’s mouth. Not only did he have a remarkable sense of humor, but he also had a knack for taking the strain out of any situation by saying just the right thing at just the right moment. I’ll give you two examples, one this week and one next week, and you’ll see what I mean.
By and large, NCOs don’t say much one way or the other about the officers who lead them. If an officer is good at what he does there’s no need to say anything; everyone knows it. If he isn’t, there’s no use saying anything, and it just makes matters worse if the troops happen to overhear a comment.
Our outfit did not fall in the chain of command of our base in the UK. We were in the Air Training Command, and very little of what happened on base affected us. There were, however, two high-ranking officers on the base who managed to make names for themselves with the troops under their direct command. One of them, a man known for being calm under fire — including the “fire” from a higher level headquarters — was the kind of commander all military people yearn to serve under. The troops called him “Stonewall” after Stonewall Jackson, one of the greatest generals this nation ever produced, a man whose Civil War battles are still studied today.
The other one was known — only among the troops and well out of his hearing — as “Stonehead.” Enough said.
One day one of the NCOs in our little outfit — I’ll call him Mike — came in ranting and raving about a petty regulation which Stonehead had dreamt up, one which would have made life very difficult for Mike’s family. He was really angry about it, and with good reason; it was utter nonsense. He was so angry about it he was determined to go over to headquarters and have it out with Stonehead personally. We were all sitting around in the break room when Mike suddenly stood up to go.
“I’m going to go kill that SOB!”
Roger as always able to find the just the right thing to say at the right time. He looked up, grinned that grin of his, and said, “C’mon, Mike. Don’t be a pain in the a-s all of your life.”
It was such an outrageous comment that one by one a roomful of old soldiers began to break up. And then, little by little, a smile blossomed on Mike’s face. A moment later all of us were literally rolling around on the floor.
The best part? The new reg was almost immediately revoked, saving Mike from being busted for nothing.
I tell you, Johnny, there isn’t another man on the planet who could have come up with a comment like that.
Except maybe a young NCO named Jerry that I’ll tell you about next week.