There’s an old military expression that says, “Never volunteer!” I don’t remember the first time I ever heard it, but it wasn’t long after I first raised my hand and swore an oath to faithfully serve my country.

However, there are some people in uniform who swear that same oath, but ignore the fact that it ends with “... according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”

Not only that, but altogether too many of those people don a uniform, sit down behind a desk, and have no problem with pulling the wool over the eyes of young men and women instead of doing their jobs honestly and forthrightly, and I had well over three years in uniform before that fact began to dawn on me.

So come with me and learn how dumb some people — by which I mean me, of course — can be.

In May 1955 I was in Base Personnel at Sampson Air Force Base, New York, having re-enlisted after having been a civilian from July 1953 to May 1955. A huge room was filled with desks where we were being processed. A master sergeant looked at me and told me that even though I had scored the maximum on all seven of the Air Force tests for different career fields my slight color blindness would keep me from doing most of the things I would have liked doing.

He pointed up at a board showing part of what I was eligible for. What I saw on that list was not too encouraging: Air Police, admin, food service ...

“But!” he said, grinning at me. “With your scores, I have something I’ll bet you would love!”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“How’d you like to go to Yale University for nine months?”

“Go to Yale for nine months?”

“Yep! Sound good?”

“Sounds great, but what would I be studying?”

“You’d be learning to speak Mandarin Chinese.”

I have to tell you, three years of French in high school was OK, but I had no great desire to learn Chinese. On the other hand I was definitely NOT interested in Air Police, admin, or food service. Plus which, Yale was just 45 miles from home in New London, and I could drive home on weekends.

So my answer was, “OK, I guess.”

“Great! Sign right here.”

He then had me sign a “volunteer statement” and four weeks later I was sitting in a classroom on the same base with the 70 of us out of 225 “volunteers” who had passed the FBI screening for a top secret clearance. Up front was one of two Yale professors who were teaching us the first three weeks of the course. The rest would be taught at Yale.

About the middle of the first week I asked myself a question. “Where am I going to be stationed, and what am I going to be doing, after I leave Yale?”

The answers?

• Where? On top of some mountain in Korea, Taiwan, or the Philippines.

• Doing what? Listening to the Chinese talking to each other on radio, and writing it all down in English.

And then what? And then more of the same, and more, and more again.

Why? Because that “volunteer statement” I had been conned into signing said that I willingly gave up my rights, protected by Air Force regulations, to not have to serve more than one overseas tour in a row in an isolated area.

“Oh joy!” I said to myself. “Twenty years in Korea?”

More next week.

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