Sunday, January 29, 2012
The Day of The Generals
One of the greatest good fortunes to befall me was that I was able to escape service in Viet Nam during the conflict there. This is the story of the beginnings of that fall into good luck.
When I arrived at Bergstrom AFB in Austin, TX, less than a year into my two years, five months, and twenty one days of service in the United States Air Force, (My daddy and most others of military service were able to state their exact period of service. I wondered why until I had done mine.) I was placed on “Reserve for Overseas Duty.” That means I could be given no assignment that would keep me from serving in the Viet Nam area of military operations. Further, I learned that, we were to be shipped out to that area in the exact order in which we arrived at Bergstrom. I quickly learned the names and the order of arrival of those before me. John was the man.
Until basic training in the Air Force I took a fairly relaxed view of working for the maximum result of any effort. Lazy, some people would call it. My GPA from high school was 2.66, from college was 2.7. My college entrance tests placed me in the top 1% of college freshmen in ability (to this point an unrealized ability. Later attempts at college would yield a 4.0 average.). Basic training gave me an attitude adjustment. The process was simple. Every positive outcome received a positive reward. Every negative outcome received a negative reward. Simple. By the time of my story I was an honor graduate of every military class and course they had given me. The key reward being I worked on aircraft cameras and control systems in a environment controlled shop instead of the uncertain weather of the flight line outside.
The our aircraft was an unarmed recon bird. (Unarmed, depending on how you felt about 24 200 million candle power flash cartridges.) It was also the primary mission of Bergstrom AFB. Our cameras and controls were the only mission of the our aircraft. Our shop made it all work. Our airplane could fly at 250 feet, 600 miles per hour and take two pictures of everything it passed over from any or all of six cameras.
One day my shop chief, Master Sargent Right, asked if I would mind showing our “equipment” to some “people”. I have a touch of the showman and agreed to do the demonstrations. Three VIP’s were coming to the base and wanted to “look around”.
My companion for these adventures was a jet engine mechanic. He was of insignificant rank, like myself. In the future we would meet several times as our "Dog and Pony" show became a feature event for those visiting the base. As you will understand later, the leadership had good reason.
The first of our distinguished guests was the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. His position was only 5 or 6 steps down from the President of the US, and way above any officer on the base. He was led around by the base commander, a two star general, and our squadron commander, a light colonel. Mr. Secretary was in his early forties, average height and build, and dressed in a suit. He showed no particular interest in us or our airplane, but was polite and listened quietly as I and my companion talked about our equipment. They moved on after a cursory look around the plane.
The second of our distinguished guests was Vice Commander of Allied Troops in Europe. This man was covered in gold decorations and lots of colorful ribbons. He may have been English. His was an amazing entourage. He was guided by a man in a uniform that I did not recognize( or I simply did not look). Behind them was a row of half a dozen or so four star generals. Behind these was a row of half a dozen or so three star generals, Then a row of two star generals, including our base commander. A row of one star generals followed the two star row then a row of full colonels. Behind this platoon of generals was a handsome young lieutenant, the head man's aid. At this late date, I have to say I do not remember even thinking of saluting any of these men.
The Vice Commander was a pleasant and personable man. He appeared to be interested; listened, asked questions, then moved on. The entourage shuffled past as if we did not exist. The aid, however paused. He seemed interested. He listened. He lingered. We asked if he wanted to see more. A polite "Yes" caused me to stand him in the camera bay and show where the cameras and controls were positioned and describe other features of our capabilities. The engine guy put him in the cockpit and showed him the operational controls of the aircraft. After his tour, the lieutenant thanked us and walked purposefully after the crowd.
Our third visitor was an Army General, with four stars. The story we heard later was that he was retiring and this visit was his last hoorah. He was delayed and the weather turned cold and misted rain. My companion and I moved under the aircraft to stay dry. After a while, an officer approached us from the pilots' ready room that was a short distance away. He offered us shelter therein. This building was occupied by a number of officers in uniform and pilots in flight suits. I still do not remember any saluting. We waited for two hours. Finally a call came in and we were hustled out to the plane where we assumed our position, in the rain and wind, beside our covered equipment. After a wait of several more minutes two cars with flags on the bumpers pulled up on the street, about 50 feet away. The general was distinguishable because of his army green uniform. He looked at us through the rain spotted window, listened to someone in the car for a few seconds, waved and was driven on.
At some point in these exercises I lost my fear of officers. The Vice Commander was, no doubt, the keystone of this change. After this, officers were just people. From time to time I was stopped and addressed by one who angrily demanded to be saluted, but for the most part, if I was paying attention, I delivered a proper salute. If not, they walked past un-noticed and unconcerned.
The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow was a letter delivered a few weeks later, under the letterhead of the Vice Commander of Allied Troops in Europe. It was addressed to the Base Commander, (remember the two star in the forth row) and copied the wing commander (the full colonel in the last row) . It was a glowing compliment of the two "troops" who showed the aircraft. It was endorsed by every officer and non-com in my chain of command. I have my copy somewhere.
From that time on, my companion and I met every VIP to visit the base. I was asked what could make the display of equipment better and was given the materials to put on a first class "Dog and Pony" show. My Squadron Commander nominated me and I was awarded Airman of the Year for Bergstrom AFB, that year. Got my picture in the base paper.
One day, John, the man ahead of me in line for Southeast Asia, got his orders. I could see the bullseye on my chest. I would be the next to go.
Miracle of miracles, I was taken off "Reserve for Overseas Duty". How? Why? Completely unanswered. But, not unnoticed. I began looking for a way out. The Arkansas Air National Guard needed people with my skills. I called and set up an interview.
At the ANG Shop I was greeted by a master sargent. He had been seated at a test bench working one of my boxes. After introductions he says "Hey, you are supposed to be an expert, tell me what is wrong with this box." This could have been a tricky question on that particular box, but after his description of the problem, I knew it was going to be an easy fix. I put my finger on a transistor and told him it was his problem. "Yes, but that transistor tests good" "Yes, that is how you know it is bad, change it and the board will work."
I was led to the Squadron Commander's office. After several minutes of chatting, the door opened and the sargent poked his head in and said "Get him, he fixed THAT box!"I was given the paper work to cause my transfer to the Arkansas ANG.
Now I had to get my squadron commander's permission to go. I remember saluting this time. Colonel, was a rather pleasant black man, educated and well spoken. Unusual on all points, at that time in the military. I described my request and handed him my paper work. After several thoughtful minutes, he said "I am not in the habit of giving away my best troops." "Colonel, it won't matter. I am next up for transfer to Viet Nam." After more thoughtful minutes he said "I will have to give this more thought" and dismissed me. Salute. A week later he approached me at a local high school football game. We were both in civies. No Salute. "I will be sorry to lose you. I have signed your transfer papers and turned them in. You should get orders shortly." I thanked him. The orders came a week or so later. John was about to leave for his tour and made me a good price for his car.
A lot of people think the tale of Guardian Angels is a story for children, to make them feel safe. I think I have a darn fine Guardian Angel.