Sunday, June 26, 2005

LEARNING THE ROPES

Having barely turned 17 when I enlisted in the Air Force, a 20-year-old seemed pretty mature to me. In my flight (see footnote) in basic training was a 20-year-old named Brown Chance. Chance was from northern Florida, the son of the town drunk. He had some mysterious previous affiliation with the military which he never divulged. Chance was so secure in his own skin that the bullies in the flight never messed with him or his friend. I became that friend.

Though I never again saw or heard from him after basic training, I owe much of my life to him.

He reminded me of an Al Capp character in L’il Abner called One Fault Jones. One Fault Jones had zipped into Dogpatch and asked Daisy Mae to marry him. He seemed so perfect that no one could think of a good reason why she shouldn’t marry him. Capp kept the story line going for weeks, each week demonstrating how perfect One Fault Jones was. Even L’il Abner had to concede that Jones was the better man. And so it went right up to the alter when it was discovered that the one fault of One Fault Jones was that he married a girl in every town he visited.

The one fault of Brown Chance was drinking, or so I surmised from our one shot at San Antonio. There was no booze available to us recruits in our 13 week training except in the 7th week when we were given a 12-hour pass.

Chance got us a bottle and a set-up in the patio of a restaurant where we whiled away a pleasant afternoon in a pleasant town. Later, in the street, he insulted the wife (“Your wife looks like hell.”) of a sergeant, got knocked out with one punch, leaving me to defend his dishonor, until it got broken up. “We” became legend in the flight for having beat up a drill sergeant who, it turned out, was a friend of our drill sergeant.

I digress.

Chance showed me the ropes. What jobs to volunteer for. How to take care of clothing. How to pack your backpack for hikes (empty cans gave bulk but little weight). And in general, how to adapt to a very oppressive situation.

He warned me never to loan money to anyone, then, later borrowed $20 from me which he never repaid, just to underscore the lesson.

He was behind me on the firing range when I ripped the heart out of my target. He lowered my score to ‘sharpshooter’ instead of ‘expert’ saying, “You want to qualify, not excel.”

Later I asked him, “Why not?”

“When they look for snipers, they only pick ‘experts.’ Do you want to be a sniper?”

He expected me to say no so I said, “No.” But it sounded pretty exciting to me.

“Snipers don’t live long,” he explained. Then he added, “Better you don’t tell anyone you can shoot.”

I took his advice except for one time at a shooting gallery in an amusement park. I showed off for a girl friend, winning prizes until the operator sent me away.

Near the end of basic training you sign up for the tech school you want. Chance chose the medics so I chose that too. Only problem was you needed a high school diploma to get into that school. That caused me to be ‘redlined’ at the end of basic training. ‘Redlined’ means unassigned.

Chance told me, “Go to basic Training Headquarters and find out what’s going on.”

I thought he was kidding. I was one year past getting expelled from high school and I was going to storm into Basic Training Headquarters?

Chance said, “Just ask them politely. They can straighten it out.”

So I went.

A staff sergeant there had my records. “Holy shit!” he said when he looked at my AGCT (Army General Classification Test), their equivalent of an IQ test. He indicated a large blackboard against the wall on which over a dozen tech schools were listed. “Pick one,” he said.

I looked for something I could use in civilian life. “Surveying,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

It was a school that also required a high school diploma, but that was ignored. It also required trigonometry, also ignored.

I became a surveyor.

Thank you Brown Chance. I owe you more than I could ever repay.

Footnote: When the Air Force separated from the Army after WW2, they came up with their own names for units. A ‘platoon’ became a ‘flight,’ a ‘company’ became a ‘squadron,’ a ‘battalion’ became a ‘group,’ and so on. It seemed silly to me then. It seems silly to me now. They’ve done sillier things.

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