Friday, December 02, 2005


That story about the cobra that I posted a few days ago reminded me of why I hated being in the service

As an enlisted man, if I had laughed at an officer and asked him if he was nuts I could have been court-martialed. That was true no matter how nutty the officer might have been.

I was a total misfit in the service.

Later, in civilian life, I wouldn’t work for a company in which you couldn’t have that kind of exchange. It’s called conversation.

But in the Air Force I was stuck. I went through my 4 years and 10 days resenting many of the officers I came in contact with. They all weren’t p***ks, but those are the ones that stuck in my mind.

Fortunately after tech school, I never met an officer who knew anything about surveying. Thus I was left pretty much alone in my work. I worked for civilians and ran an all civilian crew.

Still there were some awful incidents.

Nowadays you would describe these officers as lacking in “people skills.” But what they lacked was basic manners.

Just one example:

Some of my readers were in Soc Trang while I was there. They will know the Executive Officer at that base. I must say he was probably the worst I had ever met. How bad was he? He was a career Army man and was being retired with the rank of captain. That doesn’t happen too often.

It was my misfortune that the Commanding Officer was away when I got there. This EO did almost everything in his power to block what I was trying to do. What I was trying to do was improve the landing strip so his helicopters would have air support of fighters.

A big boss from my company visited and saw the base had no ice machine. He had one sent down. The EO objected to my taking ice from it (I swear that happened). I had to explain that the ice machine did not belong to him. (I was polite.)

What a strange, tormented man he was.

Then there was my Da Nang experience.

Altogether I spent about a year and a half in Da Nang at various times. In 1969 my company had a small design job there. It required me to visit every two weeks to check on things.

One time I got there in late afternoon and discovered martial law had been declared. There was some fighting in the town.

Some soldiers gave me a ride to a hotel in town. The hotel was open but everything else was closed, including the hotel restaurant.

Darkness came quickly and I started getting hungry. I remembered there was an officer’s mess a couple of blocks away. I had been stuck t the Saigon airport (Tan Son Nhut) and hadn’t eaten in a while.

What to do? Risk my life to get a meal or go hungry? Of course I went for the officer’s mess.

So I took a walk, as casually as I could. (Household hint: Don’t run or sneak around in a “shoot on sight” situation. It might look suspicious.)

There was some shooting to the north but the way I went was empty and silent. I reached the officer’s mess and ducked in the door. That put me in a small entryway with another door beyond that I assumed led to the food.

“Wow, I made it,” I said to the young Naval officer at the desk. “I just wanted to get something to eat.”

“Do you have your card, sir?”

“What card?”

“Your membership card, sir.”

“Oh, I’m not a member. I just got into town today.”

“I’m sorry, sir. This mess is for members only.”

“Okay, I’ll join. Where do I sign up?”

“That office is closed sir. Office hours are from 8 to 5.”

I pulled out my passport. I always carried it on these little trips. “Look, I’m an American. The town is closed. People are shooting outside. There’s nowhere else to eat.”

“I’m sorry sir, but if you’re not a member…”

“Okay, I’ll watch your desk for you while you go in there and get me a sandwich.”

“I’m sorry sir, I can’t leave my post.

On all my succeeding trips to Da Nang I carried a little Army field stove with me and some c-rations. They all fit easily into my suitcase.

(Well boo-hoo. So you missed a meal. Is that what all this was about? The kid was only doing his job. He was obeying his orders.)

Yeah. I know. There are two ways to look at that and it was only a meal. It was a trivial thing. But why has it stuck in my mind? Why am I still pissed off 37 years later?

Maybe it pisses me off that some people in the military cannot adjust to changing situations.

Remember the British column that was wiped out in the beginning of the movie ZULU? I read, more than once, it was because the quartermaster refused to issue ammunition without the proper paperwork while the column was under attack.

I don’t believe that.

Any private in his right mind would have shot him dead and taken the ammo.

But it’s an interesting illustration of obeying orders no matter what the situation.

AFTERTHOUGHT: It occurred to me that these experiences are why I think CATCH 22 is the “Great American Novel.”


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