Fitting In and Finding an Acorn
I had returned from Okinawa and was back at Beale, AFB. I was assigned to the day shift. Everyone goes on day shift upon returning from Okinawa. I was now more accepted by the higher ranking Sergeants after my tour in Okinawa. I was not so closed up and more readily engaged in conversation. However my views still were often not appreciated.
When you first report to a shop you are sent out to Supply for a set of tools you will need to perform your job. As a navigation repair guy on the “Blackbird” there were some 40 tools. Some were familiar like screw driver and pliers but a number of them were tools specifically designed for the equipment we worked on. They gave me a sheet, an old style computer printout with the tools listed and then they gave me a bag of tools and I was asked to make sure that the tools I was receiving matched what was on the printout. Two problems: 1) I did not know the name of some of the tools and 2) all tool names on the printout did not contain vowels. I guess someone in Washington had figured there was some sort of substantial savings by not printing the vowels. I mean I'm not so old that vowels hadn't been invented and I am pretty sure computer printers were capable of printing them. That was not so bad for most tools I knew. I could figure out what scrw drvr, wrnch, and plrs were. The tools I did not recognize were a bit of a problem though. I likely would have had trouble matching some of them up even if the vowels were included, but without them, forgeddaboudit. I asked for some help but I was quickly assured that this was a job that only I could do and the supply guys were plenty busy doing their own job, even if that job looked to be reading the paper and drinking coffee. So I matched up the tools the best I could, counted up the number of tools left over in the bag and then counted all the tools on the printout I hadn't checked off. The number was the same so I figured I got everything.
We worked in pairs and occasionally three. Tools were shared so as tools were needed we would all grab from the nearest tool bag. When we were done we did our best, with various degrees of success, to get all the tools we had out back into the correct tool bag. After a while everyone had multiple of some tools while missing others. At some point we all knew we would need to turn our tools back in so everyone would try to pick up extra tools here and there because if you came up short you would be charged for the missing tools. The best method for solving your problem was to become friends with guys who worked in Supply and hope you could convince them to let you into the supply room where you could cop a few tools. This may seem a bit unethical, but this is the military. Stealing in the military is considered an admirable endeavor. Guys would brag about how much and what they had taken from the military, especially from Supply. This was not just the low ranking guys but guys of all ranks. Sure, scuffed shoes, not having your belt buckle aligned with the edge of your shirt, putting you hands in your pocket were all frowned upon and could even result in some sort of punishment, but stealing was not only OK, but a sort of badge of honor. I saw lots of military stuff in people's homes. The importance of appearance had been stressed by my parents but stealing was actually discouraged at home, must have been one of those darn “Yankee” principals.
Every few months we would be tested on the navigation system we were responsible for maintaining. The test would involve performing a repair on some part of the system. As I previously mentioned, we typically worked in pairs but when tested you would have to do the repair by yourself. The problem, at least for me, was that to pass the test you needed to follow the repair manual exactly, doing each step strictly as it was listed in the manual. We all knew how to do the common repairs and never used the repair manual. That meant that we did not necessarily do the steps in the order they were presented in the manual as often the order really did not matter. I am not good at following written instructions in the first place. If I need to refer to directions at all, I tend to look at the directions to get the idea of just what needs to be done. Once I understand I just do it without looking at the directions unless I end up stuck. In spite of this I had managed to pass each time I had been tested. Well, I had irritated the top sergeant on the shift about something and it was just around the time I was scheduled to be tested. When it came time for my test, the sergeant fixed it so that I would be tested on the most difficult repair job, something that had lots of steps and just as important, something we rarely did. The few times this repair was required, there would be two of us assigned to it along with a supervisor checking on us and reading the instructions to insure we did it correctly. I've never been good at doing anything with someone watching me. It distracts me and I tend to lose concentration. I began to do the repair. I got ahead of myself, or rather ahead of the instructions and struggled to find my place in the manual. I knew in general what I needed to do but I did not know the order. I ended up failing when they stopped me for skipping a step. I was put on probation (30 days) which meant that I was not allowed to do any repairs until retested successfully. I could only observe. The work I had been doing would need to be done by others, leaving the shift with one less worker. This did not turn out as the Sergeant hoped. He pushed hard to get me retested asap. This time the test was on the simplest repair in the shop. He was understandably a little frustrated, but he learned the error of his ways and I was never again given a difficult repair for a test.
My friend Larry had also returned from Okinawa and was on the day shift with me. Working with Larry was great as we found ways to have fun. One of the things we did was goof on some of the Sergeants. One Sergeant was a favorite target of ours. When working on the plane at times the engines would be on and they were loud. To protect our ears we wore things that looked like headphones over them. When you had them on you could hardly hear yourself talk. A tendency for some was to lift one of them away from your ear when you spoke so you could better hear yourself. This one Sergeant was someone who did this frequently. We noticed this so whenever he spoke to us with his ear covers on and failed to lift one away from his ear we would motion to him that we couldn't hear him and point to the ear covers to get him to lift one of them up. He would lift one up and repeat what he said every time. It was not easy keeping a straight face.
The tools we had were special, cadmium free, because of the plane we worked on. It was something about corrosion if you happened to scratched the plane with tools containing cadmium. I may have this a little off but that's the way I remember it. A rule we were told to strictly follow was never leave any tools in the plane. This was routinely emphasized. When we finished if we could not locate one of our tools we were supposed to report it to the crew chief. The plane would then be grounded until the tool was found. We were told that if a tool got in the wrong place it could potentially cause a serious problem during a flight, possibly endangering the plane and crew. A lot of our work on the plane was just prior to a flight. One morning while doing some pre-flight work in the cockpit I lost track of one of my tools. I searched the cockpit (it was a very small area, just big enough for the equipment and the pilot) but could not find it. I reported it to the crew chief. The plane was about to be powered up for a flight. He was not happy. He contacted my supervisor who questioned me and was not too happy either. In fact, he got a little animated about it but I stuck to my story. After all, if it's really a possibility that a lost tool could create a dangerous situation during flight I did not want the crew to be in danger because of me. I was only following procedures. When I got back to the shop all the others heard about my screw up. I was persona non grata...
The next day the base commander came into the shop looking for me. Ut-oh! He found me out on the flight-line working. He had everyone in the shop come out and everyone working in the hangar come around. He called me forward and then he proceeded to praise me for being honest. He mentioned how I possibly saved the lives of the pilot and co-pilot who had been scheduled to fly the plane that day. He said he appreciated the courage I showed in speaking up. Suddenly I was a good guy. Everyone started praising me. When we returned to the shop they all told me good job! It was my shining moment. And there you go, I finally did something right as an Airman in the USAF, I screwed up and confessed. If you had been listening to all the big sergeants, I had been screwing up ever since I'd joined but evidently I finally found the “right kind” of screw up. I guess it's true that even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while.