Memorial Day is to honor the military that have fallen. If you, like me, are a veteran, you likely knew many who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
At my first assignment in a remote section of Mississippi at a radar facility, as the ranking officer, I often had to deliver the initial 6 a.m. notification to the surrounding parents or spouse of those that had fallen. One of those notifications was for a Medal of Honor winner who refused to stop giving ground cover to surrounded Americans until he ran out of fuel. The day I notified his wife was his twin daughters’ birthday. It tore my heart out each and every time.
I was originally recruited to be a pilot, but an abnormal beat in my heart washed me out of flight school. Today, that abnormal beat is acceptable, but it took a hundred of us around the country over a long period running 5 miles a day, with an EKG before and after, to prove it acceptable.
My second assignment was at a fighter interceptor squadron where I served as a ground pounder in a support role as a material control officer. Most of the pilots were good athletes, and I did my best to keep them fit playing every racket sport imaginable. But I always wince a little when people thank me for my service, because I always think of my pilot friends who were the real heroes, several each rotation killed in action (KIA).
For example, a friend who ran with us every day turned in his sleek jet for a small two-man lightweight plane made of little more than paper and thread, which he flew over enemy lines at treetop level, armed with only a pistol and an iron plate for a seat to protect him from ground fire. He would land in the slightest of jungle clearings to drop off these incredible “watchers” who lived invisibly in the muck of the jungle, among the enemy, observing their formations.
Academically, I do know that dependable performance in support roles allows the American front line of air, sea and land operators to be exceptional, but it’s just not the same as laying your life on the line every mission. I suspect many vets privately share this feeling. But I enjoyed every minute of my five years, even the nights on the flight line when my friends took off almost vertically, in full military power, engulfing us in incredible noise.
My fighter outfit was the best of the best, but we were tenants on an airbase run by another command. My job required that I handle all the mundane support liaison functions with the base, and to placate stuffy support officers who might have observed the antics, like “Dead Bug” of fun-loving pilots in the Officer’s Club. New Year’s Eve, 30 of us dressed in our finest ceremonial uniforms — mine, of course, devoid of all the medals the pilots proudly wore — surrounded by stuffy bureaucratic colonels and generals.
When our commander yelled, “Dead bug,” we all fell lifelessly to the floor, and the last to hit the deck paid for the next round. And not one senior officer from the base had the courage to say anything but just rolled their eyes at our behavior.
On one occasion, in anticipation of a sticky political situation with a room full of brass, I met our highly decorated commander at 8 a.m. on the flight line as he climbed out of his fighter jet. I handed him a martini with a flower in it. He ate the flower, drank the martini, jumped in the Jeep and instructed me to drive to the meeting with the desk jockeys.
But not all the bigshots were stuffy. I organized a base tennis team, and we played nearby installations of Navy, Army, and even some upscale tennis clubs. We could do this because on my base there was a large collection of officers who had played college tennis and were quite good.
One of them, Jimmy Parker, a C-130 pilot, beat the best tennis player in the world at that time, and he still competes in seniors play, having now won more national championships than any player ever in the history of American tennis.
In one match, a Navy Seal arrived to play by swimming underwater in a wetsuit. After beating his opponent soundly, he slipped silently away underwater, back to his base, his snorkel leaving a wake, and perhaps saying, “Maybe next time, flyboy.”
We also had a three-star general, a real fighter ace in his day, who joined us when he could. He then was one of the big dogs in the Vietnam War, and his aide-de-camp had played Davis Cup, and we played doubles at lunchtime. I tried to play gentlemanly against the general, but when his Davis Cup partner took the ball, we turned up the temperature 10 notches against one another.
In one of those ramped-up exchanges, I mishit the ball and knocked several stars off dear old general. His aide, a major, reminded me as we switched ends of the court, “Knocking the general on his butt is a no-no, Captain.”
At least the general had a sense of humor, and invited my wife and I to his home for a formal occasion. She had never seen anyone with so many medals and brass, and she thought he was waitstaff in a fancy uniform.
The general, a quiet but observant type, knowing that my job was to liaise with many of the people serving under him, gave me a secret weapon that I only had to use a couple times. He gave me his private phone number with instructions to have people call him if they were giving me a hard time. As a combat veteran, he understood that sometimes the rules and oversized egos need to step aside for the live mission.
One of those times came when my boss, a full (of it) colonel, got on my case for leaving my post at lunch every day when his maintenance troops might have needed me. I was embarrassed that I played in this daily foursome and didn’t share my daily rendezvous with the three-star with anyone other than my Key NCOIC (non-commissioned officer in charge), who better than anyone appreciated the help the general offered. Heck, he ran the place anyway — I was just his straight man. CMSgt. Johnson and I made the antics in the 1950s “Sergeant Bilko” television series look like “Romper Room.”
My immediate boss, the colonel, actually braced me up at attention in his office as he loudly described what a pathetic officer I was because of my lunchtime absences. Eventually, as his tirade finally simmered, he gave me the opportunity to explain myself.
My response was a quick one, “I play tennis with Lt. Gen. Graham every lunch hour. Here is his private number. Call him, sir.”
He stared at me for the longest time as he processed my remarks. Finally, he said, “At ease, Captain. You are dismissed.” Then, as I was halfway down the hall, my new best friend poked his head out of his office and yelled, “Hey, Baker — do you want to catch a beer tonight after work?”
Of course, I could not accept his offer. I was among the very first class of USAF supply officers to manage computerized logistical and financial systems, and everyone had a problem in those first years. Maybe I had a missing nuke… at least missing in the recently established computer records. My little unit always had hard-to-find find aircraft “Black Boxes” to swap with another fighter outfit. I might need to buttress support from another colonel, this one in base finance. In a bureaucracy, there are always discretionary funds, and there is always a bureaucrat in need of a free tennis lesson in exchange for hard to get operating funds for the squadron.
The nearest I came to the Tom Cruise character in “Top Gun” was the sunglasses — but boy, oh boy, a tennis lesson and those glasses worked every time I needed to grease the skids.
But now you know why I wince a little when folks thank me for my service. I would rather thank the U.S. military for the opportunity to have done so many interesting things at such a young age, and the honor of serving alongside truly inspirational characters who left it all on the field of battle. And here is my thank-you to those fellow vets who did return and are playing pickleball and reading “Pickleball Points.” It was an honor, ladies and gentlemen.