Fun and for that matter happiness is where you find it. Probably a cliché, heaven knows enough people have said it through the long march of history, but its not something you can tell people and make it true, it’s something that each of us needs to find for ourselves. It’s something that I’ve had to find several times over the years, sometimes in the most unusual situations. As anyone who peeked at my bio can tell you, I spent 23 years in the Air Force, and back in 1984 when I reported to boot camp I made myself a promise, that I’d stick with it for as long as I enjoyed it, for as long as I was having fun.
My definition of fun would change a lot and start right away. As strange as it sounds I enjoyed basic training. It was only six weeks long but seemed like an eternity, but if you sat back and took it all in you could see where it was all taking you. Folding a handkerchief to a perfect little square, measuring every pair of underwear and t-shirt to make sure that it was the proper dimensions. It was an exercise in patience, it was an exercise to teach you to do it right the first time and it became second nature, to the point that I still fold everything the same way that I did in basic, maybe not quite to dimensions, but I ain’t digging out a ruler.
I’ve read that the purpose of military training is to strip individuals of their individuality and make them a cog in a machine. That’s actually about as far from the truth as you can get. Each person is always an individual but you learn to fit into a team and work with people. Every person has strengths and weaknesses and part of what you learn is how to bring your strengths and fit them together with the strengths of the others you’re working with. After you’ve been doing it for a while you want to be challenged, and when you’re challenged you want more. You want the tougher jobs, you want the burning sun or the cold rain because you know inside that no matter how jacked up things are you know you’ll come out on top.
People don’t seem to understand the military mind. The worse things are the tighter we came together. I was a jet engine mechanic by career field, and I worked most of my career out on the flight line, out in the weather and making the jets fly. Your career field didn’t much matter, I could work electrical systems, hydraulics, air frame and in a pinch some basic electronics and avionics. You learned a bit of everything because you never knew when you’d need to know how to do it. During the slack times when we weren’t working or training it would be war stories in a launch truck or in a ready room.
War stories are hard to describe, the easiest way goes like this… a fairy tale starts out “Once upon a time” and a war story starts out “This ain’t no shit…” There, a short digression for a change.
You’ll have a few old timers in the middle telling stories, how bad it was to live in tent city in Korea in the winter, waking up in a flooded tent on Diego Garcia during the monsoons. Typhoons on Okinawa, sandstorm and camel spiders in Oman, Saudi or Kuwait. How good the seafood is in the Azores, how clear the water is off of Guam, and the quality of beer in all of the countries that you can actually drink beer in. And you talk about the jets, the rough times troubleshooting a backbreaker or ballbuster out in the middle of nowhere when you don’t have spare parts or all the tools you need because you’re working out of a forward operating location. Younger faces are on the outside and as the months and years pass your spot works into the middle until at last you’re the old man or woman that the shiny young faces are looking at when the storytelling starts.
One of the truest things about airmen, soldiers, sailors and marines is a bitching GI is a happy GI, its when they get quiet that you have to worry. You bitch about the heat, how you get paid as much for being covered in oil, jet fuel and grease as the guy over at finance does for working indoors with heat or air conditioning. You bitch about the box nasty that the truck driver dropped off you can scarf a melty peanut butter and jelly sandwich with greasy hands in the shade of a wing. When you hear the bitching listen to it, see the light in the eyes of the person talking, the smile on their face and hear the laughter. No matter how grumpy and miserable they are when they are sweating, listen to them talking about it over their next meal, and then months and years later when those times become a war story.
Adversity brings out the best in people. I always say that there is a difference between cocky and arrogant. An arrogant person will tell you that they’ve been there and done that, they hung the moon and have seen the wind. A cocky person really has. People don’t prove themselves in easy times, any fool can make things work when the going is easy, its like riding a bike downhill. Its when you get to the bottom of the hill and have to pedal up the next one that people prove themselves. Show me somebody that can tell a bad joke when the crap hits the fan and I’ll show you someone cocky, that’s the person you want beside you when you when you start up the hill, whether its back home, working in a blizzard or chasing camel spiders across steaming hot tarmac.
There’s probably no end of stories I could tell, being chased around the showers by a really temperamental coconut crab, getting fuel flushed out of my eyes, setting a record in the mile when the brakes a trailer loaded with 8,000 pounds of bombs caught fire, having engines catch fire while I was running them, it keeps going, and when I talk to people that never served they look at me like I’m crazy and ask how I could put up with such bad conditions. Bad? Are you crazy? I had the time of my life!
© 2009, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.