The old man was career military, Air Force, pilot, for 24 or so of the prime years of his life. He went in the Army Air Forces during Deuce with the burning hard-on to be a fighter pilot, and instead spent the war years stateside as an aerial gunnery instructor for B-17 and B-24 bombers. His dad might have had something to do with that assignment–he was career Army, made Colonel before the war, and having served through the earlier chapter of German-Inspired Festivities had a better idea of what war was about than his gung-ho teenage sons did, and might have pulled strings to get his sons in a safer assignment than they might have otherwise. No way of telling now–that’s one of those things that career military do but don’t ever talk about, on either side.
The old man went off to West Point in ’45, him and his younger brother both. The old man wound up spending the next decade flying jet fighters stateside–missed Korea on account of being a pilot instructor, key wartime slot that, while his brother wound up going Airborne and becoming Korea Class of ’51. Once the hotrod thrill of flying wore off the bane and stupidity of military life got to him, particularly when he was posted to SAC, to drive B-47’s and then be a missile launch officer in Atlas missiles. SAC was pretty much its own deranged cult back then, and its leaders–Lemay might not have been, but Tommy Powers definitely was–sociopaths who made it a brutal, ugly, pressure-cooker organization to a degree that civilians simply cannot ever experience in their civilian jobs. According to him, at least as reported to me years later, and insofar as any military story is ever reported accurately without stretching and prettying up and making yourself more the hero the old man was so sick of the military, of SAC and missiles, that he was going to put in his papers and quit with 18 years in–20 years in in those days got you the lifetime pension and benefits and anything a day less got you nothing. He wound up getting some goofoff assignment to Europe, which helped keep him out of the Vietnam war–didn’t have any real clue or understanding as a kid then but he was sweating bullets for a while that he’d get orders to fly F-105’s over North Vietnam, a job assignment which carried a 50% or so death rate at the time. He dodged that and put in his papers and retired and moved to Texas.
According to the old man, his dad, looking back on his 35 years in the Army, and very successful years by Army standards they were, making Colonel in the pre-Deuce Army–Granddad, once retired and looking back on things, said that if he had to do it all over again he never would have joined the Army. Never asked the old man if he thought the same, but to some degree he probably did, had to have if he had the honesty and ability to ask and answer that hard question. Once the unmatchable adolescent thrills of jets and parties at the O-Club wore off doubts came in that there weren’t answers for. The old man wasn’t the sharpest, but he from time to time did have some insights that people doing his job shouldn’t. Jet interceptor pilot is fundamentally about sneaking up behind someone and pulling the trigger, he said once. After taking basic accounting at the Topeka community college during his SAC days, he used his newly acquired knowledge to do the calculations and discovered that straight-line depreciation had each and every single one of the scores of jet airplanes on the runway there at Forbes AFB costing, each and every day they sat there, whether they flew or not, the same as a new fully furnished house would, every day, for the 15 years or so they’d be sitting there or on some other air base hardstand. Not thoughts that fit comfortably in the confines of career military, doubts like these.
As I got to be a teenager, he started to tell more stories of his days in the Air Force. A lot of them were pilot stories of piloting derring-do by him or his pilot buddies flying the early pre-century series jets. Pretty much a sexier version of sailors’ yarns, stories of men driving expensive pieces of machinery through the unfriendly skies getting out of deep trouble through their awesome piloting expertise. I was pretty much a dumbass at that age, and didn’t quite understand what it meant that when I asked him about old so-and-so, hero of this or that story, what happened to him later. The old man always answered that he augered in a couple of years later. Or died in a car wreck in his Corvette. Or went missing one day over the ocean. To a large extent the old man was a fugitive from the law of averages, that he survived piloting as much as he did in those days–it’s a whole bunch safer nowadays–while so many of his good friends didn’t. Which leads to what I now think of was the best of the old man’s stories about his fellow pilots and the life of a fighter pilot.
During the Korean War, like I said, the old man was an instructor pilot for NATO pilots of all the NATO nationalities for advanced single engine piston and transition to jet. Got to wonder about the wisdom of making someone that recent out of flight school an instructor, and one who didn’t speak any of his students’ languages either. Supposedly the students all spoke English, but I got my doubts, particularly in the cockpit when the adrenaline kicks in when you screw up and get in trouble. Anyway, it was a great time, even if, as he pointed out one day to his Commanding Officer when he was submitting his monthly request for a Korea posting to go joust with Migs over the Yalu, the pilot losses at the training squadron there at Wichita were more than any combat squadron in Korea’s. CO didn’t like hearing that, probably not a good career move to mention that to him. Lots of flying, money in his back pocket, lots of partying at the O-Club, lots of local cuties hanging around the base swimming pool, life was good. The NATO pilots were all a swell bunch, but one in particular stuck out to the old man. Fellow was a real stud, a good pilot, great athlete, this Belgian lieutenant was. He was also outrageously successful with the local women, in large part because of the stories he told about his life back in Belgium, riding hounds with the King, dinners with the Dutch royal family, that sort of thing. The old man no doubt was jealous more than some, and thought that this Belgian’s stories just had to be bullshit. Finally one day a story got told that started off with “Back when I was at the Olympics…”. The old man had an ah-ha moment, by damn this was something he could check out, show that these stories were all bullshit, and he went off to the base library to check it out. Looking up the records of the ’52 Olympics, by damn, there he was–Lieutenant Jeanpierre* of the Royal Belgian Air Force, Team Captain, Belgian Military Pentathlon Team. Well I’ll be goddamned all to hell, it aint bullshit after all, and after that they became good buddies.
As was inevitably the case they went their separate ways and became the sort of friends you always have in the military–you don’t stay in touch but you don’t forget, either, and when you cross paths again, well it is cause for a small celebration, picking up where you left things last time. So the old man was stationed in England in the late ’60’s, marking time until retirement with minor staff work and keeping his flying hours current with utility flights of C-47’s around Europe hauling cargo and passengers. One day the old man was flying a cargo run from Rhein-Main to Heyford and managed it to where he had occasion to drop in on the Belgian Air Force base where he knew Lieutenant, now Colonel, Jeanpierre was stationed. Drop in right at beer-thirty at the O-club, of course.
So the old man wanders into the base O-club, which is full of the base pilots having their regular round of afternoon drinks and shoptalk. Goes up to the bar, and calls the bartender over, and in a loud voice tells him and the crowd there that he was Colonel Jeanpierre’s jet instructor back in the day at Wichita, and he hasn’t seen him since, and Jeanpierre was a real stud then and is certainly one still and he wants to buy him a drink, and where is he? The old man said that it was just like in the movie westerns when the black hatted villain walks into the saloon and everyone goes quiet, the piano player stops playing, and everyone stops to stare, or stare away, in the dead silence. What the movies didn’t tell you was how horrible it felt, when that happens with you at the center of it. About a million years later the bartender turns his back to the old man, goes over to the shelf, pours a drink, turns around, slides it across the bar to the old man, and says: “I’m sorry, Major White. You are a little late. Colonel Jeanpierre augered in his F-104 last week. We buried him yesterday. Wife, three kids. This one is on us.”
Yeah, the old man had to have had his doubts about the military being worth it, even if he never said so directly. He wasn’t that happy a soul in his retirement years, and stories like this would account for a lot of that. He’d probably been happier in life overall had he been a civilian his entire working life after Deuce was over. Assuming, of course, he’d have successfully managed a decent civilian career, nothing like poverty and failure and an inability to support your family to make you miserable, which, but, hell, I dunno, from what I saw of him in the few years I knew him as an adult maybe he wouldn’t have–I got some doubts about that. But then a lot of that might have been his cerebroartereosclerosis having hit by then, which I damned sure didn’t know at the time, didn’t realize until fairly recent. At least he would have had the best chance of making it in the post-Deuce fat years we had here in the US. Lot more of a struggle to do that nowadays. As tough as it is to get started in life in this country nowadays, particularly if you come from rural, or from poor, or from unlucky, you’ve got to have sympathy for the boys and girls who sign up nowadays–military is about their only chance out, chance to get up, get started in life. Except that nowadays I don’t so much, my sympathy has mostly all gone away, what with our two shitassed evil wars going on, going on as long as they have been and the lies about them being so poke-in-the-eye obvious to anyone not in a coma–anybody going in, any parent who signs off on sending their kid into the military nowadays, Army and jarheads in particular, well they are either just fucking stupid or they are as morally deficient as any Good German ever was.
Which in a way leads to my favorite old man story about the military and how it is in reality versus the PR. There is a powerful attraction for a lot of people towards the military, towards the idea of service to a cause, of being a part of something old and great and enduring, and of having the opportunity to do far bigger and (you think, at the time at any rate) better things than the punching a clock civilian workaday world has to offer. There’s that satisfaction, but there’s something else there too. Junkies talk about the rush of drugs, how great it is, and actors and actresses say that nothing beats the rush of applause, arena athletes say the same, but the biggest drug of all has to be heroism. For all the talk of going into the military to serve your country, the underlying real reason isn’t that patriotism, it is the opportunity to grab the brass ring and be a hero. The badge of hero, wearing it the rest of your life, people, young males in particular, value that anointment more than a benediction from the Archangel Gabriel etched into their forehead. Nobody in the civilian world expects you to be a hero, but everyone in the military knows that if the circumstances show up for them to be one that they are expected to be one, and grab that brass ring, get that anointment. That notion is powerful and ingrained and never leaves you the rest of your life. There’s some good of that, that people will risk their lives to save others’, but there’s something deeper and more powerful than that in the military that matters more than heroism urges and desires, and that you only realize this generally after you’ve been in for a while.
Like I said, the old man, like everyone else but generally worse for career military** tended to spin out his stories. This one I think is absolutely true, because I overheard it as a little kid right when it happened, before he had a chance to spin it out, one day in England when he, visibly upset, told it to my mother when he came home from work.
Seems as the old man was flying a desk overlooking the Upper Heyford flight line one day and was looking out his office window and saw a scene of great commotion below. There was a fuel tank truck on fire outside there, and a chinese fire drill of people of all kinds running around doing nothing useful about it. Out of the crowd, this one airman ran up through the flames, hopped into the truck, started it up from the keys that were left in the ignition, and drove it off. The fire, you see, was from fuel that had leaked out onto the concrete under the truck and caught on fire and the fire hadn’t yet cooked off the tankful on the truck, and the airman had the good sense to see that if the truck was driven away from the fire then the fire on the truck would be small and easily put out and the leak easily fixed and the fire on the concrete could burn itself out without harming anything or anyone. The airman also gambled that whoever drove the truck last had left the keys in the ignition like he was supposed to, and not walked away with them in their pockets. The old man saw everything from his office window, and went out there, got the airman’s name, and put him up for a medal, probably the first and only time in his career he ever had the occasion to.
That was a couple of weeks earlier than that evening I saw the old man crying out to my mother about it. Seems as earlier that day the old man had been called into his colonel’s office for a talk about it. The colonel told him that sorry, Major White, but the Air Force is giving out too many medals and decorations on account of the war in Vietnam going on these days, and there was a directive to reduce the number of decorations to keep them from being devalued you know, so therefore this decoration was not going through, sorry, Major, you do understand, of course.
If the old man had been sharper, instead of crying about it to my mother he could, should, have gone off to the bank, pull some bills, (particularly back then when a Franklin or a Grant meant real money), and tracked down the airman’s sergeant, gone with him to the messhall one evening, and staged an impromptu awards ceremony of his own in front of everyone in the messhall and awarded that airman the Order of Ben Franklin with an Oak Leaf Cluster. Would have been the right thing, and you could have lived with yourself better afterwards about it, knowing that even if the goddamned shitassed Air Force wasn’t going to give that young man his due, by God you were. But the old man didn’t; I’m sure the idea never occurred to him, that sort of creative thinking and willingness to run the risk of pissing off the Colonel wasn’t in his makeup, isn’t in the makeup of most anyone in uniform.
Yeah, that Colonel had his reasons to not put that medal through, reasons no doubt involving some hard questions he might have to face and blot his copybook over from his higher-ups hearing about that fuckup happening out there on the flightline that day. The military–you put in all those years thinking that you are serving, not working, not doing some dull-assed civilian job punching a clock like any other damned civilian does, and that you an officer have that commission and its privileges in order that when the balloon goes up you can and will lead, lead by God, brave men into danger and that all the hardships and stupidities have a reason that all balances out in the end for every chickenshit order and missed kids’ birthday and the endless lying and asskissing that you’ve had to put up with and be a part of for all the years before that day. That one time the old man actually saw with his own two eyes an honest to god medal-worthy act of heroism the Air Force, his CO, fucked him and that brave airman both out of it for petty chickenshit bureaucratic cover your ass reasons. Pissant bureaucratic greasy-pole climbing imperatives trumped every single ideal of military service that day, and all of a sudden the old man had realized that they always had every single day of his career, and that it had always been that way, and would always be that way, and that his great and feared and powerful mistress Athena he had always worshiped and faithfully served was a harlot and always had been one all along and had cheated on him and always had been and she’d broken his heart. Sooner or later everyone in the military realizes that, gets their heart broken hard, (if they aren’t shits, who dance well with that harlot Athena, and the military has a lot more than its fair share of shits in it) and has to live with that knowledge and betrayal for the rest of their days. Naw, the real story of the military is that, that it is just another bureaucracy, an uglier and stupider one than most, and all the patriotic palaver about heroism and the uniform and service is just whitewash over that ugly fact.
If I can’t keep young people from going in, at least I can tell them this truth about the military, and that with that knowledge up front you can and will manage your way through it better than most. You can’t avoid the lies, you can’t avoid being a part of them once you are in, but you don’t, shouldn’t, believe them, and let them become a part of you. You won’t like it in the end if you let it happen to you, and you won’t like what you’ve been, and who you are from it. In the end, the old man, whether he realized it in himself, didn’t. And all of us on the outside ought to know better than to swallow these tired old shibboleths, and we mostly don’t, and most of us need to learn better ourselves, too. We’ll do a lot better than we have been lately, and that’ll be good.
*Not his real name.
**Another one of the old man’s reflections on being an officer was that a big part of the job was bullshitting the troops, telling them that the big event upcoming wasn’t going to be that tough. Had to bullshit civilians all the time about all the things they were rightly pissed off at you for, too, like cracked walls and ceilings all over in their houses from sonic booms. Couldn’t have been us, honest. Consequently career military all tend to be bullshit artists, some better than others. I rather doubt President Obama realizes this, and the civilian geostrategicopolitico hacks inside the Beltway don’t any either.
In memory of Richard Arthur Eric White, Major, USAF, Steven Ansel White, 1st Lieutenant, United States Army, and Ernest Klein White, Colonel, United States Army.