Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Graduation


It’s February in North Texas and we are three weeks away from our bars and wings.

“Have they posted the results from out Nuclear and Special Weapons class, Brownie?” I ask.

Cadet Henry, No Middle Initial, Brown says, “Yes, and you didn’t pass. The re-take is to-morrow.” I notice he sounds smug and happy that his cadet Adjutant has flunked an easy test.

This is serious.

Our post graduation assignments have been based on our total average grade and I have been awarded my first choice, a Military Air Transport Service (MATS) co-pilot slot on the West Coast flying the USAF equivalent of the United plane I maintained just eighteen months ago – the C-118 or DC-6. But re-takes, no matter how good the score, do not alter the grade point. Am I going to lose my assignment? I take off at a brisk double-time to the Admin Sergeant to see what my future holds.

“Do you think I’m going to re-calculate the grade points just because you were dumb enough to miss two questions? Get outta here,” says the sergeant.

Phew! I scraped by that one; good thing too, as it was the last ground school class. I look back and think of the 50% of the guys who didn’t make it through the program. Were we more motivated or just stubborn? No, looking back, I think it was the challenge and kinda fun.

But, in the last weeks our brogans have been stuck to the ground with treacle; check rides are over and flying is all but finished – no more solo in the B-25 with our buddies. As Upper Classmen we can lord it over the lesser beings below us and even that has lost its fun. I have a new checking account, a new car, and my tailored officer’s uniforms. I am dating a Braniff stewardess and already feel like a ‘shavetail’ lieutenant. My interest in the cadet program has waned.

The night before we are awarded our wings, I pick up the Braniff ‘stew’ in my new, metallic blue Chevy Impala and we gather in the Officers’ Club where we will be commissioned Second Lieutenants in the United States Air Force Reserve. Winter demands that we wear our new, blue gabardine uniforms and that the gold bars be pinned by a special person. As cadets are not permitted wives, family members are the designated pinners. But I have a stewardess. What was her name? We are now officers; we drink hard booze and eat steaks. Our instructors bring their wives, with whom we ‘bop’ or jitterbug. To our surprise we are almost the same age and they smell just like the girls we know at home. And they are happy to be momentarily non-wives relieved of their homemaking to flirt with the young, newly commissioned officers who are no longer cadet and off-limits.

Next day, in the Base Theatre, we are awarded our wings. Colonel Dross Ellis, a pilot from Jimmy Doolittle’s 1942 raid on Tokyo, gives a quiet speech. He looks older than his years and sports only two rows of ribbons below his Distinguished Service Cross awarded after the raid. We ascend to the platform and he pins on our pilot’s wings. A handshake and I’m out. Outside the Theatre a line of enlisted men wait to salute us. Are they happy that we have made it? No, they follow the tradition that states that the first enlisted man to salute a newly commissioned officer will receive one dollar. I look for our Escape and Evasion instructor, Master Sergeant “Snakes” Bohl, return his salute and fork over the dollar bill.

I just want my gold bars and wings and O-U-T into the real flying world.

But what will that be? None of my previous life experience is military. Yes, we’ve been surrounded by Tactical Training Officers who watched our every move, flown with our officer pilot instructors, and shared flights with student officers who were commissioned in the Reserve Officer Training Program (ROTC) in college, but we know nothing about the real world of Air Force flying.

Some of my classmates will go to the Strategic Air Command and fly the B-47 bomber; some will become helicopter pilots after they complete helicopter transition, some will fly Boeing Strato-Tankers to refuel our fighters and bombers, but only four of us have earned the coveted MATS assignment. None of us will be assigned to fighters. We are multi-engine pilots but most of our classmates from our previous base are in fighter training and consider themselves the cream of the crop. We know they are wrong, but I suspect most of us are a little envious of the ‘go-fast’ machines into which they will transition after graduation: the Super Saber – F-100, The One Oh Wonder – F-101 a twin-engine reconnaissance fighter, the F-86 Saber of Korean war fame, the F-102 Delta Dagger interceptor. Dangerous and daring, off they go into the wild blue yonder. I will fly low and slow carrying servicemen and their dependents to Hawaii and Japan and later on, to Europe and Greenland.

What became of my classmates?

As the years have passed, I’ve sought them out through mutual friends, airline and business connections, Facebook, Google and the occasional class reunion lists.

In spite of our steely-eyed gaze, short haircuts and super confident demeanor we were all very human. Some went on to fly with airlines, many stayed their twenty plus years with the Air Force retired and went on to other jobs, some were killed in aircraft accidents or in combat, one took his own life, too many have already succumbed to illness and death at an early age, and some write about that glorious time when we were young fledglings, eager to show our stuff not realizing that the wings and bars were merely a license to learn about flying and about ourselves.