Thursday, August 18, 2011

Something Cool

“Something cool.
I’d like to order something cool.
It’s so warm here in town,
And the heat gets me down,
Yes, I’d like something cool.”
Late Friday afternoon, mid March, 1957. “Something Cool” June Christy with Stan Kenton is playing on the jukebox in the Cadet Club at Bainbridge Air Base, Georgia.

Six weeks into primary flight training in the United States Air Force and I’ve just passed a Military Evaluation check from Captain Camp. My Southern Airways flight instructor, Mr. P. D. Bridges, had put me up for an Elimination ‘ride’ intent on limiting his student table to commissioned officers. He doesn’t want any cadets, and in particular an Australian cadet who doesn’t understand his southern accent.

Second flight with “PD”

“Let’s do some powah ohn stalls.”

“Some what, sir?”

“Goddammit, Mr. Key-ritch, y’all hurt me. How many times do I havetuh tel yuh.”

Something was very wrong with my flying aptitude, for after everyone else had soloed and turned their baseball caps so that the peak faced forward, here was Cadet Critch, still marching to the flightline looking like a dumbshit with his cap still on backwards. Was I really going to ‘wash out’? That was uncool and I was darned if I would give up until they threw me out of the program.

Well, the captain was no Santa Claus, but he recommended that I change instructors and be given another five hours of instruction. If I hadn’t soloed by then, my options were to be transferred to Navigator training, or reduced to enlisted status to either attend a technical school, or serve out the remainder of my contract for 18 months as an Airman Third Class at some cold, remote Air Force base refueling aircraft.

I’m back early from the flightline hanging out at the Cadet Club; the other cadets are still flying and I’ve got a quiet half hour.

“Yes bartender, I’d like something cool.”

At this hour, it means a lemonade.

The Cadet Club at Bainbridge Air Base was not quite a tarpaper shack, but it had been hastily built at the beginning of the “50,000 Pilots Program” which started in the mid Fifties to provide the Air Force, some NATO and friendly South American countries with pilots to fight either the Cold War or their neighbors. The club allowed Aviation Cadets to have 3.0% beer and fraternize with the local girls imported from the outlying colleges, or those ‘properly introduced’ to the chaplain.

Later Friday night, the club will be filled with cadets and the beer turned on. We smoke – don’t all pilots? We drink – ditto; we plot to get into the pants of the local girls – some do, most don’t, but we are cadets! We fly!

“Do I fly? Why yes little girl, why do you ask?” is the standard response. We talk about flying in front of the girls and about girls when we should be studying our flying. But I did study. Too hard. My roommate, Clinton Dewitt, had been a Marine for several years, already had a multi-engine commercial pilot’s license and was a flight instructor after he left the Corps and long before Bainbridge. He would tell me, “Critchey, you’re trying too hard! Relax!”

The only difference between Clint and a fireplug was that nobody pissed on him. He was stubby, didn’t smile much except in the early morning when he’d roll over in bed, fart, and say in a sweet falsetto, “Good morning Critchey. The Queen’s a whore.” Clint was a real sweetie and a good room mate.

Yes, I was ‘trying too hard’ - my nature I guess, but this afternoon a quiet drink in the club was what I needed. A quiet drink and a chance to settle down. Would I make it? My academics and military grades were very good, and should I fail to solo in the next five flying hours, I’d be sure to be recommended for Navigation School which still produced wings and a commission. Navigator’s wings – a poor imitation of the pilot’s wings we all want.

“Hey Critch, how’d you do?” Gary Fisher has arrived – another mate. We had both held cadet Lieutenant Colonel’s rank in Pre-Flight in Texas.

“O.K. I guess, but I’ll be changing instructors.”

“You’ll make it. PD’s a little shit. You like that music?”

Fisher is a lady’s man. Handsome, suave, big shit-eating grin and probably hung like a stud mule. He’s picked up with an older lady who must be in her late twenties, not particularly good looking, but READY. Man, is she ready and Fish is into it – she thinks he’s serious because he met her at the local Methodist church. Last weekend he took an unauthorized ‘open post’ with Vaughn Wells, his roommate and they split for Panama City. Vaughn tells me Fisher was banging a babe in a trailer with her husband asleep not ten feet away. I suspect that if her old man woke up, Fisher would’ve applied some wrestling hold and put him to sleep. Oh yes, Fisher is also an expert wrestler. He grew up in Jerome, a tough Arizona mining town; he had to be tough.

The weekend over, I meet my new instructor, Earl Wederbrook.

Earl’s a quiet, balding guy and, as it turns out, a college graduate with six kids. He’s a patient man and I see a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the next five hours will do it.

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