I was on the phone with my mom the other day, and she said a couple of words that I’d never, ever heard from her.

We were all going through a rough time, so she wished us well, she said, “individually and collectively”.

The last time I’d heard those words said like that was in 1978, at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and I realized I had another story to write.

Back then I was in Civil Air Patrol, and our squadron, based at McChord Air Force Base, had one of the best military style drill teams around.  We had a group of young men and a few young ladies who could march beside each other, between each other, we could literally march rings around each other. You name it, we could do it, and we looked sharp.  Each state was organized as a “Wing” – and several of these “Wings” made up a Region (several states)

We had Wing drill competitions, (Youtube link as an example) and our reputation was such that the folks at Wing wanted us (McChord Composite Squadron, CAP) to compete simply because they wanted to see what we’d do at the Regional competition.

In fact, now that I think of it, for these Wing competitions, we had to get our uniforms looking absolutely perfect, including the shoes, and we learned how to spit shine them so you could see your teeth in them. At one Wing competition, I’d gotten a brand new pair of shoes that didn’t have any creases in them yet.  I shined them to within an inch of their lives, and then walked carefully out to where we’d go through a very thorough inspection.  The fellow doing the inspecting noticed those shoes with the mirror finish and no creases, and looked me square in the eye,

“Wha’d you use on those shoes, Cadet?”

He said the word “Cadet” with all the affection a cat might have for a hairball it’s trying to cough up. Clearly he’d noticed, but also clearly he thought I’d used a spray shine, which was way faster, way easier, and was definitely considered cheating. Not knowing what else to say, I answered truthfully:

Kiwi and spit, Sir!”

He wasn’t sure about that response

“Are you mocking me, Cadet?”

I was just being honest…

He’d asked a question.

I answered it…

Truthfully.

He just wasn’t used to seeing shoes without creases – so not only could he see his teeth in them, but he could see his eyes, his nose, heck, if he wanted to, he could even see his nose hairs – really, they were good (the shoes, not the nose hairs).  They’d be that good only once, but once was all I needed, and so to answer his question of whether I was mocking him, I said,

“Sir, No Sir!”

I mean, he couldn’t get me on anything, I wasn’t being disrespectful, I was answering his questions truthfully, so he harrumphed a bit, then turned off to inspect and harangue the next cadet.

Well, we won that competition, and were officially the best drill team in the state.  We were going to Regionals – which was a tremendous honor, and it was held at an airbase in Klamath Falls, Oregon, a place none of us had ever been.

The Regional competitions at the time seemed to be a little more involved than the Wing ones.  They involved the drill competitions as expected, competitions in individual physical fitness, meaning a mile run, and team physical fitness, which was a volleyball game, I believe there was some level of written test or tests, and of course, you were expected to be on your best behavior at all times, because anything, and I mean ANYTHING you did could sway the Judges’ thoughts or ideas about your ability – or eligibility – to compete.

What this meant is that You Did Not Want To Screw Up.

The ride from McChord to Klamath Falls could take well over 7 hours, but with an old Air Force van, and the requisite stops complete with fluid exchanges (for both the vehicles and the passengers) it took a bit longer.

By the time we got there, we had just enough time to get out of our traveling clothes and into our uniforms for a meeting in a classroom, where the schedule would be given, the expectations would be set, and the law, we learned, would be laid down…

We’d just gotten in and were thinking we were pretty cool for making it when we heard the sound of marching.

In the hallway.

Marching?

INSIDE?

That just didn’t make sense.  But as we turned toward the door see where the sound was coming from, the squadron that had won the Nevada Wing competition marched in.

This was clearly not their first competition.

They all had matching flight jackets.

We didn’t.

They all marched to their seats, and stood there…

We hadn’t.

…in those glorious flight jackets…

Which we didn’t have.

…and they were at attention.

Which we weren’t.

We were stunned into silence..

Their commander called out, “Ready, Coats!” and every one of them took off their flight jacket, held it over their left arm, and at the command “Seats!” they all sat down…

As a unit.

Our eyes must have been big as saucers – this was clearly psychological intimidation, and to be honest, right then, it was working just a bit on us, in spite of the fact that we thought they were really pushing this thing over the edge just a bit.  Later, we were all wondering if they did everything in unison, and imagined that same march, only not through a classroom door, but through the men’s room door, followed by the command, “Ready, Zip!”

Nahhhh… not possible…

We knew good, but what we were seeing was more than good, it was just plain arrogant, and we weren’t having any of that.

We’d learned that at some of these competitions, a squadron might send out spies to watch another team practice, and actually steal their moves.  If the team with the spy went first in the competition, the team who’d invented the moves would look like they were the ones stealing them.

With all the talk of honor and stuff that we’d had drilled into our heads, this was just not right – but, as has been said many times over the years, all’s fair in love and war.

And in the inimitable words of Bugs Bunny, “Of course you realize, this means WAR!”

So that evening, we did a quick run through of our routine as far away as we could get from the barracks. It was very, very clear that we were ready, we were functioning as a machine, and we were simply ON.  So on the way back we figured if they wanted to see something, we’d give them something to see.

Now the way it works when you’re marching in a situation like that, is you’ve got one person, the commander, giving the commands, and the rest follow.

And the way the commands work is this: there’s the Preparatory command, which tells you what to do, and then there’s the command of execution, which tells you to do it.  So you’ve all heard “Forward, March!” in movies and the like, well…

“Forward” – that’s the preparatory command…

“March”    – that’s the command of execution…

And instead of “March”, we’d learned to say “Harch” – because when you’re trying to say it really loud without yelling, you can just get more volume into it.  Also, if you ever did something that was different than the standard “Forward, Harch” – (like Doubletime, Harch) – you could always undo that command with “Forward, Harch” again.

You always start out on the right foot, and even if the command was “To the Rear, Harch” – you take one step forward, pivot 180 degrees, and then go on your way, as a unit.

So now that you know all that, remember, we’re marching back toward the barracks we were staying in, (think dormitories, if you’ve never heard that term ‘barracks’) and we just knew that some of the Nevada team would be on the lookout, and we wanted to make sure they saw something, and that what they saw would mess with them just as much psychologically as they’d done with us – just from a different direction.

We had this fellow in the squadron named Ken Meloche.  He was Canadian, and reveled in the whole “for Queen and country” bit – and when he marched, he liked to march like the English did, with their arms and legs swung high.  So just as we came in sight of some of the windows in the barracks, and to mess with the Nevada boys a bit, our commander gave the command,

“Meloche Walk, Harch!”

– and every one of us, without skipping a beat, started walking just like Ken did.

Including Ken.

“Forward, Harch!”

– and we all marched normally again, like a drill team should march.

Heh – this was fun.

We marched for a bit, and could see more of the windows in the barracks – and out of nowhere came a command we’d never, ever heard before in our lives:

“Double to the Rear with Three Hops in the Middle, Harch!”

– and again, without skipping a beat, we did a ‘To the rear, Harch’ – which is just a reversal in direction, but we all took one step, and literally as a unit, did three hops.  I think there were twelve of us there, and I remember hearing the sound of three distinct impacts, we were that in sync.  We took one step forward, then did the next ‘To the rear, Harch’ and tried like heck to keep from grinning from ear to ear… (we tried that double to the rear with three hops in the middle again later – and could never repeat it).

This was just NOT what drill competition was supposed to be like.  It was supposed to be more serious than this.

When the final windows of our own barracks came into view, we heard the command,

“Walk like slobs, Harch!”

And I suppose the best thing that you could liken what we did to that exists in current culture is that we walked, in formation, like a bunch of zombies, knuckles dragging, feet dragging, drooling, the whole bit.

For about 10 steps.

“Forward, Harch!”

And we were back to looking sharp as tacks.

It was great…

If the Nevada boys wanted to mess with our minds, we’d mess right back.

So after we’d had dinner, and gotten into our bunks and everything – there were four of us in each room, and we were all full of spit and vinegar, the night before the competition. One fellow in the room decided that since the body can produce, – let’s just call it a ‘greenhouse gas’ – one that is flammable, he wanted to show us that it could be done.  And in a split second, I found myself taken back to a story my dad told me from when he was a kid.  Well, not so much when he was a kid, but when he was in that ‘no man’s land’ between childhood and adulthood, where bodies grow faster than brains, you know… And in it he’d told me it could indeed be done.  So as background, let me tell you that story from his “young adulthood”, as it affected things a little further down the road in my “young adulthood”.…

So I knew from my dad that “it” could be done.  He’d told me the story of when he was

a)       Young, and

b)      Male

…of how a group of his friends got together to prove that this, um, ‘greenhouse gas’ could be produced by a human, and could be lit.

On fire.

(Note: male… teenager… fire… cue the ominous music)

One of that group of his friends produced some matches, and two separate things happened that changed the outcome of that story forever.

Note: there was no one suggesting that this might, in fact, be dangerous, or that there was a possibility of injury… No, these were young men, with at that age, possibly a single functioning brain cell between them.  That they had to share.  And the fellow with the match was rather modest, so his plan was to demonstrate this flammability factor without exposing any skin – the implication being that this gas could escape through cloth and everything would still work.

That it would work was true, but the cloth also kept a bit of it between the skin and said cloth before it escaped.  This would have been well and good, and had the experiment been successful, there might have been the possibility of some hair follicles being ignited.  Other than that, no problem.

This was under the assumption that the cloth was cotton, or wool, or some natural fiber.

But it wasn’t.

This was back when the artificial fibers that we’re now used to wearing – be they Nylon or Rayon or whatever combination of things we have that make cloth last longer now – were just being experimented with.

And if you didn’t know, Nylon is flammable.

And those pants were made of Nylon.

So when this greenhouse gas came into contact with an ignition source, that which had made it past the Nylon ignited very well.

But remember about the cloth? – and that some would gather inside before making it through?

It did.

Which meant that on both sides of this flammable Nylon was flammable methane.

That was on fire.

The Nylon pants didn’t stand a chance.

They caught fire, and melted, and… let’s just say the area around the source of the methane was tender and blistered for weeks to come.  It’s likely that the ‘modest’ young man had a story to tell his grandchildren years later – and a peculiar scar in a place only his doctor would see once a year.

It was with this story in mind that I suggested to – we’ll call him ‘Bill’ – that maybe getting the layer of cloth away from the – um – source of the methane would be a good idea, and given that I’d told the above story fairly well, including using the words “second degree burns”, “blisters”, and the phrase “his pants were melted to his butt” – ‘Bill’ agreed, and lied down on his bunk on his back, his knees up by his shoulders, trying to arrange things in such a way that the gas would be lit, but other, shall we say, delicate objects in the vicinity would be safe.

It took quite a number of tries with a little Bic lighter that someone had with them, and eventually, the timing, and location of everything was right.  There was “fuel”, there was “ignition” and it really worked.  It was indeed evident that methane was flammable, though not with the full blown cataclysmic flame-throwing display that we’d all been hoping for.  Slightly disappointed, Bill put everything back where it belonged, but there was some evidence of our attempts with the Bic wafting about, and one of the rules that had been laid down early on was that there would be no smoking, no matches, no fires.

Period.

An adult who was supposed to be responsible for safety on that floor of the barracks we were in came storming into the room and absolutely wanted to know what was going on.

We thought we were dead.

This was the night before the Regional drill competition.  We were the best Washington had to offer, and we realized might have just blown it, in more ways than one – so to speak…

The tone in his voice made it clear he was taking no prisoners, and taking no excuses.  He wanted answers, and he wanted them now.

“Have you been smoking?”

Not knowing what else to say, we answered truthfully.

“No sir.”

“Have you been playing with matches?”

Matches? We didn’t have any matches, we had a lighter.

“No sir”

He kept at this for a bit, asking us as a group, then one by one, the same questions.

We told him the truth, every time.

The problem was, he kept asking us all the wrong questions.

He then called his superior into the room, explained the situation, and asked the same questions all over again.  Eventually he said, as if justifying to his superior why he’d even been called into the room:

“I’ve asked them individually and collectively whether they were smoking, or lighting matches, and they all said no…”

They decided that they needed to go talk this over, and about the time they left, we looked at Bill and suddenly realized that this could disqualify us before the competition even started.  The dawning realization of how deep the doodoo was that we might have gotten into – and what we would have to tell the people back home if we were disqualified, was agonizing, but we knew what the right thing to do was.

We told Bill he had to go down to tell the guy everything and straighten it out, and he did.  Well, we don’t know what exactly he told him, but we told him to tell the guy the truth.

And I’m sure, as Bill was trying to explain this whole thing to this stern adult, that deep in that stern adult’s mind was a young man who’d likely done exactly the same thing a few decades earlier.

We were let off with a warning – as long as we <snicker> didn’t do it again….

And somehow, we got away with it…

The problem was, not ONCE had he ever asked us if any one of us was using a Bic lighter to try to light farts with.

We were allowed to compete.

We came in second – I mean, we did really well in the drill competition, and did okay in the volleyball game, and I remember my time for the mile run being okay – a little over six minutes – but my pulse was 228 and my gums were bleeding as I crossed the finish line – so I knew I’d given it pretty much all I had.  The reason we were a little short in the physical fitness part of it was because we were used to the elevation of McChord Air Force Base –a whopping 283 feet.  The 4,000+ foot elevation of Klamath Falls just did a number on us.

I don’t remember what maneuvers we did for the drill competition, really, it was the silly stuff we did that we remembered.  The stuff we got away with.

So… when I heard my mom say “individually and collectively” the other day – the floodgates in my memory opened up, and I realized, “Oh, no… there’s another story there…” – and I told it to her pretty much as you read it above, and she laughed…

© 2011 Tom Roush

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