One of the things I’ve been doing in these stories is writing down history. I’ve written down a number of stories about my dad and his time in the military. There are others in the works, but I happened to run across a couple that I’d convinced him to write before he passed away. They’re rare because he printed them, and then later the computer they were stored on was stolen, so these are the only stories I have that he actually wrote. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing my own writing – so my kids can see and read some of the stories that are part of their history and that they’ve heard over the years.
I’ve been baking artisan bread for the last little while (bakers go back in the family for generations, and my son got me this book which has been absolutely wonderful). So given that, the other day I was thinking about baking bread, and it got me to thinking of this next, actually, the second of the four stories that dad wrote about his times in the Air Force.
We have to travel back in time to about 1953, when my dad was in his early 20’s, in the Air Force, and just past basic training at Keesler AFB, in Mississippi, and into the technical training (radio operator and some things he wasn’t allowed to talk about) that formed the beginning of his career. If we were to set the stage, we’d have to do so with the understanding that World War II was still very much in people’s minds, the Cold War between the former allies of the United States and the USSR was just ramping up, and the Korean War was in full swing. The Air Force was training thousands of new recruits every month, on an assembly line basis at a quantity that was as mind numbing for the recruits as it was for those trying to keep track of them, keep them busy, and keep them healthy.
These recruits were resources, and the Air Force had to take care of them by feeding them, giving them shelter, and keeping them occupied when they weren’t busy learning whatever the Air Force had decided they would learn. On top of all the classes and mental training for the actual skills, there was the physical discipline that was taught by having the recruits do daily calisthenics, and the mental discipline that was accomplished by assigning daily tasks that were simply not optional.
So while they were taking classes in some of the most technical, and classified, jobs and skills available at the time, they were also to take care of themselves and each other in the most basic ways you can imagine. There were assignments to clean the barracks, mow the lawns, maintain vehicles, buildings and property, and to scrub things till they shined. The person in charge of tasks like this was, in civilian terms, a manager. In the military, he (at that time and in that place they were mostly “he’s”) was a Sergeant. Very few recruits ever saw Generals. All recruits saw Sergeants, and the Sergeant wore the hat of your mother, your father, your elementary through high school principals, your cop, and pastor, and occasionally, your bartender, all in one very crowded body, and your Sergeant could change hats faster than you could blink an eye, so staying on his good side was your greatest mission in life.
Make your Sergeant proud, he’d take care of you. Embarrass him, and your life would be a living hell. You would be cleaning bathroom floors with a toothbrush for a month – and it would likely be your own toothbrush you’d be doing it with.
From the Sergeant’s point of view, you’re a hands-on leader, and in the military, as anywhere, good leadership is the key to getting things done. You depend on your soldiers (or sailors, or airmen, or Marines) to get the job done.
When things don’t get done, there are consequences.
Your job, as a Sergeant, is to make sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that those consequences are so unforgettable so that whatever caused them never, ever happens again. At the same time, your job is to be in your soldier’s corner, letting them know you support them and will get them what they need to get the job they’ve been assigned done.
In doing that, you want to make sure that if they screwed something up, the screwup is fixed at your level and goes no higher. You know that if a soldier ends up being called on the carpet in front of their commander, whether that’s a Sergeant or a general, there are only three acceptable answers to questions that might be asked, and those answers were simply, “Yes, Sir”, “No, Sir”, and “No Excuse, Sir.”
Three very important things here.
- You never wanted to have to be in a position ask those questions. It meant something had gone wrong.
- You never, ever wanted to be in a position to have to answer those questions. It meant that you hadn’t been able to fix whatever went wrong.
- You never, ever, ever wanted to have to give that last answer. It meant you were the one who was responsible for whatever went wrong. It was the equivalent of falling on your sword
And Sergeants, without whom there would simply be no military, were well known for coming up with creative ways of not falling on their swords, so to speak. Some of the ways problems were “solved” were due to ingenuity borne out of the rare moments when you are faced with the only fate worse than death itself, having to say the dreaded words, “No Excuse, Sir.”
Occasionally, if the situation demanded, things were literally covered up. This was only done as a last resort when everything else had failed. It meant you were out of resources, out of supplies, or out of time.
This is important to remember. The stress of running a huge kitchen like they had at training bases like Keesler was enormous, the time available to feed thousands of recruits was limited, so the kitchens had staff working around the clock preparing food for those three mealtimes when everything had to be ready to go, all at once. Some in that staff were there full time, others were there as assigned. This meant there were often people working there who didn’t really understand the significance of what they were doing. (or not doing, as the case may be)
There were officers in charge of the entire operation, but it was the Mess Sergeant in charge who took care of day to day things in the Mess Hall. It was the Mess Sergeant in charge who made sure the kitchen ran with – well, military precision. And it was the Mess Sergeant who did everything possible to eliminate all the variables he could, and make sure everything worked, so he could feed everyone coming through the door quickly, efficiently so they could go out and get trained to fight the enemy, whoever that was.
Under no circumstances did he want to stand in front of his commander uttering the words, “No Excuse, Sir”, so he instilled in his underlings a fear far worse than the fear of God; it was the fear of the Mess Sergeant.
So, there’s a lot of background to this story. Take a deep breath, smell the smell of a big, industrial sized kitchen. Here you can smell the vegetables being chopped up for the next lunch. Walk a little further, you can smell the aroma of freshly peeled potatoes for tomorrow morning’s hash browns, and hear the stories two young recruits are telling each other about anything but potatoes. A little further, the steamy vapor coming out of an industrial sized dishwasher tickles your nose, and finally, a bit further on, you can smell the yeasty smell of bread dough rising, mixed with the smell of coffee and cigarettes, and above the constant roar of the fans, you hear a number of 20-somethings laughing and goofing off.
Around you are huge stoves, walk-in refrigerators and freezers, hand trucks to make moving the huge sacks of raw ingredients easier, enormous chromed ovens, and mixers that you could mix enough dough in to feed an – well – an Air Force. Come with me as we stand off to the side and lean up against the wall and listen for a bit, as a much younger version of my dad tells the story behind a rather strange article that appeared in the paper that week. It’s below, just as he wrote it.
We had a certain number of KP’s to do as we went through the technical training. “Kitchen Police” is the full title of the job. With so many trainees, we had a mess hall row. Only one of the mess halls had a bakery, and even then I enjoyed the smell of fresh baked goods. We were assigned to the midnight shift, and were supposed to make rolls. Lots of them. One of the KP’s got some flour that wasn’t the right kind of flour we needed and dumped it in the big mixer, then I was left to watch the dough rise while the rest of them had coffee break. They had a super long break that night, and our KP pusher caught us goofing off.
I told him it hadn’t risen enough yet.
He started sweating, a lot, for the mess sergeant was due in any time.
There was a growth of bushes separating the places where the men were marched in, so he had all of us KP’s dig holes for the large quantity of dough to be poured and hidden. We went to work with a will and even covered the pile of dough with the sweepings. There was a picture in the paper later of the finding of a giant puffball mushroom by the mess hall.