A Memory For Memorial Day

As I get ready to prepare for the obligatory BBQ aspect for today’s Memorial Day meal…I remember my minor eight year stint with the United States Air Force or more importantly all the people I worked directly with. I remember most of my shop bosses and supervisors, all of which had some effect on the way I approach the concept of being a supervisor. But one individual in particular had the most profound effect on me. He was my Branch NCOIC – which means he was in charge of several duty sections, including the one I was assigned to. My first encounter with him was a bad one.

I was working the switchboard, while I was awaiting the final steps of my TS security clearance. The process for that is exceedingly slow and quite detail oriented. So, to keep me busy until I was cleared to move over to Data Processing, I was placed on switchboard. After a few weeks, I was put on the night shift – by myself. It was very odd to work on my own. I had never been given this kind of “authority” before – and I gradually got used to the shift. In a single night, I might receive a little more than fifty total calls, which is a very low volume. My tendency was to read. I could polish off a large novel – such as The Stand by Stephen King – in two nights. For me, that’s very fast reading. And since my attention was mostly on the book, my work was a little sloppy.

One of the functions of working switchboard is to patch off-base calls through for folks living in the dorms, where Class A lines were not available. I would have them say the number to me, I would repeat it back to them, obtain a line, and dial it for them. I was supposed to stay on the line until someone answered on the other end, but to speed the process, I would clear from the line the moment I heard the phone ring. I learned to not memorize the numbers – just place the call. And that’s what got me in trouble.

On one of my shifts, I placed three 976 prefix calls. Back in the late 1980s and 1990s – these were the pay sex lines. According to base regulations, that’s a misuse and misappropriation of government resources. One evening, I came in and found my duty section supervisor waiting for me. She was very terse as she explained what happened, and told me to be in the Branch Office to see CMSgt Simpson at 0830. My shift ended at 0700. The expectation was that I would head back to my barracks room to shower, shave and put on a clean uniform. I did no such thing.

Instead of reading my book, I spent the night reading through the duty section’s regulations. When my shift ended, I spent another hour on the section typewriter (we only had one and no computer) writing up my statement. Then, with wrinkled uniform and a heavy five o’clock shadow, I headed to the Branch Office. When I got there, only the Branch Aide was there – Airman James. He told me to just have a seat, and that Chief Simpson would be in shortly. He had no idea where I was there. I offered no further information, other than I had been summoned to see Chief. When the Chief came in, he looked at my state with a very concerned look, like he wasn’t sure what he was about to get in his office – but that I was certainly not dressed the way he expected. I was summoned into the office and he started off by asking me to close the door behind me and have a seat.

I refused the seat, and stood there at the front of his desk at attention.

“Sit down Airman Van Hook,” he stated bluntly pointing a finger at the chair. This time I accepted the seat.

“You are in here because I need to investigate what happened on your shift on…”

“If I may sir.” I offered the typed page across the desk to him – interrupting him in mid-sentence. A raised eyebrow was the notation that he was not used to junior enlisted interrupting him in this manner. Slowly he reach out, took the paper and began to read it. When he finished, he looked over the top of the paper at me, his eyebrow arching even higher. He read it again, and shook his head laughing.

“Are you serious?”

“Very much so, sir.”

“You are admitting that you placed the calls, even though you were unaware of the calls being made to a 976 line? And you are admitting fault and accepting whatever punishment for this?”

“Yes sir. When I was reading through the duty section regulations, I came across the notation that any call placed at the switchboard is the responsibility of the on-duty supervisor. Regardless of whether the supervisor placed the call or not. Since I was the only person there, I was the on-duty supervisor. Therefore, the fault for the call is my own. Since I signed off on my understanding of the regulations when I was first assigned to the duty section, the culpability is my own. No sense in me sitting here trying to snow you over this.”

“Hooky (he was fond of giving everyone little nicknames), you’ve got some major balls coming in here and doing this. You even made a signature line on this document and signed it. You do realize that admitting things in this way, that you are sticking your neck way out there? I could have your stripe for this.”

“Yes sir. And if I had tried to snow you, it would have made myself look bad, SSgt Johnson look bad, and worst of all, I would have made you look bad. As a subordinate within your branch, my actions are a reflection of your leadership.”

He started laughing, as he tore the paper up in front of me. “I like you. You’re direct. And since you are coming at me with this in this manner – I’ll make a notation that you have been counseled over your responsibilities. And everything is over. Now, go home, get something to eat, and get some sleep.”

And all of that started a very odd relationship. I was not the most professional Airman that was under his command. In fact, I was extremely unorthodox in everything that I did. I was moved over to the Data processing duty section, and very quickly became the most knowledgeable individual on how the UniSys 1000/60 mainframe operated. When it came time to upgrade to the UniSys 2200/30 system, I was the individual that was tasked with being the lead operator. I keyed in the commands, and verified that each step was completed correctly. Chief Simpson spent time protecting me from my mistakes – getting between me and my First Sergeant on numerous occasions.

When Chief retired in 1988, it was the last I ever saw of him. By then I had sewn on my Senior Airman stripes, and was already being considered for a step to Sergeant. His last words to me, when I shook his hand were “…let your work and your knowledge stand for who you are. But never let your subordinates hang dry.” And I did the very best I could to follow – both in the Air Force, and in civilian life.

Even in a regimented and somewhat unforgiving environment such as the United States military – there is room to embrace the unorthodox, the people who think and work outside of the box. Chief Simpson taught me that – and I have carried it far beyond my years in the Air Force.


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