“Tell me something,” the Air Force Recruiter asked. “Are you interested in foreign languages?”
“You mean learning a new language?” I said. “Sure, I guess so.”
This was not entirely true. I loved learning foreign accents much more than the languages. I loved the guttural sounds of a French accent rolling from the back of my tongue. Or the militant bark of the German. But the actual conjugate-this-verb-in-the past-tense learning of a language didn’t exactly make my heart beat faster.
“Great,” said the Recruiter. “Because what the Air Force is really looking for right now are people they can train to speak Russian and Chinese. Does that sound interesting?”
“Well, yes, I guess it does.”
“When you’re in Basic Training they’ll call you for a test. If you pass it, you’ll be in the program. Just check ‘General’ here and sign there. Since you’re still seventeen, you’ll have to take this Permission Form for one or both of your parents to sign.”
The Air Force let new recruits choose what area they would be trained in from four different categories, Mechanical, Clerical, Electrical, and General. Those who checked the “Mechanical” box ranged from the men who were trained to rebuild and service jet engines to the guys who crawled under the old trucks in the motor pool to change the oil. The recruits choosing “Clerical” were trained as paper-pushers, bookkeepers, and bean counters. The third choice, “Electrical,” included anything that needed current running down a wire – radar, microwave communications, radio. The final category was “General”. This was the grab bag, take-a-chance choice that covered everything the first three did not. There were some elite and interesting specialties like Intelligence, as well as some not-so-elite or interesting jobs like Air Police and Food Preparation Specialist.
My mother was intrigued by the thought of me learning Russian or Chinese, and signed the form.
So here I was in the first few weeks of Basic Training and the only foreign language I was trying to decipher was the one Sergeant LaCroix was screaming into my face. English spoken with a thick, Southern accent, if spoken at an average or slower speed, is not only perfectly understandable it is even charming. But English spoken angrily – fast, loud, and laced with expletives – may as well be Inuit or Farsi.
Also, I am not someone who works well with an irritable presence looking over my shoulder. Normally competent at performing normal tasks, all I would need was the sound of Sergeant LaCroix’s boot heels clicking by and my brain would start wobbling and my fingers would get thick and clumsy. Then I’d hear, “Ringoyousillylittleshit, what the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Sir, I uh… I was…”
“Drop and gimme twenny!”
Twenty pushups later and me back up and standing at attention, I’d hear, “Now I’m gonna tellyuh again, God dammit. You put the rossifargle up ovah the glammalgoap, then you pull the framistrad up agin the tolfahdle and lock it down. You got that?”
Only a fool would not yell, “Yes, Sir!”
Then I would side-eye what the guy next to me was doing and try to do the same.
One morning we were assembled outside the barracks, ready to be marched to the Grinder for Drill exercises. Sergeant LaCroix consults a clipboard and bellows, “Listen up! The followin troops ah to report to Buildin 570 at 1330 owahs tomorrah. Andason, Crawley, Foahman, Ledbettah, Paylton, Toahbuht, Wahkleman. That’s at Buildin 570 1330 owahs tomorrah!”
I thought there was a good chance that my last name was included on the list, but I had never heard him actually say it out loud before and I knew better than to raise my hand and ask, “Excuse me Sergeant LaCroix. Did you say ‘Pelton?”
So I kept my head down and my mouth shut and decided to let tomorrow take care of tomorrow.
A week later, the bugles of Reveille were blasting out of speakers and into the darkness . My bunkmate had had to pull me bodily off the top bunk and I woke up in mid-air. I was still buttoning up my fatigues as I ran out the door. Then I realized I’d forgotten my hat and had to fight traffic to get back inside to get it. When I ran back out, everybody else was in formation and standing at attention. Sergeant LaCroix watched me silently as I scurried into the open space in the line of men facing him.
After a furious tirade from the him and about 60 pushups from me, the Sergeant leaned into my sweaty face and said, very clearly, “Ringoyousillylittleshit, if you fuck up one more time, just once more, I will set you back so far you’ll be ridin’ in on the God-damned bus from the Airport.”
Most of the rest of that day was taken up first by classes and then rifle qualifying, and I was able to stay out of Sergeant LaCroix’s line of sight.
The next morning, when we all were lined up outside the barracks, a different Sergeant was standing there looking us over. He was thinner and taller than Sergeant LaCroix, but wore an equally starched-and-pressed uniform down to the spit-shined boots with the little steel plates set into the heel.
He introduced himself as Sergeant Brown and said that Sergeant LaCroix had gotten a call in the middle of the night that his Mother was very ill and near death. Granted emergency leave to fly back home, Sergeant LaCroix was already on his way back to Tennessee. Sergeant Brown said that he would be taking over our training.
And just like that I became anonymous. I was known to my new Training Instructor as “Airman Basic Pelton, Timothy J.” I was no longer “Ringoyousillylittleshit,” or even “Ringo.” I was just another face in the line. I almost ambled through the last few weeks of training.
I was informed of what specialty I would be trained in, and put on “Casual Status” while I awaited orders. I called my Mother with the news.
“Hey, Mom, guess what specialty I got picked for?”
“Reconnaissance Photography Specialist! Basically, I’ll be riding in the backseat of an airplane taking pictures of what’s on the ground. Probably for Intelligence guys to pour over with their magnifying glasses. Pretty cool, huh?”
“But what about Languages?”
“Yeah, I messed up there. My TI read off a list of names one day but because of his thick Southern accent I didn’t hear my name being called and it turned out to be for the Languages test. But it all worked out because the photography thing sounds really interesting.”
She sounded disappointed, but I did my best to jolly her up and by the end of the conversation, she seemed okay.
Five days later a runner brought a message to Squadron HQ that I was to report that afternoon to a Sergeant Bricker at his office in Building 342.
Sergeant Bricker turned out to be someone who was very unhappy with me missing the Languages Test. He kept me standing at attention in front of his desk for fifteen minutes while he railed at me for my bad attitude, laziness, and failure to take initiative. One would think that I had betrayed the whole Air Force. Finally, with angry reluctance, he pushed a sheet of paper across his desk at me. I was ordered to report two days later to Building 570 at 1330 hours to take the Languages Test.
The test turned out to be a challenge but an interesting one. We were given a group of vocabulary words and a few basic verbs in the Macedonian language to memorize. Some simple Macedonian grammatical rules were passed out before they gave us a list of sentences in Macedonian which we were to translate into English as best we could.
I must have done fairly well on the test because two weeks later I received orders to take two weeks leave, then report to the Air Force detachment on the campus of Indiana University where I would begin Russian Language training.
While I was at home I told my Mother about Sergeant Bricker and his hostility. A little shame-faced, Mom told me that after our conversation, she had gotten worried about my safety. This was the Fall of 1964 and the Vietnam War had just begun. My Mother, being an Artist, had a very vivid imagination and could see me in the back seat of a jet flying over Hanoi. Just as I begin taking pictures of the City’s defenses, a surface-to-air missile hits the jet I’m riding in. Shrapnel rips through my body and I am dead before the plane hits the ground in a huge fireball.
“So,” she continued, “I sat down and wrote a polite letter to the Commanding General of Lackland Air Force Base. He wrote back and apologized on behalf of the Training Command and promised to see if they could rectify the situation. Wasn’t that nice?”
I told her I thought that, yes, it was very nice. Inside I was totally mortified. Now I could understand why Sergeant Bricker was so incensed.
When I arrived at the USAF detachment at IU and began to take Russian classes, I found it ironic that in a completely male-dominated Service, it was due to two women that I was here at all. My Mother, who wrote the Letter to the General, and Sergeant LaCroix’s mother, who had contracted some unknown-to-me terrible disease. God bless ’em both.