The immediate reason I joined the U.S. Air Force rather than the Army was because the U.S. Army recruiting office in my town had reached its quota for March, 1949. The Army recruiting sergeant said his quota was filled for the month, so he offered me a position in the Air Force—yes, Virginia, the armed forces had fixed quotas in those days.
There were openings in the U.S. Navy for March, but that service held no attractions for me. I’m not a strong swimmer, and I also feared that the Navy’s uniform whites with the thirteen trouser buttons might be a bit unwieldy. I know, I know—I can swim far better than I can fly, but I joined the Air Force anyway—I liked the khaki uniforms and the Air Force was immediately available. Added to that was the fact that I needed to get out of town quickly.
The events leading up to my enlistment in the active duty military were numerous and varied. Some of those events were pleasant, but others were harrowing. I was enlisted in the Mississippi National Guard at the time, purely in order to get the $10 per month I was paid for training on one Saturday of each month—big money! I lied about my age in order to join—either the Guard recruiter believed me or really didn’t care whether I was old enough to join. I also lied about my age in order to join the Air Force—click here for a brief autobiographical dissertation that includes my underage enlistment. It’s a long read but I can unblushingly assure you, with no hint of personal bias or prejudice, that the read is worth your time and effort.
Now on to the real reason I joined the U.S. Air Force:
Picture this: A billiard hall on the second floor of a building that also housed a market, located a five-minute walk from the city’s combination high school and junior high school. The pool room was a favorite with young men and boys, particularly at noon during school hours, in the evenings (it closed at six pm), and on Saturdays. The proprietor served no alcoholic beverages and had strict rules for conduct in his establishment. Our local police officers came in occasionally for a free Coke and hot dog, and military recruiters made frequent visits to the pool room to discuss the benefits of military enlistments. Many students, including my mother’s youngest son, spend their lunch hour there every day during school terms—shooting pool, eating hot dogs and drinking cokes.
Special notes: A hot dog with all the trimmings cost a whopping ten cents, and the Mae West-shaped Coke was five cents, with no sales tax involved. Pool games cost ten cents each, paid by the players before the balls were racked by a rack boy. Most games were Eight Ball, played between two players and the loser paid for the rack before the next game began. One only needed to approach a table with two shooters and say, “I’ll play the winner.”
And so it was—the loser paid for the new rack, and the next shooter took on the winner. That process was normally honored, and if any shooter balked at giving up the table, the proprietor was called into action to arbitrate—the loser always lost in the arbitration. At least in theory, a proficient shooter could hold sway over a table for the full hour and never have to pay for a game.
I was a proficient shooter. On many school days I arrived at the poolroom with twenty-five cents, no more and no less. I bought a coke and a hot dog with fifteen cents and pocketed the other dime in the somewhat unlikely chance that I lost a game—it happened, of course, but not very often. If I still had the dime when it was time to return to school, I picked up a second hot dog and coke and finished them off on the way back to school. Ah, those were the days!
My encounter with the Army recruiter took place as I was shooting pool with two friends—the three of us were high-school dropouts, and the recruiter painted such a rosy picture of life in the Army that two of us accepted his invitation to appear at his office the following Monday for testing.
The third person at the pool table was physically unfit for military service—while sound in mind and body in most respects, his back was severely hunched, or humped—I’m unsure of the proper term to use. His deformity was so severe that he resembled a fiddler crab in his forward progress—he wore a sports jacket year-round, regardless of the weather. Before feeling too much pity, one needs to know that he was very much favored by the girls—we were never told what made him so attractive but we had our suspicions, and it sure wasn’t his intellect, his good looks or his conversational charm!
With all necessary apologies to our soldiers, both active duty and veterans, whether discharged or retired, I must state that the U.S. Army’s written test was ridiculously easy for me, but my friend made such a low score that the recruiting sergeant suggested that he not bother asking for a retest—statistics showed that he would never be able to pass the test, no matter how many times he tried. I have long harbored a suspicion that he deliberately failed the exam, but at this late date it is a matter of no importance—at that time he was out and I was in, and that’s all that counted.
Aside from the fact that I was at loose ends, bobbing about on a sea of endless days and nights with no particular feelings or expectations concerning the future, I admit that I was involved in some activities that did not bode well for my future. I passed the written exam and the physical, and I accepted the Army recruiter’s offer of allowing me to enlist in the Air Force rather than waiting for the following month to go into the U.S. Army. Mine was a wise choice, and I have never looked back—well, perhaps a few times during my 15 months in Korea at the height of the Korean War. In my looking back, I am thankful that I did not enlist in the army—had I waited another month I would probably have been in Korea anyway, but fighting on the front lines instead of maintaining aircraft in the rear echelon of troops in country.
I managed to hang on to my sanity through 13 weeks of basic training—click here for some thoughts on that period. Following graduation from basic training, I was treated to a two-week excursion on a U.S. Army troop ship bound for Japan, all expenses paid. I was fine until the third day out, but on that day I was so seasick I seriously considered jumping ship, right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. However, being fully aware of my swimming capabilities and the lack thereof, I turned myself inside out over a 24-hour period and survived my bout with seasickness—a monumental turnaround, especially considering the quality of food served by the Army cooks.