[The following is a true story, but identities have been concealed. I left out a few minor details, but otherwise this is a complete recounting of one beautiful day in Dallas in November, 1978.]
I was barely 17 when I enlisted in the military. I was so proud when I took my oath on induction day; I was in the Air Force! Wide-eyed, with stars in my eyes, I looked forward to arriving at basic training and playing the game my father warned me about for the next six weeks.
Ten other people were sitting in the reception area awaiting our travel instructions when someone called my name. I jumped up and went over to the woman's desk. She pushed a map toward me and said, “You are in charge of getting these people to Lackland.”
I was incredulous. “Me?! Are you sure?” I looked around the room. “I am the youngest person here!”
She looked at the paper in front of her. “Is your name Smith?”
“You're it. Go straight to the airport, and make sure everyone stays inside once you arrive.”
In a state of shock I took the map, studied it for a minute, then led everyone to the street and headed toward DFW Airport, falling back so I could keep an eye on everyone. One of the recruits fell in next to me and introduced himself.
“Hi, my name is Mark. So, how does it feel to be in charge?”
He smiled. “Why is that?”
I said, “There are ten of you and one of me. If everyone decides to take off running in ten different directions, how am I supposed to catch them all?”
Mark laughed. “This is a volunteer military, so I don't think you have to worry about that. Although, someone might give you a problem.”
I was so relieved at his comment that I missed the caveat.
We arrived at the terminal around noon, but our flight did not take off until after eight. I looked around at the expectant faces and said, “Well, we have eight hours before the plane leaves, and I don't see any reason for us to sit here staring at each other singing 'Kumbaya'...” (Mark snickered) “...so as long as everyone stays in the airport...” (Mark nodded forcefully) “...you can go to the gift shop, get something to eat, whatever you want to do, and we will all meet back here at 5:00.” That was still ridiculously early in my mind, but my father had drilled into me the need to leave early for everything so that, in the event nuclear war suddenly broke out, we would still get where we were going on time.
Little did I know just how wise that advice would turn out to be.
I wandered around the airport, stopped and ate a slice of pizza, wandered around some more, and finally wound my way back to the terminal. At five o'clock I did a head count. Nine. One person was missing, but I was not terribly concerned because I am extremely time-conscious and I realize not everyone is, so I decided to give it until 5:30, which is exactly what I told Mark when he inquired.
Staring at the clock, I waited expectantly. When five-thirty rolled around, I stood up.
“Does anyone know who is missing?”
My stomach dropped to the ground. While I had been counting heads, I had failed to note names and faces. Now, here I was with my you-know-what hanging out with no information to go on. I was screwed.
After an interminable pause, Mark stepped away from the group. Despite my predicament, I remember being struck by his military bearing and thinking how great he was going to be once he got out of Lackland. (Readers who have caught on at this point may commence laughing.)
“Ma'am, the person you are looking for is John Denton. You were actually talking to him earlier. He is six feet tall, wearing green fatigues.”
(How did I miss green fatigues?)
I still did not remember John, but I nodded in acknowledgment. I was already humiliated enough.
“Alright. We are going to break up into groups.” I paired everyone off, and assigned each team an area. I realized this was an exercise in futility; the chances of finding one man at DFW (assuming he was even in the airport) were sub-zero, but I could not stand there doing nothing.
Mark spoke up again. “Ma'am, if it's alright with you, I would prefer to stick with you. I might be able to be of assistance.”
I paused for a second. I had already lost one person. I was not about to lose another one, so the idea of sending one person out alone was not appealing to me. But, Mark had been helpful thus far, so reluctantly I agreed, telling everyone to meet back at the terminal in an hour.
We split up and Mark and I tried paging John. When that did not work, Mark suggested we go up a staircase nearby and search that area. When we hit the landing, I sent him right, I went left, and we began a door-by-door search. I was in a (barely) controlled state-of-panic, but I had worked search-and-rescue while I was a police explorer, so I knew what to do.
It seemed like just a minute before I hear my name being called. I turned and Mark was summoning me. I ran over to him and he led me around a corner, stopping in front of a door.
“He's in here.”
I looked around for a sign, but I did not see one.
“What is this?”
“It's a bar. John is drunk, and he is refusing to get on the plane.”
I was thunder-struck. Volunteer military, remember?
“It seems John got into a little legal trouble and the judge gave him a choice between jail and the military. He chose the military, and now he has changed his mind.”
I was speechless. A thousand things were going through my mind. As I continued to stare at him, Mark continued. “You do realize how serious this is?”
“Yes. If he does not go to Lackland he is AWOL, and I am in deep shit.”
“True. But do you know John has been AWOL since 5:00?”
He said, “Listen! Whether you know it or not, when you told everyone to be back at the terminal by five, that was a direct order! John has been AWOL for almost an hour now.”
I stared at him in disbelief, but every word he spoke rang true. There was just something very authoritative about him. (Yeah, I know.) My wheels spun, and in about five seconds I said, “OK. I have an idea, but I am only 17. Can I even go in there?”
“Yes. You can go in. You just cannot drink.”
“OK. Follow my lead.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Just follow my lead.” I started toward the door, then turned back around. “And, whatever you do, do not blow my cover.”
Mark gave me a concerned look, but he followed me inside. I swept the bar and no one was there. Mark pointed at a booth. I locked onto John, and about halfway there I completely changed my demeanor. John was staring at his drink when I approached.
“Hiya, John. Whatcha doin'?”
“Having a drink,” he mumbled.
“Mind if we join you?”
He half-heartedly pointed at the seat across from him, and we slid in.
“A Cuba Libra.”
“What's a Cuba Libra?”
Mark answered, “It's a rum and coke. Cuba Libra is spanish for 'Free Cuba'.”
The waitress arrived at the table. “What can I get for you?”
Without missing a beat, I looked up and replied, “I'll have a Cuba Libra.”
I diverted my gaze and stared at the back of the booth with my best poker face because, not only was I afraid of being carded but, I expected...and received...the look Mark gave me.
It was filled with daggers.
Begrudgingly, he ordered the same, but his tone and facial expression made it clear he was not happy, and I knew he was now watching me like a hawk. The drinks came, and I took a small sip.
“Hmmm. Not bad. I've never had one of these before.” I took another sip, looked over at John, and said, “So, what's wrong?”
It all came gushing out. For the next five minutes he carried on about how the military was going to be like prison, he couldn't do it, he didn't want to do it, blah, blah. I let him go until he fell silent. Then I said, “But, John. From what I understand, you are looking at six months in prison, right?”
“Basic training is only six weeks, and it is not what the real military is like. They will call you every name in the book, talk about your mother and your sister, and all you have to do is let it go right over your head. It's a game..” I held my hands out in the form of a balancing scale. “Six months. Six weeks. Come on. You can do anything for six weeks.” Which was not entirely true, but I was trying to make a sale.
I waited for a minute, but I could see John was not convinced. I reached across the table and lightly touched his hand. “Look. I don't know if we will be able to communicate, but if we can and you need help, I will do whatever I can to help you. OK? I don't want to see you go to jail. Will you just do it for me? Please?”
Slowly, John met my gaze. He sat there for a moment, then slowly nodded. “OK. I guess. For you.” Relieved, I looked at Mark. He tapped his watch, but I had been looking. 6:30. Time to go.
We got up. Mark settled the bill, and we made our way back to the terminal with John zig-zagging all the way. When we arrived, he fell into the nearest chair, damned near knocking it over.
I said, “Man, he is gone.”
Mark looked at me matter-of-factly. “You do realize they will not let him board if they know he is drunk?”
No, I knew so such thing! Here I was, patting myself on the back for a job-well-done, and now I get another curve ball! I stared at him, incredulous.
In answer to my unspoken question, Mark nodded. “FAA regulations. They will not let him on the plane if they think he is intoxicated.”
I could not believe what I was hearing. I was seventeen-years-old; how was I supposed to know FAA regulations?!
With no time to spare, my wheels spun again, and about five seconds later I had devised a plan.
“OK. I have an idea, but I cannot pull it off. Who is the sturdiest female we have?”
To his credit, this time Mark did not bother to ask me what I planned. He pointed at a woman. “Probably Mary.” I looked her over and was not convinced, but she would have to do. I called her over and, as she approached, I felt a little better; she looked more muscular close-up. I explained the situation.
Impatiently, with more than a little sarcasm, she asked, “What do you want me to do about it?” Ordinarily I would have addressed her attitude but, in the interest of time, I let it go.
“You know those couples you see in shopping malls and stuff, hanging onto each other and clinging as if they will die if they let go?”
I put on my brightest face and my biggest grin. “How would you like to be John's girlfriend?”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mark suppress a grin, but I was honed in on Mary whose look made it clear she did not appreciate the genius of my plan.
She replied indignantly, “I'm married.”
Keeping my same, bright-eyed expression I said, “I didn't order you to marry the man.”
That did it. Mark had just taken a swig of coffee and, in his attempt to keep from laughing, began to choke on it. Two men, just to the left of us, jumped to their feet in unison to help him, but Mark waved them off. As he began to recover, I maintained my focus on Mary.
I said, “It's acting. Weren't you ever in a school play?”
“OK, then.” I repeated, “It's acting. I would do it myself, but look at him and look at me.” (At the time, I weighed all of 110 pounds.) “If he stumbles, we are both going to hit the floor. I need someone sturdy, and you are it.”
Mark was looking at me with a very amused expression in his eyes and I thought I saw just a hint of respect. In contrast, Mary breathed in slowly while continuing to glare at me.
After a moment, she said, “Alright. I'll do it. But if touches anything, I am going to deck him.”
I pleaded, “Just remember. It is acting.”
So, with the plan in place, Mary went over to John and filled him in. When the boarding call came, Mark suggested we stay back in the line so we could make sure John got boarded. As I watched, his hand started creeping down Mary's back, and under my breath I said, “She is going to hit him....”
And, sure as shit, right when they got to the stewardess, John tripped.
I stopped breathing, but Mary did her job and leaned back into him, bringing him upright. The attendant handed them their boarding passes, and they walked down the ramp together.
He was aboard.
I had only flown one other time but I loved it, so I found my seat and settled in for a nice, relaxing, one-hour flight to San Antonio.
Unfortunately, John had other ideas.
Mark's seat assignment was somewhere else on the plane, but suddenly he appeared and asked my seatmate if he would mind exchanging seats. The man agreed and Mark sat down.
“I hope this is OK. We've gone this far; I thought it would be nice if we took the flight together.”
“Sure! That's fine.”
Suddenly, before we had even left the gate, I heard John's voice from about eight rows behind us, hassling the stewardesses for a drink. At this point, I understood he was in danger of being thrown off the plane.
I was also tired of this shit.
I yanked off my seat belt and, trying not to draw more attention, placed my knees in the seat and leaned over the back. I tried to flag John down, but he was too busy searching the cabin for a flight attendant, so I got the attention of a guy about three rows in front of him.
“Get him,” I requested in as low a voice as I could. He did, and when John and I locked eyes I hissed, “Sit down!” He immediately did so, and I followed up with, “Now, shut up!”
I turned back around, fell back into my seat, angrily slapped the seat belt back on, and took a deep breath. I looked over at Mark, who was perusing a magazine and taking everything in, but who was not reacting to it visibly.
I said, “You know, you would have thought I shot him the way he dropped back into his chair.”
Mark replied, “He thought you were going to be nice like you were in the bar.”
In a dead monotone I said, “That was then.”
I still held out hope I would be able to enjoy the flight, but it was not to be. No sooner were we airborne than I heard John trying to get a drink from anyone who passed by. Then, about midway through the trip he announced to the entire cabin,
“I. Said. I. Want. A. Rum. And. Coke. !”
I was so frustrated I pinched the top of my nose, closed my eyes, and just started slowly shaking my head back-and-forth.
(How did I get myself into this?)
In a subdued tone, Mark asked, “Are you planning to do anything about that?”
I was not angry with Mark. I was just fed up with the situation. In a stern tone I answered, “Look. My orders were to get him to San Antonio. His ass is going to San Antonio. If he arrives in handcuffs, that's his problem.”
To which Mark calmly replied, “OK. But if the pilot radios ahead and the police meet the plane, and John goes to jail, he doesn't get to Lackland, and that's your problem.”
Out of sheer exhaustion, I exhaled sharply and dropped my head to my chest.
Mark laughed sympathetically and said, “Tell you what. Why don't you let me take a shot at this?”
My head snapped up. “Are you sure? It is my responsibility.”
Mark nodded. “You've had enough. I think what is needed here is a fresh voice.”
I watched him as he walked back to John and whispered something in his ear. Obviously I could not hear what was said, but John's eyes got as big as saucers and was suddenly sitting ramrod straight. When Mark returned I asked him what he said.
Offhandedly he answered, “I just reminded him what was at stake.”
I was still curious, but I was too tired to pursue the matter.
Later, when we reached the in-processing center, Mark disappeared for a while. He eventually returned with a clipboard containing an after action report to fill out. I was completely sapped of energy, so it never even occurred to me to ask why he was acting as a go-between. He disappeared again and, as I sat there waiting, the almost total silence was broken by loud, boisterous laughter coming from the back of the hangar. The crazy thought crossed my mind that they were laughing about my exploits at the airport, but I was spent. I curled up in my seat and was asleep before my head hit my knees.
I never saw Mark again, and I have often wondered what became of him. For those who have yet to catch on, Mark was no recruit. He was likely an officer, and I place him somewhere around the rank of major. As for John, word got back to me that he washed out of Basic after two weeks. Presumably, he went to jail. The courts long since have abandoned that ridiculous program.
And, I am happy to report that everything Lackland had in store for me paled in comparison to that day.