It was a toss of the dice that seemed to be a sure thing. Despite interest in branches of military intelligence, engineers, and armor, I chose transportation during the process that would see me transition from an ROTC cadet to second lieutenant. As a service support branch, transportation lacked the prestige and challenge found in my former first choices, but due to my lofty position on the order of merit list it would give me an almost immediate entry to flight school and training as a rotary wing aviator.
It did just that, at least for a brief season, but all too soon a heretofore undiagnosed vision problem grounded me permanently. Colloquially known as amblyopia, or “lazy eye” but formally known as “lack of convergence and fusion”, the ailment could make flight under night or instrument conditions more difficult or dangerous.
It didn’t have to be a death sentence for an aviation career, but my company commander bluntly told me he didn’t want to waste his time helping me fight the decision, though I suspect the fear brought on by my obscure medical jargon played an undue influence on his decision. My disappointment was eased a bit by an interim assignment to the staff of the U.S. Army Aviation Digest, but I was still struggling with the unhappy turn my life had taken…
…until the afternoon I got the phone call telling me I was being assigned to FT Richardson.
It was a bit late in my high school career to be taking up athletics. Football had come late to Kenai Central High School, our team arriving on the field just two years earlier. I’d taken tentative steps to try out for the team that year and the next, but an overall shortfall in my life had put me off until my senior year, a shortfall that consisted of the lack of:
- Transportation for after-school activities.
- Friends on the team.
- Basic athletic ability and skill.
I also had the lack of support of the leader of our local congregation, who loudly stated that no one from the head-coach down to the assistant manager for towel control would waste time with me. Fortunately service as a teacher aide in physical education class had garnered a good reputation with the head coach but he made it plain that my lack of experience would work against me. I could be part of the team the following autumn – but as for playing time….
The whirlwind was just starting to die down. In less than two months I had raced through:
- In-processing at FT Richardson
- NBC (Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Warfare) school
- SnowHawk (introduction to training in an arctic and mountain environment)
…all of which had played out against the backdrop of a mysterious knee problem that had my right leg in a full-length cast until just a few days earlier, which didn’t make standing in line for the cashier’s case in the basement of the post exchange any easier. The line seemed to be taking forever to move but I kept myself distracted by making a mental list of all the changes that had been made in the place since I’d last been there as a dependent, noting that with all the moving about the home entertainment section was still down here in the basement.
Coach had kept his word – I got to suit up for games but spent most of my time playing center, guard, and tackle as in: “sit in the center of the bench, guard the water bucket, and tackle anyone taking a drink without spending at least a full quarter on the field.” It wasn’t the best situation, but there were some definite benefits:
- I enjoyed what time I did get on the playing field.
- I’d made new friends’
- I was in possibly the best physical shape of my short 17 years on earth.
…and the next week I’d be going to the FT Richardson PX to buy the stereo record player I’d been saving all summer for.
“Lieutenant, I cannot cash this check…and frankly I would think you’d know better than to come down here again without clearing up that other matter.”
“URK?” (A.K.A. my usual clever retort)
“Your NSF check from last spring. You haven’t made good on it yet – or the service charge!”
I tried to remain pleasant as I fell into a financial version of “He Said/She Said” at the cashier’s cage. I explained that I hadn’t even been in the command last spring and that she must have me mistaken for someone else (hint – she was) but it wasn’t until I pulled out my identification card that the chief teller left her desk and came over to act as referee. She picked up the Alaskan driver’s license that had slipped out of my wallet with my military ID and studied it for a minute, said “Lieutenant, you have a nice smile”, then started tapping out Central Accounting’s number on the phone.
Then she smiled.
“I’m sorry but AAFES policy doesn’t provide for the sale of floor models.”
The salesgirl with a white name tag and a sitcom-mom shag haircut carefully explained the situation a second time. My record player of choice had proved to be a very popular RCA model that had sold out quickly. In addition to having a fairly nice sound and a reasonable price the unit was equipped with a pair of woodgrain speakers that clipped together and snapped in place over the turntable to make an easily portable unit, which was definitely an asset in the highly mobile life of a service dependent…and every one of them except the display model had sold out earlier in the week.
I could feel my face warm with a flush as my frustration threatened to erupt in a confrontation, but my inner fifty-year old man took over and with an effort to avoid a blow-up I shifted my gaze down to the toes of my shoes while I calmly explained my situation:
- I’d worked and saved all summer.
- There wasn’t another unit to be found in Anchorage or down on the Peninsula.
- Even if there had been I wouldn’t be back at the Ft. Richardson PX until October.
The empty feeling in the pit of my stomach dropped even further floorward as I realized that the clerk with the Mrs. Brady haircut hadn’t spoken one word as I rattled off my concerns. I braced myself for what I assumed to be the final shutdown, but as I looked up she had just a hint of a smile as she turned and murmured to the gold-tagged supervisor who had joined the discussion after finishing a call on a nearby wall phone.
She turned back to me, flashed a smile usually found on your youngest/coolest aunt (the one that always had chewing gum) and said: “Young man you have a nice smile. You’ve also been very patient in what could have been a very unhappy situation…but I think we can figure out a way to get you your record-player.” She started to explain a lengthy AAFFES regulation, but once she got past something about no exchanges or refunds all I heard was the WAH-WAH-WAH trumpet sound of grown-up dialog in a Charlie Brown animation special.
I was getting my stereo.
The Florence Henderson shag had been replaced by a Dorothy Hamill bob flecked with grey and the white badge she had worn as sales staff had been replaced by supervisor-gold but the “cool aunt” look was the same.
“You were once a dependent here on post weren’t you?”
“A long time ago.”
“You still have a nice smile.” She turned to the clerk and gave permission to cash my check. It turned out that there was another lieutenant on post with my same surname and HE was the one who’d been bouncing checks.
“…and you’re still very patient for a young man.”