Sunday, July 8, 2012

Three Years, Nine Months (Part Three)

(In which we will examine the importance of the more complex verb tenses, as they pertained to the unfolding life of a certain individual whose name need not be mentioned here)

When last we left our flourishing airman, he was in Middletown PA, at Olmsted AFB, either luxuriating in his barracks room, with a book of perhaps Chekov or Baudelaire, or wielding a mean toilet brush in the barracks latrine, for the fifth time in one month.  This could have been almost anytime between mid-March 1965, through late autumn of 1966.  But, as with all things, this would change...

In the first place, I was pretty bored with my job.  Even though my title was 'Computer Operator', what I really spent most of my time doing was carrying boxes of blank punch card stock to the card punch, or carrying boxes of green-and-white-striped form paper to the printer, or stacking piles of printed reports of how many rolls of toilet paper the Air Force currently had on stock in Wisconsin, or putting newly punched cards into boxes and sending them off to God knows where.  When I wasn't being a kind of cyber-nanny, I would draw, in grease pencil or magic marker, on the backs of the blank cards -- interesting as a surface, limiting as a format, their being so long and narrow, after all.

Then a fellow airman let me in on a little secret of his.  If I was bored, and wanted to make some extra money, I could easily get a part-time job as a data entry clerk at any one of the rapidly growing companies in downtown Harrisburg PA.  These data entry departments were working 24-hour shifts all week, just like us, so I could fit my part time, off-base work into my Air Force schedule with no trouble at all, he said.  He just wished we weren't on different shift cycles, because then we could both go back and forth at the same time.  But that little problem was easy enough to fix, he said.  All I would need, he said, was a car.

A car.

As it happened, I had two Air Force buddies who'd been close high school friends, from nearby Reading PA, and one of them offered to take me used car shopping some weekend when I was free.  (He was a programmer, so he worked normal hours, 9-5, Monday through Friday.  Sigh)  I'd already been to David's home, to meet his parents and his younger sister, who seemed on the brink of marrying the heir of one major American manufacturing concern or another.  When David's mother brought a tray of drinks out onto the front porch for everyone, I had one of those instant epiphanies that seem to pepper my life.

It was her sweater set.  I don't really remember what she looked like -- probably had short, dark hair, that kind of thing -- but the sweater set, and the locket, and her skirt, were like a kind of death knell, for a deeply-revered, stubbornly defended portion of the Zimmerman family self-image.  We were middle-class, my father would always say, somewhat insistently, and who was I to know any different?  (Besides the fact that, in our household, questioning authority was akin to deciding to walk across the Monongahela Bridge by balancing on the hand rail -- something bad would surely happen)  So I had accepted our place in the socio-economic hierarchy of America, until I saw David's mom, in her casual clothes for an early autumn afternoon.  Using some sort of innate means of appraisal, I gauged the fineness of what must be cashmere; the understated elegance of the little diamond pendant on a gold chain; the uncompromising sturdiness and classic lines of her plaid wool skirt.  I quickly estimated that, on the retail market, her afternoon outfit would have cost at least two full months of my father's wages.  At least.  And I realized that, truly, these weren't what would be considered fabulously wealthy people.  These people, I realized, were actually middle class.

How easy it is, for a seismic shift like this to take place, in a public gathering, with no one taking notice.  But, in an instant, it was as though the little portion of concrete, on which my chair was sitting, dropped straight down toward the center of the earth, by a good two or three hundred feet.  To the casual observer, nothing had changed.  From my interior perspective, I'd discovered an almost imponderable distance and difference, between me and these smiling people around me.  And they didn't seem to suspect at all...

So.  A car.  David took me, one Saturday, to visit a highly-recommended used car dealership across town from his parents' house.  I knew about as much about cars as I knew about astrophysics.  I was 19.  I was assured that, with this hypothetical car, I could appreciably increase my disposable income -- all the more since I paid nothing for housing or food.   So, we climbed out of the Porsche David was driving (it actually belonged to his wife, but he drove it as though it was his), and took a turn around the extensive lot, with its selection of not only domestic vehicles, but foreign cars as well.  Oh how my life would have been different, if I'd fallen in love with a Dodge.  But instead...

How many of you know what a Morgan is?  Not the horse, but the car.  Even all these years later, there's still a taste of regret at the back of my throat, that what still seems like a stellar opportunity should have presented itself to me, and then have been wrenched irrevocably away.  But I get ahead of myself.

In the foreign car section sat, or gleamed, or some other fabulous verb in its past tense, a pistachio green Morgan Plus 4.  Oh God, it reeked of English country homes and tweeds like David's mother wore.  It was immaculate.  The dealer, spotting a likely catch in yours truly, hurried over to extol the car's many virtues, and underscored his spiel by opening the hood, to display an engine compartment that was quite literally clean enough to be used as a buffet surface for deviled eggs and seedless grapes.  It was gorgeous.  It was obscure.  It had an oak chassis, for God's sake.  And it had a price tag of a mere $2,000. 

(By the way, a quick Google check finds that, in today's dollars, that car, if it were available at a price adjusted for inflation, would cost just over $14,000.  Which I still think is a bargain) (What an irremediable snot I am)

Well, for this amount of money, in 1966, I was told I would need a co-signer, in order to finance the car.  This was the only hurdle I faced, in making this dream vehicle my daily ride back and forth to my new part-time job in Harrisburg.  Because of which part-time job, the $2000 price of the vehicle could be repaid in mere months, I predicted.

Unfortunately, the only resource I had at the time, to act as co-signatories, were my father and step-mother.

And predictably, after I'd hitch-hiked my way across Pennsylvania, and had a silent dinner with the two of them, and my little sisters and my horrid grandmother, and then decided it was time to broach the topic of the car and the loan, there was stunned silence, then sullen anger, and my stepmother revving up to the screaming pitch she used to signal her disapproval.  How dare I even consider spending that much money on my first car!  Who did I think I was?  How dare I think I was so much better than everyone else, to have a car that cost $2000.  (At that point, it's likely that, aside from the house my father and step-mother co-owned, the only thing of similar value either of them had owned was my step-mother's Mercury convertible.  And that had been sold in 1959 -- a bitter loss I doubt my step-mother ever ceased regretting)  Why couldn't I be like other young men, and get a sensible car, like this -- my father consulted the local newspaper's car sales ads -- this Morris Minor, if you have to have your fancy foreign car -- it's for sale here for $50!  Who do you think you are, to pass up a reasonable car like this, and ask us to help you borrow... $2000!?!?!

A Morris Minor, by the way, is like the vehicular equivalent of a June bug.  Whereas the Morgan struck me as a low-slung, purring cat, or a basilisk, capable of turning those who looked at it to solid stone.

Well, the fight didn't end well, as I probably should have known from the beginning.  I hitch-hiked back to Middletown, steaming.  And, because I was 19, and angry, and bored, I decided that I knew what I needed to do next.  I was going to stop being a cyber-nanny.  And I knew exactly what that next thing would be.

There had been listings, posted in the barracks, of aptitude tests for a variety of different career fields where there were openings for new personnel.  One of these was 'radio operator', and because I was 19, and angry, and bored -- to say nothing of ill-informed and delusional -- I decided that this was how I wanted to spend the rest of my enlistment period.  I saw myself in a broadcasting studio, reading the world news between selections of Bach and the Rolling Stones.  Delusional.

So, I inquired about taking the aptitude test, and I was told that there was a problem.  There had been those psychological exams I'd taken, while I was in Amarillo TX, awaiting the computer training I didn't really want.  The results had been... interesting.  After I decided that, regardless of how bad the military would be for me, or how bad I would be for the military, I still didn't want to go back home, I was told that a waiver was being attached to my medical records.  "And any time you feel that the Air Force is not what you want," the red, white and blue psychiatrist told me, "all you have to do is go to your base medical officer, and you can be processed out, any time you like."

At the time, this seemed like a very good fall-back position -- a kind of 'Get Out Of Jail Free' card, only in real life.  But now, as it turned out, this waiver was going to make it impossible for me even to take the radio aptitude test, let alone begin cross-training.  "You'll need to have this removed," I was told.

So.  19.  Angry.  Bored.  I went to the base hospital and explained my situation to one of the doctors there.  He decided that, before any decisions could be made, I needed to take yet another battery of tests.  Bring'em on, I thought.  The only result I remember, from all these boxes to fill in and shapes to match, was discovering that I was eligible for membership in Mensa.  About which I did not care, because I just wanted a different job, and this waiver was in my way.

"Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?" the doctor asked me.  Well, of course I was, I said.  "Are you completely sure?" he repeated.  "Because, once this waiver is removed, it can't be replaced."  I said, innocently and naively, that I was completely sure.

So, with the stroke of a pen or something, I turned in my 'Get Out Of Jail Free' card, expecting a brilliant result of my successful radio operation tests, a stint in a training facility, and then I'd be off to some more interesting work.  Better than toting boxes of paper, I thought.  I contacted the testing office and said now I was ready to go ahead.  Schedule the exams.  I'll be there.  It'll be that easy.

Or so I thought.   

"Well, no," was the response I got, from the testing center.  "When we said you couldn't have that waiver on your medical records, we meant that you could never have had such a waiver...  Which means, sorry buddy, but no radio tests for you."

Whereupon the difference between not having, and not having had, was borne in on me with some weight.  And, while I was digesting this example of military exactitude and precision, I made another, equally disturbing discovery.

The waiver I'd so eagerly dispensed with carried with it, not only the option of leaving active duty whenever I liked, but a guarantee that, having been assigned to the air base in Middletown, I would not be transferred for the duration of my term of enlistment.  Another tidbit of relevant information which was made plain to me only after the metaphoric train had left the station.  So, while I was trudging back and forth, through the tunnel twice a day, to the computer office on the other side of the base, the removal of this waiver was creating an interesting ripple effect through my life.  Suddenly, and again, without realizing what I had done, I had made myself eligible for reassignment.  Redeployment.  Shipment to God only knew where.  Before I had time to worry very much about what this might mean, I found out.

Now, this might seem apocryphal, but the man in charge of duty assignments was an unmarried sergeant, who lived in the same barracks with us lowly enlisted men.  And he was balding, quite chubby, and very very short.  Almost hairless.  Very round.  Very short.  Possibly as short and round as one could be, and qualify for service.  Hairlessness doesn't seem to matter.

On the other hand, I was tall.  Quite tall.  And slender.  With a lot of hair, even for someone in the military.  Another airman had mentioned to me, in passing, that this tiny sergeant really hated all the big guys who were living in the barracks with him.  This seemed vaguely interesting, but as I wasn't the tallest guy in the building, I wasn't especially worried. 

But now, the confluence of height, weight, hairiness and misused verb tenses gelled, and suddenly I found myself staring in disbelief, at the reassignment roster on the barracks bulletin board.  There, where I should never have seen it, was my own name and service number.  And there, in the opposite column, where destinations were listed, I saw the most improbable place name I could have imagined. 


©    2012       Walter Zimmerman



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