April 13, 2002
Today is my 30th anniversary. Thirty years ago today, on a cloudy morning not unlike this one, I was honorably discharged from the United States Air Force. It was, and remains, the most glorious day of my life.
My freedom came six months early, due to a Pentagon budget cut and a back door discharge, known as 39-10, “for the good of the service.” This was a quiet way of ridding the military of harmless undesirables who broke no rules, but who were not made of the right stuff. My particular non-crime was a failure to be promoted.
To make the grade in my specialty, one needed to pass his “five levels,” a multiple choice test that required only minimal study and a sharp number two pencil. I, however, gave it no study at all, and resented having to go to another building, sit in a chair for two hours, and be tested by my captors. The first time I took the test, I read the questions and took a half-hearted shot at the answers. I scored a 66. But because I had not failed sufficiently – with a score below 65 – I was required to take the test again in hopes of achieving the passing grade of 70.
The next week, on the second test, I devoted each column to a different pattern. I drew a ski slope down the first, and then a Christmas tree in the second (which required two answers to each question, but it seemed worth the sacrifice), and in the third, a pattern I’d seen on a Navajo blanket. In the fourth column, I became more abstract. This time, I scored a 67.
I had prayed for outright failure and an end to the annoyance, but no, I now fell into a gray area where promotion could be granted or denied at the discretion of the First Sergeant. And so I rode the bus from my office to the headquarters company to meet with Sgt. Black. Another of my comrades was with me and emerged from the Sgt’s office smiling. “No problem,” he said. “He promoted me.”
I walked into the office and stood before the desk. Sgt. Black looked up at me, at my wire-rimmed glasses, at my hair parted down the middle, and then turned his face to his desktop and began shouting about how we can’t just let everybody slide and how we had to work for a promotion and lots of other stuff that I didn’t hear because I was enjoying watching him shout at his desktop. And then he said, “I am red-lining your orders and you will not be promoted.” And he looked up to savor my disappointment.
I smiled and said, “Thank you, Sir,” in a warm tone that stunned him.
“What?” he said.
“Thank you, Sir,” I said. “May I go now?”
And he said yes and I went back to work and a few months later I learned that every Airman who had more than 19 months in grade (because they hadn’t been promoted) was to receive an Honorable Discharge. My office mates sputtered or laughed, depending upon how they felt about the service. My supervisor, who valued the good work I did for him and was looking forward to six more months of it, was among the sputterers. But of course, nobody had asked him.
And so today I remember Sgt. Black, who dreamed that hippies were coming to murder him as he slept, and once more I say, “Thank you, Sir.”