SAC (Strategic Air Command) ran on checklists. For every activity, from loading a plane to filing an Officer Evaluation Report, a detailed checklist had to be followed. Woe unto those who deviated. In 2007, when a bomber accidentally and notoriously flew across the country carrying live nuclear weapons, it resulted from several people not sticking to the checklists provided by HQ STRATCOM (today’s version of SAC on steroids).
In 1980, a group of ROTC cadets touring Carswell Air Force Base heard about the checklists at every turn, quoted like the Bible in church. For every question they asked, the answer would invariably begin, “Well, the checklist tells us to . . .”
In the command post—the nerve center of every wing—one of the cadets asked the lieutenant colonel in charge, “So sir, what happens, say, if this building receives a direct hit from a nuke. What does the checklist tell you to do then?” The boy spoke with such innocent faith, already inculcated with the belief that everything would be all right if one just followed the wisdom of the list.
The lieutenant colonel said calmly, “Son, the checklist says we die.”
I’m the kind of person soothed by the certainty of checklists, so fortunately my first assignment, as a trembling, uncertain second lieutenant, was to Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. I had no husband, children or even (those first few months) dog to go home to. So I worked and I studied the checklists and I maintained our “Best in SAC” rating for the personnel programs I managed. I became comfortable picking up the phone and talking to the SAC NCOs who ran personnel programs. They could have been hostile or supercilious (“We’re Major Command and you’re not!”), but they were friendly and helpful.
“They asked me what you look like, L.T.,” a sergeant told me one day. He chuckled. “They think you sound sexy over the phone.”
“Me? Sexy?” I’d never heard that I had a sexy phone voice. I was flattered. Unfortunately, they’d be disappointed by the picture. Not that I was a dog or anything, but my glasses and short permed hair were not pin-up material. “So what did you tell them?”
“Why, ma’am, I told them you were gorgeous, of course.”
I never met any of them face to face, so I hope they never had their illusions shattered. A life spent pushing paper for the military earns its fantasies.
Good solid paper, typewriter ink forming words, words forming sentences, even the Air Force’s crazy love affair with acronyms—I was comfortable with these. But that big block of plastic and glass and tubes that sat in the corner of the office continued to alarm me. I approached the computer updates I had to make with trepidation. The updates were accomplished through a series of codes, all of which had to be memorized. There was no such thing as—not even the concept of—“user-friendly.” We were expected to be “computer-friendly.” I, however, was downright computer-hostile. I approached each encounter with the monster as combat. Still, I usually prevailed through sheer, exhausting determination.
One day the program, the computer, the software, the hardware—I had no idea what to blame—refused to interact with me. After our Personnel Systems Manager shrugged and gave me an “It’s not my job” answer, I reluctantly picked up the phone to call the base’s computer support office. I got a sharp, bored lieutenant on the other end. He kept giving me instructions I didn’t understand, asking me questions I couldn’t answer, speaking a language that had nothing to do with the English I knew, and growing more and more impatient with my ignorance.
Finally, he snapped, “And just how do you think a computer system works?”
Equally exasperated, I retorted, “Magic. I’ve always thought it was pure magic.”
He fell silent. Just when I thought we’d been cut off, he said, “Stay right where you are. I’m coming over. I want to meet you.”
He was a first lieutenant named Rick, a thin man with a long narrow face and dark hair already graying. He fixed my computer, tried to explain the difference between software and hardware, then threw me back into confusion with firmware. He settled in and stayed for another hour, one leg always swinging, hands gesturing, fingers tapping my desk. Even sitting he was in constant motion, fueled by nervous energy.
I have found a handful of people in my life whom I feel like I’ve known since the beginning of the world, people who are instantly, comfortably friends with no cautious getting to know one another, no tentative little steps of acquaintanceship. Rick was one of those people. We spent the afternoon talking as if we were old buddies who hadn’t seen one another in a long time and had to catch up. I sometimes suspect that may literally have been the case. (And yes, I mean literally.)
We were mainly workplace friends with the occasional lunch or office visit. Rick’s wife nicely tolerated me. We stayed in touch through a few moves, but eventually the Air Force and life caused us to lose one another. The last time I saw Rick was in a tiny gasthaus in Germany, where he and his wife introduced me to Really Great Beer.
But I’m not concerned that we’ve lost track. We’ll meet again. We’ll catch up again. We’ll ask one another, “So, how’s this life treating you?”
[Second Lieutenant, 1980]