At the Air Force Manpower and Personnel Center, the branch I worked in dealt with paper records. We were a minor player in the Personnel Data System Directorate, which housed a massive mainframe like an imprisoned monster in a climate controlled chamber. It ran an Air Force-wide data system, considered the most advanced of any of the services at that time. We were at the peak of early ‘80s computer technology.
Okay, maybe not “we.” I personally represented the nadir of technology, barely comfortable with my electric typewriter. I didn’t want to know anything about computers; in fact I considered an interest in them slightly vulgar. Soon after I pinned on captain, however, the director selected me to be his executive officer. I was flattered, but I didn’t want to get in over my head.
“You see, sir, I don’t know anything about computers. I don’t know how they work or the lingo or what any of that stuff means.”
The colonel grinned. “That’s why I picked you. We get a lot of complaints that the paperwork coming out of this office is unintelligible. So don’t try to learn our language. I want you to insist that everything that comes through you is written so you can understand it. I want English, not computer-speak.”
“So I’m being hired for my ignorance?”
“Right. Try not to lose it.”
I never did. I had no chance to sit back and study this new language, these new concepts. The job and workload were overwhelming, all the more since I understood so little of it.
A long, lean lieutenant colonel found me slumped over my desk one day, my head in my hands, my face cupped inside my palms. Unlike most of the male officers there, who would have immediately backed their way out the door, he perched next to me on the edge of the desk. “Look up at me. Okay then. What’s wrong?”
If he’d sounded sympathetic, I would probably have responded, “Nothing, sir. Just a slight headache.” But he spoke matter-of-factly, so I blurted it all out. I barely knew the man, but I told him about my fears, my sense of inadequacy, the constant feeling that I was juggling balls of ignorance, trying my best just to keep them from crashing around me.
He smiled. “Man, I know that feeling. But there’s a trick to it. Just concentrate on catching the ball that’s closest to the ground.”
His advice probably sounds obvious to you, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me on my own. My college and seminary educations had involved loftier maxims, while ignoring the practical. I was always going to have to juggle, but now I knew where to put my focus.
You know the cartoons that show a guy struggling up a mountain to ask a meditative guru the secret of life? This felt like my chance. I had a guru in front of me, though minus the flowing beard and white robes. He’d always struck me as an anomaly, even in a military which I’d found nowhere nearly as homogeneous as I’d expected. His sandy hair, cut in close tight curls, was always within standards but just barely. He walked with a loose slouch, exuding a casual confidence. I sensed a hippie-wannabe still languishing inside him.
“Thanks, sir. I’ll remember that. So, how did you end up in the Air Force?”
“Avoiding the draft. After I graduated from college, I couldn’t afford grad school. And I didn’t want to move to Canada. So I hied my skinny butt down to the Air Force recruiter.”
The Air Force had gotten a lot of good men that way. The draft had only applied to the Army, so the other services often got the pick of those wanting a technical career field.
“But what made you stay in after your commitment was up? Why are you still here, sir?”
He stopped to think about it, tapping a finger on his notebook. Finally he said, “I never got bored.”
Aha! As with most good gurus, the answer was simplicity itself. It spoke to me. I liked the Air Force because it was interesting, and I’d stay until it got boring. My assignments could be difficult, frustrating, even infuriating, but not dull. I looked down at the papers on my desk and thought, challenges! Of course, by late afternoon I’d be moaning over them again—but I wouldn’t be bored.
I looked up to say, “Thank you, sir,” but he was already on his feet, talking to the colonel.