A few months ago while making my way to the hospital cafeteria I bumped into the wife of the first sergeant from the National Guard unit I retired from in 2005. The best description of this lady I can offer is that she is a South Carolina version of the former Texas governor, the late Ann Richards. Steel hard bright blue eyes, a strong but motherly voice that could scare any officer under a full bird colonel, snow white hair that gives her air of grace and strength, and a commanding presence that kept many a wife of the lower NCO's and enlisted in line when situations concerning the unit and their husbands had many of them worried. She ran the unit family support group for years before her husband had became first sergeant and it would be a fair assessment to say that he inherited some of his authority from her, although I would never say that to him. We exchanged greetings and small talk with her chastising me some for retiring when I did hinting that even now it may not be too late for me to reenlist. With the help of her good grace I side stepped the reenlistment issue and soon found out that her husband was in the hospital for some surgery. I promised her that I would be up for a visit once he was ready for visitors and we both then went our separate ways. Just two days later I was called to the phone at work and found the first sergeant's wife on the other end with her relaying a message in her famous authority voice that the now retired sergeant major wanted to see me in his room two minutes ago. I was fairly sure the "order" was done in jest but some part of me still felt the urge to hustle up quickly and find out what I had done wrong, although I had some idea. But, I'll need to drop back and punt to explain.
From the time I first entered the service in 1984 till 1997 I had been in air defense specifically and combat arms in general. The mind set for many in combat arms is far more fast paced than in the support units that normally stay in the rear areas. Not that the rear area jobs are any easier, some are far worse, its just they do things differently than the grunts, gun bunnies, tankers, and the ever lowly air defense types. After I left the active army in 1990 I hooked up with a Stinger missile battalion in the upstate and was fairly happy running around in the woods close to Clemson University doing air defense and general soldier training with the other members of my unit. Now Dragonwife, with no real idea of the military life, took my tales of soldier fun and frolic as nothing but a bunch of little boys playing in the woods and started suggesting that I transfer down to a local unit so I wouldn't be so far away from home. From the time we were married in 1994 till 1997 I resisted, telling her I enjoyed what I was doing and since I had family in the area I could stay with I was spending no real money, except for gas, and I would not transfer. While I didn't change my attitude about the National Guard the National Guard changed its attitude about its members and how it related to their civilian jobs. Where once the Guard worked with its members when conflict arose with their civilian jobs and weekend drills after 1995 the Guard started being less and less flexible wanting the civilian job to come second to the National Guard. While I'm sure there are many in the Guard now that would debate this point none the less I remember 1995 being a year that many began leaving when they felt they could not risk their civilian jobs for a part-time job that began demanding so much. Such demands very soon became too hard for me since I lived over two hours away from the unit and my civilian employer was having to rearrange the schedules of various co-workers of mine to cover my periodic absences. It's one thing for many civilians to say they support the troops but its a whole other situation when they have to give up their hunting and fishing time for someone wearing the uniform. Once I began looking to transfer it didn't take long to find a unit close to the house needing warm bodies. I was soon a member of a maintenance unit in the commo section, or communications section, making sure all the various parts of the unit and those units it supported could talk with each other. Being a fish out of water in the new unit adjusting to the new environment took a good bit of time.
While I was in air defense weekend drills most of the time had us away from the unit very early Saturday morning until late in the afternoon when we were released for the day. Sundays might have us out in the woods again but mostly we would be doing clean-up and repair on our equipment which still required us to hustle so we could get released as early as possible. I found the maintenance unit to be use to a far slower pace bordering on the glacial. Word might come down that the section needed to ride over to a different unit to look at some radios or other equipment but instead of just dispatching a vehicle and simply going we often needed to wait until some officer cleared it. That would have the section doing other stuff until we were cleared to go or have us just sitting on our thumbs waiting out of sight and out of mind of those who might throw some other detail our way. Worse was to get word that the leadership would have a whole list of important tasks and details that the unit had to get done before we could leave for the day and literally wait most of the day before such information would finally come down. Then everyone would run around for several hours trying to get issues cleared up so we all could be home at a reasonable hour before our dinner got cold and very often failing. More than a few times I would come through the door finding a sour expression of Dragonwife's face because she had made plans that my late arrival at home had ruined. The following drill weekend I would find other guys reporting a similar occurrence at their homes with their wives because of the late release. For those wearing the uniform we usually understood how the very screwed up nature of the military lead to such events and just drove on but none of us could ever get our wives, once again because of not having much contact with military life while growing up, to understand as well. All these situations that had the section and the unit doing the famous army "hurry up and wait" dance did start to wear thin after a couple of years. It was especially a pain in the ass for me once my son started to get a little older and in some activities dads should never miss, and one time I had to work outside the system to get away in time.
It was the summer of 1999 and the commo section had already finished all our Sunday tasks and was waiting for some word of when we might get released. Around 3:30pm (heck with the military time stuff) word came down that the company commander was highly upset over several issues that had not been corrected and that the unit should prepare to be very late in getting cut loose for that day. The first sergeant said that it might be as late as 7:30 to 8:00pm before we would have our final formation and then be released. At 5:00pm my son, Darth Spoilboy, would be playing in his first peewee soccer game and while I had always been a good trooper I frankly resented the idea that I would be held up for something so important because some ROTC wonder had not crossed all his T's or dotted all his I's. Plus I was in absolutely no mood to deal with Dragonwife that day and how she would act once I did return home. But the question was how could I find a way out and home that did not have me going AWOL, which was a huge world of hurt I did not want any part of on my record. It was then I spied a honest to goodness old fashion phone booth that was in the far corner of the drill hall floor while I and many others were running around like chickens with their heads chopped off. The various wheels and gears in my head turned as I endeavored to fan the flames of a tiny spark of a plan. After a few minutes of sorting out all the various angles and anticipating questions I was sure to get from those above me I called my youngest brother Joe Cool. I asked him to call the unit and say that he had been in a car accident in the Columbia area that required me to take him back him to the upstate since his car would be in the shop for several days. I prepared him for a few questions that might come his way and to insist to whomever he spoke with that he had no one else to call for assistance. I then slipped out the phone booth hoping no one saw me enter or leave and went back to work. I waited long enough to start to think that Joe might have forgotten to call or had screwed it up when a very junior second lieutenant famous for being a jerk came up and handed me a message from my brother saying that he had been in a car accident and that I needed to go take him home. This being a few years before cell phones really took off there was no way of calling him back so the lieutenant took it upon himself to release me and off I went, but not before hearing the first sergeant call off in the distance for me to wait. I figured that my plan had just gone belly up since the first sergeant was an old timer and was wearing army green while I was still pooping in my diapers. He had said many times while in formation that there wasn't a scheme or trick he hadn't pulled himself and I'm sure he would have smelled my scheme just as soon as he walked up to me. But his job being what it is he was intercepted and pulled off in another direction before he got to me. The little second lieutenant that had delivered the message came by a few seconds later and asked me why I wasn't gone, I told him the first sergeant had told me to hold up but had drifted off. Looking slightly peeved at me he told me to head on out and that he would handle the first sergeant. Not being one to look a gifted horse in the mouth I hauled butt knowing that a mere second lieutenant could not simply handle the average first sergeant much less the force of nature that was ours. But as they say that was not my problem and the second lieutenant having his butt handed to him by the first sergeant would do much to temper his holier-than-thou butter bar attitude. I made a clean get away and made it to Spoilboy's soccer game in plenty of time. The following month though I kept getting knowing looks from the first sergeant but he never said anything and the second lieutenant lost a great deal of his attitude being far more an agreeable person to work around.