02. December 2004 · Comments Off on Rites, Practices and Legends#13: “The CO” · Categories: Military

“Beloved by all my crew – A really popular commander”
Capt. Corcoran, HMS Pinafore

I worked more often for an NCOIC in my AFRTS time, since broadcast detachments were nearly always headed by an NCOIC, with a commanding officer usually geographically distant from the hurly burly of daily management. They descended on us occasionally, or we had a TDY to our broadcast squadron headquarters, and sometimes not even that; I went for a year in Greenland and only laid eyes on our erstwhile squadron commanders’ signature twice, and spoke to him on the phone once.. As far as the two stations in Greenland were concerned, the commander of the Arctic Broadcast Squadron could not be described as a ‘hands-on’ manager; it was more like ‘hands in fur-lined gloves in a parka 5,000 miles away, who only on occasion remembered that we existed at all.’

With one exception, the really, really great commanding officers that I did work for, were when I was working outside my career field, and actually close enough — like being in the same building, instead of a couple of countries or a continent away— to be any sort of judge. There may very well have been excellent commanders and leaders of persons in Air Force Broadcasting, but I was never close enough to know this for sure.

The first on my personal best list was Major Azuna, a stocky, second-generation Japanese-American, who had been many things in a knock-around active-duty career; enlisted air crewman, navigator, instructor, and eventually the commands’ go-to guy for sorting out troubled and underperforming units. He was Mather AFB’s Public Affairs Officer when I worked there, having come from a triumphant sorting-out of the supply office, and would go on to launch the bases’ first Family Support Center (and retire in glory as a full colonel.) As far as I knew, Major Azuna had no background in logistics, PA, or social work and less knowledge, at least at the start when he took over each of these activities; but he was an absolutely dynamic leader and manager of people, and unerring in his handling of those who did know the field.

He soaked up other people’s expertise like a sponge, and forgot nothing; he routinely called each one of us — officers, NCOs, the airmen and civilians — into his office for talks about our various projects and duties. We would be peppered with searching, and intelligent questions; what were we working on, who had we talked to, what were the problems we were running into, what had we done to resolve problems, why were we doing it that way, what did we need to make a better job of it. Twenty minutes with the Major left one feeling very much as if every brain cell had been vacuumed out of your skull and wrung dry of information. And he did this with everyone, from the junior airmen on their first assignment, all the way up through MSgt Chuck who had twenty years of various PAO experience, our reserve officers who had pretty much the same, and our two GS employees who had twice that.

The Major channeled about a hundred years of cumulative knowledge from that one little office, and never missed a trick, steering the office back to the best that it could be. Sometimes on a slow summer afternoon, he would drift around to the junior troops’ desks and ask
“So, what are you doing?” and when the answer was an honest, “Nothing much, sir.” He would say, “OK then, go home.”
Yay! Released from the duty day early! — but the corollary to that was that if there was something going on, something to finish— you stayed late to get it done. That assignment was one which I really hated to leave. So was the next stateside assignment, over a decade later, to Detachment 8, Combat Camera at Hill AFB, and the commander was another major.

Aside from the same rank, and being a gifted handler of skilled and knowledgeable technicians, Major Fowler was as different from Major Azuma as it was possible to be. He was sardonic, and hip, easily bored and very, very sharp — the character that Will Smith tries for, in the movies. I wound up working on many of his projects because when he came up with a scathingly brilliant notion and shot out of his office looking for someone to work it, chances are that I would be the first NCO he fell over. I was pretty well tied to the production library, two doors away from his office.

Escape was fruitless, and besides I was amused by his jive street dude persona.
“Sgt Hayes!! Can you get me a price on twenty pounds of cod?”
“Very well, sir— will that be fresh or frozen cod?”
“And cornmeal. Gotta have cornmeal!” I am sure that what I called my ‘Sergeant Jeeves act’— hyper-competent and totally unflappable also amused the Major. He came from Louisiana, and was an expert cook. The unit barbeques and cookouts were legendary, especially when he brought his propane-fired bottomless soup kettle, and fixed gumbo for the whole unit, flavored with Andouille sausage sent by his mother especially from New Orleans.

It took a few months to progress from “Sir, there is a problem, and the solution is A, B, C or D, which do you prefer?” through “Sir there is a problem, and the solution is A, B, C or D, and I favor D for the following reason,” to reach “Sir, there is a problem—” And he would cut me off and say, “Deal with it. Brief me later.” I found a little pin at a science fiction convention with Captain Picards’ stock command ‘Make it so!’ and gave it to the Major, who was absolutely tickled. He kept it on his desk, and just waved it wordlessly, when the occasion demanded.

The staff of Det. 8 had room to be creative and excel, and the rewards for it immediate; we racked up dozens of high interest productions, not just for the Air Force, but for the DOD and other government departments. As a video production unit, there was almost always something interesting going on; in master control, any of the four edit suites, the graphics work station, the audio booth. There were also two mobile production vans, off on TDY for weeks at a time, acquiring video; there were hundreds and thousands of hours of stock video in the library, and when I got there, none of it was indexed and catalogued. I took it as my project to do so, and the Major agreed. Up to that point the various producers had just kept the location of various interesting bits of stock footage in their heads. He assigned me the services of our occasional reservist, who was a computer genius, and designed me a database which allowed the stock library to be searched, once reviewed, and logged in. The library became rather a showplace, a popular spot on the tour of the unit where we could show off how quickly we could locate very specific footage for prospective productions.

The Major was very restless, easily bored, and more often to be found out of his office than in it. I was always reminded of what someone once said about Teddy Roosevelt— “You must remember; the President is about ten years old.” And like a small boy, he was somewhat of a tease, but a good sport about being teased himself. One day he was amusing himself by playing around with the newly-installed public address microphone at the receptionists’ station in the foyer, tapping on it, and blowing into it, and after about five minutes of this, I walked very quietly down the hall and said,
“Well sir, now that you have blown in all of our ears, are you going to give us a kiss?”

I did think for about half a second that I might have gone too far, but I hadn’t – he laughed uproariously. One more good thing about the best commanders; they will put up with a bit of cheek, as long as it stays ‘in house.’

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