This is another story from my days in the U. S. Air Force.
Violations of military customs and courtesies invite minor or major rebukes, depending on the person or custom ignored. Serious transgressions are examined in courts-martials. Somewhere between these extremes are ‘screw-ups’ that are often addressed and punished by supervisors, generally non-commissioned officers. Regardless of the outcome, discussion of the matter often begins with a serious talk, universally called an ass chewing.
These sessions sometimes show the ethnic, religious, cultural, and even regional background of the ‘chewer’ and the ‘chewee’. One day I witnessed a performance that expressed all influences.
My mentor was Norwood Perry, Master Sergeant, the highest non-commissioned rank at that time. I was an 18-year-old corporal. Master Sergeant Perry and I entered the Orderly Room, the administrative center of our outfit. We were greeted by our First Sergeant, Master Sergeant George Einfeldt, who I would come to consider the finest ‘top sergeant’ of my 20-year career. With him that day was a young Black airman who had done, or failed to do, something that warranted discussion. After the two sergeants briefly conferred, Sergeant Perry assumed command of the situation. He motioned the young airman to an empty room and directed that I join them.
With his six stripes in full view, Master Sergeant Perry, a mild-mannered and soft-spoken person, ordered the youngster to “Sit your little ass down, and I don’t want to see you move, not even a tremble.” His words were delivered at a higher volume and with a cadence that reflected the culture of the three of us. The code was unmistakable: “Sit your little ass down,” reminded the boy that a man was about to give him some advice, and his seniority was not just symbolized by his six stripes, but his manner and words also echoed those of the boy’s daddy, generally, just before the next sound the boy heard was his daddy’s belt. “… I don’t want to see you move, not even a tremble,” translated as, ‘I don’t want to see you move a muscle, and don’t even think about interrupting me until I finish talking – whenever that is.”
Sergeant Perry, proceeded to cite how he earned his stripes as a Tuskegee Airman, serving in segregated units in World War II, as Black men sought to demonstrate to the world their capacity to wear the uniform and participate at levels above housekeepers, cabin boys, grave diggers and truck drivers. Then this veteran noted that the lad’s conduct was not only an affront to the Air Force, but also dishonored other Black troops. He continued, “There is no way that I will allow your little snotty nose ass to offend me, after my having dodged bullets and laying a foundation for you to have a better day, long before you could pee a straight stream.” I grunted, for that was precisely my mother’s metaphor to cite her status and seniority. And, since I knew that Sergeant Perry’s words prefaced a first-class ass chewing, or worse, I prepared to leave. But when I heard the question, “Where are you going?” I simply pretended to be changing positions – to better hear his message.
He continued, using words and phrases which reminded the youngster that he was squandering opportunities for a better life and laying the foundation for a tarnished future. Then the senior NCO hesitated and paced the floor, as only Master Sergeants had the authority to do, and delivered the knockout punch. “If we send you home, we’ll have to tell your folks and your teachers, and the folks at church, and your neighbors, that you misrepresented them.” Then he added, “And I’ll escort you home and spread the news.”
Even though I didn’t know what the airman did to deserve this reprimand, I was also trembling, of course not showing it to Sergeant Perry. He told the airman to sit for a spell and think about it, and he left the room. Since he didn’t give me permission to leave, I didn’t risk a mistake. I gave the airman silent company.
After ten minutes Sergeant Perry re-entered and walked over to the lad; put his arms around his shoulder and said, “Son, I just talked on the telephone with your mama. She said if you come home in disgrace she’ll kick your ass – before she kills you. So, you’re stuck here with me. You’re going to pull extra duty for the next 30 days. Now get out of here and behave yourself.”
Sergeants Perry and Einfeldt continued their discussion. The airman and I headed for separate latrines.
Sergeant George Einfeldt was the fairest supervisor of my military career, even though he made me earn every nickel of my pay. He assigned me the most to escort home patients who were being discharged because of medical disabilities. Finally, I asked him why I seemed to pull the short straw most often. Sergeant Einfeldt said, “Well James, you’re not stupid, you wear the Air Force uniform well and make a good impression, and I can count on you representing us well.”
When I was a staff sergeant and preparing for another assignment, I told Sergeant Einfeldt I thought his reason for assigning me so much was just so much BS. He replied, “You see James, you’re smart enough to know bullshit, and you’re even smarter to do what your first sergeant asks of you.”
40 years later.
I think it was in the year 1998, 29 years after I retired from the USAF, and 40 years since I left Lackland AFB, I searched the white pages for a George Einfeldt in San Antonio. When I heard his voice, I had some questions:
Is this the home of Retired Air Force Sergeant George Einfeldt?
Yes, I’m that retired Sergeant.
Sergeant Einfeldt, do you remember a trooper name Alexander who served under you in the medics at Lackland.
I do. How you doing James?
Two weeks after that phone call I went to San Antonio to have breakfast with an old guy who made some days in uniform worth remembering. He asked how I was living my days. I gave him my business card: James Edward Alexander, Attorney at Law.
Sergeant Einfeldt laughed loudly and gave me a big hug and said, “Ah ha, I knew you weren’t stupid, so you proved my point. I’m proud to have served with you James.”
Before we ate he said grace and remembered Master Sergeant Norwood Perry, deceased.