Last month I shared with you how, in 1962, I secured a passport in one day to return from England. This month I will share with you how I got there three years before.

The Pledge

During a critical period of my Air Force career, I served as a Ward Master at Wilford Hall Hospital, Lackland Air Force Base, at that time the Air Force’s largest medical facility.

One day a patient asked me for additional help beyond the scope of my official duties. He was a Master Sergeant whose home station was Randolph Air Force Base, then the headquarters for world-wide personnel assignments and other major administrative affairs.  Here, I refer to him as Nick.   

Nick anticipated a lengthy hospitalization, so when his wife arrived for her daily visit, he asked me to join them for a special conference.  He asked if I would be the primary respondent if his family needed anything during his absence from home.  Even though Randolph was approximately 50 miles away along two-lane highways in those days, I gave my assurances and informed my wife to expect a call from his wife and be ready to assist me if necessary. There never was a crisis that required my intervention, but my pledge gave him peace of mind.   In time, Nick healed and went home.  

Even though I was performing at my highest level as a Staff Sergeant, my prospects of getting promoted to Technical Sergeant were negligible until I received training at the advanced School of Aviation Medicine (SAM). One day I read the announcement of the forthcoming visit by the Air Inspector, the person whose job was to investigate the veracity of complaints and disclosures, and to inform the proper commanders or agencies to take remedial action. I made an appointment to plead my case for higher medical education.                         

Even as I entered the room, I felt disconnected from the inspector. He was a Major, and his posture projected superiority and formality, rather than creating an atmosphere of concern. His greeting: 

Major: “What’s on your mind, Sergeant?” It was a cold inquiry.                                          

Sgt. Alexander: “Sir, my numerous requests for advanced medical training at the SAM have been ignored or discounted.” His reply was stern.                                                                          

Major: “Maybe the training slots are going to others who outrank you.”                            

Sgt. Alexander: Maybe you’re right, Major, and if you are, then I’m entitled to know that’s the reason. But, frankly, sir, those of us at this, the largest Air Force hospital, know that a disproportionate number of slots are going to smaller medical units, and that doesn’t make sense to me. 

Major:  Making sense to you is not the concern of the Air Force as it formulates policy or allocates slots for training. 

Sgt. Alexander:  I think you’re wrong, Major. I am a non-commissioned officer, responsible for implementing Air Force policy. If those policies don’t make some sense to me, then I can’t perform or supervise people to do stupid things. Then I stood and looked directly into his eyes and politely recognized his authority:  

Sgt. Alexander: “Sir, it just seems to me that anyone who has the authority to investigate and correct a stupid policy should get busy.” 

Major:  That will be all, Sergeant. 

For the next few weeks, I controlled my disappointment. I even briefly thought that the Major might have been overwhelmed with complaints. After all, if all he heard all day was complaints, maybe after a while they all seemed alike. But that generosity didn’t last long. It might have been more appropriate to suggest that he change his attitude or change his job.  But Staff Sergeants don’t write performance reports for Majors, so I went back to work and set a timetable for submitting another request. 

At approximately 3 p.m., on December 24, 1957, I received an urgent phone call which summoned me to the Orderly Room. The clerk gave me orders to report to the SAM, located at Gunter AFB, Montgomery, Alabama, on January 2, 1958.  Such assignments are generally known more than one hour before quitting time, one day before Christmas, and just nine days before the beginning of class.  Ninety percent of the late notice wreaked the smell of revenge for my complaint to the Air Inspector. I was 95 percent certain that someone wanted me to request deferment to a later class — which they would defer indefinitely.  I was 100 percent determined to make the deadline.  

On May 16, 1958, I graduated – with honors. 

The Pledge Remembered

Four months after I graduated from the SAM and returned to Lackland, I had an urgent telephone call.  The caller’s memory was vivid, three years after his recovery. “Hey, Sergeant Alexander, this is Nick.”   We exchanged updates about our families and careers, and then he gave me bad news and good news. “You must have really pissed somebody off; your name just came up for an unaccompanied family assignment in Turkey.  That’s the bad news. The good news is, I’m in charge of world-wide medical technician assignments, so you and your family pack your bags for assignment at South Ruislip, England, about a half hour from the center of London.” Then he added, “Alex, I remember, when I needed you, you didn’t hesitate. Thanks again.”                                        

Some pledges don’t lapse; they’re just transferred or honored where they’re needed.

Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.

Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.

They give us safe passage to where we were once content.

Good memories are not exhausted by time.

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