Mind you, it hasn’t always been easy. There’ve been lots of times when I’ve been given jobs to do that were, shall we say, aggravating. As a young Airman, I once spent a long, hot day planting flowers at the end of a General’s driveway. It was blisteringly hot and at one point, I asked the General’s wife if I could get a drink of water from the hose. She told me to wait until my Sergeant came around and he would get me some water.
Now you would think that I would react badly to this but remember, I was new to the Air Force and quite cognizant of my place in the military hierarchy. So instead of blowing up at her, or arguing, or ignoring her and going for the hose anyway, or otherwise getting myself in a heap of trouble, I held my tongue. And after she left, I calmly and methodically severed the roots of all of the flowers in her flower bed. This is what we in the military call “Military Bearing”.
Military Bearing is a skill. If the military is going to complete the very difficult task of defending our nation, we must be able to maintain our composure at all times, regardless of the forces working against us. This is taught to us from the very beginning, in Basic Training.
In Basic Training, most of the people in the flight (about 60 people in mine) had jobs to do besides just marching and making beds. The jobs ranged from Academic Monitor, (not the smartest person in the flight, but usually thinks so) who made sure we all studied our required lessons, to Latrine Queen (not actual royalty, but also usually thinks so) who made sure our latrines stayed in inspection order. But my job was, in some respects, the most difficult of all. I was the Chow Runner. And being Chow Runner is all about Military Bearing.
The job of Chow Runner is quite simple on the surface. Before a meal, all flights eating at that dining hall (usually four at a time) form up outside the building. The Chow Runner falls out and enters the dining hall to arrange for his flight to eat. The flight must stay in formation outside the Dining Hall until the Chow Runner comes back for them. This, of course, is the rub.
Being a good Chow Runner is pure Military Bearing. Obstacles are purposely put in your path, and you are expected to overcome them in order to gain entrance to the Dining Hall for your flight. On the surface, the job goes like this:
The Chow Runner enters the dining hall and makes his way to the “Snake Pit,” Picture a large table in the center of the back wall where all the Training Instructors (T.I.’s) eat. The T.I. sitting in the middle is the one the Chow Runner reports to. If the T.I.’s in the Snake Pit are happy with the way the Chow Runner reported they send him out to bring in his flight. If not, the Chow Runner is put “on the Wall.”
Being “on the Wall” means exactly that; you stand at attention against the wall until the T.I.’s at the Snake Pit tell you to get off it. If another Chow Runner comes in and is accepted before you come off the wall, your flight waits until that flight has all come in before you get another chance to satisfy the Snake Pit. This can go on until just before the end of the meal period. If you’re still on the wall at the end, you have to rush out, get your flight and (in all likelihood) miss your own meal due to the rest of the Chow Runner’s duties.
But eventually the Chow Runner is permitted to go outside and lead his flight in. Then you must go back to the Snake Pit and report. If they are happy with your report, you go and guide your flight to the next available seating area. If they are unhappy… the Wall.
Once the flight has gotten its food and been seated, the Chow Runner reports yet again to the Snake Pit. If the Chow Runner passes muster, he gets to eat. If not… the Wall.
So, a very simple process, isn’t it? But like I said, the whole thing is an exercise in Military Bearing. You must follow all protocols exactly. You must speak only when spoken to. You must precede each statement with the proper Reporting Statement. And you must do it all without ever losing your cool and getting mad or scared or intimidated. I only mention this because there is another reason it’s called the “Snake Pit.”
The T.I.’s, especially with new Chow Runners, like to try to make them lose their cool. They’ll yell, or get up and stare you down, or crack jokes, whatever it takes to make the Chow Runner lose his cool. And if you do…the Wall.
So there I was, first day as a Chow Runner. I had practiced the whole previous day and I thought I had it down. But now, it was time to put my training to the test.
“Chow Runner, fall out!” yelled our T.I.
“Proceeding, sir!” I yelled, and ran in to both the dining hall, and the most memorable event of my short Air Force career.
As I made my way to the Snake Pit, I could only hope that today they would be easy on me. As some of you may or may not know, I tend a bit towards the sarcastic. It has often been said that my mouth will be the end of me. Kind of like when Gary Hart said, “I dare you to catch me cheating on my wife!” But, I digress…
My hands, cupped perfectly and swinging six inches to the front, three to the rear as I marched in, were getting a bit sweaty as I got closer to the Snake Pit. I could see them up there, watching me. Waiting for me to get there so they could strike, like vipers. I marched up to the Snake Pit and made my reporting statement. “Sir, Airman Sage Words (my name has been changed to protect my innocence!) reports as ordered! Flight 319 is prepared to enter the dining hall!”
As I said this, I remained at perfect attention, eyes not looking directly at the T.I. but also not looking away. No one yelled at me, and I thought I had done pretty well. I even thought I’d be allowed to just go and bring in my flight. Ah, youth!
“Airman” the T.I. growled, after sizing me up. “We’re taking a survey today. How hungry is your flight?”
Oh boy, here we go! “Sir, Flight 319 is extremely hungry!” I said.
“Son, that’s not good enough,” the T.I. replied. He winked to one of his companions at the table as he continued. “I’m going to ask you again, Airman. And this time, I want you to answer: ‘My flight is as hungry as…’ and I want you to give me the name of an animal.”
‘Well,’ I thought, ‘this isn’t going to be pleasant.’ But I managed not to break as I said, “Sir, my flight is as hungry as a tiger!”
At this point, one of the other T.I.’s at the table chimed in. “That’s not good enough, Airman. Someone already used ‘Tiger’ today. Give us another animal!”
I was really sweating it now. I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t dare. And I was annoyed that they were messing with me on my first day as Chow Runner. But all I could do was play along and hope they weren’t as sadistic as I was beginning to suspect they were (and probably would be myself, in their place!). Since it was a different person who addressed me, I did a little facing movement so I would be directly facing him. Then I gave him my reporting statement, followed by my new response.
“Sir, Airman Sage Words reports as ordered! My flight is as hungry as a bear!”
“That’s not good enough, Airman!” the first T.I. broke in. His voice was raised ever so slightly, indicating that he was having a pretty good time. “We’ve heard that one today too! I’m going to ask you one more time and if I don’t like your answer, you’re on the wall! Now, how hungry is your flight?”
Now I was mad. I could feel everyone in the dining hall looking at me, waiting for me to screw up. I knew the T.I.’s were having fun because I could see some of them smiling ever so slightly. That’s when I thought, ‘Okay guys, you wanna play? Let’s play!’ Again, I made my facing movement, and made sure my face was totally deadpan and my body ramrod straight. I made my reporting statement.
“Sir, Airman Sage Words reports as ordered! My flight is as hungry as a wombat!”
Silence. I swear you could hear a cricket chirp.
The entire Snake Pit erupted in laughter! Of the four or five T.I.’s at the table, there was maybe one who could still draw breath. And then there was me. Ramrod straight and totally deadpan.
Finally, someone managed to sputter out, “What the hell is a wombat?”
Without batting an eye, I did my facing movement and snapped, “Sir, Airman Sage Words reports as ordered! A wombat is a four-toed mammal that lives in trees!”
This last was greeted by fresh gales of laughter and the T.I. in charge of the snake pit, his face going a bit red, hollered above the din, “Ok Airman, bring in your herd!”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I took a deep breath, did an about-face, and marched out to “bring in my herd”. Inside I was screaming with laughter (and, admittedly, a certain smugness), but outside, I was still ramrod straight and totally deadpan. I had no choice since I wasn’t finished yet. Once I brought my charges into the dining hall I still had to report back to the Snake Pit.
“Sir, Airman Sage Words reports as ordered! The first Airman from flight 319 has entered the dining hall.”
The laughter had subsided in my absence, and I could tell they were spoiling for a fight. While I was gone, it seemed to have dawned on them that I had made them lose their Military Bearing! So I wasn’t very surprised when I heard the T.I. ask, “Aren’t you the wombat?”
“Yes sir!” I responded. “Flight 319 was as hungry as a wombat!”
“And what did you say a wombat was again?” He didn’t want to let it go.
“Sir, a wombat is a four-toed mammal that lives in trees!” Ramrod straight and deadpan.
Now he was giving me the hairy eyeball. I could tell he wanted me to break, but I wasn’t going to do it. I could take whatever he had to dish out! He stared hard at me for about an hour and a half (hour and a half, 20 seconds, whatever!), and finally dismissed me.
Whew! It was over! I beat them at their own game and was going to get to eat! My own T.I. would be proud of me for succeeding on my first day as Chow Runner, and I was going to ride this victory all the way to becoming the youngest Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force! I was that good.
Of course, I wasn’t counting on the ineptitude of others.
As the last of my flight sat down and I was about to go get my own meal, a brand-new Airman, without even his first issue uniform, lost his cool at the Snake Pit and paid for it.
“What’s the matter with you, Airman!” the T.I. was yelling, “Haven’t you got any freakin’ military bearing? Get on the wall! I’ll SHOW you some military bearing! Chow Runner, flight 319, get up here now!”
‘Oh crap!’ I thought. ‘I was so close!’
Still, I was not to be vanquished! This was my day and I had discovered that Military Bearing can be combined with Smart-Assery to bring about success! I wasn’t going to let them take that from me! Please take all proper facing movements as a given…
“Sir, Airman Sage Words reports as ordered!”
“How hungry was your flight?”
“Sir, Flight 319 was as hungry as a wombat!”
“Sir, a wombat is a four-toed mammal that lives in trees!”
“I know that, Airman! But what does it look like?”
Huh? This was new! Still, I had my ‘A’ Game that day…
“Sir, it’s a small furry creature that resembles a koala!”
“You tellin’ me it looks like a koala bear, Airman?”
“No sir! A koala is not a bear, it’s a marsupial, sir!”
I just stood there, ramrod straight and totally deadpan, waiting to see what would happen. Then, chaos ensued throughout the dining hall. Everyone was laughing, yelling or generally freaking out except for me. Throughout it all, I was ramrod straight and totally deadpan.
Finally the T.I. told me to get the hell out of his dining hall! Again, I didn’t need to be told twice! I did my facing movement and marched straight outside. Then I laughed so hard and so long that I nearly collapsed against the wall! I couldn’t even answer when my own T.I. demanded to know what was so funny!
I laughed so hard I ended up scrubbing pigeon droppings off the buildings in the squadron two hours a day for the next three days! But they couldn’t break me! I never once lost my Military Bearing! And from that day, until graduation, I never got put on the wall.
I have many obsessions. I’m a great fan of drunk monkeys, I can recite every word of “Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail”, and I am totally convinced that THIS YEAR is the year my beloved Denver Broncos win the Super Bowl again; but those obsessions all originated outside myself. The wombat thing (and now you know the real reason for the title of this blog!) is totally my own creation, born of the perfect confluence of sarcasm and terror in the very formation of my adult life! I will always cherish it, and it makes me smile to write about it now, to share with you! Thanks for reading!
For the record, the American Heritage Dictionary says a wombat is “any of several stocky, burrowing, Australian marsupials of the family Vombatidae, somewhat resembling a small bear and feeding mainly on grass, leaves, and roots.”
As it turns out, I was wrong about the trees. Go figure.