Back in the day, my old friend and fellow Southwestern Bell employee, Ron Bennett, had a simple solution for staying cool. “Think cool thoughts,” he said. “Seriously. Do it. It’ll help.” Both of us tried our utmost to do just that as we buzzed down yet another hot Oklahoma highway in a gray-green official SWB Chevrolet Suburban with furnace like winds blasting in our faces.
Air-conditioned trucks? Oh no. Not SWB. Not back then. Upper management, you see, felt that it would project the wrong image if the public saw telephone men riding around with their windows up and cool breezes blowing from the vents.
“We’re helping to keep your telephone bill as low as possible by buying trucks without those expensive air conditioners. You’re welcome.”
The sad truth (or what we always heard) was that it actually cost more to produce a special non air-conditioned model vehicle than a standard one.
But I digress. During this recent run of 100+ degree days, I was reflecting back to Ron’s advice and thinking cool, or trying to. Tough to do when even the cats come to the door with their tongues hanging out. Thinking cold. Thinking winter. Cold winter. But not too cold. Not a freeze your buns off, below zero winter, but a winter with sunshine and light jacket days with shivering, pull up the covers, nights. Something like in south Texas maybe. Yeah, that kind of winter.
I thought back to my days in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Beeville, Texas, at a naval air training facility. My rank was airman second class, the lowest of the low on the base, only one step up from recruit. I seem to remember my first duties were pushing a broom around the hanger deck and swabbing floors in the barracks and bathrooms ( or heads in navy talk). It was because of this lowly status that I was often assigned guard duty, specifically the most hated, the midnight to four tour.
Guard duty. Let’s think about that for a minute. Firstly, the only way on the base was through a sentry post manned 24 hours a day by MP’s with weapons. Second, the entire compound was ringed with fences and barbed wire, the perimeter lit up like the Texas State Prison. Guard what? From whom? This was peace time. There was no al-Qaida, no Hezbollah, no Mexican drug wars. The whole idea seemed rather pointless to me as I crawled out of my nice warm bunk, donned my heavy pea coat, stocking cap, gloves, two pair of socks, and reported to the Duty Officer. The temperature was in the low thirties, not sled dog weather by any means. Beeville saw about three, maybe four, snowflakes a year. It was the wind, that steady north wind with nothing to block it but a barbed-wire fence, that chilled you to the bone.
The second class Petty Officer sat with his feet on the desk, a steaming cup of coffee in hand, and reading some kind of magazine. He barely glanced up as he ticked my name off a list as having shown up on time.
My watch tour was not in some toasty building somewhere, no, my place was on the flight line, out there with the aircraft on the freezing tarmac without so much as a tree to stand behind to block that awful wind. The guy I was to relieve saw me coming, jogged past me, and mumbled what sounded like, “You poor bastard,” and kept on moving.
I started my walk, the entire length of a line of planes, I’m guessing about a hundred yards or so, back and forth, back and forth. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! With the wind at my back, it was barely tolerable, but going into it, well, we sailors had some language to describe that sensation but I will not repeat it here. Let’s just say it was colorful and had to do with monkeys.
Two hours down, two to go. Back and forth. My nose is running. My eyes are tearing. I can no longer feel my fingers. My ears have dropped from my head long ago and are laying somewhere along the perimeter like two blackened hunks of discarded meat.
That’s when I got this most wonderful idea! I had begun spending more and more time involved with flight operations, training to be a plane captain, noting how things were done. I watched as the pilots dropped the steps from the fighters, climbed up, and flipped a lever that actuated some compressed air to open the canopy. Can’t you just see the little light bulb over my head? If I could get in one of those airplanes, I’d be out of the wind, relatively cozy, and most importantly, able to see the entire watch area just in case any saboteurs came along, or more likely the Duty Officer, coming out to check on me.
It went off without a hitch. The canopy hissed, slid back, and I climbed in, just like a pilot. I found another lever that said canopy on it and slid it forward. Another blast of air and all was well. Ah, no more north wind and I had an excellent view of all the airplanes. This was not dereliction of duty you understand. I did not go to sleep and remained alert for the next couple of hours. America was quite safe. I want to be clear about that.
About ten minutes before my watch was over, I once again congratulated myself on my ingenious plan and hit the lever to open the canopy. Nothing happened. No blast of air, no hiss, not even a whisper. The tank was empty and the air lines drained. Uh oh.
I was trapped like a rat. Can you say court martial? Can you spell B-R-I-G? I could already hear the rattle of chains and shackles. Desperate, I wedged my fingers in a slight opening and pushed. To my great relief, the canopy moved. I hopped out, manually slid it shut, and made my way back to the duty office, whistling in the dark.
Remember, think cool.