Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

During much of my glorious military career I was stationed at a joint services training facility, with Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines all sharing space, albeit somewhat uneasily. The base wasn't operated by my branch, which meant there were only a handful of our officers there, which meant when they needed someone to hang out with, well, better an enlisted person from your branch than an officer from another.

Fortunately, we usually ended up with good commanders. My captain was typical. He'd entered the service through his college's officer training program, planning only to fulfill his commitment before using his engineering degree in the private sector, and then found to his surprise he liked the military. While he necessarily kept some distance, at least to the degree required by our similarly relaxed battalion commander, it wasn't at all unusual for officers, NCO's, and junior enlisted to get together on Friday night at the club.

The captain and I hit it off pretty well. As far as I knew, there were only three people stationed there who read for fun and he and I were two of them. My roommate was the other. I won't pretend we discussed Nietzsche late into the night, but every once in a while it was nice to talk about something besides sports and the military.

Not long after my roommate got his discharge, the local high school contacted the captain and asked him to judge a science fair. Our base was a big fish in our city's small pond and someone must have discovered he was an engineer. That's when he tracked me down.

"Snag, you want to help me out?" he said, after explaining what he'd been asked to do.

I once threw a chair across a room after getting a particularly distasteful order, which resulted in little more than a glare and a slammed door from my immediate boss. I wasn't compliant but I was hardworking, and because that was a rarity at that place and time, I got cut more than my share of slack.

Even so, I could tell this request wasn't really a request. Besides, it meant I got to spend the afternoon away from the base. What the hell.

"Yes sir, I'd love to," I said. "It would be a distinct honor and a privilege to serve with you."

"Why are you always a smart ass?" he asked.

"Duty, honor, science, sir," I replied.

"Get your stuff and let's go," he said.

When we arrived at the high school we were introduced by the principal, who was serving as the third judge. The projects were arranged around the edges of the gym and we meandered from one booth to another, making small talk with nervous students and parents and marking down our evaluations on the score sheets we'd been provided.

Maybe every science fair is like this. There were projects involving dryer lint, and electricity, and levers, and rocks. And then there was the Project.

"What's this?" asked the captain, coming to a stop before an intricate and professional looking poster.

"This is Janet's," said the principal. "She's one of our stars. She's going East for college."

Best as I could tell, Janet had cured cancer in white mice using an acorn and a paperclip. Extensively documented, photographed, replicated, and referenced.

The principal continued, "We expect big things from her."

"No shit," I blurted, prompting the captain to punch me in the shoulder.

Janet was nervous but confident. Her parents beamed as she told us about her dream of being a medical researcher. After talking with her for a few minutes I had no doubt she could be whatever she wanted.

We finished taking in the rest of the entries but it was perfunctory. Unless this city was some sort of statistical anomaly, something I very much doubted after having spent two years there, Janet had trounced the competition. The scores were tallied and handed to the science teacher.

He looked at them. He glanced up and looked at the scores some more. His eyes darted nervously around the room and then looked at them some more. He sidled over to the principal, whispered something, and handed over the scores.

The principal looked at them. He glanced up and looked at the scores some more. His eyes darted nervously around the room and then looked at them some more.

Finally he cleared his throat and announced the winner. It was not Janet. The winner was a kid who'd collected a jar full of molecules or something.

Just like in the movies, the crowd gasped. Janet gasped. Her parents gasped. Most of all, the captain and I gasped.

"Who'd you vote for?" he asked me under his breath.

"Janet. How about you?"


The principal was across the room, congratulating the winner. The captain caught his eye and waved him over. He came, reluctantly, stunned and more than a little upset.

"I don't know what happened," said the captain. "We both gave Janet first place by a long ways. Who did you pick?"

"Janet," said the principal, his brow furrowing. "Hold on a minute." He found the science teacher, grabbed the score sheets, and came back to us.

It only took a minute to figure out what had happened. Somewhere between the score sheets and the final tally, someone had transposed numbers. Janet's score had been awarded to the wrong person.

"Now what?" asked the principal. "I can't take it away from him." He gestured toward the announced winner, whose proud parents were photographing him in front of his entry.

"We could blame it on Snag," said the captain.

"Thanks a lot, sir," I said.

"Don't worry, I do it all the time," he said. "Why do you think the colonel's always giving you funny looks?"

The day kept getting better. "Can you say she won a special prize?" I asked. "Make something up and then you can tell her later you didn't think it was fair for the others to try to compete against her."

"Lie to my students? That might work," said the principal.

"Are you always this sneaky?" the captain asked me with a combination of suspicion and respect.

"I live to serve," I replied.

"Maybe I really should warn the colonel about you," he said.

The principal shushed us and strode to the front of the room. "Listen up. I've been keeping this a secret so I wouldn't affect the judging. This year we're giving the first annual Principal's Award. It goes to the project that does the best job of considering a problem in a new way. I'm happy to announce the winner is Janet."

The science teacher looked at the principal with his own combination of suspicion and respect but joined everyone else in applauding wildly. Apparently Janet was as well-liked as she was talented.

The captain and I gathered our things. Before leaving we stopped to congratulate Janet and her parents. They thanked us for our time and we wished them well.

On the way back to the base the captain asked, "Have you ever pulled this sort of thing on me?"

"Sir, your question is undermining my morale," I replied.

"Knock it off," he said.



"Okey-dokey, sir," I said.

"Much better," he said. "Want to get a beer?"

"Yes sir," I said, snapping off a salute as best I could in the cramped confines of his car.

"Good," he said, returning the salute. "You're buying."


Chuckles said...

I think I would end up playing Jaoquin Phoenix's character in Buffalo Soldiers if I was in the military.

Anonymous said...

"if I *were* in the military"

And, not really off topic for this blog, some Kos diary suggested replacing the donkey mascot with a moose mascot for the (D) party.

Jennifer said...

Best as I could tell, Janet had cured cancer in white mice using an acorn and a paperclip.

Was her last name MacGyver?

Kathleen said...

awesome. It is now a goal in my life to make up and award a prize on the spot.

Snag said...

MacGyver would kill to be as inventive as Janet. Kathleen, I suggest you award her a prize for that.

Anonymous said...

"Sir, your question is undermining my morale,"

Oh the many times I could use this line throughout each day of my life! lol.

And I think I will. Giving you full credit I do each time, of course.

Brando said...

It's not just a job. It's a job you can't quit early without going to prison.

Snag, was the boy who won without deserving it a young George W. Bush?