Airman Second Class K was well liked and well known. He refurbished a “woody” station wagon that he kept immaculate and his tall, thin body drove it with authority all over the sprawling Laredo Air Force Base in 1952. He played the trombone in a band that played for the Officer, NCO, and Airman clubs on the base. He loved enchiladas. After tasting his first one he never ordered anything else. Growing up in rural Indiana, his only fault was that he was incredibly naive and the target for constant practical jokes.
I was never one for practical jokes, but working every day with K in the base photo lab tempted me into my first and last practical joke. It almost got me a court-martial.
My assignment was to fly in a T-33 jet trainer, Lockheed’s Shooting Star, and take photographs of other T-33 jet trainers flying in formation. My photo assignments had let me fly on every aircraft on the base except the T-33 and I was excited about my first jet flight. The day before, I was outfitted in a helmet, oxygen mask, and parachute.
The next day I climbed into the rear seat of the T-33 and the crewman checked me out on the equipment, including the ejection procedure. I swiveled around with the 4X5 Speed Graphic camera in my hand to make sure I could get in position for taking photographs. The pilot checked out the two-way communications and started to close the canopy.
CRUNCH — the canopy stopped closing.
Pilot: Do you see anything blocking the canopy?
Me: Aaaaaaah, I left a film-pack holder on the track. It’s crunched and jammed in so I can’t get it out.
Pilot: Let me open the canopy and see if you can get it out and if you see any damage.
Me: I can’t see any damage except the mangled film holder.
Pilot: (After opening and closing the canopy several times.) It seems OK, can you still take photos?
Me: Yes, I have a spare film-holder and plenty of film.
The most memorial part of the flight was the severe difficulty in holding and pointing a heavy Speed Graphic camera when pulling several G’s in a tight turn.
So how did I almost get a court-martial?
A mangled film holder should never be wasted — so after the flight I had the motor-pool driver drop me off short of the base photo lab. I slung my camera case and parachute under the porch, and rubbed dirt on my polished boots, clothes, face, and hands. I then limped into the photo lab with a pained look on my face.
K: What happened to you?
Me: I had to eject from the jet.
K: You’re kidding me! (He knew he was the favorite target for practical jokes.)
Me: Look at this (holding up the film holder.) I lost the camera and the only thing I could salvage was the film holder. (While K examined the mangled film holder I continued talking as I bent over making painful faces.) I didn’t pull the chute leg straps tight and now I know why that’s so important. I almost blacked out from the pain when the chute opened. (Making more painful faces.)
K: Oh my gosh. You really did have to bail out.
Me: You don’t think I would purposely mangle a film holder do you? I need to go back and clean up and maybe lie down a bit.
K: (Five minutes later, over the lab P.A. system.) Hey Jerry, I called operations about your ejecting from a T-33. They don’t know anything about this and want to talk with you. The Air Police are on the way and will pick you up in a couple of minutes.
Me: (Silently) Oh sh#t.
I stood at attention in front of the operations officer as I told my story. I knew I was in serious trouble, but the Captain, knowing K, had trouble keeping a straight face. At the end, he proceeded to chew me out as I had never been chewed out before. He reminding me that what I did, falsely reporting a plane crash, was a court-martial offense. I had better walk the straight and narrow from then on. The story went viral around the base and the next day almost everyone was chuckling.
I’m not too sure about the straight and narrow, but that was my last practical joke.
Another story shared over coffee and biscotti during our morning talks.