After what seemed like an eternity of bitter suffering and agony, we were released from the hell of Boot Camp and, early on a Monday morning, we emerged blinking into the sunlight as free men. Or, that’s what we thought. Little did I know what I had in store for me as a military weather forecaster in training. We were separated into different buses for different tech schools: different jobs had their training at different bases; my destination was Keesler AFB, Biloxi, Mississippi– the toilet bowl of the United States.
It was a long ride by bus from Texas to Mississippi. I listened to Pink Floyd on my CD player which had long lain neglected in a closet at the training squadron with most my other personal belongings. It felt so wonderful to listen to music; we tend to take music for granted until we’re deprived of it for awhile (I would later experiment further with music deprivation: read more here). “Gone with the wind and the rain on an airplane…” went the lyrics, and I felt like they were speaking directly to me, even if the cheap contracted bus we were riding wasn’t exactly a Boeing.
Lackland had exposed me to the draconian mindgames of the Air Education & Training Command (AETC), numbing me somewhat to them, but it would be at Keesler where I would really learn to understand this beaurocratic branch of the USAF. Under the tutelage of the blackhats, I had learned to endure pain; under the tutelage of the blueropes, I would learn that the pain was illusionary to begin with. But not before going through a lot more of it first.
Pingers and Poptarts
In tech school, certain airmen were pingers, certain airmen were poptarts. Let me explain this unusual slang. When we stepped off the bus from San Antonio, we were reveling in our relative freedom. We were naive. As we waited outside the training squadron, veteran techschoolers shook their heads knowingly at us; there was something about our behavior and our demeanor which set off their radar, and that’s why we were called Pingers, because of how a radar monitor goes “ping”. The sergeants in charge of us picked up on this signal too, and knew we were easy targets.
I was not a poptart. Poptarts are airmen with short training periods, people who practically start outprocessing as soon as they finish inprocessing. For them, Keesler was just a brief stopping point between bootcamp and their active duty stations. At first, some of my friends from BMT fell into this category. But soon, they graduated. And the poptarts of the next week, and the week after that. No, I was not in this category. I watched fresh meat come off the bus, giddy with freedom, and I watched them leave a few weeks later, all during a tiny fraction of my own training. They became a blur, and us toughened veterans in the weather school, we came to envy them.
The blueropes, already mentioned above, were Keesler’s version of the drill sergeants from Lackland. While TIs were identified by their black hats, blueropes were identified with a blue rope looped through one shoulder lapel. Our jubilance at escaping bootcamp was shattered when our blueropes opened their mouths and began heaping the same familiar abuse we’d resigned ourselves to in Texas.
There were ropes of other colors, as well. Red ropes, yellow ropes, and green ropes. While these ropes also bossed us around and generally exhibited their superiority complexes, they were no sergeants: they were our fellow airmen and classmates. This was all part of the deep, insidious community of backstabbing and informing which the powers at be fostered amidst us.
Green ropes volunteered for the position, and the only requirement was that they be “Airmen First Class”, meaning they had two promotions under their belt. On the surface, this seems like a good way to pick out natural leaders, but bear in mind that merit-based promotions don’t actually occur until well after tech school. In practice, there were two ways to get those two stripes: have them stipulated in your contract, or be Air National Guard. National Guard promotions work differently than active duty, and Airman First Class is much easier to get there. The perverse result was that we were lorded over by “Airman Leaders” whose “Leadership” derived entirely from the fact that they had made less of a commitment to their country!
I pray I never end up in a POW camp with a bunch of airmen. Beginning in tech school, comeraderie among the ranks is actively discouraged, replaced with one big contest to see who can get who in the biggest trouble. Later during my weather training time, my own contract’s stipulations kicked in and I myself became an Airman First Class– a rare active duty one! I thought about becoming a greenrope: the propaganda advertising the position was very convincing. In the end, I’m glad I decided against it.
At first, we were elated, the blueropes’ abuse notwithstanding. Every weekday, we had three or four hours of free time. Depending on a complicated formula depending on our seniority and behavior, we had differing levels of privilege. At the very minimum, we could wander the dorm and the base almost unrestricted, though we had to do it in uniform. Compare this to Lackland, where a fifteen minute “patio break” with snack machines and payphones was a heavenly luxury! As your privilege went up further, you could walk around in civilian clothes when you were off duty! And if it went up even further, you could go off base, and explore the sophistocated metropolis named Biloxi There was even a privilege level where you were relieved the enforced bedtime, but in practice nobody really got that high. On the weekends (including every other Friday), the whole day was free time!
It was almost strange being able to plan your own independent trip to the BX to spend some of that cash they’d paid you in boot camp. I immediately invested in a better pair of boots, “jump boots” designed for paratroopers. My feet thanked me all the rest of my tenure in weather school.
It was on off-duty time that I had my first “nightclub” experience, at a “club” designed especially for us students. Of course, there was no alcohol, since that was strictly forbidden for anyone underage, which was virtually all of us. And to disappoint any guys who went expecting to see girls dressed up sexy, most of us weren’t privileged enough to wear civies, so most of the dancefloor was dressed in jungle camoflage! The place was called “The Vandenburg” and it was basically a scheme for some slick civilian to bleed our bank accounts. It was located right beside the $1/10 min (or something) internet cafe which must have made someone a millionaire.
Inprocessing and Hurricane Duty
The first week or two at Keesler were devoted to inprocessing. When you’re in the military, it seems like everyone and their pet dog has to give you a briefing about something. Days and days were spent listening to one hour-long briefing after another. We were briefed about driving safety. Suicide prevention. Financial planning. Base protocol. Sexually transmitted diseases. Anything you can think of, someone was paid to stand in front of us for an hour and lecture us about it. Mostly, it was stuff which had been covered already in Lackland. The military is not big on efficiency (the briefings would not end when tech school ended– they would continue all the way ’til I escaped the service completely, but that’s another story).
After in-processing, what comes next is the actual training for one’s career. But often, there’s a waiting period until the school launches the new class, usually because you’re waiting for more classmates to graduate bootcamp. During this period of limbo, you usually play dormguard, but I did hurricane duty instead. One of the fun parts of living on the Gulf of Mexico is the periodic whirling storm of death that comes your way. I spent a lot of time filling sandbags. Many things may happen in my lifetime, but I’ll always be secure in knowing I’ve shoveled my fill of sand!
Stuffing giant bags with dirt was actually cool in one sense: for the first time since leaving home, I was doing real work, not just fantasy dorm guard duty or making beds just to have them torn apart by irate drill sergeants. It was fun working with sergeants outside the AETC, who treated us like normal human beings and revealed a human side of themselves we hadn’t seen in our overlords prior to that.
I don’t know how intentional it was, but when my weather forecasting classes finally started, I found myself playing the suspect in a “good cop, bad cop” film. The bad cop was everything I’ve mentioned above– the blueropes, the greenropes, the informers everywhere. The good cop was the weather school itself, fifteen minutes’ march from the dorms. The sergeants and civilians who actually taught us our jobs, were a whole different world from the harassment and abuse heaped on us from every other direction. For once, tedious military protocol took second priority to actually learning about what goes on in the atmosphere and how to predict it.
Here’s how a typical weekday would go. Unlike bootcamp, there was no trumpet blast to wake us all up. We slept in rooms with one roommate, and it was our own responsibility to get up on time. I only slept in once. It wasn’t pretty. I don’t remember exactly what happened, probably my mind scrambling to suppress traumatizing memories. I do know that after that one mistake, I never overslept for the remainder of techschool.
Upon getting up, we quickly cleaned our rooms and made our beds, but not to the exacting precision required in boot camp. It was only necessary to make the bed like a normal person really makes their bed– no need for perfect hospital corners. In addition to quickly cleaning our own rooms, we each had a part in cleaning our floor. These were assigned by our Air National Guard airman leaders.
Breakfast was optional. What wasn’t optional, was showing up in uniform, flashlight cone at your side, in formation outside the front of the squadron. It was still cold and dark as we fell into carefully determined positions in line to be counted and accounted for. A bluerope shouted at us for awhile and we turned and saluted as a microphone blared the national anthem. Then came the march to the schoolhouse. Since most of us skipped breakfast on account of having to get up so early already, we arrived at school tired and hungry. Nonetheless, we were happy to step into the school building, as that was the shift from bad cop to good cop.
The one good thing about all the abuse we put up with from the “military training” side of techschool was that it made the academic side tolerable. This is very important, because we were in class for around ten hours a day. By contrast, the workload in, say, undergraduate university is pretty small! There’s a cool practice in military school, which would be useful in civilian universities as well: when you felt drowsy during a lecture, you could go to the back of the room and stand. It’s a lot easier to stay awake when you’re on your feet!
Weather school was split up into different modules, which were handled differently. Most modules were lectures, and by lecture I mean powerpoint presentation. If you’re techschool-bound in any sort of technical field like weather, be ready for lots of powerpoint! The U.S. military probably has more powerpoint presentations than it has bombs and guns.
I developed a note-taking method which is pretty powerful in lectures where you need to memorize lots of presented information. I call it repetitive note-taking. Basically, you write down everything you hear, and when you have time left over, you rewrite it again. To conserve paper, I eventually started writing notes over other notes, making the whole page unreadable. That’s fine, this method doesn’t actually involve reading back over the notes– it’s the mere act of writing them which will hammer the data into your brain. Doing this hours and hours a day for months upon months, I even started developing my own crazy shorthand, which I’d later perfect in university.
(Too bad I didn’t know about spaced repetition systems back then. Follow that link and marvel at the wonders of cutting edge memory techniques which would make most of weather school a breeze for anyone.)
Seeing Through the AETC’s Mask
While I was doing great in class, I absolutely hated the other portion of techschool. While it wasn’t as bad as bootcamp by any stretch of the imagination, the thing is that it was longer. For me, ten times longer or so. Many people pass through Keesler in a few weeks- poptarts- but us weather forecasters stayed forever, and as the months stretched out, so too did our patience for the circus which was our dorm.
At all times, whether in uniform or civies, on or off duty, we had to carry a little form in our pockets, the infamous AETC Form 341, the “Excellence/Discrepancy Report”. The way these work is, anyone in any sort of authority position (whether real or pretend), can demand you fork over your 341. Once it’s in their hands, they write something in it and turn it in to the blueropes. In principle, what they write can be positive or negative (hence the “Excellence/Discrepancy”), but in practice, only negative reports are issued.
When the blueropes get a negative 341, they take punitive action. At a minimum, you can expect to be assigned a 12-hour dorm-guard shift sometime during the precious weekend. In this case, you can luck out and get a day shift, or you can get the dreaded night shift which will completely destroy your sleep schedule and leave you sleeping away the rest of the weekend. A repeat offender can expect worse, like spending the whole weekend doing marching drills, led by everyone’s favorite classmates, the greenropes. Sometimes, they’ll even send an airman to visit a real military prison, with people who have really been courtmartialed. Actually, I kind of wish I’d been sent there for a day, since that would make a totally awesome story…
This might all sound fairly reasonable if a negative 341 was reserved for something serious like drinking under age or even just being late for class. Most of these forms, however, were pulled by greenropes and dorm guards, on the flimsiest grounds imaginable. I had some National Guard prick with a rope try to get my 341 once because he felt I “wasn’t respecting him enough”. Because I didn’t call him “sir”. While off-duty, civilian clothes, in line for dinner at the chow hall. When he and I were the same rank in reality, and I probably had more time-in-service than him. Guy wasn’t even from my squadron. I was pretty fed up with 12 hour shifts, so I refused, and when he persisted, I abandoned my half-full tray unpaid for and walked out of the cafeteria. It worked!
That was the first time I “dodged” a 341. It would not be the last. The next would be a major eye-opener for me, giving me insight into the true nature of the AETC. I was walking into the dorms, in PT gear, and I stopped at the dorm guard desk, where some kids fresh out of bootcamp were pulling guard duty. I needed to write something on a form, and figured I may as well do it there. I started filling it out, but this dorm guard stuck her nose in my business, telling me self-importantly: “You can’t fill that out in blue ink!” Okay, I thought, whatever… I grabbed the nearest black pen and started using that, but it was felt-tip and Ms. Form-Inspector objected to that too.
Fine, I thought, I’ll just go do this in my room. I crumpled up the form and asked this self-important guard to put it in the trash under the dormguard desk. That, apparently, was below her dignity. “Airman Alexander, give me a 341!” she exclaims, as proudly as if she was reciting a line in a 1st grade school play. This was a girl who had been in the Air Force a tenth the time I had, who I outranked by two paygrades. I was exhausted of all these games. My voice must have rung with exasperation and irritation when I demanded, “Why??” Turns out she felt I was “disrespecting” the elite dorm guard position by having them throw trash away for me.
I decided then and there I wasn’t pulling a 12-hour shift because of this nonsense. I tried to argue with the girl, but now people were gathering around. I wasn’t going to be able to just walk away from this one, like I had in the chow hall. The situation looked bleak. There was only one escape, and that was right into the lions’ den: the dreaded bluerope hall, where our military training instructors had their offices. I told our upset dormguard friend that I was going to go talk to one of the sergeants about our dispute. I gathered my courage and walked into the office hall.
I walked right up to the office of the highest enlisted person in the squadron, the dreaded master sergeant, who routinely tore airmen to shreds. This was a woman who’d made more grown men cry than I’d eaten hot dinners, and I walked right to her office, rapped on the door and followed the appropriate protocol: “Ma’am, Airman Alexander reports.” She gave me an impatient glare and told me to wait, and wait I did, standing outside her office. Things were very busy in the hall. At length the master sergeant got up and went into an adjacent office, ignoring me. I easily heard the conversation with her fellow bluerope:
“Look at all these 341s. These will take forever to process! Where’d they all come from??”
I was shocked. Our overlords were as frustrated with the system as we were! Of course… it meant more work for them! Finally, the master sergeant demanded to know why I was standing outside her office. I explained the episode at the dorm guard desk, and I think Ms. Master-Sergeant’s brain short circuited. An airman sticking up for himself? This was unheard of, and I like to think the battle-hardened warden didn’t know what to make of it! She told me to summon the dorm guard, who donned a look of sheer terror on her face as soon as I informed her she was wanted in the snakepit.
Now we were both standing before the angry and confused master sergeant. The universal, axiomatic truth in the AETC is that any accusation is true and any accusee is guilty. But who was the accusor? The dormguard was pressing charges against my “disrespect”. And I was pressing charges against her uncalled-for behavior. The axiom of truth bent around and contradicted itself, causing the universe to violently explode in a big military paradox.
After getting the story from both of us, and switching erratically between supporting one and supporting the other, it was clear our boss was stumped. Finally I spoke up and suggested it was all a misunderstanding and she should let us both off with a warning. Normally, I imagine I’d've earned myself a 12-hour shift for that kind of insolence, presuming to make suggestions to a sergeant, but I think she was just glad to see a way out of her predicament. She took my suggestion and I kept my 341 and my weekend!
After that incident, my eyes were wide open to how the mindgames of military training really worked. The truth was so obvious, I should’ve seen it all along, from day 1 of boot camp. The TIs and the blueropes, they were only barely one step above us in the big picture. They were small potatoes, and they were as scared for their hides as we were… in fact, we were immune, and they were vulnerable. See, any black marks we got in the pipeline would be wiped away and ignored once we got to our actual duty stations. It was just make believe, pixie dust, a bunch of jumping through hoops. But a black mark on the sergeant’s record would follow him the rest of his career.
What’s more, the axiomatic truth, that every accusee is guilty as charged, ignores rank. At least as long as it applies to the enlisted rank and file. I don’t know how it would work against officers, but I realized that I had a terrible power, that by merely filling out a complaint form, I could sink whatever military training bigwig I wanted. Colonels and generals, they turn a blind eye to the abuse heaped on students, but when you shove a complaint form in their face, they can’t do that any more. A TI spitting in a trainee’s face is commonplace and ordinary at Lackland, and no-one thinks about it twice, but if the trainee actually writes a complaint, Sgt. Hartman is suddenly in a world of pain. The TIs and the blueropes know this and they secretly fear it.
It was like waking up and realizing you’re a superhero and just never knew it. I was virtually invincible to any further 12-hour shifts. After that day, when anyone tried to get me in trouble, I’d rush to get my complaint in before theirs got in. I never saw another 12-hour shift at Keesler.
I graduated, a sparkly new Weather Forecasting Journeyman, shortly after the incident with the dormguard. But as far as I’m concerned, that incident was my real point of graduation. The word “graduate” comes from Latin “gradus”: a stage, a degree. The etymology of the word teaches us that graduation ceremonies serve to divide society into classes and hierarchies– “degrees”, if you will– like lines on a measuring cup. I felt like I had already transcended the artificial stages and structure of military training, so graduation was just a tradition to be followed.
My career in the Air Force was just beginning. I bid farewell to the institution which had served as my prison for the past half year. I bid farewell to the Air Education & Training Command and all its hoops and circuses. I didn’t realize that the mind games and nonsense would continue no matter how long I stayed in the Air Force. They just become more spaced out. But I had a different perspective on them thanks to my techschool revelation.