[This is another of my true "sea stories" recounting my time in the Air Force...TJ] Become a Complete Fool
It was in 1992, that I found myself in the Australian Outback. I was on a, then classified, military mission. This involved getting up in the middle of the night, jumping on a C-5 Galaxy, courtesy of the Air Mobility Command, flying my troops and gear from New Mexico, to Hawaii, to Western Samoa and eventually into Woomera, South Australia. We spent a total of 48 hours on and off transports getting to the southern hemisphere. Suffice it to say we needed a break. Once we arrived, we handed off our gear to security, found our bunks and the few of us who weren't exhausted put on our civilian attire and headed out for a night on the town. For those of you who have never been to the outback, it is very much like Crocodile Dundee left it. There is a palpable frontier spirit which harkens back to the old west. Since local law enforcement were asleep in their beds 20 miles away there is an understanding that your decisions will have consequences and that society will not run around you with its proverbial safety net. Also in the outback "a night on the town" is a rather limited affair. This is how we found ourselves at the only available watering hole in miles and miles. Spud's Roadhouse in Pimba South Australia (population 8).
Spuds' is a delightful establishment. A true road house, it catered to the truck drivers who ran the major highway (only two lanes). It also catered to the opal miners of Anamounda, who would leave their mines and drive hours for an evening of music and alcohol. This was a place where "grunts," ruggers, cowboys, bikers, and any of the testosterone filled subsets of American culture would find a home. I liked it.
There were six of us. My deputy field commander, a second lieutenant, two non- commissioned officers and two airman. The evening started off well. We arrived at 11:30 PM to a half full bar area. The law wouldn't allow anyone to purchase alcohol that late without buying food, so the local custom was to buy a large plate of fries [served with a mouth-watering peppersauce...TJ] with your beers and then you would leave the fries on the bar. Should you actually be hungry, one would freely help himself to all the communal fries one wanted. I bought a round of XXXX [pronounced four-X, no one drinks Fosters in Australia...TJ] for the troops. We settled down in our seats. One of my airman, a 19 year old young lady, got change for the juke box, dropped a dollar's worth of coins in it and selected her newest favorite song. I can't remember the name of the song, but it was all the rage and even in the outback we heard it constantly. I was off the airplane. My troops were cared for. I had a beer and fries in front of me. The music was on. The atmosphere fun. I was finally able to unwind. I found my self in a state of euphoria. This would last for a total of ten seconds.
A couple of tables down sat seven opal miners. Big men. Tough men. Strong and hardened from years of digging. Miners, like you'd find in western Pennsylvania. The largest man from the table stood up and walked over to juke box. He reached behind it. Unplugged it, turning off the music. Plugged it back in. Walked back to his table and sat down, never even glancing at us. There was silence.
I quickly looked around the table. Everyone was looking at me. This had just become my problem. The airmen, had that "never fear, the captain will take care of me" look. The NCOs were evaluating me wondering how I would lead them in this interesting development. My deputy was still shocked at what had happened. I realized my ability to command rested squarely on how I resolved this. Doing nothing would be a leadership disaster. Doing something would also be a disaster. I could hear my squadron and group commander howling in my ears "Walk away. Don't even think of a confrontation, on foreign soil, while on a politically sensitive, clandestine mission. Don't be stupid. You're in charge because we trust you, not because your name was on top of the duty roster. Just walk away." There was never any doubt though what I was going to do though. No one "punks" one of my troops and gets a free pass. I would be diplomatic and try to resolve this peacefully, and maintain the low profile expected of us, but if it came to it and we needed to fight, well this was just an a$$ whupping I'd have to take.
I extended my palms in the universal "stay calm, everyone remain in your seats" gesture. My troops settled back down. I stood and walked over to the juke box, dropped a dollar into it and punched up the song that was playing. I made a few other selections, while looking at the reflection in the glass to avoid being hit from behind. My business finished, I returned to the table. I was the very model of composure. I acted as if the whole thing was some misunderstanding and now couldn't we just go about our business. I got the "not bad" nod from the NCOs and reached for my beer. The large gentleman pushed his chair back. He did it in such a way that the noise made it was obvious he was unhappy. He stood and returned to the juke box. Again he unplugged it and then plugged it back in. He returned to his table but instead of sitting, he stood glaring at me, arms folded.
Sun Tzu remarked "Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster." In the military and as a barman you can get a pretty good read on people with a quick glance. I took a gander.
Know your enemy. 7 large gentlemen all hard, all ready. The leader is a giant. I make him 6 foot 5, 240. He's standing and ready to fight. Three of his mates are at the table spoiling for a brawl. One is wrapping his cloth napkin around his fist. Two are staring at me just begging for an excuse to escalate. The other three have adjusted their chairs slightly back. They're no nonsense types, capable and certainly unafraid.
Know yourself. Me. 5 foot eight, 150 pounds. I haven't been in a fight since Ronny Fletcher and I knocked each other around in the tenth grade. My Lieutenant Joey was eager but very underweight. He'd bring spirit, noise and enthusiasm but was more terrier and less bulldog. Ernie, a young kid who had joined the Air Force to get away from the gangs in Oakland California, would be able to hang. He was big and strong and could tie up any of these guys. My second NCO was Roberta, a hippie kid transported from the late 60s to my unit. She wore a tie die shirt. She could do magic with our gear and on the mission but she was a lover not a fighter. At least she would there to help us bandage our wounds after it was all over. My two airman were a mix. The doey eyed young lady, who lost her dollar in the juke box, would follow Roberta away from the fray. My other airman was a cowboy from Wyoming who probably joined the military in the hopes of adventures such as these.
I knew my enemy and knew myself but all I could see was disaster. Thanks for nothing Sun Tzu. The bartender was in the kitchen and oblivious to what was going on. We were in hostile territory. Who knew how many other friends these guys had in the bar? I had two guys who could match up with his seven. I had to isolate this to a one on one fight, me versus goliath, or we would be beaten in a loud and grotesque manner. The best I could hope for was to take the beating myself.
I stood up. If you've ever seen a western, you may have wondered "when a gunslinger stands up quickly after a challenge, is there really a lot of chairs rustling in the back ground?" I can assure you the entire western tense-moment-in-the-bar plays in reality as it does in the movies. I walked over to his table. I was going to have to bluff or intimidate this guy. I didn't stare or behave in a threatening or offensive way. Likewise I couldn't appear weak or cowed. So I zenned out. I approached him totally emotionless. I didn't want him to read anything in my face. I walked up to him. Looked him right in the eye and said "excuse me, the lady was listening to a song and I believe you owe her a dollar." This guy wasn't intimidated, he wasn't going to blink. Good officers in the military play two games. Go and poker. This was no poker face I was staring into. My experience playing cards told me he had a winning hand, all that was left for him was to decide to fold or call my bluff. The decision was his.
He stared right back. It seemed he was trying to gauge me. He was looking for something, but I gave him nothing. After a couple of seconds he spoke in a loud and clear voice. "I have decided to drink with the Americans." He looked at me and smiled broadly. "They amuse me." With that his big bear paws slapped me on the shoulder and he gestured for our two tables to be put together. It turned out that the song, now very popular, had been played nearly continuously since they had arrived hours earlier. He refunded a dollar to me and the airman, and bought the first round. I kept my leadership authority in tact for standing up against overwhelming odds for my airman and we would take a tour of his mine later during the deployment. It turned out to be a very good evening at Spuds' Roadhouse.
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[This is another of my true "sea stories" recounting my time in the Air Force...TJ]
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