The Pentagon, Trained Killers, and the Hush Puppy Shuffle

Photo by John Torcasio on Unsplash

“Ritchie, we’ve got a hot congressional here. Get a response together, coordinate it with the OSD staff, and have it on my desk by tomorrow afternoon. Somebody on the Hill wants to kill the [XYZ] program, but you and I know how much the Air Force needs that weapon system.”

“OK, Boss, but in the DIA briefing this morning, they were rather convincing that the Soviet threat has gone away, and the entire justification for that system was based on countering a threat that no longer exists. How do you want me to handle this?”

“If you can take out that little shit in Senator Dufflebag’s office, the one who’s got the GAO crawling all over us… Well, you’ll think of something. The SecDef will have my ass on a silver platter if we don’t put up a good fight. Be convincing!”

“Aye, aye, sir!”’

It was Georgetown in the mid-1980s. We lived in a classic turn-of-the-century townhouse of Italian influence, with a round oriel, painted sky blue. On my street, one could bump into a congressman, stroll by the late John F. Kennedy’s brick mansion, break off one’s heels in the cracks between cobblestones, or, even more likely, step in a fresh mound of canine excrement. My former spouse promised to write a book someday entitled “Living in Georgetown: Looking out for Number Two.”

Commuting to the Pentagon from there was a breeze (we called it the “rush minute”), even in the horrendous traffic that plagues our nation’s capital. My home address had the most “correct” zip code, and my smugness was intensified as we drove into the Pentagon Mall Parking Lot, where only the most senior executives were permitted entry. The tough part of the commute was negotiating á pied the miles of corridors within the Pentagon to my office deep inside.

The Department of Defense was once called the War Department. However, in our culture and time, it’s considered more correct to be in a defensive mode rather than to be aggressive and acquisitive, terms generally reserved for enemies of the peace. Nevertheless, the climate inside the five-sided building was nothing if not seriously war-like.

In times of war, our soldiers, sailors, and airmen fight bravely, even to the point of giving their lives for the sake of their country’s politicians. But what do trained killers do in peacetime? When they’re not at war with a foreign enemy, they go to war against each other: Army vs. Navy, Air Force vs. Army, Marine Corps against Air Force, military vs. civilians, all “defending” their budgets, “fighting” to develop a new jet or a tank or a ship, “struggling” with the GAO and Congress to keep from being buried alive under mountains of documents, or plotting to “kill” that smarmy, trouble-making civilian who asks so many difficult, issue-raising questions. And he’s only one of thousands in the ubiquitous Hush Puppies, shuffling blank-faced through the corridors, eyes fixed on his Timex, counting the hours until retirement.

Particularly during staffing cutbacks, “defending one’s turf” were les mots du jour. Inside the Pentagon, “war” is not a metaphor. One can see tracers from gunfire crisscrossing the Potomac, or feel the building shake from a direct hit on one’s desk, or smell the junior officers’ hair burning as they panic through the corridors, not always able to avoid the hidden minefields therein.

No period in my life has been so thrilling as those Puzzle Palace days.

“Ritchie, from now on, you’re in charge of the operational testing program for the Army’s binary chemical bomb. The Navy and the Air Force are involved in this thing too, so I want you to make sure everybody’s singing from the same sheet of music. It’s highly visible and highly controversial. I don’t have anyone else on the staff who has time to work this program. (Translation: No one else will touch it with a ten-foot pole. It’s a career killer for an ambitious officer. You’re just a civilian, so your career isn’t important to me.) Don’t fuck up.”

I couldn’t get anyone promoted, I couldn’t get anyone fired, I had no weapons to use in this major conflict. I was going to be at war with all the Military Departments, the Congress, the GAO, the Inspector General, and the taxpayer at large, for the next two years. Yet I realized that, aside from the endless flood of mindless paperwork, the uncountable hours of meetings, congressional testimony, briefings, and reports, there was a brilliant opportunity to have some good, clean fun.

My primary responsibility was to witness all the operational testing of this bomb, from loading it onto the racks under the wing of an Air Force F-111 jet to observing the bomb disperse its simulated lethal load on the test strip at Dugway Proving Ground. Happily for me, to do so required me to fly in a chase plane across the desert from Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, NV, in order to observe tactics used in lofting the bomb over the target area in Utah.

“Yes, General, I understand your objections, but the law requires me to fly at least one mission with your boys, and I have it here in writing from the Secretary of Defense. Yes, I have already taken the flight physical, over at Andrews Air Force Base, and I passed with flying colors, so to speak. Yessir, I have been in the hyperbaric chamber, and I stayed conscious longer than any of your guys. Yessir, I plan to go through all the ejection training at Nellis immediately prior to the mission. Now, will you please clear me for quarters at Nellis and arrange for a chase plane?”

For the next few weeks, I had a steady stream of Air Force colonels visiting my office, giving me brotherly advice on how to behave, not to eat breakfast before the flight, to take plenty of Dramamine, and most importantly, to pack a couple of barf bags inside my flight suit. It would not be cool to vomit on the instruments. Feeling a bit patronized, I was nonetheless ecstatic.

“Colonel, I want you to take care of that woman from the Pentagon. Don’t let her out of your sight. Brief the Major on protocol, and make sure he doesn’t say anything we don’t want to read in the Washington Post tomorrow morning. Jesus! This is what I need today, a damned civilian, and a female to boot. Get our best F-16 instructor on this, and tell him to fly straight and level, and well below Mach II. We don’t want her to pass out on us.”

I nearly did pass out when I met my pilot. Tall, young, broad shoulders, lean hips, clear blue eyes, so handsome he took my breath away. And so formally polite. I was at an age when being called “Ma’am” made me feel downright matronly.

That morning, I ate a huge breakfast of sausages, scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee, much to the dismay of my guardian Colonel. I proudly wore my own flight suit, earned from flying photo-reconnaissance missions in Navy helicopters some years back, but everything else had to be loaned and fitted to me — heavy black boots, helmet, G-suit, gloves, the works.

“How ya doin’ back there, ma’am?”

“Please don’t call me ma’am, Russ. My name is Dee.”

“How ya doin’ back there, Dee?”

“Fan-fucking-tastic.”

“Do you see the 111’s? Where are they?”

“Looks like they’re flying low, about ready to pop up over the mountains way over there, about three o’clock.”

“We’re late! Let’s punch it. (pause) Dee? Are you OK? Ma’am? You OK?”

“Oh God, I’m in heaven, Sorry, Russ. I was speechless for a minute there. Didn’t mean to worry you. This is way better than sex!”

After I climbed out of the plane back at Nellis, I peeked over my shoulder to see an airman with a puzzled expression on his face looking around inside the cockpit I had just vacated.

“Just wondering if you had anything I need to throw away, ma’am…”

“Hey, it was a milk run today, Airman. I never got close to needing a barf bag. Thanks anyway!”

Ritchie, dismounting from F-16, USAF Official Photograph

That night, still in my flight suit and the only woman in sight, I strutted proudly into the Officers’ Club, my Colonel companion velcroed to my side, into a scene right out of Top Gun, except this was the Air Force. There must have been 500 hunky fighter pilots in flight suits — “Is it true they wear nothing underneath?” — and I could have happily drowned in the mixed floods of testosterone and beer. That evening, “my Colonel” visibly relaxed, proud of me for having kept my breakfast down, and we partied until I was told that the bar couldn’t close until we left, “we” being the Colonel and that lady from the Pentagon.

As always, The Force had been with me that day, the first F-111 test mission having been scrubbed inflight at the last moment due to technical difficulties with the bomb, and we were going to fly chase again the next morning. Oh, poor me!

“Well, Dee, what do ya say? We’ve got three-quarters of a tank left. Let’s go VFR and poke holes in some clouds!”

“Roger that, Russ! But only if you sing with me some more. Let’s do ‘Oh my Darlin’ Clementine’ again! And how about letting me drive for a while?”

A long time denizen of the Pacific Northwest, scientist, educator, artist, farmer, chicken wrangler, editor & writer at SalishMagazine.org.

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