My post last month about being in basic training has brought some of the old stories from that period of my life back into my fore-brain. I have already explained what a Dorm Chief was, but that was, by no means, the only billet to which an Airman Basic might aspire. By far, the most ignoble of these assignments was "Chow Runner." This lofty billet was generally assigned, assuming your Training Instructor (TI) had a malicious sense of humor, to one of the more portly trainees. Sgt. Miles certainly qualified as malicious, if not particularly humorous, so I probably do not need to tell you who was awarded the Chow Runner billet in my flight, do I?
The Chow Runner's duties were pretty simple. Basically, anytime the flight was marched to the chow hall, the Chow Runner would leave the formation at the TI's command ("Chow Runner, Out!" for the curious) and trot on ahead to the chow hall. Once there, he would walk in and report to an Airman at a desk from the squadron OD office that the flight was ready for chow. The proper form for this is to snap to attention and bellow, "Sir, flight 124 reports for chow!" If there weren't any TIs around you wouldn't actually have to do that, but that's what you were supposed to do. (The Airman from the OD's office wasn't a TI, so he didn't give a shit.) The Chow Runner would then get from this person the position that the flight would occupy in the line, (Following such-and-such other flight, for instance) and a (usually pretty accurate) estimate of the time that one could expect this to occur. The Chow Runner then went back outside and reported to the TI. Something on the order of "Sir, we are assigned to follow flight 341 at approximately 1214." Then your flight would stand in formation getting chewed out for whatever it was that was making your TI unhappy that day until it was your turn to enter the building and go through the line, which, I promise, does wonders for your digestion.
Being as there were upwards of 20 flights in a Basic Military Training Squadron, mealtimes were a complex dance with no time for wasted motion. I don't know if I would go so far as to say that this system was the most effective possible, but it seemed to work pretty well, and I was certainly in no position to argue the point.
What I have described so far was the way it worked for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was a little different. For breakfast, the Chow Runner just hikes over to the Chow Hall from his dorm at about the same time every morning and gets a time assignment for that day.
For the next part of our exciting tale, an understanding of our physical environment will be helpful, so I have painstakingly drawn a crude representation of one of the 1000 man dorm buildings that we lived in. The building itself was shaped something like a square mushroom, designed in that lovely shit-a-brick style of architecture that the military is so fond of. The larger, upper level contained the dorm facilities proper, where we slept and showered and all like that there. Each flight had it's own self contained dorm, with 2 bays of bunks, each bunk with a locker behind it, a day-room (that, naturally, we weren't allowed to inhabit during the day) and a large bathroom with showers, sinks, toilets, and urinals. The lower level of the building, the "stem" of the mushroom, so to speak, had the squadron offices, classrooms, the physical plant and the Mess Hall. Keep in mind that this is a large building. I never knew the exact dimensions, but each side of the lower level was on the order of 500 feet. Note also that the upper level forms a sort of awning around the lower level, which is nice when you are in formation waiting for meals or whatever on a rainy day.
In the drawing, the X with a circle shows the location of the entrance to the staircase leading to my particular dorm in relation to the rest of the building. I have also marked the entrance and exit doors to the chow hall on the drawing. These two doors figure prominently in the rest of this story, so note their positions well.
Okay, so now that we have all that out of the way, back to breakfast. As I said, my job was to hike over to the desk at the mess hall entrance and get the time for us to report to breakfast and then come back and tell the Dorm Chief the time. (Sgt. Miles didn't show up till after breakfast after the first week or so. Can't say I blame him.)
Now, refer carefully to the drawing. It's plain to see that I have a choice in my route. It's February and the sun is not up. I can either walk in the dark and cold around 2 corners of the building, to the chow hall entrance, (something like 1000 feet or so) or I can walk 50 feet to the chow hall exit and make the main part of the journey in the warmth and light. It's 5:30 in the morning. There's nobody in the dining room part of the Mess Hall except the guy from the OD office and Chow Runners from the various flights.
Let me share with you an awful truth about myself. If there's a hard (albeit correct) way to do something and an easy (but unauthorized) way, I'll take the easy way every single time. This fact has gotten me in trouble upon various occasions in my life, but I've never allowed that to discourage me from the practice. As it happens, I never got busted for going in the exit door at breakfast time, so that's not what this story is really about. It's just important to remember that I was accustomed to using my "short cut" into the mess hall.
Each flight in a squadron has a "sister" flight that is in the same "day of training" so that, for activities that can accommodate 100 or so trainees at a time, they can be combined. Also, there is a (more or less) friendly rivalry between sister flights.
Our story, proper, begins on the occasion of our first "wet fire" exercise at the shooting range. Now, the Air Force doesn't have an infantry, so none of us were destined to be riflemen, but they do like you to be able to let off a few rounds from an M-16 without shooting yourself in the foot just in case, so there are three days of training at the firing range during Basic Training. The first day is for familiarizing yourself with the weapon and the rules and so forth and then the second and third day you actually use live ammo. These are called "dry-fire" and "wet-fire" respectively. This was one of those occasions where we joined our sister flight for training. The range was a longish march from our squadron area, and on the way back, Sgt. Miles foolishly challenged the TI of our sister flight to a race. Since few things are sillier than a race between marching formations, I believe his actual motivation was the fact that we were a little behind schedule and needed to get back in time for lunch. Be that as it may, he seemed to be taking it seriously, so we were chugging right along toward our building.
There's no real way to speed up a marching formation besides lengthening your stride, which will make even teenagers tired after awhile, but we were all feeling pretty cheerful after having banged away with rifles all morning, so we didn't really mind the pace too much. As we turned the corner onto the street where our building was located, it was very obvious that we were destined to lose the race with our sister flight, and none of us were looking forward to the ass-eating that would inevitably follow.
Our route to the mess hall entrance, however, led directly past the mess hall exit. As we passed by, unseen by Sgt. Miles at the head of the column, I dropped out of the formation and ducked into the exit. Moments later, I heard Sgt. Miles hollering "Chow Runner, out!" I admit to a momentary panicky feeling about whether he was going to find the situation quite as humorous as I did, but I figured I was committed, so I tried to make myself inconspicuous as I walked along the wall of the crowded mess hall in the wrong direction toward the desk at the entrance. I reported in just ahead of the Chow Runner from my sister flight, who did not look amused, but I didn't care as I never liked him anyway.
In the meantime, my flight had made it to the entrance and was waiting for me when I came out to report. I gave Sgt. Miles the "Sir, we are assigned to follow flight blah-blah at approximately blah-blah" routine with a straight face. I thought I could detect the slightest quiver at the edge of his mouth, as if he were finding it difficult not to smile, but I'm honestly not sure. A few feet away I could hear our sister flight's Chow Runner telling his TI that they were to follow us. Now, there was a man that was not amused. I've often wondered whether Sgt. Miles would have jumped my shit over my leaving formation without orders if the other TI hadn't come over and tried to do it for him, but he just gave the other TI the stink eye and told me to get back in formation. I spent the rest of the day kind of braced for an explosion, but Sgt. Miles never mentioned the episode, that day or ever, and I was certainly not going to bring it up.
In my best-selling memoir, I will call this "the story of the man who was too lazy to lose."