Sunday, April 16, 2006

Big Dwight

After more than a year at Little Rock Air Force Base, I was well in-the-groove as swing shift supervisor of the Instrument Autopilot Shop. That’s what it was called back in the late 1980s.

A mix of “interesting” characters worked for me — perhaps a dozen or so airmen in all — with a wide range of backgrounds and technical experience.

As “shift boss,” I had a lot of “stuff” on my management plate. Maintenance Control continuously called in aircraft “squawks” and assigned priorities to each; after which, I dispersed my people to work the "write ups," keeping in mind my folks’ capabilities, and personality compatibilities, or more aptly — incompatibilities.

I learned the hard way that it wasn’t worth the hassle of putting certain people together on the same job. I also learned that some individuals required more oversight and supervision than others. I had to be on top of all that, because when they “screwed up,” my bosses considered it MY screw up.

Aside from ensuring that our assigned aircraft systems were quickly and safely repaired, it was also my job to ensure my people maintained all their certifications, complied with all required training, and kept all medical appointments. Most of this stuff took place in the daytime, which of course, complicated my nightshift work schedule. For instance, if someone had training in the day, as a good supervisor, I needed to ensure they had enough rest before the training; and to keep morale up, I was also compelled to provide Compensatory Time Off, as the workload permitted of course.

As military supervisors, we are taught and expected to take care of our people at ALL times, not just while they are at work. This is a 24-hour responsibility, just as ALL responsibilities are in the U. S. armed forces. As daunting and as difficult as it seems, I was supposed to keep tabs on the personal lives of every one of my airmen.

If Airman First Class Jones got arrested for drunk driving, I could expect a phone call, and it could come at inopportune moments, like past midnight on a weekend. That sort of thing happened more than once in my career. This brings to mind the many times I’ve had civilians marvel at, and even mildly rebuke, my relative youth at retirement. My response: I usually suggest to these “uninformed” individuals that before they judge that they FIRST walk-a-mile in my combat boots, well-worn after 27 years of almost non-stop task pressures!

One of the most intriguing airmen on my shift was Dwight Turner. His appearance alone was enough to give anyone pause. He was, and probably still is, intimidating. At over 6 feet, and weighing in at a lean 250 pounds, he could be physically disconcerting. That is UNTIL you got to know him. Dwight was a giant of a black man, and due to his imposing muscular physique and shaved noggin, he bore a remarkable resemblance to “Mister Clean;” BUT he was really just a big Teddy Bear.

Part of what made Dwight fascinating to me was his unexpected personality and unlikely penchants. He spoke so quietly that you were forced to concentrate on his voice to understand him, and he was endearingly self-effacing and courteous. He grew up in the Deep South, Alabama or Mississippi I believe, but he had no discernible accent. He listened to his Walkman a lot, and I was stunned when I learned of his taste in music. It was almost exactly what I liked — groups like Journey, Kansas, The Eagles, and of all things — girl bands, like Bananarama and Heart!

As I already said, I was responsible for my people, and that included helping them to manage their career progression. Dwight studied a lot, and so made Staff Sergeant, or E5, fairly quickly, but he was doomed to making no higher than the next rank of Technical Sergeant, and all because of a simple glaring personal deficiency — Dwight could not drive!

His inability to drive made him a problem for me. As a SSgt, and one of the higher-ranking guys on the shift, he was supposed to be able to step in as driver of our shop’s step van. The driver of this vehicle is normally the second highest-ranking guy on the shift, and driving it was a big responsibility, as well as providing valuable management experience. But, without a drivers license, SSgt Turner would be forever relegated to non-supervisory tasks, and in effect, he would not be able to advance his career in aircraft maintenance.

It was during the time we were both sent on a “Rotation” to England in late 1987 that I got a chance to really socialize with him, and as a result, truly got to know him and to earn his trust. It was then that I told Dwight that I was going to personally ensure that he learned to drive, and as soon as we returned to Arkansas. At the time, we were both drunk, playing darts in a small English pub just outside Mildenhall Royal Air Base; and he became so overwhelmed with gratitude by my declaration that he “overwhelmed” me with a crushing bear hug.

As I said, Dwight was capable of the unexpected, and I learned this was even more likely after he tipped a few. I thoroughly enjoyed this “tipsy version” of him; he was much more open with his feelings, became nonstop talkative, and sometimes quite emotional. You know, I never met anyone who didn’t like the big lug.

I owned the ideal automobile with which to teach big Dwight how to drive — it was a compact, a little brown ’81 Toyota Corolla 4-door sedan. Actually, Dwight was fully capable of driving; according to him however, whenever he had tried to take a road test, he became so nervous that he failed miserably. In his home state, it was even worse, because he was required to parallel park, a skill that became virtually impossible as his brain shutdown from nervousness.

Dwight had about ten years in service when I met him, and he had lived in Arkansas almost that entire time; but I was astonished to learn that he knew next to nothing about the town of Jacksonville. This little city sits just outside the main gate, yet in the many years he had lived on the base, he had almost never strayed off it and into the nearby town. His lack of a car, and his painful shyness made him a virtual prisoner on Little Rock Air Force Base. Learning this further intensified my desire to get him driving.

The first step was to get him a learner’s permit, which was quite easy since all he had to do was take the written test, pass it, and be issued a 60-day learner’s license. He passed the exam with flying colors, and for the next month, I picked him up at the barracks at 6 a.m., before all the heavy traffic hit the roads.

First, I had him drive within the gigantic base commissary parking lot. It was an ideal location for him to learn to maneuver the car around objects, to keep it in his lane, to back up, and to parallel park. Within a week I had him driving all over the base streets, and he soon managed to do so as if he’d been driving for years. At that point, I decided we were ready to pursue the last part of my strategy for him.

As I said, his previous tries had been stymied by an almost neurotic fear that welled up in him when he was expected to perform behind the wheel, especially while submitting himself to the critical assessment of an evaluator. With all that in mind, I felt that I had the answer to conquering his problem.

I had already successfully trained my wife and stepson in the art of driving, and I knew exactly what would happen during the practical driving test. It was rather simple — the driver and evaluator got into the car where it was parked at the police station in a side lot, then the driver backed up, pulled up to a stop sign, turned right into the street, drove around the small block, pulled back into the lot and parked. That was all there was to it — and luckily for Dwight, Arkansas did not require a prospective driver to demonstrate parallel parking skills.

A week before the test, for about a half hour every day, I had Dwight drive the expected routine, until he could have done it with his eyes closed. My goal was to ingrain the task so deeply into his mind that he would be able to perform it, despite the inevitable anxiety he was sure to experience. We must have driven around that block more than a hundred times, but I was sure every lap would be more than worth it.

I picked up Dwight on the morning of his long awaited test day. It was quite cold out, but Dwight was sweating like it was over a hundred degrees. As we drove to the police station, I noticed his hands trembling, and he was quieter than his usual silent self.

I spoke to him encouragingly, like a coach on game day, or like a concerned parent, which is exactly how I felt about all of my people, but even more so about him as we made our way downtown. Keeping my voice even and moderate, I told him: “You know you can do this Dwight. You can do it in your sleep, and you know it. Just stay relaxed and stay confident, okay?”

To fit into my tiny car, he had to push his seat all the way back on its rails, and even then, he barely fit behind the wheel. Just the same, the Corolla’s rack-and-pinion steering, automatic transmission, and small size made it relatively easy for him to drive it. No, the car wasn’t going to prevent him from his goal; it would be Dwight’s own apprehension that he had to overcome.

After all the time and emotion that I had invested in this endeavor, I think I was almost as uneasy as he; but I knew that I had done everything possible. Now, it was up to him.

We parked in the lot, and luckily, we managed to put the car almost exactly in the middle spot from where we had practiced backing out so many times over the last week. Dwight went into the “cop shop” and signed up on that day’s driving test list. We were number four out of about a dozen on the list. We sat in the car and waited. Dwight was pouring sweat and glanced about like a trapped animal. I suggested, “Let’s get out of the car and wait Dwight.”

We got out and watched how the others did, keeping our hands warm in our pockets and protected from the bone chilling cold. It would be an understatement to say that the second driver started off poorly; she backed up and ran into another parked car! There was negligible damage, but I could hardly believe it when the officer allowed her to continue. I laughed and remarked, “See Dwight, you can’t do any worse than her! This is going to be a piece of cake man!”

The third driver was just about finished, and as the teenage boy pulled in and switched off the ignition, Dwight began walking slowly toward my car. I called after him, “Stay relaxed Dwight. You’ve done this a million times.”

He was already behind the wheel by the time the policeman got in and sat down in the front passenger seat. I grinned as he immediately, and almost frantically, rolled down his window. ‘Oops. Dwight must be smelling pretty bad about now!’ I thought. I could see Dwight's hands locked tightly around the steering wheel, his dark skin turned nearly white at the knuckles. I prayed nervously for him and muttered quietly under my breath, "Come on Dwight, keep it together!"

From there it was anticlimactic. Dwight backed out without a hitch, and using his “autopilot mode,” he went through the routine in less than five minutes. I chuckled again, as the cop couldn’t wait to get out of the car, but I was ecstatic to hear him call out a brief congratulations back through the window. When I saw that, I did a mental fist pump.

Dwight squeezed himself out of the Corolla with a huge grin on his face. I shook his hand and slapped his back, feeling like a proud papa. “Dwight, you did it dude! Let’s go man, I’m buying you breakfast at Mickey D’s!”

Already approaching his late 20s, Dwight finally had his driver's license, and with it, he was able to open the doors to newfound independence and personal freedom. Within a year, he bought a new car and moved off base into an apartment. On top of that, he started driving and supervising from the “NOVEMBER 3” Instrument Autopilot van. My “son” was growing up, and the whole world became his oyster. I was proud of him!


Amadeo said...

No relation I suppose to Tina Turner's Ike Turner. HeHeHe.

My son-in-law is also an Army veteran, last served in Germany. Originally from one of the Carolinas, and thus served at Fort Bragg for some time, too.

Ed said...

I tried teaching my Filipina wife how to drive but ended up paying for a private instructor. It was just easier for him to criticize her techniques without jeapardizing our marriage than for me to do so. I must say it was the best money I ever spent.

PhilippinesPhil said...

My first wife seemed hopeless as well. I insisted she practise in a huge empty parking lot every day for three weeks. Eventually, she became a very good driver. The key was keeping her off real streets until she was ready, and even then we started out in traffic only in the early mornings. My little brown toyota with its automatic transmission made it possible for a whole bunch of folks to get their license. I miss that little reliable machine.

Anonymous said...

Great story about Dwight. I knew he finally got his license, cause he drove to my home one day. I never knew you were the one that taught him. CONGRATS Phil, I know that Dwights life had changed for the better just in having your willingness and encouragement to help him. I really miss seeing him.

Nick Ballesteros said...

Oooh. I don't have time to read your Easter post, but I found this one totally entertaining. It is basically the same here in the office. You assign tasks to your colleagues but if they screw up, it's you who has to answer to the higher-ups. Bummer. So I have to keep on the alert and I have even become a virtual secretary for some of my colleagues, constantly reminding them what I have asked them to do! Double bummer.

I also learned to drive quite late in my life because I did not feel the need to learn. But when I did, it was a great feeling, to finally ride an actual car and not on the sofa with a joypad!

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hiya Mike,
Dwight is a cool dude for sure... I just did what any good supervisor should and could have done long before I came along. It's nice knowing I made a difference in a person's life.

Pat Clark says he last saw Dwight in '95. His Lupus was in remission and he was going to go back into the Air Force and finish up his career. I hope that worked out for him.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hiya Wat. Where ya been?

It would be quite easy never to have to drive in the Philippines. I hardly ever drive my car; that's pretty much my wife's vehicle. My scooter is my preferred mode of transport.

The States is another matter however, there are no trikes, buses, or jeepneys. EVERYONE has a car or you're homebound. The best way to stay poor in America is to continue NOT to have a vehicle. With a car comes employment and freedom! No way around it.