2. Get a haircut! [Dec. 1971]

Get a Haircut

Dec. 21, 1971

The engraved brass nameplate on the heavy door read:  Col. James G. Cullen – Base Commander. I sat in the stiff leather chair directly across the room from the door, waiting for it to open and the Colonel to call me in, listening to the airman at the desk beside the door pound away on his old Smith-Corona. My nervous mind jumped with the pop of the keystrokes as the typist drove each letter through five layers of paper, and my palms sweated against the smooth hard surface of the chair arms.

I silently rehearsed the short speech I had been planning and re-planning for days. It should be a very routine “Lt. Eden reporting for duty, sir!” snappy-salute and sent-on-my-way kind of thing, but I had a little more to say today than I figured the Colonel would be expecting, and I knew that how it came off today could be a critical factor in the direction of my life for the next few years – in fact, up to the next seven or so years.

I straightened the dark tie and checked my shoes and the crease in my pants. It was strange to be wearing the blues after all that time in the war wearing pretty much nothing but flight suits. The wool pants were scratchy and uncomfortable, the tie constricting my neck. I was trying to look my best, at least. I didn’t wear the full dress uniform, that would have been too much. Just the blue shirt and tie and the little light jacket we usually wore with the 1545’s. But it was all legal uniform, I didn’t want to push any buttons. Not with what I had to say.

I found myself staring at the black phone on the attendant’s desk. The airman had used it to announce my arrival to the Colonel, so maybe he would call me in by phone. My eyes went back and forth between the nameplate and the airman at the typewriter, wondering which would begin this little scene, and wondering if I would after all have the guts to go through with it.

I rubbed my palms together and swallowed, hoping my throat would cooperate. I could feel the sweat beginning to soak my tee-shirt, and my belly was quivering slightly. I had been feeling pretty jazzed and ready for the encounter when I walked in today, but the longer I sat waiting, the harder the prospect of facing the Colonel seemed. I rubbed my eyes and cleared my throat to steel my resolve and glanced out the window at the far end of the room to calm my nerves. Not much to see out there. A hint of grass, a gravel drive, and across the way, dull in the flat December light, a typical old military building, a plain utilitarian structure with narrow eaves and one obligatory window.

My mind was drifting back to time served at this particular installation, a month in the summer of the previous year, when the ring of the telephone brought me back to the present. The young airman picked it up instantly, said “Yes-sir” twice, hung it up and turned to me, eyes downcast. “Colonel says you should go in now,” he mumbled and went back to his typing without looking at me or waiting for my acknowledgment.

I stepped to the door and knocked. “Just go on in,” the airman said as he typed.

I opened the door gingerly and stepped into a large, stuffy room. The Colonel sat at his desk across the room, his back to the room’s only window. He was reading something on his desk and didn’t look up as I entered. I closed the door slowly, and walked briskly to his desk, came to attention, brought up my best attempt at a snappy salute, and said, “Lt. Eden reporting for duty, sir!” Playing the part, trying to look sharp and sound respectful, enthusiastic.

The Colonel looked up slowly, gave the standard Colonel’s version of a salute, and as I snapped my hand down, said, “Welcome to England Air Force base, Lieutenant.” A bit flatly, I thought. Oh boy, here goes.

“Thank you, sir. I’m afraid you may not welcome me much when I’m done.”

“Oh no? Why’s that Lieutenant?”

Is he toying with me? I wonder. Something in his voice. Not quite right. Almost taunting.

I’m really sweating now. Thrown off my game plan a little. I shouldn’t have said that about not being welcome. Wasn’t in my script. “Well, sir, I…” I think about punching out, abandoning this foolish idea, recanting, making some excuse for the remark. But I’m in it now.

“Sir, I can’t do what I’m assigned to do here, I…”

“What? You can’t? What do you mean you can’t? You don’t really have a choice, son. What is it you’re here for, IP for the TEWS, right?”

“Yes, sir. That’s right. I’m supposed to be an EC-47 instructor. I just got back from the war flying with the three-sixty-second TEWS.”

“So what’s the problem? Seems pretty simple to me, you just teach them to do what you’ve been doing. Where’s the problem with that? What do you want to do?” He seems a little testy now, face is a bit red, a definite edge to his voice.

“Well, sir, I…” I gulp for air, can’t remember a word of what I’d planned to say. It was pretty sweet and simple I thought, but I’m lost now. “I applied for discharge because I don’t believe in the war, I applied while I was over there, and they turned me down, but I still feel the same way. I’m not going to kill anymore. They said I didn’t have a bad enough record but I still don’t believe in the war, and I’m not going to do anything else to help it out. I still want out.”

The Colonel is just looking at me now, not saying anything. He actually seems a little nervous himself now, trying to control himself.  I look down at the floor and back up at him. “I’m… I’m not going to do anything else for the Air Force, sir. You can do whatever you have to with me, but I’m not doing anything else.”

Colonel Cullen looked down at the papers on his desk and back up at me. He smiled.

“Zip up your jacket, go get a haircut, and trim your mustache, Lieutenant. Then you come back to see me and we’ll see what we’re going to do with you.”

“Yes, sir.” I stood looking at the Colonel, not knowing what to do next, trying to grasp what he had just said, feeling confusion, fighting anger. He was looking at me with exasperation, maybe even disgust. I looked down at my jacket – it was zipped up only a couple of inches from the bottom. Then I remembered the reg: ‘jacket must be zipped at least halfway up at all times’- something like that. I pulled the zipper up to halfway and looked at the Colonel.

“Dismissed, Lieutenant!” He looked down at the desk again.

“Yes, sir!” I slowly brought up a salute.  The Colonel dismissively waved his hand in a  half-salute without looking up at me. I turned and walked out of the office, my heart pounding and tears forming in my eyes, feeling like I might throw up.

‘Zip up your jacket’? –  I tell him I won’t kill anymore and that is his response to me? ‘Get a haircut’?