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Biloxi Days: The Complaint

The first T-28 trainers arrived at Keesler Air Force Base in early 1967. Colonel Slaughter and I arrived in late 1968. Prior to the arrival of the flight training squadron Keesler was primarily an electronics training base — communications, radars, etc. and had their own much larger organization on the other side of the base, far from the flight line.

Prior to the T-28s, there was only a small flight line maintenance operation supporting transient aircraft and some old C-47s and DC-3s. Most of the maintenance was done by experienced civilian mechanics who had been at Keesler for quite some time. As the number of T-28s increased in 1967, however, the additional maintenance workload was handled by mostly Air Force mechanics reassigned from other training bases. This meant that most of the shops which had previously been staffed with just a few civilian mechanics, were suddenly mostly military.

For the first year the experienced civilian shop chiefs kept their jobs as shop chiefs, but when Colonel Slaughter arrived he found it unworkable to have civilians supervising military mechanics so he assigned me the task of reorganizing field/shop maintenance with Air Force specialist sergeants as shop chiefs.

One of the civilian shops was the aircraft welding shop. After months of planning, paperwork and complaining from the civilians, the welding shop was put under military supervision via Technical Sergeant Miller, a master welder and savvy, diplomatic supervisor. When he first became shop chief the welders were civilians. An ordinary industrial welder needed special training and experience to be qualified as an aircraft welder. The only Air Force welder in the shop of six with Miller was a staff sergeant. 

The former civilian welding shop chief, a certain Mr. Broussard, had lost his supervisory position — but maintained his supervisor’s pay grade as part of the deal. He still complained though; he even wrote complaints to his congressman, a second cousin. His cousin initiated more than a dozen "congressionals" after the reorganization; that is, formal demands for explanations the congressman sent to the Air Force in DC from his Southern Mississippi district demanding to know why all the civilian shop chiefs had lost their positions.

As the officer in charge of conducting the reorganization over several months, Colonel Slaughter expected me to write the responses to the congressionals. After I submitted a long and rather technical justification for the reorganization, we didn’t hear any more from the Congressman.

But Mr. Broussard saw me as a source of his demotion and carried a grudge against Sergeant Miller and me as a result.

As a skilled and enterprising welder, Sergeant Miller was making backyard barbecues out of old 55 gallon drums which he cut in half top to bottom, welded on a hinge, some handles and legs and a grate and sold them to other NCOs for $75 a pop. Sergeant Miller didn't make the barbecues on Air Force time but on weekends and evenings. And he didn't use any Air Force materials other than the shop equipment itself and some incidentals like acetylene.

By the time the reorganization was complete, Sergeant Miller was well into his off-duty barbecue manufacturing business. Colonel Slaughter had retired and Major Smith, who had been the Maintenance Control Officer, became my new boss.

Major Smith had been an enlisted man before "bootstrapping" himself through Officer Candidate School and becoming a maintenance officer. By an odd quirk of personnel, when he was an enlisted mechanic he had worked for my Field Maintenance superintendent, Chief Master Sergeant Ralph Johns. Chief Johns did not think Major Smith was a very good technician when he'd been an enlisted mechanic working for Johns and Smith knew of Johns' dislike and resented having Johns — a much more competent maintenance supervisor than himself — telling him how to run the Maintenance Control organization, much less the entire maintenance squadron.

So, as Field Maintenance Branch Chief, I was in the uncomfortable position of being the newbie middleman between these two experienced antagonists, one who I had respect for, Chief Johns, and the other, Major Smith, who I did not respect but was my boss.

The problem came to a head one day when my secretary handed me a stapled collection of papers that the disgruntled civilian, Mr. Broussard, had dropped off. Broussard had taken pictures of Sergeant Miller's off-duty project in various stages of fabrication and delivered his snitch letter to enhance his revenge campaign complaining that Sergeant Miller was illegally using government property for personal gain.

Technically speaking, Mr. Broussard was right. But nobody but Broussard seemed to be bothered by it. I knew several people in the squadron, civilians and Air Force, officers and enlisted, who had purchased Sergeant Miller's barbecues and were happy with them. 

Broussard's complaint struck me as petty and wholly misguided and not worthy of a response. It was early evening by the time I got around to reviewing Broussard's complaint. Nobody else was in the office. I seethed for a few seconds before blurting out, "I'm not dealing with this!" to no one. Then I crumpled up the papers, put them in a pile on my old gray government issue metal desk, got some matches out of my drawer and set them on fire. When the black ashes cooled off, I scrunched them up and scraped them into an empty Pepsi can from out of the trash and threw the can and ashes back into the trash.

At that point, I didn't really care what the implications of my rash decision were.

A couple of weeks later Major Smith’s secretary called my secretary to say I was to report to the Chief of Maintenance office immediately.

When I got there, Broussard was sitting at the conference table in front of Major Smith’s desk. Oh-oh. I knew I had some explaining to do.

"Mr. Broussard here says he filed a complaint with you about Sergeant Miller's off-duty welding activities," said Major Smith.

"He did?", I said, acting surprised. “When was that?"

Mr. Broussard said he brought it to my office a couple of weeks earlier.

"I don't remember seeing it," I lied. “What was it about?"

"I think you know what it was about," grumbled Mr. Broussard.

"No. I didn't see it. Do you have another copy?"

I didn’t think he had any more pictures.

"No, but I could prepare another one without the pictures. Those were the only pictures I had."

"Well, what do you think of Sergeant Miller's barbecue project?" Major Smith asked.

"I don't see much of a problem with it, sir."

"You approved it?"

"I didn't say that, sir. I just said I didn't see much of a problem."

"Miller doesn't have a work order, does he?"

"I don't think you need one for off-duty hours, sir."

"Is there anything in the regs about use of the shops during off-duty hours?"

"Not that I know of, sir. I do know that the paint shop occasionally uses the drying room for special favors for senior officers over on the training side of the base. Nobody complains about that."

"Are there work orders for that?" asked Major Smith, who had been the Maintenance Control Officer before being promoted to Chief of Maintenance.

"I assume that Maintenance Control issues work orders as a favor to those officers, sir."

"Okay,” declared Major Smith, “my decision is that no work is to be done in the Field Maintenance shops without a work order from Maintenance Control."

"Fine, sir. That's what we will tell the officers from the training side who want their special plaques, paint jobs, repairs, and whatever else when they call or show up at the shops with their requests." 

I thought that by invoking the other dubious special requests that I knew Major Smith knew about I might get Major Smith to change his mind. I was wrong.

"That's right, Lieutenant. Maintenance Control will handle it."

I went back to Sergeant Johns’ office and told him that Major Smith had decided that Sgt Miller’s barbecue project was over and that all future non-aircraft maintenance work needed a work order from Maintenance Control.

"Good," said Chief Johns. "I'm tired of doing favors for those asshole officers on the training side. Let Maintenance Control deal with them."

Last I heard, Sergeant Miller had obtained permission from the base motor pool to continue his barbecue project in their welding shop and nobody cared.

At the next Field Maintenance squadron party, Chief Johns set up the barbecue that he bought from Sergeant Miller who cheerfully cooked some very good burgers. And life went on. 

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