Many moons ago, I worked in a one-room office on the outskirts of Griffiss Air Force Base in upstate New York. Don’t look for Griffiss anymore. It’s long gone.

It was my first year in the Air Force and my first official duty assignment. My annual take-home was $6,000.

I was issued a parka upon my arrival in January 1975 and during the biting cold winters there, I wore that parka religiously with only my eyes exposed. You had to. I grew up in Maine and I never saw snow storms and cold like in upstate New York.

Our office room was rectangular. Probably 10 x 20 feet and that’s being generous. One door to go in and out. No windows. There were eleven of us in the room. All guys. Our Colonel was on active-duty retirement. There were only 3 actual desks, situated together in one corner. The Colonel sat next to the doorway, buffered by his newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant and his seasoned non-commissioned Master Sergeant. The other 8 of us were relegated to what seating was left. Find a chair and a counter space or table.

Cabin fever reached a pitch at more than one point. Except for major exercises twice a year, we didn’t have much work to do. Not officially. We were sometimes tasked with extra duties like painting walls and shoveling snow, but for the majority of the time, we were bored. Cabin fever was a staple for us.

We drove the Colonel crazy with our antics. Penned up people yields pent-up acting out. And we were a pretty funny bunch – I’ll give us that.

The Colonel admonished us regularly about being prompt answering our one office phone which was situated prominently on the Colonel’s desk next to his heavy glass ashtray. In those days, smoking in the office was just accepted, so he rarely left his chair. He would only leave to go to the bathroom, so he screened 99% of the calls.

It was a chatty office. We routinely butted in on conversations we weren’t invited into just because we were so sandwiched, we couldn’t avoid hearing each other. Sprinkle cabin fever into the mix and you can see why our desperately suffering Colonel came up with the idea of a secret calendar that was posted directly underneath our official wall calendar.

The secret calendar was used during the slow months. Each week, we were all allowed to take one day off. A 4-day work week. Every week. Sanctioned by the boss just so we wouldn’t drive him crazy.

We were allowed other “benefits” as well.

Long lunch hours.

We could play table football and chess all we wanted. We were so advanced in table football, we’d bookended two long tables together length-wise and waxed the tops. We didn’t have to use hand formations to form goalposts – we’d built some. I learned to play chess. Everyone in the office played. Even the Colonel liked getting in on the chess games. In my first tournament, I got creamed. But I learned a lot, too.

We listened to a lot of relatively commercial-free FM radio, which in the 70s, consisted of dreamy-voiced soft-spoken DJs who would play 30 minutes of music before calmly running through the credits of who they’d just showcased.

On occasion, one co-worker named Andy brought in a tinny little record player and would play his old 45s from his personal collection.

While we could be boisterous, there were quiet times as well, usually in the afternoon. Individuals had their own goals. Jim wanted to memorize 2000 Bible verses. Dave was completing his degree. Doug was into theater. Etc.

Next door to us sat a more senior Colonel who was due to retire. He had his own personal Air Force secretary. Diane.

Diane did the work of six people, despite the fact that her Colonel was well past his prime and got in her way all the time.

Diane needed to have a hip replaced. 6 months convalescence. They needed a replacement for her. A typist, among other things.

Her Colonel came into our small shop and looked at all our young faces.

“I need a volunteer.”

We searched each other for a clue. Hmm. What could this be about?

“Does anyone know how to type?”

I raised my hand immediately. A scout is truthful among other things.

With my arm up in the air, I turned to look at my co-workers. No other hands had gone up. Just mine.

Diane’s Colonel said, “Okay, I guess we have our volunteer. Come with me.”

I followed him into his office and he told me Diane would need me to fill in for her.

I protested that I had a guaranteed job. That that wasn’t street legal.

The Colonel looked at me with slight exasperation and explained that even though I had a guaranteed job, it was still legal to put me in another career field temporarily.

I found out Diane’s job wasn’t as easy as she made it look. It wasn’t all roses, kids. Not by a long shot. Nowadays computer templates spit things out by pressing a key, but back then, everything was hand-done. They hadn’t even invented word processors yet.

Every day, I had to go to meet the head admin woman at the command center to pick up mail bundles and document changes. She was a Master Sergeant nearing the end of her career. She was seasoned. My first few visits with her were tense. I don’t think she liked me. She turned, though. I think she felt sorry for me. I think she took pity on me because she saw I’d been thrown into the situation against my will.

She schooled me in document changes. If a page changes in a document today, you reprint the whole page after you fix it or you get a whole new document. Back then, it was “pen and ink” changes. In other words, you hand-wrote adds, changes and deletions in the margins using arrows and legible handwriting. My penmanship has always been on the D- level, so the required legible handwriting was a challenge.

My biggest pain was typing performance reports. The typewriter was electric with a modern letter-ball vs. hammers to type the letters.

Enlisted performance reports were on white forms. For an enlisted person, a typo correction was allowed using either a little spot of white-out liquid or actually erasing the errant keystroke with an ink eraser. The coarse ink eraser was not worth the trouble because you could rub a hole through the paper if you weren’t careful.

The officer forms were worse. They were on blue paper. 4 copies with carbon sheets placed between. No mistakes allowed. You couldn’t correct anything on the blue paper and especially on the carbon copies underneath. I had many a frustrating day getting literally all the way to the end of the last sentence on the blue forms and hitting the wrong key.


Rip it all out and start over.

I got so nervous about this process that my fingers trembled the moment I loaded the blue forms into the typewriter. I acted partially paralyzed, painstakingly hitting one key at a time, pausing and triple-checking myself as I went.

My frustration level was high and it was made higher by the fact that the closeness of our offices allowed me to hear all my former teammates smoking and joking next door like I didn’t exist. Plus I had months to ponder that moment where I raised my hand. I knew for a fact at least half of my comrades knew how to type. They were happy to let me take one for the team.

Then one sunny afternoon, I happened upon a regulation that I had to do a pen and ink change for. The regulation covered the restrictions on temporary duty assignments. In bold black and white, I discovered that I could only be removed from my guaranteed job for a maximum of 180 days.

On day 180, without any previous heads up, I proudly marched next door into my old duty section and showed my enlisted Master Sergeant boss the paragraph that restricted my temporary duty.

“I want to be back on my team and this reg says you have to do that.”

My senior NCO didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t even laugh in my face.

He did smile, though.

He read over the reg and said, “Well, you got me there.”

He nodded calmly, dragged on his cigarette, and told me to report to work the next day to do my guaranteed job.

I went home that night victorious. Screw you, man. Bet you didn’t think I actually read those regulations, did you?

I came back to work the following morning and it was like old times. Back in my old digs. Smoking and joking with the blokes. Radio turned up.

The day after that, I came in again with a spring in my step and my senior NCO stopped me in the hallway in front of Diane’s door.

“Okay, so you’ve been back in your guaranteed job for a day. Now you can go back to your temporary duty for up to another 6 months.”

I was lucky. Diane came back within a couple months of my comeuppance. When I look back on subbing in Diane-land all those months, the honest part of me is reminded it wasn’t all for naught. When I could block out my co-workers cavorting in the next room, I ended up having a lot of time for meditation. Rather than devolving into stir-crazy, I began writing in earnest. I wrote 2 not very good short stories during my tenure. And I started writing scenes for my first-ever full-length play WORKING MAN. The seeds had sprouted.

But I also learned some critical lessons.

Primarily that being right ain’t always enough.

But most important, NEVER volunteer.

There’s a reason they say that.

Although I present this as a cautionary tale, I’m probably being harsh saying you should never volunteer. There are many things I’ve volunteered for over the years that benefited me and others ten-fold.

But when it comes to volunteering to type?

Keep those arms down by your side.


Do not put that hand up.