Mister, You Wanna Buy This Place?
by Irv Pliskin
I learned to Goldbrick in Nashville.
Our ten hours of flying time was over, and had I been graded on it, I am sure I would have flunked. But no records were kept of the experience. It didn’t even go into my 201 file. I was even with everyone else in that department.
The morning we were to leave for Nashville, Tennessee, which was where we were to be retested and re-evaluated and then told if we were to go to pilot training, navigation or bombardier schools. We packed our barracks bags and carried them down to a six by six truck. The bags were loaded aboard the truck, we marched the mile or so to the train station where we were to board a Pullman train.
One of the strange things that happened on that Southern trip, and could not happen today, is that we were to sleep, two men to a narrow Pullman bunk. No one thought a thing about it.
That Pullman coach and the entire train was absolutely filthy. Littered and dirty, and so old it stank of unwashed bodies, inattention and fecal matter, but we climbed aboard found seats and bunks and waited to to move out. By now we knew the prime rule of the Army: hurry up and wait, wait, wait.
The windows of the car I was in were so encrusted with dirt, that it was impossible to see out. The passing countryside was nothing but a blur. I had never seen that part of world, and was frustrated with the dirty glass, even more than with the condition of the coach. We stopped on a siding, for what was going to be a while. The engine was disconnected and moved away. Knowing we would be there for a bit, I took a wet cloth and went out of the car to clean my windows. I got it done, but I got my ass in a sling, too. (Frankly, I had not remembered this incident, but I recently talked to Ed Phillips, and he reminded me of it. It was a memory that has stayed with him for all these long years.)
One of the non-coms traveling with us took great umbrage at my leaving the train. He chewed me out thoroughly. Fortunately, there was no further repercussion. I could have really been up to my butt in trouble.
We got to Nashville where we were subjected to one of those ignominious things the Army does to people. Up until now we had had the privilege of reasonable toilet and bathroom facilities. The Atlantic City hotel room may have had a small bathroom, but it was used by only six men, and there was a door we could close.
The same was true of the dorms at the University of Massachusetts. Each of the toilets was set in a stall with a door. There was some privacy in those situations. But now, we found ourselves in a huge barracks, with forty men, or so, and the facilities were wide open. Consider a large room with a row of toilets, each about two feet apart. You went with about twenty guys all sitting next to each other. That has a very leveling effect on people.
Within a day of our arrival at Nashville, they started our testing. It is hard now, sixty years later, to remember much of what we did there or many of the tests. Hours were devoted to intelligence and aptitude testing.
There was a full battery of tests that measured hand and eye coordination and much, much more. It was thirty days of testing plus physical workouts. We suffered through manual dexterity tests, psychological tests, Rorschach tests, and very, very intense vision tests. You couldn’t be an Aviation Cadet if you couldn’t see at least 20/20 clearly, or if you were color blind. You had to have absolutely perfect depth perception, too.
These tests were all gut wrenching experiences. You lived with the constant fear that you wouldn’t measure up, that somehow you would fail and be shipped out the next morning. So you worked at it as hard as you could, you toed the line, obeyed the orders and never, ever considered doing anything but what you were supposed to do.
The depth perception test was a humdinger: we had to pull poles in a long, covered tube until they matched, perfectly. If they were off, so were you, off the program and on your way to gunnery school.
Manual dexterity demanded that you rapidly move square boxes in square holes, put thread through needles, and other arcane things---to demonstrate your digital capability.
The ink blot tests were to measure color blindness. Color blind and you were washed out. Interestingly, today it does not matter; color blindness permits a flyer to see through many forms of camouflage. Despite the severity of the tests, I managed to do well in two categories: pilot and navigation. I did not do so well in the bombardier area, but that was okay with me: I had no wish to be a bombardier, no wish at all.
At the end of three weeks of tests, we were ready to be told what we were classified as, and where we might go for further flight training. Ed Phillips and I, he had recovered from pneumonia, and was in the classification process with me, were told that we had been classified PILOT. I was told, further that I had done better on the aptitude test for the Navigator classification, but they needed pilot candidates at that time and I was to go to flight school. Since the redneck instructor in Massachusetts had told me I would never make it as a pilot, and he had managed to convince me, too, I was concerned. I sort of wished they had decided to send me to navigation school, but I was thrilled with the assignment to pilot training. It was a red-blooded American boy’s most exotic dream.
We were to be the Aviation Cadet class of 44-B. That meant, since they designated the months by letter of the alphabet, that all things being equal, if we finished our course we would graduate as pilots and Air Corps officers in February 1944.
However, by the time everyone who was scheduled to go to pre-flight was assigned, there were about 50 of us left over. There was no room for us in pre-flight at Maxwell field, in Montgomery, Alabama.
We would, we were told, be kept at Nashville for a month, and then be among the first assigned to berths at Maxwell Field. We were moved from the barracks assigned to the men to be tested, to casual personnel barracks and put on duty rosters. There wasn’t much choice of assignment: we were fair game to police the area - sweep and clean up, rake, carry trash and do casual menial jobs, or we could spend our time doing KP sweating over mountains of potatoes, onions, or washing dishes and scrubbing pots.
None of those assignments had any appeal at all. So, I volunteered as a typist. I had had typing in high school, and I knew how to put paper into the machine and how to touch type.
So, I got a company clerk to put me on for a day or two. Frankly, I didn’t measure up, and he told me so in no uncertain terms. His orders to me were to report back to my company clerk for another assignment. Somehow, whenever I went to the company, the clerk wasn’t there. I tried. I tried during mess call. I tried before reveille. I tried several times a day, making sure that when I looked in the office the clerk was
I soon realized that nobody cared. So, for almost a month, I spent my time staying out of sight of the people who set the details. I would hide under the barracks: they were raised above the ground on cinderblock foundations, or in the barracks after inspection. Somehow it worked. Somehow I managed to avoid all of the unpleasant details that the other guys were being assigned.
Goldbricking I discovered was an art. I like to think I honed those skills and became an expert at it. After a month of casual labor, or goofing off if you were able to get away with it, we were sent 250 miles to Maxwell field, the preflight training site in Montgomery, Alabama. Once off the train, the pilot training class of 44-C got its first real taste of cadet training. We lined up on the train platform in the hot noonday sun at our usual position of attention. The upper-class men, the cadets who had been there for a month of rigorous training and hazing were to get their turn. We were put at rigid attention: back stiff, hands to the sides, eyes straight ahead, gut sucked in. Nothing, not even the eyes should move. One by one we were subjected to rigorous inspection. One upperclassman stood in front of me.
“Mister,” he bellowed “Do you wanna to buy this place?”
“No,” I muttered, abashed.
“No what?” he roared “No what, mister?”
“No sir,” I said. “No sir.”
“Then, mister, why are you letting your eyes roam all over the place, mister? Keep yourself at attention, don’t let your eyes or anything else move. Understand?”
“Yes sir. Yes sir.”
So it was for all of us. We were marched to our barracks, which were probably fairly new construction. The place had never been finished: it was just 2x4 studs, where walls were supposed to be. The only covering on the studs was the outside walls: they were complete with clapboard and windows. Inside rooms were laid out, with floor sills and 2x4's waiting for plaster or board or whatever. We were assigned bunks in the various areas that would eventually become rooms, and an upperclassman-a cadet officer- called us all to attention and announced loudly and positively pointing to the semi-complete construction: “These are walls men. You cannot see through them, you cannot hear through them, you cannot talk through them. No one can see through these walls. No exceptions. Do you understand you men?”
“Yes sir,” came a chorus of voices. Mine as loud and as accepting as any.
Holy writ in the cadet corps was that real officers, one with bars on his shoulders, should be announced and saluted and revered no matter where or how you see him. Should one walk into a room, the first cadet who spies him is obliged to call "ATTENTION!" and we all pop to. I was hanging my clothing in the wall-less closet and glanced up through the wall I was not supposed to be able to see through, as a first lieutenant, a real first lieutenant, walked into the barracks. He saw me looking at him, and ignoring the fact that he was there. After all, I reasoned, I could not see through those walls. Right? Wrong.
He stormed into our room, somebody else called attention for the barracks, and he confronted me.
“Mister, don ‘t you know how to call attention when you see an officer?”
“No excuse sir.”
How could I tell him that we couldn’t see through the walls, it was obviously my error.
That started my career as a punishment tour specialist. Suddenly, model goldbricker me started getting all sorts of demerits. I was awarded demerits for bed not made well, buttons unbuttoned in the closet, dirt on my shoes, dust on my bunk. Whatever. Demerits meant gigs, and gigs meant punishment tours. A punishment tour took 55 minutes. The punished one marched in full dress uniform in the Alabama sun, at strict attention, around a circle or a crossroad for 55 minutes.
Punishment tours were marched weekends and after evening chow, during the hours others had free Generally, if you had that many, you could get in four a night, eight or ten on a weekend day. Within days of my arrival in Montgomery, I started walking punishment tours. I compiled so many of them, that I thought for sure I would continue walking them right through my training and well into combat.