"The Rules" are twenty-six ideas I've collected over the years that seemed relevant enough to life in general that I've written each down with a short story to reinforce each in particular. This is Rule Number Nineteen.
I first met Marvin in pilot training. He was one class behind me but somehow latched onto me as his new best friend. We are both half Japanese, just a half-inch taller than six feet, about the same build, and both with that cosmopolitan look that makes you wonder, "is this guy Asian or Hispanic?" I remember him when we were both flying the T-37 and that his license plate said "Martian." He called me his lost brother but we ended up losing each other very quickly. We met again in my Hawaii Boeing 707 squadron but it took me a while to figure out who he was. Marvin the Martian had changed. His transformation, I later realized, was a testimony to the powers of laziness.
The promotion rate to captain is 98 percent; nearly everyone gets promoted at this level. The only exceptions are the true misfits who should have never been granted the Presidential Commission in the first place. But it is a ritual, so when it happens you scan the list. When I came upon Marvin Hostetler's name it took me a second to realize this was Marvin "The Martian," the person who thought himself my twin brother. I pushed any thoughts of him aside until he showed up at our Hawaii squadron one day, wearing our squadron patch and the wings of a navigator.
"Eddie!" he said as he extended his hand. "I'm glad I'm not the only nisei in the squadron."
"The squadron is filled with half-Japanese," I said. "But I think we are the only officers."
"Just like old times back at Willie," he said. "I hope I get put on your crew."
It wasn't to be, but we did fly a lot together. In the next few years I got chapter and verse about how unfair the Air Force had been to Marvin. He showed up at Williams Air Force Base one month after me and adapted well to flying the fully aerobatic T-37. "Easy, peasy," he said of his time in the T-37. But he failed three written tests in a row and was thrown out. These "academic washouts" were not uncommon, but the fact he was then sent to navigator training was extremely rare. The academics in nav school, if anything, were harder.
"After three months of pilot training, navigator school was easy," Marvin explained. "I never had to open the books and breezed through the program."
Navigating our squadron EC-135Js wasn't especially challenging and Marvin was, in a word, competent. My only complaint was that he often called me "My brother Eddie," which caused others to think of us a siblings. My grievances increased, however, when I found him in the admin office, reading through my personnel files. "You and I scored almost the exact same SAT scores, Eddie."
"You aren't allowed to go through another officer's records," I said.
"I thought you wouldn't mind," he said.
"You thought wrong," I said.
The normal routine for an aircrew spending a few nights in the Philippines is to visit a few strip bars, find a cheap restaurant, get back to the base and take three showers to get the stink off you. After the first trip I decided it was best to never leave the base and endure the rest of the crew's snide remarks flying to the next destination. Marvin decided he would stay on base with me, which made me think perhaps going off base wasn't such a bad idea.
"I'm too busy to hang out today," I told him on our first morning off. "I have to study for my economics final."
"Why are you wasting your time doing that?" he asked.
"You can't get promoted without a master's degree," I said. "I just assume get a degree in something useful."
"I got that covered," he said. "Let me know when you can come up for air."
"See you at dinner time," I said, knowing I would try to forget to call him. It was common knowledge that the Air Force would make promotion to major easier or harder, depending on personnel shortages. The Air Force, even in 1984, was still winding down its rosters after Vietnam and promotion to major wasn't a sure thing without a master's degree. Some officers found a degree mill in Arizona that would more or less send you a degree if you paid the right amount of cash and followed a cookie cutter recipe of fake exams and term papers. My degree program from the University of Oklahoma required two months of study for each course and a week of class from a visiting professor. Marvin got his degree in three weeks. My effort would take three years, provided I passed each course.
In the years to come I was sent to several schools based on the "needs of the Air Force." Most of those needs were pilot-specific but not all. When it came time to send someone to a three month course in accident investigation, Marvin was eligible but declined. "Why should I do that?" he asked. "It's a lot of work for the same pay. Only a fool would accept that school." I accepted that school.
"Why work so hard when you can work easy?" Marvin said when I started an optional officership school. "If they want you to get that course on your record bad enough, they'll send you."
"What else have I got to do?" I asked. "To do less would be laziness."
"Laziness is an art," he said. "But once you have it mastered, your life will be changed forever."
"Laziness is a sin," I said. But Marvin was bored with our discussion and decided the officer's club had a barstool with his name on it.
Three years later I had my degree and an assignment to another base. I lost track of Marvin until one day he called out of the blue.
"I just got qualified at my new assignment," he said over the phone. "It's one of those jobs I can't talk about, but my promotion to lieutenant colonel is guaranteed."
I knew he had made major, since our names were on the same list. Our class did very poorly for the major's boards and those who didn't make it were thrown out of the Air Force with no pension and no severance. I was surprised he had made it. "That's great, Marvin," I said. "I'm not sure how we can guarantee lieutenant colonel, but if you figured it out that's great."
"Well I can't talk about it, but it is a sure thing," he said. "It costs a lot of money to get this kind of clearance and once you have it, the government can't afford to let you go."
"Do you have a code word clearance, Marvin?" I asked. Silence. Most people with Secret and Top Secret clearances think a "Top Secret" clearance is as high as they go. It is "top," after all. But there are clearances above that level that are so secret, even what they are called is secret. They have code words associated with them, hence the term.
"Oh," he said. "I guess you have one too."
"Seven of them, actually," I said.
"Well I guess your promotion is guaranteed too!" he said. "That's great for both of us."
"I guess so," I said. "I don't mean to be rude, but I have to go. Call back anytime."
Marvin promised that he would do just that, but I never again heard from him. I didn't mention that our squadron required varying numbers of these code word clearances and, even more to the point, our guys got passed over promotion all the time. In our year group, getting promoted to any rank was far from a sure thing.
I was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1993, after fourteen years on active duty. With each step from first lieutenant, to captain, to major, and now to lieutenant colonel the Air Force would publish the full list. I scanned each list at first to see which classmates had made it, and later to see which classmates were still in the Air Force. Amongst pilots the most common reason for a missing name was that the pilot in question punched out for the airlines. For everyone else, navigators included, a missing name meant a pass over. Marvin's name was not there.
Our class was treated poorly by circumstance. Two-thirds of our class was thrown out before commissioning as the Vietnam War ended just as we were due to become officers. A full third of us who started pilot training did not complete the program to get our wings, the Air Force reduced the number of cockpits sharply. Those who didn't make major were shown the door without a dime for their troubles. But the rudest shock were for those who didn't make lieutenant colonel. Because of the various personnel draw downs we came up for lieutenant colonel at the fourteen year point. Those who didn't make it got a second chance at the fifteen year point. The rule said if you failed promotion twice before seventeen years you had to get out. For those it meant that many years in uniform with no pension or severance. For the pilots it meant an early job search with the airlines. For the navigators it meant unemployment. For Marvin, it was a clear demonstration that laziness has its consequence.
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