"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.

— James Albright




The original rule number nineteen was: “There are greater sins than laziness, but laziness is a sin.” I wrote that in 1993 because it was the rule I needed at the time. But in the years that have since gone by, I have come to think if laziness is a problem, a short story is unlikely to cure the problem. Why are some people naturally lazy and others not? I think the reason may be more about motivation or having a purpose in life. So now I have a new Rule Number Nineteen:

“To serve, one must be of service. To be of service, one must serve.”

1 — “I do solemnly swear”

2 — “Self-Induced Elimination”

3 — “To Serve”

4 — “Thank you for your service”

5 — Going to battle, outside of combat

6 — To serve, to be of service.



“I do solemnly swear”


My mom and my wife do the honors

In 1974, at the ripe old age of 18, I made the following “oath of enlistment” to the United States Air Force, as part of my Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) college scholarship:

“I, (state your name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

This is the same oath administered to any individual enlisting in any U.S. military service. I thought it was just another step in the process to becoming an Air Force pilot and didn’t think much of it until four years later. After I graduated from Purdue University with a degree in engineering and from ROTC as an officer candidate, I took the following oath to become a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force:

“I, (state your name), having been appointed a (rank) in the United States (branch of service), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the office upon which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

During our last academic class in ROTC, we were asked to examine the oath we were about to take and discuss its meaning and how it would impact our future lives as officers. Most of us were about to graduate as engineers and none of us had much to offer of much substance. The lone history major in our group added something our text had failed to mention. “Officers and enlisted personnel took the same oath when the law was first written in 1790. They became different in 1862, during the civil war.”

As if on cue, our instructor handed us a copy of the oath we had taken earlier, as enlisted personnel, to go along with the oath we were about to take as officers. “How are they different?”

“Officers are appointed,” most of us noticed right away.

“By whom?”

“The President of the United States.”

“Yes,” our instructor agreed. “Keep reading.”

“The enlisted obey the President and the officers appointed over them, officers do not,” I offered.

“You don’t obey anyone?” the instructor countered.

“The constitution,” somebody said.

“Try again,” the instructor said.

“God,” someone else said.

“Yes,” the instructor said.

“What if you don’t believe in God?” our class atheist asked.

“Even if you don’t,” the instructor said, “as an officer you must have a sense of right and wrong. As an enlisted person, you obey the orders of your officers, without question. That may seem like we are giving you officers a lot of power. You tell the troops, ‘take that hill,’ they have to take that hill. Even if it means certain death. But it isn’t a lot of power, it is a lot of responsibility.” He let that sink in.

“So we obey ourselves?” I asked.

“You do what is right,” the instructor said. “As officers, you are required to apply a litmus test to every order you give as well as receive. Is it legal, moral, or ethical? If it isn’t, you not only do not have to obey it, you must not obey it. Your obligation is to do what is right.”

“So we are serving ourselves?” I countered.

“We are serving the nation,” the atheist said. “And we are using our internal moral compass to decide how to do that.”

“Bingo,” said our instructor.

I wasn’t so sure. The idea of sending “troops” that were obligated to follow my orders to certain death was more than I could fathom. I was fully prepared to die for my country, as part of my military service. But to send others? I turned 22-years old later that month. A month later I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. I know lots of second lieutenants my age had gone off to war and had to order their troops to “take that hill.” I was headed for Air Force pilot training. It was a thought I had the luxury of setting aside for another day.


“Self-Induced Elimination”


T-37 flight line, Williams AFB, 1979

We started pilot training on January 2, 1979, with 77 pilot candidates; most of us were second lieutenants. Our group was divided into two sections, called flights. “No Loss” flight started with 38 candidates and the first month was in a classroom. Every seat was taken. After two weeks, we started noticing more and more empty seats. “What happened to Lieutenant Wilcox?” “He’s no longer with the program. We don’t need to talk about that.”

On January 15th, two T-38’s collided during formation training. All four pilots survived. I was surprised that it wasn't mentioned to us students at all. I only knew about it because a Purdue alumni, a few years ahead of me, had called to say hello and told me about it.

On January 29th a T-38 with a fully qualified crew ran out of gas, both pilots ejected and the aircraft crashed without killing anyone on the ground. Our instructors made a big deal of it, using it as an example of how even the simplest detail (having enough gas) can be critical. “That makes three in one month,” another instructor said. “What?”

Later that month, we lost a T-37 but the details were sparse. Before the month was over, another T-37 had a severe electrical system fire that filled the cockpit with smoke. The student pilot was able to land the aircraft by blowing the canopy using explosive charges and sticking his helmeted head outside the cockpit. He became an instant celebrity on base.

We finished academics in early February and reported to our flight room with considerably fewer pilots. “What happened to Lieutenant Grimly?” “He’s no longer with the program. We don’t talk about that.”

Our first check ride was called “contact,” meaning it was the check ride that evaluated our ability to fly the T-37 in contact with the world, not in instrument conditions. We had to demonstrate proficiency solo, aerobatics, and traffic pattern operations. We lost several candidates to spins and a few more to not being able to negotiate an overhead traffic pattern. Each of these losses were easily explained, but there were still losses that “we don’t talk about.” No matter the reason, when a candidate washed out, his or her seat was removed from the flight room. We were not permitted empty seats for others to fear.

I passed that check ride while the other candidate assigned to my instructor did not. The morning after his failure I sat at my normal table next to an empty spot where a chair used to be. The instructor approached, I stood at attention, and he gestured for me to be seated. He looked at the empty spot and shook his head. “Rest in peace,” I said. “At least went in battle,” the instructor said. “Better than an SIE.”

“A what?”

“A Self-Induced Elimination,” he answered. “It usually happens when a candidate gets scared and refuses to fly anymore. I can see trying and failing; at least you tried. But to SIE? You took an oath, you volunteered. It is your duty to go through with the program. It is the service, after all.”

And that bit of secret knowledge, withheld from us candidates, revealed the mystery of all the missing seats. They got scared. I could hardly blame them for that. Not everyone is cut out to strap into an ejection seat where things seemed to go wrong on a regular basis. “The service,” I knew, referred to any of the military services. But I usually connected that to the Army and maybe the Navy. But it was a thought for another day.

In May that year, Bob Dylan released a song called “Gotta Serve Somebody” which includes the lyrics:

You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody's landlord you might even own banks
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You're gonna have to serve somebody

Our class graduated from the T-37 to the sexier T-38 with our ranks thinned considerably but with renewed confidence. “Most of the losses are in the T-37,” we were told. “But you are pilots now, you know what you are doing.” We lost four more candidates to the traffic pattern and one more to the dreaded SIE. In July I was flying solo when one of my engines failed. I got the airplane home, was assigned another aircraft, and I pressed on. Later that month we lost a T-38 because its electronic yaw damper failed and turned the aircraft into a corkscrew. The pilots made it out but were injured. In August one of my classmates with an instructor mis-diagnosed a sudden jerk of the aircraft in the roll axis to be a failed yaw damper. They ejected from a perfectly good aircraft. The next day there was another missing seat that “we don’t talk about,” but it wasn’t the student from the perfectly good aircraft which ended up a smoldering wreck in a California desert.


“To Serve”


Sarajevo airport

Fifteen years and five aircraft types later, I was the commander of a squadron tasked with flying into Sarajevo, Bosnia while the approach path was under the control of enemy Serbians equipped with anti-aircraft guns and Surface-to-Air Missiles. I flew the first sortie in and started assigning crews to do the following missions. At first, we sent only our top pilots and then had them train the next crop of pilots. Things were going smoothly but aircraft from other squadrons were getting hit, about once every two months. In our third month of operations, one of the pilots assigned to the mission knocked on my door. “Can I have a moment, sir?”


“I can’t go to Sarajevo, sir,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I didn’t sign up to get blown out of the sky, sir.”

“But that’s exactly what you signed up for,” I said. “Service to your country isn’t just the glamorous part of wearing those wings. Your service is to fly the missions assigned to you. I am ordering you to fly the mission.”

“I can’t do that, sir,” he said. And then, steeling his nerve, “I won’t do that, sir.”

I thought about it for about a minute. I was ordering him to “take that hill.” While his chances of survival were very good, they were not one-hundred percent. Here was an officer in my command, refusing my order. My order was legal, moral, and ethical. What to do?

“I now have what I need to strip you of your rank, send you up for a court martial, and see that you end up in prison with a dishonorable discharge. And I might do that. But I’ll give you another option. I have the luxury of having enough pilots willing to serve their country honorably who will fly the mission. I don’t see the value of ruining your life because you are not willing to serve your country as you took an oath to do. If you resign your commission today, you can walk out that door and I wish you well. But you will have to live with that decision.”

“Thank you sir,” he said. “I will go to personnel right now and resign my commission.”

That was 1995. I imagine this young man who once had an Air Force commission is now an airline pilot or has made a success of himself out of uniform. While he served in uniform for a few years, he was not of service.

I retired from the Air Force four years later, after twenty years of service. My oath of commission was intact and the piece of paper that granted me that retirement said my service was honorable. But I still wasn’t sure what that meant.


“Thank you for your service”


Arlington National Cemetery

In the year 2010, the U.S. had been at war in Afghanistan for nine years and I had been a civilian for ten. The only outward sign of my military service, I think, were my veteran license plates. I was at a local gas station that year, standing by my truck, when someone pulled alongside and rolled down her window. Now what?

“Thank you for your service,” she said.

“It was my pleasure,” I said.

My pleasure? Nobody had ever thanked me for my service before and this was a novel experience. At the time, I felt embarrassed by my answer. I’ve known more than a few people killed during their service. I’ve been shot at a few times. The twenty years in uniform came at some psychological cost to me and everyone that knows me. Pleasure was the wrong word. But service is the right word.

I thought also about those I knew who decided along the way service was not for them and they bowed out at the first opportunity. They also served their country, but they were not of service to their country when the time required it.


Going to battle, outside of combat



Typical of many ex-military men and women, I tend to throw in a little military jargon at times. This can lead to some confusion if the context isn’t clear, so I try to avoid that. Most who work with me will be familiar with the following scenario. We would be given a trip that required a lot of planning and coordination that just couldn’t work as the requesters had envisioned. After a lot of back-and-forth, we would come up with a solution that should work. If someone were to say that we had done as good a job as possible with the plan, I would say:

“No plan survives the enemy.”

The first time someone unfamiliar with the saying hears that, the tamest reaction would be to smile and ignore the comment. But now and then someone would reply, “we aren’t at war and there are no enemies here.”

Good point, well made. Or is it? I think of the enemy as “they,” or anyone who isn’t “us.” The enemy is chance, circumstance, or any unforeseen obstacle. The point of the saying is to not get rattled when the plan falls apart, rather anticipate that and be ready to react. That got me to thinking about the word service. The dictionary definition is, “the action of helping or doing work for someone.” The definition doesn’t mention the military at all. Can you be of service outside the military?

Years later, as an international charter pilot, I spent a lot of time seeing my careful plans fall apart when the enemy of chance and circumstance blew those plans into pieces. No matter, that is part of the job. But in one of my companies a particular dispatcher – let’s call her Debbie, because that was her name – always seemed to be waiting in the wings with Plan B, C, D, and so on. A few years later, I was working for another company with dispatchers who couldn’t come up with Plan A, much less any contingencies. When pushed to the limit, I called Debbie who was ready with a solution. I usually apologized for waking her about a problem that wasn’t part of her job and she always ended the conversation, “it was my pleasure to be of service. Call anytime.”

To be of service. She was most definitely that.


To serve, to be of service.

Over the years Debbie has come to my rescue more times than I can count, and I am just one of many who she has rescued. Her job description is to schedule, plan, and flight follow. In short, she serves the needs of our crews. But more to the point, she remains of service because she is always ready to serve.

Rule Number 19 used to address laziness because that was at one time an issue for me. I think it stopped being an issue a long time ago. Now, thirty-one years after I penned Rule Number 19 it has changed:

To be of service, one must serve. To serve, one must be of service.

Oh yes, I have settled on a more appropriate answer to the “Thank you for your service” statement of appreciation:

“It was my honor to serve.”

And it was.