Air-Minded: Hijinks & One-Upmanship

Two old, faded photos popped up on the Facebook page of one of my former flying squadrons. The shock of recognition hit me immediately.

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The guy in the first photo is Major Al G______, who flew with the tactical callsign Gorilla. He had just punctured his cheeks with a sailmaker’s needle and was pulling thread through them before passing the needle on to the next guy. Gorilla, and the sewn-together lineup of 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron F-15 pilots in the next photo, were my squadron mates at Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands. The year was 1981, the occasion a formal dining-in at the officers’ club.

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The American Officers’ Club at Soesterberg AB, venue of many morale-boosting events

I was there, and happy enough at the time not to partake in the hijinks. I had a bad feeling about that one and decided instead to cheer my mates on from the bar nearby. A week or two before, we had hosted a Belgian F-16 squadron, and at the end of their stay had thrown them a party at the club. We took the stage and sang rowdy songs; when it was their turn they formed a line … but instead of singing, their squadron commander pulled a curved needle and ball of thread from his flight suit pocket, threaded his cheeks, then passed the needle to the next Belgian pilot in line, and so on. We were floored. And thoroughly one-upped.

So it was no great surprise to any of us who had been at that already legendary party when Gorilla and a few other pilots took the stage at the dining-in and duplicated the feat. The non-pilots and senior staff in the crowd were suitably impressed, as indicated by the fact that our commander suspended dining-ins for the foreseeable future. Gorilla got an abscess in one of his cheeks and had to see the flight surgeon for antibiotics.

During my time at Soesterberg we hosted several NATO flying squadrons, and we ourselves operated out of other NATO bases whenever our own runways or taxiways were being worked on. When we hosted we threw a party for the visiting pilots before they flew home, ditto our hosts for us when we were at their bases. The parties were always rowdy, and always with an element of one-upmanship. Burning pianos. Unlimited booze. Cannon fire. Songs. It was, and probably still is, tradition.

Our spouses were always part of our normal Friday night hijinks at the club. They knew all the dirty songs and loved to sing them with us. But they were not usually along for the parties with visiting units, or when we were away at other bases. There were a few exceptions, though. Our official sister squadron flew Jaguars at RAF Brüggen in Germany, and during my time at Soesterberg we had two wives-included parties with them, one at our base and one at theirs. For the away party, we all drove with our wives to Germany, where we were put up in individual off-base homes with our RAF colleagues and their wives. At the party, things got very rowdy indeed. At one point I looked down to see a senior British officer sucking Donna’s toes under the table, and when I woke up at our host’s the next morning I was wearing an RAF dress uniform, three sizes too small for me. Presumably some Brit woke up wearing mine … in any case, neither of us ever got our clothes back.

The one-upmanship wasn’t always at parties. I once spent a day at Wittmundhafen Air Base in northern Germany, flying dissimilar air combat with Luftwaffe F-4 Phantom II aircrews. My opponents were members of the 71 Squadron, aka the Richthofen Squadron, named after one of their more noteworthy members from the Great War. Between flights I wandered into a little alcove in the squadron building where they’d set up a sort of mini-museum: two glass display cases, one containing Richthofen’s leather helmet, scarf, and gloves; the other containing Hermann Göring’s WWI flying coveralls. I was alone and for a moment it was deathly quiet. Then I heard a step behind me and saw, reflected in the glass in front of me, a Nazi officer in full uniform, peaked hat, jackboots, and monocle, staring at me with disapproval. The bastards had set me up for a surprise, and I’ll never forget it. Not in a vengeful sense … I admired their aplomb and sense of humor, while freely admitting they’d succeeded in scaring the hell out of me.

Another phrase for highjinks and one-upmanship is esprit de corps. And where would we be without it?

© 2018, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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