My first encounter with Major Hensel was a year and a half earlier, when he was still a Captain. He came to the evaluation room and asked me if I’d be kind enough to show him the procedures I used in compiling the scores I had given him on his last practice bombing run. I said I’d be glad to.
He was spiffy his Class A blues, a three-row array of campaign ribbons below his silver Navigator’s wings, and shiny parallel silver bars on his epaulets. His service cap’s eagle officer’s device gleamed in the fluorescent lights.
I pulled out the can of 35 mm film that had recorded his mission, and I opened a fresh aeronautical chart of his assigned target. He watched as I made several plots of his course from the IP, or Initial Point. The plots showed his navigation of the B-52 bomber was right on the assigned course line, and he nodded. “Yes, that looks good,” he said.
Then I ran the film through his bomb run. He watched my triangulations from the spooky negative image of the bomber’s radar screen, and he agreed I’d identified the various portions of the target area and had plotted them accurately. With dividers I scratched three arcs on the chart, which intersected perfectly. This intersection was where the bomb would have landed had it actually been dropped. Impact would have been 9,500 feet at 270 degrees from the assigned target coordinates. An embarrassment, actually. He must have been distracted.
I thought he’d be annoyed at my confirmation of his poor performance, but no. He thanked me. And on his way out he paused, turned and suggested that one of these evenings I should come over to the house. I said, sure, of course, sir, whatever you say. I forgot about it, but then one day he stopped me in the hallway.
“Next Saturday,” Captain Hensel said.
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t understand what you mean.”
“I mean I hope you are free next Saturday evening. Beth and I will expect you at six.”
Carla’s sweet 16 birthday party at the officer’s club. My first visit to that establishment, and I hoped not my last. Beth, Carla, me, and four of her giggling girlfriends from Amarillo High. Funny hats. Presents. The white jacketed Black waiter rolled in the cake with the burning candles. We all sang. Make a wish! Make a wish! Carla closed her eyes tight. Then in a single breath, she extinguished all the little flames. The cake was delicious. A moist white with a thick white icing, my favorite. Beth ordered another martini and told the waiter to bring Johnny here another scotch. Cheers! Carla opened the present I got for her. A nice Parker fountain pen and mechanical pencil set in a dark blue felt-lined case. And a diary, with a clasp and lock and a little key. Something to record all her thoughts in. All her secrets.
“Oh, how nice,” Carla said unsmiling. She reached for another package. Oh, well. I tried.
As we walked past the other tables on the way out, I saw a familiar figure. It was Lt. Colonel Avery Bolton, the officer in charge of Wing training, mission planning and scheduling. A year ago I’d gone to a ridiculous party he threw for all of us in the Intelligence Division, officers and enlisted alike. We stood around with drinks pretending we truly liked them and they truly liked us. Uh-huh. It was awkward as hell. Bolton’s house, off base in a posh Amarillo suburb, was full of black lacquered furniture, Ming dynasty vases, and embroidered tapestries. Above the fireplace was a big rice paper painting with vertical rows of Japanese characters in black ink to the side of strange looking mountains, and in a valley a grinning Buddah-like fat guy in a bathrobe. The Colonel “acquired” this stuff during several extended tours of duty in Tokyo. When we arrived at the door, he asked us to remove our shoes. Sergeant Boyette laughed. He thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t. “The Colonel thinks he’s a reincarnation of a Jap emperor,” Boyette said later.
Bolton sat at his table stiffly, formally. His pale gray eyes were fixed on me.
“Colonel,” I said, nodding, as I passed. He said nothing in reply.
The next Monday I got word he wanted to see me, ASAP. “What can I do for you, sir?” I said, trying to be pleasant.
“Airman, you will stand at attention when you’re addressing an officer.”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Explain to me what you were doing in the club Saturday.”
The muscles of his jaw twitched. So did his Charlie Chaplin moustache. He was pissed, big time.
“I was the guest of Major Hensel’s wife, Beth, and their daughter,” I said. “It was Carla’s birthday party.”
“Enlisted personnel are absolutely forbidden to enter the officer’s club, unless they are employed as staff. Are you aware of that?”
“As you know, Colonel, I was in civilian clothes, and as I say, I was there at the invitation of Mrs. Hensel. I’m sure the Major was aware of this and had no problem with it.”
“Whether you were invited or not is irrelevant. It’s the officer’s club, not the enlisted's club, and you violated protocol by being there.”
“Listen to me very carefully, Airman. If I ever see you there again, I’ll have you reduced in rank to Airman Basic. Do I make myself clear?”
“Now get out of my office.”