I thought today was an appropriate time to tell this story. I’m hoping the Statute of Limitations has run out.
As I’ve gotten older, I realized that one of the skills I have is pattern recognition across large data sets. When I was young, I didn’t have much data. So back then I constructed “what if…” scenarios in my head to amuse myself. The first time I did this I created havoc on an Air Force base by convincing everyone that gravity would be turned off. This time what was meant as a private joke accidentally ended up involving the entire U.S. Air Force Pacific Command in the middle of the Vietnam War.
The Night Shift
I was 20 years old in Thailand repairing electronic countermeasures receivers on the “graveyard” shift (midnight-to-eight in the morning.) Outside our air-conditioned shop, the nights were still warm and muggy as other maintenance technicians were also working through the night repairing all the broken parts of fighter planes; navigation, radar, jet engines, etc. The fighters would sit in their protective revetments until morning slowly being reassembled for the next days shift over North Vietnam. As the early morning sun was lighting up the flightline I could hear the rumble of the fighters taking off. I’d get off work with the sun still low in the morning sky and watch them taxi to the ready line, arm their weapons and roar down the runway.
Since I was responsible for my tiny part of the 150+ person shop, I had the keys to the electronic warfare administrative office. Giving a 20-year old with an active imagination and a history of large scale pranks access to an administrative office was a bad idea. The office had file cabinets with personnel records, training records, administrative records, etc. And with time on my hands I went through everybody’s files, and while there was nothing particularly interesting, it kept me busy reading for weeks.
As I looked at all these personnel records, I thought it would be funny to create an entirely new person who didn’t exist. To amuse myself, my project over the next few months would be to create all the records for this fictional persona. But what to name him? Cheech and Chong, a comedy team in the early 1970’s, had come up with a character whose name I had found laugh-out-loud funny (remember I was 20) – Ashley Roachclip.
That’s who I was going to have join the war effort – Airman Ashley P. Roachclip.
Airman Ashley P. Roachclip Reporting For Duty
Each evening after I finished repairing microwave warning receivers that hopefully would allow our fighter planes to see the North Vietnamese Surface to Air Missiles before they launched, I sat and typed away. I spent weeks copying all the personnel and training forms, assembling a complete dossier for Airman Roachclip. This was my first attempt at creative writing, and I gave him a very interesting career (he was a very bad airman.) When I was done, there must have been 70 pages in Airman Ashley P. Roachclip’s personal file.
Airman Roachclip was now part of the Vietnam war effort. Feeling fulfilled, I put his records back in the files and never had a second thought.
Fast forward a few months. Most of the time my only interaction with our shop’s military hierarchy was getting briefed by the swing shift which preceded me, and me briefing the day shift which followed me. We’d discuss transition issues about equipment problems or talk about parts needed to fix the remaining equipment, etc.
But one day as I came into work, the swing shift said, “There is a mandatory military formation (meeting) at 0900.” And the meeting wasn’t just for me, it was for the entire 150+ people in the shop.
At 0900 we stepped out into the bright Thai sunlight and formed up. And I realized that it’s not just our shop, but it looks like it’s most of the 500 person avionics squadron.
On the Record
A few captains surrounded the assistant base commander. For an enlisted man sighting of an officer other than the flight crews was never a good sign. I managed to work my way to the back row. Stacked on a long table in front of the officers were boxes of personnel records. As we formed up, we’re all asking each other, “What’s going on?”
Finally someone calls us all to attention, and the assistant base commander announced, “We’re here today because of a personnel matter. This base submitted the total number of airmen we have to Pacific Headquarters in Hawaii. According to USAF records, 123,912 airmen were sent to Southeast Asia, but they have records showing that are 123,913 airmen here. That means there is one extra airman we can’t account for. Headquarters has traced that one extra airman in the entire Pacific theatre down to this avionics squadron.”
“When we call your name come up to the table, report in to your shop chief and pick up your personnel record. We’ll start with the radar shop,” a captain announced.
At this moment I realized the personnel record I created had somehow gotten reported as being a real member of our shop and had screwed up the system. I’m in a war zone, and I’m probably going to be shot for this.
The captain read names alphabetically through each shop. When he called out, “Airman Jones,” you went up, saluted and picked up your records. They looked at it, they looked at you, and then you were dismissed. I died a bit at each time they called a name. They called all the names in radar shop, then the nav shop and now they were down to the electronic warfare shop.
He’s A Mythical Character Sir
The names became a blur, “Airman Johnson, yes, sir, Airman Potts, yes sir…” I couldn’t tell if I was sweating from standing in the Thai sunlight or out sheer terror. How did this happen? Unlike my previous prank I had no intention of this one becoming public. Now I was wondering if they’d arrest me in front of my entire shop. And I wondered what kind of prison the military had.
Finally the captain calls out, “Airman Roachclip,” … Silence. They call again, this time louder, “Airman Roachclip front and center.” People began to snicker, as they yell again, “Airman Ashley P. Roachclip front and center.” And all of a sudden all the young guys started to laugh out loud.
The assistant base commander who had been irritated at the start of this process was now really mad. He walked out from behind the table and put his face right in front of one of my shop mates who had been laughing the loudest. “What’s so funny, airman?” He shouted. The startled airmen replied, “Sir, Ashley P. Roachclip is a mythical character, sir.”
This time it was the major’s turn to be surprised, “What did you say, son?” My shop mate managed to stammer out, “Sir, Ashley Roachclip is in a Cheech and Chong album and he’s the President of the United Heads For Hemp.” The base commander started to turn red, but before he could say anything else someone else volunteered, “I have the album in my barracks, sir. I can get it for you.”
Finally the base commander asks, “Are you telling me Ashley P. Roachclip is not an airman in the United States Air Force?” The airman replied, “ Yes, sir, no he’s not, sir.”
You can just imagine the fur ball of activity this revelation created among the officers and shop chiefs. All I could think is: “Why did I do this again? It was the same chaos that happened the last time I pulled a prank in the military. I promised myself that if I somehow got out of this one without being caught, I was never going to do another practical joke again.
After 15 minutes of further discussion, (and after review of the clearly fantastic accomplishments in Airman Roachclip’s personnel record) they dismissed us. For the next three months I thought they would dust the personnel record for fingerprints, find out it was me, and send me to jail.
And then one day the air war was over the North was over. We were all going home.
I never did do another prank…
Until 20 years later when I put the Moon Rock in the Rocket Science lobby.
Filed under: Air Force