Part of marketing is the ability to communicate a message to thousands of people and convince them to believe your version of reality. When I was 19 I accidentally had a test run of my ability to do so. I created havoc at an air force base by convincing thousands of airman that gravity would be turned off so that the Air Force could make repairs under their buildings. 74HGZA3MZ6SV
Two Million Students
First some background. Ever since WWII U.S. Air Force aircraft have carried sophisticated avionics equipment – radar, navigation, electronic warfare, etc. While the sharp end of the stick were the pilot and/or crew, each of these systems required a cadre of technicians to maintain and repair the equipment. Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi was the Training Center responsible for teaching 10’s of thousands of students a year how to repair radar, communications, and electronics. Some 2 million students have trained there since it opened in 1942. Think of it as the ultimate vocational training school.
At the height of the Vietnam War, I was at Keesler learning how to repair electronic warfare equipment, a skill which had gone from theory (our B-52 bombers might one day have to use this stuff –once – penetrating the Soviet Air Defense system) to practice (our fighter/bombers were encountering the murderously effective North Vietnamese air defense system every day.)
In hindsight the USAF did a damn good job. We spent the first five months learning basic electronics theory and the next months getting our hands dirty with the theory and practice of electronic warfare receivers and jammers. As it was a vocational school, I think the most math we had to do was to figure out whether we got a passing grade, and no one was in any danger of actually designing new equipment, but I left with an excellent education in troubleshooting, and solving complex problems in real-time.
Duality – Student Life – in the Military
Here we were, thousands of students with an average age of 19 going to school and living in barracks on the airbase. The barracks were like college dorms except we had to polish the brass doorknobs, wax and buff the hallway floors and make our beds. We attended classes from 6am to noon – five days a week. And we had to march to class (I’m convinced it was the only way they figured they were going to get us up and out of bed at that hour).
There was a duality to our existence. On one hand, we were in a rigid command and control system where we had to follow orders, salute officers and understand the military hierarchy, yet on the other we were in an educational institution where we were encouraged to ask all the questions you wanted. And we had afternoons and weekends off. We could go off base and do anything a group of 19-year olds wanted to, like skydiving, but that’s another story.
I loved libraries since I was a kid. Growing up in New York, the library was the only calm and stable place in my life, a refuge from home. I read my way through our small neighborhood library.
My fondness for libraries and my reading habit carried through to the Air Force, and this technical school had an awesome technology library. One day I opened up a Scientific American magazine and read an article on a prank that had been pulled at CalTech the year before. And something about the story clicked for me. I thought that this practical joke would be even funnier in a military organization than it was at Caltech. (I’ll describe the actual prank in a bit.)
Alone with Letterhead
Every evening someone in the barracks had to serve as the “fire warden” for the night. In hindsight, fire warden meant you were a manual smoke alarm. You walked around the barracks and made sure the building wasn’t on fire. (Anytime you put 10,000 19-year olds on a base you can bet one of them will go to sleep with a cigarette and burn his mattress, if not the building.)
The other minor duty of the fire warden was to update the squadron bulletin board. This was the one place you had to go daily to read all the official notices, and orders. Reading official military notices and memos always seemed funny to me as they had the most verbose and obtuse ways of saying even the simplest things. You usually had to read two pages to realize the memo said, “No Smoking Indoors,” or “Mandatory meeting on Thursday.”
One night it was my turn on fire warden duty, and with way too much time on my hands, I was mulling over the philosophical contradictions of the literal interpretation that my fellow military students placed on even the most trivial orders. Orders didn’t have to make sense, we were told, “an order is an order. Don’t think, just follow it.” I wondered how far that would really go.
Then I thought of the Caltech prank. If it worked on a college campus, I wonder what would happen on a military base?
So working into the wee hours of the morning I typed up a version of the Cal Tech prank (on official base letterhead,) translating it into military phraseology. I typed 30 copies, and using the master key I went into every squadron building bulletin board, and posted these orders from the base commander on all 30.
The memo I posted looked something like this:Friday Formation
I had posted my memo on Wednesday, got a good chuckle over it and promptly forget all about it. I thought it was very funny, a good one-time joke and people would laugh and then remove it from the bulletin board. But a few days had passed, and I hadn’t heard anything, so I thought the joke had fallen flat on its face.
Every building/squadron had an officer in charge of us, and all 300 hundred or so would gather in the courtyard every Friday for our squadron meeting, where our lieutenant would give us orders for the weekend, (usually have a good time) and answer any questions.
We’re standing in the Friday squadron formation, and the lieutenant comes out, who is all of 22 years old. The sergeant calls, “Squadron a-ten hut,” we all snap to attention. The lieutenant reads the orders of the weekend, blah, blah, blah, and then says, “okay, any questions?” And usually there weren’t any questions because everyone wants to go and be dismissed for the weekend. But today was going to be a bit different.
I’m ready to run for the gate, but wait, there’s a raised hand.
“Sir, about the gravity being turned off, what if we have fish? Should we cover their bowls?” I almost burst out laughing surprised there was at least one person in the squadron who believed the memo. The lieutenant is silent for a long minute, staring at the airman who asked the question, and calculating whether he heard it correctly or was being made fun of. But before he could respond, someone else raised his hand and says, “Sir, what if we have small children and they’re crawling, and we can’t get them off base, will they affected by the gravity?”
Ok, I think, maybe there were two.
But that was the cue for 10 more people simultaneously to burst out with questions, (“How about motorcycles will they be OK? Can we go to the bathroom when the gravity is turned off?”) And I started to panic as it dawns on me that this conversation is occurring 30 times the 300 people in each of the 30 squadrons on this airbase.
The lieutenant looks stunned. Were we all on drugs? What on earth were we talking about? He sent the sergeant to get the memo from the bulletin board, reads it and he starts looking really confused. It can’t be real, but yet… it does look like an official order from the base commander.
The lieutenant leaves to call the base commander,(about the same time 29 other lieutenants were doing the same.) “But sir, the order came from you.” An hour and a half later we finally get dismissed with a, “Ignore that order, it wasn’t really an order.”
Years later at different air bases, at the most unexpected times, I’d hear someone bring up, “Hey, were you at Keesler when they had those orders about the gravity being turned off?” And I always say, “No, never heard of it, tell me about it.” The story was even better when someone else told it.
Listen to the blogpost here [audio http://traffic.libsyn.com/albedrio/steveblank_clearshore_051309_FULL.mp3]