Water Wings for the Pool of Life

  • Published
  • By Col. "Tip" Stinnette
  • 39th Air Base Wing commander
In the late 1980s, the civil engineer squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C. was practicing building a tent city in a field that was capable of supporting several hundred Airmen. One of the needed facilities was, of course, a latrine. To support hundreds of people, it had to be a large, elaborate plywood structure. After the field training exercise, the engineers decided to dig a big hole and bury the wood since, for sanitation reasons, it couldn't be used again. So they dug a hole with a backhoe and pushed the latrine into it. But after it toppled into the hole, the master sergeant in charge of the detail realized there was too much wood to bury. There were at least 10 full sheets of plywood, and lots of 2x4s. 

The master sergeant obtained permission to burn the wood before burying it. He sent an Airman to get some diesel fuel but all that remained of the fuel supply was a five gallon can of gas. The master sergeant decided it would work fine and dumped the entire five gallons on the pile of wood down in the hole. He pulled out his "trusty" Zippo to light a piece of paper to throw into the pile and spent several minutes trying to get the Zippo to work, with no luck. Finally someone produced a book of matches and he lit the paper. The entire detail of seven or eight Airmen stood ringing the hole as the master sergeant threw the burning paper into the hole declaring ominously, "Fire in the hole." 

He wasn't kidding. When the flame hit the accumulated gas vapors under all that plywood ... KABOOM! A fireball rose 30 feet into the air. Plywood and 2x4s went everywhere. Rolls of unused toilet paper flew up into the trees like party streamers. There were actually pieces of plywood and 2x4s stuck 50 feet up in the limbs of the pine trees. The Airmen scattered, but the master sergeant still stood at the edge of the hole in exactly the same position as when he dropped the flame. His uniform was scorched, his eyebrows were gone, and all he had to say was, "whoops." Thankfully no one was hurt. I guess the master sergeant was wearing his water wings in the pool of life that day. 

I have got to tell you, this story from the Darwin annals strikes close to home. As a handsome, high-performance, Lockheed Martin, Mighty C-130 Hercules guy I was flying from the Pope Green Ramp during this time. Clearly 20 years later we are more evolved in our expeditionary skills. The question I have to ask though, are we more evolved in our smart-skills? So here we stand at the brink of our inspection ready to show our stuff clearly more evolved because of our preparations over the last six months. But are we smarter or do we need to count on water wings while ensuring freedom's future?