IT’S A GIANT SLINGSHOT, SIR!
Master Sergeant Brent walked into my shop on a tear. He was flustered, foul-mouthed and had no time for my BS. Not that I had an opportunity to change my regular course or mode, but I did at least get five seconds of warning as he loudly entered the bay.
“Maldo! Have you seen an update to the tech manual for the Sparrow missiles? It’s missing and support says you’ve got it.”
“No sir,” I replied hastily. I could tell he was in no mood and I had secrets. “My guys don’t use that one. Did you check Air to Air?”
If I recall correctly, it was near the end of May or June in 2004. I was on the home stretch of my one year tour in South Korea while serving in the United States Air Force. I had progressed rapidly through that first assignment and was finishing out the year as crew chief of the Air to Ground missile crew of the Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) shop. Air to Air was the bay next door. They seldom worked on Sparrow missiles, but if anyone would have had a need for the manual it would have been them. My bay was spit-shined and ready for inspection when he walked in, so initially, I didn’t think he’d dig too deep. Evidently, though, he had been given an order from on high and needed the manual ASAP. I later learned that there was a rush update that had been sent down which needed his stamp and had to be dated no later than that day (Friday).
What that actually meant was that the Airman whose job it was to update our manuals had dropped the ball and forgotten to do the time-sensitive task. Sgt. Brent was trying to save both himself and that Airman from a royal ass chewing by getting it done on time. In any case, there he was in my bay, looking for an update to a manual that had been cleverly stowed away on the corner of that support Airman’s desk. He’d left a few days earlier to go home for his mid-tour leave, so there was no way to interrogate him. I took the hit instead.
Sgt. Brent eyed my perfectly arranged workbench. I had painstakingly staged a “battle” between an army of lead seal men and lead seal bugs which I had fashioned using our shop vice and piles of used lead inspection seals. Each missile which was put into storage was sealed using a metal tie wrap with a stamped lead seal on the end of it to indicate the missile had passed inspection. I had spent my year collecting the broken seals and made art with them in my free time. He had no interest in those on that particular Friday, though.
He began rummaging through the stacks of work orders I had in folders on the bench, leaving them in disarray. I twitched a little knowing I would have to re-organize them before my supervisor would sign off. Mostly though I wanted Sgt Brent to go away. I didn’t dislike the man in any way. Quite opposite, actually. I looked up to him more than most leaders I’ve had throughout my career (still do). I wanted him to go away because of my secrets.
Not finding his quarry on the bench, he began forcefully opening the drawers one by one. He started on the left side, sliding open the small bin at the top which held pens and markers. Nothing there. That drawer slammed shut and was immediately followed by the larger middle drawer. No dice there either.
“I’m sure it’s not in there Sgt. Brent. We don’t use that one.” He wasn’t dissuaded.
Continuing on, he opened the largest of the drawers on the left. Aside from a few improperly stored cans of spray paint, there wasn’t anything that interested him in there either. Then he transitioned to the other side and I began holding my breath.
The first drawer yielded nothing. The second, nothing. Then he opened the bottom drawer on the right side of my bench. It looked odd, but not too odd. In fact, he even began shut it again, noting that the drawer was empty. But something made him pause, and reopen the drawer. For a second we both stared into the empty chasm, he perplexed, me nervous.
I pretended like I didn’t know the drawer had a false bottom and just crossed my fingers. It didn’t work though. Sgt. Brent finally noticed the anomaly and focused his gaze on the far left corner of the bottom of the drawer. It looked conspicuously like a finger hole one might use to gain access to a lower hidden level beneath the bottom of the drawer (it was). Inquisitively, he set all risk of appendage loss aside and surrendered his finger to the hole. With almost no pressure, the false bottom popped out and revealed my secrets (secret actually, but it was a big one). I furrowed my brow and waited.
At an agonizingly slow speed, he began to pull handfuls of orange rubber rope out of the drawer. In total, the device was about 15 feet long, had loops at either end and a large canvas “bowl” in the middle. One who was of a creative mind might imagine such a thing being stretched out, attached to two solid objects/posts (bay door bollards for instance), and then pulled taught by the canvas apparatus (perhaps with some sort of payload in tow).
Sgt. Brent looked at me and then back at the device. “What in the holy hell is this, Maldo?” I sighed and took a breath.
“It. It’s a giant slingshot, sir.” It was awesome! I could tell he wanted to use it but knew it wouldn’t be professional. We had actually kept that secret for at least a good six months. My guys had made it one night on swing shift out of a damaged rubber seal from a missile container. We had easily shot items over our 30’ blast walls to distances of more than 100 yds.
Sgt. Brent shook his head and I braced for impact. Instead, he began coiling the orange rubber rope around his shoulder the way an electrician wraps up an extension cord. As he finished he gently placed it back into the drawer and replaced the false bottom. With a grin, he looked at me.
“Maldo, I swear to God, if you weren’t on your way out of here,” he closed the drawer without continuing the thought and walked back out. A few minutes later, the manual update was “discovered” in support and the crisis was averted.
I don’t know how long that slingshot lasted, but I heard rumors of its existence throughout the next extent of my six-year enlistment (possibly beyond). If Sgt. Brent had thrown it away, I doubt I would even bother telling that story. I’m telling that story now for two reasons: The first is because it entertains me (hopefully it made you chuckle too). The second is a little more obscure. The second reason I tell that story is because it provides a glimpse of a leader who made a small, seemingly insignificant choice. He did it while working under duress and trying to uphold a strict deadline. He could easily have channeled all of that into my horseplay/violation/immaturity (whatever one might call it), but he chose instead to let it go and focus on what mattered. How often are we as leaders presented with choices like that one? How often do we focus on what matters?