“Of course, I’d been hearing about him for years,” Maculhaney remarked, her voice abstracted and her eyes moving restlessly over the crowd. She had moved one earphone back so she could talk to me, keeping the other cupped over her hear to monitor the live broadcast. “A little like Bigfoot, or maybe the Loch Ness Monster. One hears the stories and then one is finally rewarded with an actual, in the –flesh-larger-than-life sighting… Oops, sorry – gotta work the crowd. Back in a tick.”
She hopped down from a perch on the end of the bleachers which lined the football field. I watched her worm through the crowd around the cheerleaders and tilt the microphone towards a tall, burly man incongruously decked out in an Army PT sweatshirt, brief pleated skirts and matching socks neatly rolled over the tops of his jungle boots. The socks also matched his pom-poms. At half-time in the Army-Navy game which had been publicized for days as “The Sand Bowl” the Navy was already down by two touchdowns. I shook my head again at the limits to which extremely bored people will go to amuse themselves.
“I can see,” I observed when Maculhaney returned, “That playing a game on New Years’ Day would be an eminently logical command decision. And given what I have heard of inter-Service rivalry, I can clearly see that an Army versus Navy game would be in order… but what sort of genius would suggest that it be a team of Army and Air Force servicewomen against a team of Navy and Marine Corps women, with male cheerleaders doing handstands and pyramids on the sidelines?”
“A sick and demented genius with a totally warped sense of humor,” Maculhaney answered with a grin, “And when I find him, I want him to bear my children.”
“That’s not the way it works, you know.” I observed and Maculhaney giggled.
“They’re doing awesomely wonderful thinks in labs with Petri dishes and all that,” she answered, “And it might have been a woman who suggested it. In which case, I’d offer to bear her children…” she paused and listened intently to the voice in her headset. “OK,” she spoke into the microphone. “I think it will carry as long as we’re in line of sight. You ready for a bit of fun? I’m going to go across and try and rile up the Marines.”
“I hardly think anyone needs riling up, not with the score practically tied.”
“We need something to talk about!” Maculhaney answered, as she headed across the end zone. “There’s only so many ways to describe a bunch of hairy guys in short skirts with pom-poms doing handstands and yelling “sis-boom-bah!’ It’s a visual joke. It doesn’t translate to radio very well.”
“You know the surprising part?” I observed as I followed after her,” It’s really quite a good game. I wouldn’t have thought you’d get half the crowd there is.”
“Service and unit honor at stake,” Maculhaney grinned again. “If it was an Army-Navy cake decorating contest, they’d be screaming at them to hit ‘em with the sugar flowers and show them what their nougat is made out of! We’ve been talking this thing up for weeks on the air, morning and afternoon. Of course, everyone is pepped up. It’s what we do. Besides, “She looked over her shoulder at me, “Most of the players are shit-hot athletes anyway. That Navy team captain may be a doctor, but she’s a triathlon competitor. Three of the Army women are jump-qualified that I know of – and did you see their quarter-back? What do you suppose she does for fun, back in the World?”
“College shot-put or terrorizing biker-bars,” I answered, “How is Sunny holding up?”
“Pretty well, actually. She used to scrimmage with her cousins and brother - she’s not a triathlete, but she keeps pretty fit, hauling all that camera kit around.”
Our shadows ran ahead of us on the smooth-graded field at the edge of the tent-city. I had been visiting Maculhaney, Orvis and Leroy for several weeks and had observed scratch teams playing on it now and again. Today was something special. A ragged crowd had gathered on this New Years Day, overflowing the bleachers and spreading onto lawn chairs, blankets and the backs of Humvees and trucks. Maculhaney and the other dee-jays from Desert One had been announcing the Sand Bowl for weeks and were covering it live this morning, feeding back the signal from a ramshackle broadcast booth in the stands to the radio station trailer and from thence to a presumably fascinated audience. Even Orvis, unrecognizable in pads, football jersey and helmet had gotten into the act.
“Army and Air Force on one side, Navy and Marines on the other,” Maculhaney had explained to me that morning, when I had asked why. “The Marines are still part of the Navy and the Air Force used to be part of the Army. A long time ago – I’d have never lasted if we still were. I’d have lost my temper and throttled someone during my first enlistment.” Now she added, “The Marines are something else. Give them half a chance they’ll tell you all about it. At length and with visual aids. They are absolutely stuffed with the martial virtues. In no particular order they like to drink, boast, talk trash, chase the opposite sex and fight. The enemy, the other services or each other, depending on who is handiest. Think of them as Klingons,” she added kindly, “Klingons who are on our side.”
“So I guess the fellows are pretty rough as well,” I said and Maculhaney laughed.
For all of that, they mostly looked like a moderately rowdy group of graduate students – but very fit, crew-cut students, all of whom respectfully addressed Maculhaney as ‘ma-am’ and folded up bashfully at the prospect of being on live radio. Finally Maculhaney cornered a big Marine with dull-gold major’s leaves embroidered on patches on his utility shirt collar and asked him to venture an opinion on who would field the winning team. He enthusiastically denigrated the Army/Air Force team as wimps, crybabies and losers, attributing the Navy and Marine players’ superiority to the rigors of Marine training at some length while Maculhaney smiled eagerly and the listening Marines agreed with raucous enthusiasm as long as her microphone was not pointing directly at them, and no doubt the listening Army and Air Force members fumed. At last, when he drew breath, Maculhaney asked him to respond to a rumor concerning chromosome testing for the Marine women involved. She let him splutter a denial while the other Marines cried foul, calmly closed her on-the-spot report and switched off the microphone. She thanked the Major politely and we walked away, giggling.
“That will fetch them!” She remarked, “Good thing this whole blasted country is dry. I’d hate to think of how worked up a few drunks might get. I do love this job though – the last time I had so much fun covering a game was a challenge game for charity that had a team from our broadcast det fighting it out with an Army team for position of worst softball team on station… even thought it was more an ongoing joke than a serious athletic statement.”
“Who won?” I asked.
“We did, so we lost the cup to the Army team. You should have seen it,” Maculhaney giggled again, “A doctor from the base hospital donated it if we let him pitch for us.”
“It wasn’t a bedpan, perchance,” I asked. I already had a fairly good idea about the prevailing military sense of humor.
“Of course… and painted gold with a nice little plaque glued to it.”
We returned to our perch on the grandstand, to where Ty Marshall, Maculhaney’s cohort in assorted broadcasting crimes sat behind a warped plywood desk masquerading as the broadcast booth, perched precariously on the next to highest bench. Ty was a lanky, gap-toothed veteran of the hardscrabble world of small-town civilian radio before opting for a regular if small paycheck from the military and the burden of wearing the same color clothes to work every day. I had interviewed both of them the week before, in the tiny newsroom/office/broadcast studio they shared with half a dozen other military broadcasters, all of whom combined resonant voices with a completely prosaic appearance. I will say nothing else about the newsroom/office/studio save that it was crammed with electronic equipment and ornamented with a small plastic Christmas tree hung with MRE condiment packages, a collection of “Far Side” cartoons clipped from the “Stars and Stripes” covering most of one wall… and a petrified donut nailed to another.
Maculhaney, instantly all sober and intense business, slid in next to Ty who was describing the half-time show and scooched over without missing a word. I opted for a seat in front of the booth, next to Leroy, whose headset hung around her neck.
“They’re going to break for news now and come back for the kick-off,” Leroy whispered to me. Above our heads, Ty bantered with Maculhaney, who announced the latest news headlines and when the studio announcer took the break, Maculhaney slid the headset off her hears and came to sit between us and a large guy wearing a tee-shirt with “I’d fly three thousand miles to smoke a camel” printed across the back with a camel silhouetted in a gun-sight below the motto.
“How did we sound, Lee?! Terrific as usual? Better than the Teflon Man? You know, if you sign on as our agent, you could take fifteen percent of what we get for doing this.”
“Fifteen per cent of squat,” Leroy retorted and I asked,
“Who…or what is the Teflon Man?”
Lee and Maculhaney looked at each other and laughed,
“You dear little civilian virgin… you know naught of the Teflon Man?! Although he bestrides the world like a colossus…” Maculhaney shook her head, sadly. “I pity you… and yet…”
“You’re going to laugh your ass off when you tell me,” I answered and Leroy made a moue of disgust and said,
“S—t, you never had to work one of his productions, did you?”
“So far, the Gods of Broadcasting have been kind and merciful to me,” Maculhaney answered, “Although my stories go back the farthest of anyone’s… back to the dawn of time, practically to my first enlistment.”
“Who is he, exactly?” I asked and Leroy snorted contemptuously,
“A legend in his own mind. He’s an Army broadcaster, this big tall dude, looks a bit like Charlie Sheen, with this deep, deep voice that rattles the damn light fixture and always looks about two degrees sharper than a recruiting poster.”
“And he also,” Maculhaney considered the matter thoughtfully, “Combines self-conceit and a vacuum between the ears to a degree that I have rarely encountered in a living human being. They used to call him ‘the Ted Baxter of the Far East Network’ when he worked in radio news in FEN-Tokyo. Do you remember the time that he muddled ‘strafed’ and ‘buzzed’?”
“I remember hearing something about it,” Leroy allowed, “But it was years ago.” Maculhaney chuckled,
“Oh, my children – that is a legend forever green.” She put on a cackling crone voice and then reverted to her usual polished tones. “It happened in the late Seventies, when they read five minutes of news copy at the top of the hour and around the clock at our lead network station in Tokyo. So one day, there had been this little incident with a Russian MIG buzzing one of our carriers. Everyone was getting their shorts in a twist about it. Defiantly not good manners to fly over low and slow like that. So our Boy Genius was the duty news announcer. He was pulling copy off the wire and reading it over, putting it all in order… and he stops by the news directors’ desk to ask ‘How do you spell “strafed”? The news director thought nothing of it – he was doing something else at that very moment, but five minutes later and a minute into the live newscast he has this sudden awful, horrible suspicion. He went busting into the studio with the ‘on-air’ light lit, mike hot and the Teflon Man in mid-sentence. The news director snatched the page of copy out of Teflon Man’s hand just as he was about to begin reading it… and looked at the story and just about had a heart attack on the spot. Teflon Man was just a breath from announcing to the entire network that a Russian MIG had strafed an American aircraft carrier. ‘Strafed’ as in flow over, shooting real bullets? The news director was my station manager a good few years later, and he insisted he broke out in cold sweats for years, thinking over what nearly happened. Everyone in Japan listened to FEN, ‘specially the diplomatic community… including the Russians. The funniest part,” Maculhaney added, “Was afterwards in the CO’s office where everyone was screaming at him… and he just shrugged and said ‘Strafed, buzzed… what’s the difference, anyway?’”
Leroy shook her head and added, “That boy had them tearing their hair out, because nothing fazed him. It was always someone elses’ fault.”
“So they passed him to TV Ops,” Maculhaney continued, “He spilled a chocolate milk shake into the switcher board and they handed him on to TV News. He did OK there at first. I mean, what could go wrong, with everything pre-recorded? No chance to mess it up, live at five in front of God, the Command Staff and everyone. But one day they went down to Yokuska to do a story on board one of the Navy ships… and as they went on board, Teflon Man dropped the camera into thirty feet of water. Eventually they got rid of him the only way they could.”
I raised my eyebrow and Leroy elaborated as she shook her head sadly.
“Sent him to DINFOS as an instructor. He was a broadcaster, you see. He looked good, he had a good voice.”
“Proof of the axiom that those who can’t, teach,” Maculhaney. “And it wasn’t a dead loss as an instructor. I hear that he only slept with the occasional female student…”
Don on the feel, the scrimmage broke and scattered, the ball squirting out like an orange-pip squeezed between two fingers and every woman on the field galloped after it.
“I love jungle rules football,” Maculhaney sighed and obligingly explained, “Jungle rules. There are no rules.” Fifty yards from the Army goal and the stands erupted in a roar. When they settled down again, score tied, Maculhaney continued with the saga of the Teflon Man. “An army broadcaster I know, told me he was on a shoot where they were interviewing this female Major – a social actions officer and a very, very good-looking woman. Well, our hero did the interview and at the end with the camera still rolling, he looked straight at her and said ‘God, Major – I’ll bet you could suck the wind-sock right off this microphone!’”
Leroy’s jaw dropped; this was a new story to her, evidently.
“He said that – to an officer and a Social Actions officer – in front of a live camera, and lived? What kept her from gutting him on the spot and serving up little bits of him on bamboo skewers?”
“No one knew,” Maculhaney answered, “No one knows! It’s scary, he has more lives than Wily Coyote! He racks himself up, over and over again, for the dumbest, most ill-considered things imaginable! Every one of his stunts would see anyone else busted back so far they’d be lucky working for the late-night board shift at the fourth-rated local affiliate in Sheboygan, but nothing sticks to him! He turns up a year or so later, usually promoted. I heard that he actually was busted for sexual harassment, relieved of duty and PCSed and everyone heaved a sigh of relief and figured that would be the last, absolutely the last they would ever hear… but no. Two years later, there he was! No one has a clue about how he does it. Nothing can touch him, everyone has a story about him and none of it matters in the long run. The most sensible guess is that he is the son in law of someone very, very important.”
At that point, Maculhaney excused herself and returned to her place in the broadcast booth, leaving Leroy to carry on the saga.
“Myself, I think it’s blackmail. He has pictures of someone in bed with a live member of their own sex or a dead one of the opposite. That, or he has just raised kissing-ass to an Olympic level. I gotta Teflon Man story too.”
The entire Army side erupted in cheers for a touchdown. When everyone calmed down, Leroy continued with the story of the Teflon Man.
“There was a big kids softball tournament among bases in Europe a few years ago and I got tagged to go and provide maintenance for the broadcast coverage. Big setup like this, only more permanent, set up in a regular booth between the bleachers, in a tall little building behind home place. All these games, played by all these kids teams from bases all over – and the games were going to be played on the network. So Squadron pulled some broadcasters and some maintainers to work the games. Me, I lucked out – I got to be Chief of Maintenance for the field site; running all the wiring, hooking up the mikes, making sure there was enough… and guess who turned up to broadcast a game? The Teflon man himself. Well, everything – headsets, mikes, studio connections – they all checked out before game time, but God bless it, somehow he got a headset that was picking up another frequency – crossed wire, someplace, and he was hearing music along with the broadcast game. A-hole that he is, he just assumes that something has gotten screwed up in the studio and it’s someone elses’ fault. He starts talking about the music and apologizing to the audience and blaming it all on maintenance. And since he is flapping his gums, no one can get to him to tell him that he is the only one hearing the music. In fact, he is the only one hearing music – everyone else is going ‘what the hell???!’ I am waving at him, making the ‘cut’ sign (Leroy demonstrated, drawing a finger across her throat) and he ignores me! Finally the guy doing color commentary passes him a note telling him to hand off to the studio and shut the hell up for sixty seconds. As soon as he does, he is practically screaming at me about the music that only he can hear. I barely had the time to tell him that what he was hearing wasn’t on the air and that he was, in fact, sounding like the dumbest SOB on earth.” Leroy snorted contemptuously, “He insisted it was too on the air, until we played him the aircheck tape! I got no patience with fools like that. Matter of fact, I went and threw a tantrum in the CO’s office over it. Said I wanted an apology for how he disrespected my people’s work.”
“Did you ever get it?” I asked. Out on the field, the ball went shooting forward again, and a lean lanky woman slid like an eel between two flankers, caught it and headed toward the goalpost at top speed. She got twenty yards before vanishing under a wave of Navy and Marine jerseys. The Army/Air Force stands groaned collectively and Leroy shrugged.
“Can’t rightly remember if I did or not. Stupid stuff like that doesn’t matter in the long run. What matters is that a stone fool like hum thrives and gets ahead in this game… geez Louise, poor Sunny is going to be bruised over every inch if she keeps that up!” The ball was repositioned and the women lined up again. I could pick out Orvis, not an easy job, as she was disguised under shoulder pads, helmet and jersey and a considerable layer of Saudi dust. Leroy continued when reaction in the stands died down. “What bothers me ‘bout fools like the Teflon Man – and there are plenty of them, he’s just an extreme. The boy’s got skills and not of a good kind.” She nudged me, “Now, look at Ty and Mackie… they’re good at their jobs, been all over, good to work with, no whining and no shirking. Grown-ups. They keep their personal life away from work. Show up every day, every shift they’re assigned, do what ever they’re tasked with, come up with genius broadcasting stuff. Reliable – give a hundred and ten per cent to the job. You know what, though? Neither of them will never make their next promotion and showboats like the Teflon Man will shoot straight to the top. He’s a special case, but I seen troops with records not all that much better still get the plum assignments and firewall 9 performance ratings.”
“How do you figure that?” I asked, “The one thing I’ve been hearing over and over is that the military promotes on merit. You’ve made rank, right enough.”
“Oh, I got lucky a couple of times. I got to be seen doing a god job by people who matter. And I know enough to keep my mouth shut.”
“How do you mean?” I said and Leroy hesitated a little before answering,
“It’s like this, you know. A lot of times when someone asks you what they think – they really don’t want to know what you think. They just want you to back up what they think already. You’d never catch me telling what I really think, ‘less I know for damn sure that the person asking me really wants to know. ‘Sides,” Leroy looked over her shoulder, “Look at ‘em. They’re a bit innocent in a lot of ways. Well, Mackie is. Ty just don’t give a rats’ ass. He’ll say what he really thinks just for the fun of watching them turn pink and throw a conniption fit. Mackie, she thinks they really want to know, thinks they got the same brain. Never occurs to her that no, mebbe they don’t and mebbe they don’t want to hear it anyway, ‘specially if she turns out to have been right in the long run. That makes it worse. A-holes like the Teflon Man, they tell everyone what they want to hear, right off the bat and they come up smelling like a rose. No, I don’t think Mackie will ever sew on E-7. Sunny will – she has the politics of it in her blood or at least from around the dinner table.”
“You sewed it on,” I pointed out and Leroy gave me the squinty-eyed look, just like John Wayne used to do before he nailed the villain cold in the streets of Laredo or Deadwood.
Down on the field, the Army/Air Force scored a touchdown and the guys around us rose up and cheered as one voice. The guy with the ‘smoke a camel’ tee shirt threw his soft-drink can down on the field as he yelled,
Leroy tapped him on the butt with the toe of her boot and said,
“I hope you’re not going to leave that for someone else to pick up!”
He looked at her, all five foot-two of banty-hen authority and sheepishly obeyed. Leroy turned her attention to me and drawled,
“ I got natural talent, good luck and a better Bull-shit-o-meter and that will win out over looks and intelligence just about every time. And if you had a better one your own self, you’d be sitting in a big leather chair in an office in New York City with a personal assistant to call you over here in the Big Sandbox, bugging you about keeping a deadline. Am I right?”
There are times when I do wonder about that – but this wasn’t one when I doubted it.