In 1950, flying home tourist class after a European dance tour, I sat beside a graying Air Force Lt. Col. My hitch in the Air Force Reserves had ended just before the Korean War began. When I mentioned that I’d been a bomber pilot, he said that pilots were needed and that if I went back in, I’d get an automatic raise to 1st lieutenant. I still try to imagine what life would have been like as a career military pilot.
I’d always loved flying, but as a working (or out of work) dancer, there was no way be in the Reserves, and anyway, my flying days, like my dancing days, would end too soon. But old Air Force pilots got interesting assignments and had great job security. Dancers had no job security. If they couldn’t get into some related field, big trouble. I spent my post dance life teaching, yet always dreamt of flying.
I recently read the memoir of a Col Topp (name changed at his request) USAF retired. He’d not been a pilot (because of eyesight), yet it gave me insights into life in the military. His entire 28-year career was a drive for high job ratings toward that next raise in rank, motivated by the knowledge that the Air Force was eager to find and reward excellence, and that job ratings were the main sign of it.
Col. Topp went to school continuously, earning an MBA and a law degree, plus countless courses offered by the Air Force. He gave up weekends at home, family vacations, smoked collegial cigars, matched an alcoholic commanding officer drink for drink, retiring to the men’s room to vomit, then back for more because he needed the job rating the guy would give.
With his family in NYC but assigned to a base near Washington, DC, the Commanding Officer of a NYC unit invited him to join. He sensed a trap. The CO had to bestow ratings on his staff officers, but could not give high ratings to all. Topp realized that he was being invited so that he, a newcomer, could take the fall. He walked away.
It should be no surprise that the army, like every giant organization, has a giant bureaucracy in which the game of “career management” is fiercely played. Many a self-help book for civilians offers stratagems, like, Up The Organization, and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Col. Topps’s book is their military equivalent. It could be called How To Succeed in the Air Force by Busting Your Balls. Not everyone would find it as absorbing as I did. And since dancing has neither job security nor bureaucracy, I didn’t have to think about career management until I joined the faculty of NYU.