WW2 Aviation Cadets dreaming of the “wild blue yonder” were ritually demeaned in “pre-flight” training at Santa Ana AFB, told we were lower than privates, not even soldiers, contemptuously called “Mister!” but never mind, one
day we’d win our wings, be saluted by the corporals who made our lives miserable, and join the army’s air elite.
Pre-flight dwelt on engines, air frames, weather, communications, plus military stuff like physical training, using a gas mask and shining our shoes. Saturday morning inspection was followed by a parade, followed by an overnight pass. Santa Ana wasn’t much but had a few bars, movies, a bowling alley, a roller rink, and houses of worship where if you got lucky, you might meet a girl who didn’t hang out in bars.
Inspection was commanded by one 2nd Lt. Giampapa, a “paddlefoot” or “ground pounder,” meaning he didn’t fly. Inspecting cadets was the lowest duty an officer could draw, so we knew something was wrong with Giampapa. He returned our esteem.
He was smallish, early twenties, with a scrawny neck, beaked nose, glittering eyes, and beard shadow no matter how freshly shaved. We stood at attention as he looked us over, crew cuts to shoe shines. One day he took a look at my shoes, turned to a corporal who followed with a clip board, rasped, “Shoe shine.” And to me. “Next week, if I can’t see my face in your shoes you’ll be confined to base for the duration.” The duration was four weeks.
I had shined my shoes, both pairs, every morning and night, yet they were not like Giampapa’s, which were mirrors. At the PX I bought Esquire polish for a quarter rather than Shinola, at ten cents, and shined every chance I got. I’d rub the polish in, let it dry, brush vigorously, then use a polishing rag, finally a few drops of water and more rag for a “spit shine.” At first nothing much and I had visions of Sundays cleaning latrines. But the layer of wax built up until lo! by Wednesday, I could see my face.
Then, something strange; I wanted to keep on shining my shoes. Forget Giampapa, it was personal. Before and after morning chow, each class, physical training, before and after mess I’d whip out my Esquire, brush, and rag. In the evening before taps, I spent an hour shining both pairs. By Friday they were more mirror-like than Giampapa’s, which were shined for him by some yardbird private. At the inspection, he took one glance, went on to the next cadet. I got my pass. But I could not stop spit-shining my shoes. It even went on after discharge from the army.
It taught me two things: #1) there is no task too trivial to do well, and #2) one can be consumed by obsessions, compulsions, and manias.
But I never figured out how to tell #1 from #2.