“I’ve been thinking” – Taking Advice

By Jim Heffernan
Most people can sing, at least a little bit. I can’t. I sing so badly the nun who taught choir in grade school told me not to sing, just move your mouth like you’re singing. If you’ve ever heard grade school Catholics singing, you can imagine how bad I was.
Even back then, I had a strong sense of “You are not the boss of me!” I would wait until the nun was not looking my direction and sing. She’d turn her head and focus on me and I’d mouth an “oops”. It was never an accident when I sang.
I haven’t gotten any better. Every once in a while I’ll sing and if my wife is in earshot, she’ll ask me, “What’s wrong!”.
Every so often, I ignore my “You are not the boss of me!” impulse and it works out well for me. Following advice can pay big dividends. Two examples spring to mind.

The first was in 1964. I was an 18-year-old one-striper, high school drop-out stationed with the Air Force in Wichita, Kansas. I was very pleased with myself in that I was now a part-time college student taking English 101 at Wichita State University (WSU).

My military duties left me plenty of time to devote to the course. Some jobs in the service are nightmarish and some jobs are “cushy”. I had a job that was very high on the “cushy” scale. I was classified as a Weather Equipment Repairman and the Equipment was very reliable. We had a shop that was somewhat remote from the weather station sites. After making our morning appearances and equipment checks, the afternoons were basically free time. Somebody (usually me) had to be in the shop to answer the phone if there was a call, but the other 5 guys usually slipped away home. Being the one striper in a universe of 4 stripers made the decision about who stayed and who didn’t a “no-brainer”.

One afternoon, I was working on my English assignment and an engineer who was doing a cabling assessment popped into the shop to look at some charts. He saw what I was doing and we talked a little about my college plans. At that time, I was thinking of becoming an Electrical Engineer. My college plans changed several times throughout the years.

The engineer told me that something that would come in very handy for a college career would be to take a “speed reading” course. When the next semester rolled around I enrolled in WSU’s Speed Reading course.

Speed reading seems to have gone out of fashion. I’ve looked at present-day catalogs of two of the colleges I attended and neither one has anything like “speed reading”. I’m not sure why. Maybe it only works for some people. It sure worked for me.

The whole point of the course was to “retrain” your eyes to recognize a line of text in one bite rather than word by word. The course had a large library of passages taken from books and magazines that were printed on 6X10 cards. The cards fit a machine that had a “window” that scanned the card from top to bottom at a speed that was adjustable to match your reading speed. Quizzes measured compression. I entered the course reading about 250 words per minute (wpm) and when the semester finished, I was up to 1800 wpm. I don’t read at that speed anymore, but I think I can shift gears and plow through reading at higher rates when I want to.

The weather outfit at Wichita had one difference from most weather outfits. Besides the on-base weather equipment, we had to maintain equipment at 18 missile sites that were off base. The sites were widely separated and it was impractical to visit more than 3 sites in a day. Visiting three sites took 8-10 hours when everything went right. For guys who were used to 4-hour workdays, the missile sites were not popular assignments.

Just to be fair, it was decided that missile site visits should be rotated among us on a monthly basis. This translated to me spending six days every month going to missile sites. Each month, I went to missile sites with a different 4 striper. I really didn’t mind. I was new enough to driving that liked doing it. All the sites were tucked away in deserted locations well away from well travelled roads. Many of them required us to travel through tiny Kansas towns that always seemed to have a diner with great “home-style” food.

All the guys I traveled with had interesting stories to tell. They were all “retrainees” who had spent 8-12 years in the Air Force in another career field. Most had been assigned to Korea or Japan at some time in their careers. They all had families.

In late 1965, a high-school girlfriend I hadn’t seen for more than a year, started writing to me. She and I had written almost daily letters for the 8 months I was in Tech. School in Illinois more than year before, but I broke up with her for no good reason. We started writing again. We were the same people, but we had both matured in the intervening time span.

The next time I took leave, I went home to Denver and saw her again. When she answered the door and smiled at me, I started to shake and tremble. I could barely speak.

We saw each other every day of my two-week leave and I did mostly get over my trembling. Except when we kissed.

Back in Kansas on a missile site trip, I told the guy I was with about the shaking and he told me, “You ought to marry that girl, shakin’ at the sight of a girl ain’t that common a thing.” I didn’t take much convincing. 56 years of marriage proves it was the best bit of advice I ever got.