Growing up I recall my father, a stern man of well chosen words, explaining to me that there was one human behavior he couldn’t tolerate and that was pretentiousness. On the way back from dinner one evening, we had just driven past a house around the corner on Garden Street when I noticed the new neighbor standing at his street side mailbox staring at us as we drove by. Making an attempt to acknowledge him with a wave and smile, Dad said “Don’t waste your time.”
Indeed, his observation rang true because while we had made eye contact, it appeared the man had actually gone out of his way to dismiss what most would perceive as nothing more than an innocent, neighborly gesture.
Turning the corner onto Maywood Dr., I asked him why he would say such a thing. He explained that he had made several attempts to be neighborly “with that gentleman” and each time his overture had been rebuffed. He then went on to say that he did his level best to treat all the people he met as equals but on those rare occasions when he met an individual like our new neighbor he couldn’t bring himself to regard him as an equal because he obviously wasn’t.
While at the time I didn’t think to ask him whether he had concluded the man was his superior or inferior, I took his advice to heart. Life is too short to waste time pursuing relationships with people who think they’re “special.”
Seventeen years later as a First Lieutenant in the United States Air Force, I found myself seated at a picnic table behind General’s row overlooking the runway at Offutt AFB which was at the time the home of Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters.
Seated at the table were my pilot, Captain Tom Keck, his wife, my radar navigator, Major Dave Pritchett, Tom’s father Lt General Tom Keck (SAC Vice Commander) and his wife, and, lastly, General Dougerty (shown to the right), the SAC Commander and his wife.
I recall thinking that my presence at the table was a mistake and that I would soon be asked to move to a table better suited for ordinary people but that sense of discomfort came to an end when Lt Gen Keck turned to General Dougherty to ask a couple of questions.
“General, can I ask you a personal question?” he asked.
“Sure. What’s on your mind, Tom?” the General responded.
“Are you planning on making the Air Force a career?”
Tom Keck junior broke out in laughter as did his father when General Dougherty squinted his eyes and asked for clarification. “What?”
Lt Gen Keck then went on to tell the story of a wet behind the ears Second Lieutenant who, thoroughly bored with a particular Colonel’s ongoing and relentless self-promotional lectures (on this occasion holding formal court in a kitchen at an off base navigator graduation party) interrupted the speaker to ask if he intended to make the Air Force a career.
Caught off guard, the embarrassed Colonel dressed down the Lieutenant in front of the half dozen fellow junior officers who had been passively enduring one endless, self promotional story after another. “Your impertinence is clearly out of order Lieutenant and I will be taking this incident up with your commander in the morning.”
The Lieutenant didn’t apologize. Instead he quietly excused himself (along with everyone else who had been standing there) rejoining the bulk of his fellow graduates in the backyard. Nothing, of course, came of the Colonel’s threat but the story about the exchange apparently came to have a life of its own.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I was the wet behind the ears Lieutenant and Lt Gen Keck revealed that fact at the close of the story. As it turns out General Doughterty and Lt Gen Keck knew the Colonel quite well and their shared amusement made me realize that my place at the table had not been a faux pas after all.
The Unanticipated Consequence of My “Impertinence”
I’ll never forget that weekend at Offutt. After dinner General Dougherty took ten minutes of his valuable time to approach me to talk about my future plans. I really couldn’t give him a straight answer because I’d never really given any thought to the subject and I was frankly dumbfounded that he had taken a personal interest in me.
When I returned to my desk at Wright Paterson AFB the following Monday I was presented with a note hand carried by the squadron commander. It was a memo from General Dougherty’s office asking me to call.
I didn’t believe it at first thinking that someone on my crew was trying to play a practical joke on me me but the squadron commander had taken the call himself and insisted that the General was, in fact, awaiting a return call.
Well, I made the call and his secretary put me through to the General himself and I was flabbergasted to find out that he had personally taken the time to pull up my personnel folder. Reviewing it, he talked with me briefly about the things I needed to do to establish myself as a career officer, ending the counseling session making comment that he, too, had a strong dislike for pretentiousness and repeated his hope that I would seriously consider making the Air Force a career.
He ended the conversation making a statement that had I shared it with my father would have undoubtedly generated a rare but knowing smile — “The Air Force needs people like you, Ron,” he said.
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Note: It’s a rare occasion when one meets men of principle. One such man was Lt Col Joe Valentine, my boss in the Plans and Operations Division at HQ 15AF. Like my father and the good General, he was not one to put much stock in the utterances of the pretentious who based their authority on tradition, rank, and/or title. To him dedication to duty and selfless performance were the measures of merit. When he walked into a room, his mere presence brought smiles to the faces of everyone who knew him and it was of no wonder for he was regarded by all as an amiable aristocrat, a noble man driven by ideals not self-adulation. Needless to say, he would have fit in well at the picnic table. Sadly, Joe died a few months ago.
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An email from my brother, Richard, that elaborates on Dad’s view of pretentiousness.
Earning a doctorate in education at the University of Iowa, Dad believed only physicians were deserving of the title Dr. and never used it to introduce himself. If fact, he would really get riled when folks would address him as Dr. Scott or the more familiar “Doc.” Intimately familiar with the relative ease by which most obtained the title of Dr. in education, he found this in no way equal to the high achievement of a physician.
To him the use of the title by educators was no more than a meaningless declaration of social status — a complete misuse of the term. I can just see him shaking his head whenever he heard an educator introduced as Dr. so and so.