Thursday, January 10, 2008

Forgiveness is Always Easier to Obtain than Permission

Some rules, you remember the learning of.

It was the spring of 1978. I was a freshman (doolie, SMACK, WAD, maggot) at an alleged institution of higher learning nestled into the foot of the Rockies, just northwest of Colorado Springs. This was back before the "Welcome to Colorado Springs" sign had migrated 10 miles north up I-25 and housing developments had enveloped the airfield in a classic pincer movement aided by offering new buyers a hardwired hotline to the college's public affairs department so they could whine about the noise of the airplanes overhead each day.

It was spring and I was young and so was Bob Hope--at least compared to the age he would finally reach before the world was deprived of that magical smile. In truth, he was already much older then than I am now. Not important. What is important is that he was visiting our school. He was visiting our school and he was going to attend a parade (yeah, that kind of school) as the guest of honor. Whether it was the daily march to lunch or some special parade later in the afternoon I can't remember. Not important.

What I remember is this: the seniors in my squadron hatched a brilliant plan for a prank that Bob Hope would have remembered for the rest of his life with a smile. It would have been legendary. Cadets would have spoken of it to this day. But . . . those otherwise brilliantly creative seniors did the unforgivable--they asked "permission."

Here was the plan. The center of campus is a large open square, about 1,000 feet along each side, bordered on the west by the chapel, the east by the academic building, and north and south by the dorms. Our squadron was in the south dorm and formed up for the march on the south side of that giant square. The reviewing platform, with guest of honor Bob Hope, was erected at the base of the chapel wall, along the western edge of that square. The 20 squadrons formed on the north side would begin by marching west, then turning south to pass in review in front of Mr. Hope. No real opportunity for pranks. But our squadron, and the other 19 in our group, would begin by marching to the east, then north, then west, then finally south to pass in front of the reviewing party. What we knew was that there would be a pause for timing for maybe a minute or more somewhere along that north edge, next to the northern cadet dorm.

The plan was this: during that pause, several members of our squadron would emerge from the dorm with laundry bags full of Texaco hats and arms full of golf clubs. They would dash to our momentarily stationary squadron and trade those accouterments for the wheel caps and sabres of the seniors in the command rank and final rank. The "eyes right" in front of the viewing stand would greet Mr. Hope with a front row full of Texaco hats and golf clubs. It was a frippin' brilliant idea. Legendary. It could have been my greatest claim to fame in an entire four-year career.

But the squadron commander, a senior cadet, asked permission. Permission!! That might not have been a tragedy, but the major who was our squadron's Air Officer Commanding (AOC) was going places (upward) I think, and so rather than approving the move and becoming a part of the legend, he asked permission of the group AOC, a lieutenant colonel. The lieutenant colonel said "No."

I remember well the conversations, even among the freshmen, about the cost vs benefit of disobeying that direct verbal order to abort that proto-legendary spirit mission and then enlisting Mr. Hope in our appeals for clemency. But we didn't. And what Mr. Hope saw that day as our squadron passed in review was nothing special at all. Nothing to distinguish us from 40 other squadron that rendered honors passing under his gaze that day. Nothing to distinguish that parade from a hundred other such parades that great entertainer beheld in that long lifetime. Nothing by which he would have remembered our squadron and that parade as something extraordinary until the day, many, many years later when he died.

Within a day I had heard that phrase for the first time from instructors in my classes who immediately lauded the brilliance and simplicity of the plan and lambasted everyone in the chain of command that had disapproved it, from the Lt Colonel at the top to everyone down the chain who was dumb enough to ask. "Forgiveness is always easier to obtain than permission," they explained. Then they would close with the other great truth that has served me well through over 31 years in uniform: "If you can't stand the answer, don't ask the question."

Why do I remember those lessons so well? Because Bob Hope went to his grave with no reason whatsoever to remember that parade, our squadron. Because of its very normalcy, its exceeding excellence at being the embodiment of the nondescript, I will never forget it.