I asked if there was a way that I could buy some additional OTS challenge coins before leaving. According to legend, challenge coins (or round metal objects ("RMOs"), as they must be called at the O-Club lest you end up buying a round of drinks) date back to WWII and the Army Air Corps (predecessor to the Air Force). One wealthy pilot had special gold-plated coins minted for everyone in his unit. One of the recipients valued his so much that he kept the coin in a leather pouch around his neck. He later was shot down and crash-landed behind enemy lines. Captured by the Germans, he was searched and stripped of all belongings save the coin, which they did not find. While being transported to a POW camp, the downed pilot was able to escape during an Allied bombing strike. He evaded capture and made his way to the French, only to be taken for a German saboteur posing as a civilian. Threatened with death, he produced his coin. One of the French soldiers recognized the unit marking and stalled the execution long enough to confirm the pilot's identity. From then on, it has become a military tradition to carry a challenge coin at all times. And I wanted to have some extra ones, just in case.
|The Airman's coin - given to all Airmen upon the completion of basic or officer training|
|The OTS coin, side 1|
|The OTS coin, side 2|
So Snake Eyes took me into the snake pit. If I wanted more coins, I had to buy them from Captain G, one of the other flight commanders. To the flight commanders their network of cubes was cube city. To us, it had always been the snake pit because you were bound to get bitten by a snake if you decided to wander through the cubicle maze. Best to take a direct line to the cube you seek, report in with one knock, a reporting statement, and a salute, and leave by the most direct route possible when dismissed. If you wandered around, some flight commander would catch you and you'd better have a good explanation for that confused look on your face. But here I was, on a Sunday stroll with Susan in tow, cakewalking into the heart of darkness.
We went to Captain G's cube. He greeted me with some kind words, said he was impressed with my performance, and proceeded to give us recommendations for restaurants to try in the area since we were sticking around until the following day. Did we want Thai? There's a great place near the Embassy Suites called Lek's Thai. More in the mood for steak? For that we'd need to head out to Exit 9 and follow the signs toward the mall. Only after about ten minutes of friendly banter did he set me up with the coins I needed and we left.
I knew Captain G was a nice guy, but this was out of control. And it didn't stop there. It was a lovefest in the snake pit. I swapped pleasantries with three or four other flight commanders and got into an in-depth conversation with one about his plans for medical school, law school, or both. This after spending five weeks in abject fear of forgetting to salute these men or say good morning, good afternoon or good evening (or, god forbid, say good morning when it was already afternoon or evening), and just avoiding all eye contact whatsoever with them. It was like I had stepped out of my trainee husk and back into my normal skin, and we were just shooting the breeze, a bunch of Air Force officers bumping into each other in the hallway. It was strange. And beautiful.
The next strange thing happened about an hour later, when I was back in my dorm room for the last time. I had gathered up the last of my belongings and shed the service uniform I'd been wearing all day. While packing I had absentmindedly pulled out some civilian clothes to don for the final ride off of Maxwell AFB. It wasn't until I was fully clothed in my civilian threads that I realized I had picked out the exact same outfit I wore when I arrived at the dorm the first day of COT. Blue Manny Pacquiao t-shirt, diesel khakis, grey Patagonia pullover. And grey New Balance sneakers, which I had yet to don. As I stepped into those and began to tie them, I thought about being told that first day to tuck in my shoelaces. It seemed a strange request at the time but I had since been told that it is a safety issue: the Air Force doesn't want people tripping over their shoelaces, so you tuck them in. I had done just that with every pair of shoes I wore for the last five weeks. But I was a civilian now. At least I felt like one. Looked like one. So I decided to leave my shoelaces untucked, just as I had for the first 32 years and five months of my life before arriving here. I felt free as I stood up to gather my bags together. And about three steps into my newfound freedom, I pinned a shoelace under my left foot and my entire right shoelace came undone. A sign? Perhaps. At the very least, an eerie coincidence. I chuckled to myself, retied my shoelaces (both feet), and tucked them in.
The third thing that happened was a surprise final visit from Kevin, the aforementioned unofficial mascot of OTS. As I crossed the street from OTS to walk over to Susan's hotel (she was staying in on-base billeting), I saw a tiny shadow out of the corner of my eye. Kevin was crossing the street, too, about twenty feet away from me. I smiled. Good old Kevin. I got all the way across the street and turned the corner around a fenced-in dumpster area, and there he was. Sitting at the corner of the fence. Watching me with disinterest, as always. I decided that I needed to grab one last picture of him to prove that he came to see me off. Nobody would believe me otherwise. So I stopped and balanced my bags, then stealthily pulled out my blackberry and switched it to picture mode. Kevin didn't move. Not then. Not until I got within ten feet and slowly started to raise the phone did he turn tail and nonchalantly trot off around the fence toward the entrance to the dumpster area. I followed him around, a little desperate and cursing my luck. As I circled the fence, I spotted Kevin appearing, disappearing, and reappearing through slats in the fence that offered me only acutely angled views. He was next to the dumpster. Then behind. He was looking at the ground. Then up at me. And then I lost him. I moved back a few steps to see if he was still visible from the last angle I'd had. Nope.
My immediate thought was to go into the dumpster area and flush him out of hiding. But I thought better of it. If Kevin doesn't want to be seen, who am I to force him out of cover? It was enough that he came to see me off. He didn't need to pose for a goodbye snapshot. And maybe I would barge into the dumpster area only to find that he had already left through some secret exit known only to him and other scavengers and nighttime marauders, or that he was never there at all. No, better to leave things as they were. See you in a few months, little buddy. I put away my phone, grabbed my bags, and walked off into the pale afternoon sunshine.