The real UPT cast of characters is much longer and much funnier than I've attempted to describe in IF YOU AIN'T A PILOT. The purpose of this scene was to illustrate a bizarre but frequent interaction between a well-intended student and a disinterested instructor. Although the two are taking turns speaking, neither is engaged in conversation with the other.
Since it didn't progress the action of the story, I pulled it. I still like it, however, and interactions like these inspired me to sketch out Second Lieutenant Goofus and Second Lieutenant Gallant cartoons about students in UPT.
First Lieutenant Jeff Prince, the Head Scheduler in Dagger, was a bulked up Tom Cruise look-alike, who probably spent as much time working on bizarre comedy routines as he did in working out at the gym—thus all his skits burning Al these past months. Because his desk was right next to Lieutenant Wilson’s desk in front of the scheduling board, Kenny and I had interacted with him fairly regularly, and Lieutenant Wilson knew we were very comfortable with him.
Like Lieutenant Wilson and most of the rest of the other Dagger IPs, Lieutenant Prince was a FAIP, but unlike most of the rest of the IPs and students in the room, Lieutenant Prince was not an Academy grad. He had graduated from Georgia or Georgia Tech and gotten his Air Force commission through ROTC. Maybe that’s why he and Al Turbiglio had initially been matched up, so Al wouldn’t feel like an outcast in a roomful of grads and might be more at ease learning to fly from someone who had also attended a civilian college. If that was the intent, I don’t think it worked, but then again, I don’t know if I had ever seen Al truly at ease.
“Sir, can I ask you a few questions about some things we learned in academics today,” Al pestered Lieutenant Prince one afternoon between flying periods.
“Hold on a minute,” Lieutenant Prince replied. “I was about to eat my lunch. Let me go grab my lunch from the fridge in the IP room, and I’ll answer your questions while I eat.”
While Lieutenant Prince got up to get his lunch, Al flipped through the pages of his heavily highlighted “Instrument Flying” workbook, set his stack of homemade flash cards on his side of Lieutenant Prince’s desk, and organized his notes, like he were an attorney preparing to question an important witness on the stand.
“Angela packed my lunch today,” Lieutenant Prince told Al as he returned to his seat from the IP room behind the scheduling board. “She’s a great wife,” he continued, “but she’s never really been a very good cook. I’m proud of her for trying something new.” As he set up his story, Lieutenant Prince smiled widely and looked around to the students near his desk to pull in an audience. I also think that he was fending off Al’s daily barrage of questions. And if today’s questions were like most days’ questions, Al probably already knew the answers to most of what he was going to ask.
“I do all the cooking at home,” Lieutenant Prince went on, drawing me, Kenny, and Chuck Villanueva over to the desk to listen to his story. “Angela, bless her heart, has been telling me that she’d like to contribute more to our meals, even though she knows she’s not a very good cook. So this week, she is starting out by making me lunches for the first time since we’ve been married.”
Working from his own agenda, Al obliviously opened his line of questioning. “Sir, can I ask you about fix-to-fixes?”
“Sure thing,” Lieutenant Prince indifferently answered him, his attention focused on the brown paper bag he’d placed on his desk. Chuck, Kenny, and I patiently watched the lunch bag, too, wondering what Lieutenant Prince had in store for today’s routine. Without looking down, Al’s IP pulled a plastic fork and knife from the center drawer of his desk. Then, he grabbed a paper towel from his bookshelf and tucked a corner of it into the center zipper on the front of his flight suit, like a baby bib.
The brown paper lunch bag sat on the desk waiting to be opened as Lieutenant Prince built the suspense. “I’m looking forward to this,” he smiled, thumping his fists down on the corners of his desk, one clenching the plastic fork straight up-and-down and the other clasping the plastic knife the same way.
“Me, too, sir,” Al said, unaware of the lunch bag. “The workbook says that the first step in flying a fix-to-fix is to ‘Tune, Identify, and Monitor.’ Is that procedure or technique?”
Still smiling giddily, Lieutenant Prince poked his lunch bag with the knife. He shook the bag up and down a couple of times, weighing its contents, like a kid might shake and weigh a Christmas present to try to guess what’s inside. “What do you think it is?” he asked back, looking first to Al and then to the rest of us gathered around his desk.
“Sir, I think it’s procedure,” Al responded and shuffled his notes and flash cards to prepare for his next question.
“Well, let’s see,” Lieutenant Prince said with great excitement, all but ignoring Al. He opened the brown paper bag and peered inside to discover what culinary wonders his loving wife had lovingly prepared him for lunch.
While Al queued up his next question, the rest of us watched Lieutenant Prince struggle to suppress his look of shock.
“Bless her heart,” Lieutenant Prince sighed, encourage a smile to sweep across his face. He gazed up at the ceiling... at nothing in particular... and sighed again.
“Sir, I’d like to talk about alternates,” Al cut in again. “When do you need an alternate?”
The real smile returned to Lieutenant Prince’s face when Al asked his question. Why Al didn’t already know the answer to this one? He already had his civilian pilot’s license. Could it be that different?
“Lieutenant Turbiglio,” Lieutenant Prince acknowledged Al’s question. “You’d like to know ‘When do you need an alternate?’ I’ll tell you when you need an alternate.” He lifted the brown paper bag off the desk with one hand and pinched a corner at the bottom of the bag with the other. “For those times when your first choice isn’t necessarily your best choice, you need an alternate,” and as he finished his reply, Lieutenant Prince let go of the top of the bag and flipped it down.
With a thunk, one lone, fist-sized, hard, slightly dirty, and very raw potato dropped from the brown paper bag. It wobbled a couple of awkward rolls before stopping in the middle of the desk. Lieutenant Prince looked from the potato to Al, from Al to the rest of us, and from the rest of us back to the potato. “Bless her heart,” he sighed again.
“Sir, why do you have a potato?” Al wanted to know.
“Angela packed my lunch today. She’s a great wife,” Lieutenant Prince told Al, starting his routine again, because Al obviously had not heard it the first time, “but she’s never really been a very good cook. We’ve both been saying that we need to eat more vegetables, and I guess this is what she came up with.”
“Lieutenant Prince, you’re probably going to want to have something to drink with your lunch.” Chuck suggested, always one to look out for the best interests of others.
“What do you think goes well with raw potato?” Lieutenant Prince asked. “Maybe some warm tap water?”
“Aaaay!” Kenny laughed. “Tap water’s the best.”
At this point, I wanted in on the bit, too.
“Sir, I’m not a potato connoisseur. What is the best way to eat a lunchtime potato?” I asked.
Taking only about half a second to come up with an answer, Lieutenant Prince picked his potato up from his desk and rubbed it up and down on the sleeve of his flight suit.
“The best way to eat a lunchtime potato,” he grinned widely, “is like you’re eating an apple,” and with that, he took a large bite from the potato and chomped away.
Al looked back and forth from his notes and flash cards to Lieutenant Prince. Dumbstruck, he didn’t ask another question.