Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Mattress Exchange Day

OK, today I'm just wanting to share a couple of memories. They're anecdotes, really; but you might find them entertaining.

Way back in the day -- 1982 -- I left US Air Force Basic Training to start radio tech school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.
To my geek friends: Basic Training is NOT where you learn about line numbers and why you should never type GOTO (unless you should). That's BASIC training.

This is the place, roughly as it looked when I arrived (click to embiggen it):

Today it looks a great deal different. Hurricane Katrina washed much of the base away, including almost all of the buildings that housed the training squadrons. These are the weird-looking buildings that are in the triangular area at the bottom-left. They've been replaced with buildings that look depressingly normal.

I was initially assigned to the 3413th Student Squadron, affectionately known as "Animal House", as I was reminded today. We didn't earn the title, but we maintained it with vigor.

FYI, someone in training at Keesler was known as a "pinger", which is actually an acronym standing for "Person In Need of Graduation". As is usual for all places of continuing education, we took it upon ourselves to put those newly arrived students to the test.  Let's not call it "hazing", shall we? That always sounds so crass. I thought of them as fun gags.

One of the gags that had a long tradition was that of "Chief Master Rope". And now you need to know what a "Rope" is. In military tradition, aiguillettes are decorative colored braided cords worn on the shoulder, often by Third World dictators. In the US Air Force they're worn under the epaulet and unobtrusively tucked under the shoulder.

In other countries, and particularly the United Kingdom, they tend to be more prominent. To the left is picture of Prince Harry in splendid regalia at William's wedding. It's either that, or he fell off the dock and onto a trawler and, being in a hurry, just showed up still entangled in the rigging.

At Keesler these devices were worn by student leaders, who were known by the color of their "ropes".

  • A Green Rope was also known as a Bay Chief. Each was responsible for a dormitory "bay" in which were housed maybe two dozen Airmen. 
  • A Yellow Rope, aka "Floor Rope" was responsible for an entire floor, maybe six or eight bays. This was the best of the student leader positions. I know because I was one.
  • A Red Rope, aka "Suck-up" (but only behind his back) was responsible for all of the Yellow Ropes and reported to the Squadron Commander. 
  • A White Rope was a chapel guide.
  • A Black Rope was on the drill team.
  • Blue ropes weren't worn by students... those were instructors.

Augillette of a
"Chief Master Rope"
And now you know. The important ones for this story were the traffic light colors. "Chief Master Rope" (or CMR, a parody of Chief Master Sergeant), was a fictional grade used for the gag. Enterprising jokesters would un-braid one of each of the student leader cords and then braid them back together to form this emblem of super-rank. Then he'd show up in a dormitory bay unannounced and perform a mock "inspection". Of course, everyone would be in the know except for the new guy, who would be quaking in his boots. Of course, he'd be the one singled out. His belongings would be scattered, he'd be yelled at and belittled until at some point he'd be shown mercy. His buddies would come clean about the gag, and everybody would have a good laugh as they helped him put his stuff back in order. It was a protracted form of jumping out and shouting "Boo!"

Of course, The Powers That Be couldn't allow such a thing to continue, lest it be confused with hazing. So by the time I got there, new students were warned of "Chief Master Rope Inspections" during their in-processing, and were encouraged to report such behavior.

Naturally, only a dick would actually report it. Enterprising souls found ways to use these warnings to their benefit. One ingenious solution was "Mattress Exchange Day"...


There were many ways to pull this one off, but we started with the old "Chief Master Rope" gag. Of course we knew our victim had been warned, and he was suitably unimpressed by the charade. We nevertheless pretended to be fearful and respectful of our fake boss, while our victim was convinced of how terribly lame it was. And truth be told, the CMR was as lame as we could possibly make him... all dressed up like a cross between General MacArthur and a bag of Skittles.

Then, just when our victim is convinced of the stupidity of it all, an older fellow barges in, preferably in his late twenties or thirties, with no signs of a recent trainee haircut, and with a mustache, wearing civilian clothes. Before he says a word, everyone in sight of him snaps to rigid attention. An almost inaudible "oh, shit" might escape someone's lips.

He never announces his name or his rank -- lying about that could get you discharged. The implication is clear, though, that this is an NCO at the very least or perhaps even an officer. Whoever he is, he's one Important Guy. He demands, "What the hell is going on here?"

And that's when the CMR sees him. SNAP! Attention! Oh, shit, the hat! Off comes the hat! Off come the mirrored glasses, revealing eyes that look as though they have witnessed the fury of God Himself. The corncob pipe clatters to the polished floor.

The victim is perplexed, but he knows that something just went horribly wrong and he's at attention, too, out of sheer reflex. He's straight out of Basic. It's what you do.

And now the "Chief Master Rope" is dressed down thoroughly, and might be made to do pushups or some other fun task, the purpose of which is to convince the victim that this is real.

"You jackasses want an inspection, you'll GET ONE!" bellows the IG, who then turns on his heels into the pinger's room and proceeds to tear it to shreds. Nothing is right about it. Nothing. The poor victim can't even see the mayhem, as he's standing at attention in the hall, facing away.

Once the sheets are torn from the bed, IG lets out a cry of astonished rage:
"You idiot! It's Mattress Exchange Day! Why the hell isn't your g**d*** mattress at the g**d*** CQ?  Get your ass down there!  Move it!  Move it!  Move it!
And of course, our completely cowed target would be halfway down the hall before the second "Move it!" with mattress in tow.

We had to stop the poor victim as he was dragging his bedding down the stairs. And we'd come clean about the gag and everybody would have a good laugh as they helped him put his stuff back in order.

Of course, if you really wanted to mess with the pinger again, you could always tell him that it was all a joke except Mattress Exchange Day.  That's next Tuesday.


Shortly thereafter I changed shifts and moved to the 3411th. They never did Mattress Exchange Day. Boring.


  1. We had been working ridiculous hours for almost 2 weeks during the annual REFORGER exercise in Germany, and had just come off an all night 12 hour shift. My platoon shuffled off to breakfast at the mess hall before being released to hit out bunks. I wound up sitting with my NCO and another soldier, the latter of whom inhaled his food and left. The NCO got up to get his food, leaving his cup of coffee on the table to cool.
    The next thing I knew, the salt shaker just FLEW into my hand and started dumping itself into his cup. Hearing a snort from nearby, I saw a German soldier had spotted what I had done. I made a "Shhhhh- quiet" motion at him. and waited as the Sgt came back, ate breakfast and didn't drink the coffee until he was done eating. Did I say drink? Wellllll...he got a mouthful in, and did a perfect spit take. Fortunately for me, it was back into the cup, not on me. The German guy lost it. My Sgt said he had wondered why the guy had been sitting there taking so long over a cup of coffee, watching us.
    His revenge? It was horrible.
    He did NOTHING to me.
    It was like eternally waiting for the other shoe to fall.

  2. Outstanding blog post! Makes me long for the "Good Old Days" and Keesler as it was way back when.

    I was a Pinger back back during Feb-Aug 1983 and assigned to the 3382nd. Our building was the one that had the post office in it and was across the street from the bowling alley & the Vandenburg Rec Center.

    I was a 328X4 Avionic Inertial And Radar Navigation Systems Specialist and trained at Allee & Dolan Hall.

    So many memories...

    The first evening after I got settled in to my new dorm room I got hit with the Chief Master Rope bit. There was a guy in the bay however, who was having none of it and warned me not to fall for it. He even started bitching out the CMR once he came into my room and started haranguing me. I remember being kind of on the fence whether to buy the bit or not, and felt kind of disappointed later that I wasn't regaled with the full routine as a rite of passage.

    I shortly thereafter met up with a guy I was in high school ROTC with in Warner-Robins, Georgia and was also on our unit's drill team with. He was on our squadron's drill team and invited me to join which I did. I loved it. One of the great things about drill team was it got you out of PT in the afternoon. Once we got home after school, that was it for us save for drill practice (which is what exempted us from PT). That was a big relief for me as the only time I cared about running was if it was for my life, not for exercise. I was not a hot weather person, and trying to run in the heat and humidity at Keesler was Hell to me.

    Anyway, later in my tenure at Keesler, we beefed up the size of our drill team with members absorbed from another squadron. There was this guy among them who was easily in his late 20's, 5 o'clock shadow, hairy arms, granite jaw... a complete badass. He made a great CMR. Very intimidating to our newbies.

    When I had gotten to Keesler, I was told that I had come at the end off the really good times when the leadership had really begun to clamp down on student behavior. One of the things that precipitated this was, according to legend (or truth, or whatever), a guy got drunk one day and threw a vending machine out a dorm window. Later, after I retrained into the communications field in 1987 (and spent another 6 months at Keesler), I PCSd to Aviano, Italy where I became friends with a guy who claimed HE was the guy who threw the machine out the window. At the very least, he would have been there at the right time, and I had no reason to doubt him.

    There was also the infamous student escort ring that got busted up that may have had a lot to do with the crackdown as well.

    Regardless, we all complained about the place, but we all had a great time. Hanging out at the Vandy, the Tiger's Den, etc., the Triangle movie theater, the chow hall, weeds & seeds, the STAIRS program, going to the squadron admin office in the morning to check the uniform of the day, marching to school/home in the rain, the Bomb Run, the chow hall...

    One of my favorite movies is Blade Runner, and I saw it first on a TV set & VCR set up in the foyer of the Vandy by the Triangle chaplain for a free movie night. Another one was at the Fish Bowl for The African Queen. While on the drill team, we all chipped in to rent a video disc player for several months. Or favorite movie was Stripes (and the graduation drill scene of course) was our favorite. Animal House, Star Trek II, and TRON were other favorites. I also fondly remember going downtown with a bunch of drill team buddies to see Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi when it first came out.

    Such great times there. Thanks again for your post and for sparking such great memories.