I remember it like it was yesterday. The day he nicknamed me. The day he gave me a name that stuck so hard a lot of people thought it was my real name. I’m not saying I didn’t fit the part, but a lot of the reason people took that as my name is because Clark said it. When that dude said something, everyone listened.
He had that kind of clout, that level of respect. So much so that when I see guys from that time in my military career now, they still call me that. Guess what; I still answer to it.
Clark had a lot of nick names for me when I first got to the 177th Fighter Wing Electric Shop out of tech school in February of 1990. I had one stripe at the point. A very proud airman I was.
The Air Force stripes were supposed to resemble wings. When you only had one or two, they looked like wingnuts. And that was my nick name for a bit. But that one never stuck.
Nope it was when he was teaching me how to wash and store the battery assembly that went in the went in the right-hand wheel well of the F-16. Clark was a storyteller who had almost no equal. As I was trying to do what he had just instructed me to do he began relaying the story of the little kid who lived next door to him.
Apparently little Vinny from next door liked to hang around Clark when he worked in the yard. Vinny was prone to get in all kinds of situations in Clark’s yard. Usually, Vinny would do something Clark had just told him not to do. See where this is going?
Clark would tell Vinny not to ride his little tricycle through the flower bed. Seconds later Clark would turn around and Vinny would be laying in the flower bed with his bike on top of him yelling for Clark to help him.
Vinny had to be home soon for dinner, he would get himself stuck in the large oak tree in Clark’s yard and yell for help.
Clark’s dog wasn’t feeling well and laying out in the driveway, Vinny and his tricycle would fall on her seconds after Clark told Vinny to try to steer clear of her.
So, after watching me attempt to disassemble and wash and then store this battery assembly, Clark took to calling me Vinny. Relaying the story of his neighbor kid was Clark’s way of telling me I was jacking it up nine ways to Sunday without telling me I was jacking it up nine ways to Sunday. So, I was Vinny. And that name stuck like glue.
In my defense I was the new guy. I made new guy mistakes. Plus, Clark was intimidating. He wasn’t an ogre or anything. I mean he was tall, but he was the nicest guy around. No, Clark was intimidating because he had unbelievably high standards and unlike a lot of people, he lived up to his own standards.
He was as skilled an electrician as I have ever seen. He had a flare for troubleshooting and could come up with fixes on the fly in amazing situations. He was as quick witted as they come. He lived for the emergency. He loved the red phone. We would get calls on a literal red phone from Maintenance Control when something was busted. It got his heart going. The flightline was his arena. He was an artist and pressure was his medium.
And one day fixing a battery issue with the pilot waiting plane side, he called me Vinny. I was the new kid with one stripe on my arm and I was anonymous as could be. Until that moment. Everyone within ear shot knew Vinny had to be my name.
Clark said it was.
Thirty plus years later and I still am Vinny. The only difference is it went from a bit of an inside joke to my actual name. Even eight months later when the shop chief wandered out to the line and called me by my god given name, the crew chiefs and others standing around replied with obvious confusion. Francis, who the hell is Francis? When the bewildered shop chief pointed at me the reply was almost in unison. That’s not Francis, that’s Vinny. And they were right, my name was Vinny.
Clark said it was.
What made Clark such a hero to me was the simple fact that a guy with such talent and such drive to be a perfectionist could always be so damn funny and always have a story to tell. Clark could lighten any mood in any environment.
He was old school to a fault. When smoking was outlawed in all government buildings in the US and all US military facilities outside the US, Clark wanted to protest. He smoked a lot and drank diet coke like it was water. He got me hooked on what he called that magic elixir. He finally got his chance to protest the smoking regs and he made the most of it.
We were in Goose Bay Canada. They did not have the same rules as far as smoking went. I forget what country owned the hangar we were working out of but it followed none of the rules or social conventions the US bases did. In the electric shop of this hangar Clark found two liquid oxygen bottles. One was pristine. The other looked like it had been in a fire. His bulb went off immediately.
He had me take a pic of him smoking with a big smile on his face next to the pristine LOX bottle. Then another pic with him next to the burnt LOX bottle and the ciggy hanging from his mouth and a sour look as if the bottle had just blown up in his face. It wasn’t Abbott and Costello, but it seemed pretty funny at the time.
The pic above is pre-explosion.
All the joking aside, Clark was respected as the informal leader for good reason. He never cut corners when it came to aircraft maintenance. He didn’t suffer people who cut corners either. He set the example for young guys like me to follow. He just didn’t crow about it. He was a lunch pail guy with the brain of a genius when it came to trouble shooting and fixing the aircraft
He would preach to me about dependability. Damn it Vinny, he’d say, when the red phone rings be there to answer it. I learned from him, as well as from others, being called out to the line meant I was representing all of them. What I did out there reflected on them as well as me. How I conducted myself mattered and I should take it seriously, cause that’s what he did.
That shop was steeped in that philosophy. Guys like Tim Donovan and Joe Zane and George Wessler and John Bennett were cut from the same cloth as Clark. Amazingly skilled at their jobs, dedicated to the cause, and proud to wear the uniform.
It was a privilege to be among them. I am who I am because of them, no matter what they called me.
Rest in peace Clark, you’ve earned it.