Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Life in the Military, Part II: The Quest for a Floor Buffer

Legend had it that buffers were available for free checkout from the base self-help store. Mind you, there were three hundred housing units on the base. Three hundred military families with floors that regulations “recommended” be waxed and buffed at least once a week.

The self-help store had only three buffers in its inventory, two of which were always checked out while the third was in a constant state of repair. Everyone wanted to know why they didn’t buy more buffers. The answer was always, “The budget only allows us to maintain three buffers. We can’t buy any additional buffers unless it turns out the third one can’t be repaired. Only then can we order a new one.”

Ha! When I was in the Air Force, I got stuck with supply monitor duty, and let me tell you, no one alive today will live to see that new buffer. I know, because I once had to order one.

Somewhere downtown is a store specializing in appliances like vacuums, zambonis, buffers—anything you use on a floor. When I was supply monitor, you couldn’t just go in there, say “I’d like to buy a buffer, will you take a company check?” then walk out of there with said buffer thrust into a plastic bag with the sales slip and a coupon for a dollar off your next purchase of Johnson Wax.

No, nothing that simple or efficient. Instead I had to fill out Air Force Form 601b in quadruplicate, and submit it to the squadron commander for his signature. The 601b included a huge blank block headed JUSTIFICATION. This was an essay question worth more points than anything else on the form. Here I had to explain why it was necessary to spend taxpayers’ money on a new buffer for the office.

“Buffer is needed to buff office floors after waxing,” I wrote.

No matter what you ordered, whether it was a Number 2 pencil or a Stealth bomber, the form invariably came back stamped with the word DISAPPROVED followed by one of two reasons for disapproval. It was either CANNOT IDENTIFY ITEM or INSUFFICIENT JUSTIFICATION.

In the case of the buffer, the form came back stamped INSUFFICIENT JUSTIFICATION.

What the heck more does anyone need than that? What else do you do with a floor buffer?

I called up the supply squadron and asked the clerk there to elaborate.

“You also need a popcorn popper to pop popcorn,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean the government’s going to buy you one. You have to explain why you need to pop popcorn.”

The supply monitor for the crew of the Enola Gay probably put “Atom bomb is needed to end the war with Japan” on his 601b, and it still came back stamped INSUFFICIENT JUSTIFICATION. He would’ve had to explain why America needed to end the war with Japan.

So I redid the form. Under JUSTIFICATION, I wrote, “Buffer is needed to buff office floors after waxing. Floors must be waxed because they are dirty. Dirt has a negative impact on the Air Force mission.”

Again, the form came back stamped INSUFFICIENT JUSTIFICATION. Seems I didn’t explain how dirt had a negative impact on the Air Force mission. How did it keep the planes from flying? Well, too much of it could clog up the engines and—oh, what the hell. The JUSTIFICATION was still INSUFFICIENT.

Eventually I managed to spin such a convincing story (I borrowed a few details from the movie Independence Day—something about aliens attacking military installations in search of wax residue to oil and fuel their spacecraft before moving on to another planet big on military—or wax, if you will—buildup), that the disapproval was changed to CANNOT IDENTIFY ITEM.

Considering the rarity of buffers, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that no one in the Supply Squadron knew what I was talking about.

The supply clerk advised me—with a perfectly straight face, mind you—to attach a sample of the requested item to the 601b.

Hello? Planet Earth calling, will you accept the charges? If I had a “sample” I wouldn’t have needed to order one! Not to mention that even if I did have a sample to attach, it would have required me to order extra large heavy duty industrial strength paper clips—which Supply couldn’t identify, either. I should know. I’ve sent them 601b’s with whole chains of different paper clips dangling from the upper left-hand corner.

The supply squadron clerk, who seemed to have a witty comeback for everything, said if a sample wasn’t available or attachable, to just include a picture of it instead. See previous paragraph above.

Obtaining a picture of a buffer would have further required me to hire a private investigator to hide out in alleys and dumpsters, waiting for one to skulk by. How much do you want to bet I could have gotten government approval—oh, better than approval, but a federal grant for that?

It was too much. Several months earlier I’d gone through a similar rigmarole ordering envelopes. Long, white, Number 10 business size envelopes. You know what I’m talking about. I know what I’m talking about (at least some of the time). I could interview fifty people on the street and every last one of them would know exactly what I was talking about . . . unless they happened to be assigned to the Supply Squadron.

Apparently the stock number I’d given them for the envelopes—which I got straight from the box containing our remaining inventory—was no longer listed in the supply roster. Some bureaucrat at the Pentagon had been charged with the all-important task of changing the stock number, so who knew how to find it now? The supply clerk presented me with a foot thick binder that constituted the roster, and turned to the section listing envelopes.

“Find your envelope here,” he said.

There were more envelopes listed in that roster than there are Smiths in the Manhattan white pages.

Who knew there were so many different kinds? The kind I wanted was so standard, so common, that it should have been at the top of the list.

But I never found it. We had to wait till they mysteriously appeared in the warehouse months later.

Meanwhile, I went to the commander to tell him of my dilemma with the buffer. He fired off a letter to the commander of the Supply Squadron, and finally got (some) results.

The request was finally approved.

And, like everything else in the military supply system, promptly placed on backorder.

In the meantime, we had to continue borrowing the buffer from another squadron across the street. I asked how they’d gotten it and when, but no one knew. The form used to order it was no longer on file. Regulations dictated such forms were kept in active files for one year, inactive for another year, then moved to archives somewhere in the Ozarks. The person who ordered it had long since gone to that great big VA waiting room in the sky.

It seemed the buffers on hand had always been there, even before the base was built; the buildings and aircrafts and runways had merely sprung up around them.

As for the buffers designated for residents in base housing, I’ve never met anyone in base housing who ever actually checked out one of them. In fact, no one seemed to know anyone in housing who’d ever used one of them, simply because they were never available. No one wanted to go off base and spend hundreds of dollars to buy one of their own, but if you wanted to buff the floors in your on-base house, that’s what you had to do, unless you could find a place that rented them.

I didn’t want to, so I didn’t. At the time I had young children. I swept and mopped, and that was it. When it came time to move to another base, we hired a professional cleaning service to clean the housing unit to the standards required by the Air Force, and let them buff the floors.

All military organizations have mottos. I have one for the supply system:


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