May 5
by Max Beardslee

The United States Air Force has a policy of offering a formal dining engagement for all of its officers on a periodic basis. Not alone here, all branches of the service have a similar policy. The Navy also calls theirs Dining In, the Army refers to the occasion as Regimental Dinner, the Marines and Coast Guard, Mess Night.

The Dining In is supposed to accommodate most of the fare one could suppose occurred around the Knights of the Round Table from long ago; camaraderie, morale building, story-telling, toasting and the like. At least that’s what military doctrine implied. By the winter of 1965 I had attended two Dining-Ins; one in Germany on a previous assignment, and one in Maine prior to my assuming management of the Loring Air Force Base officer’s club. Both lacked in the intended accommodation; carafes of cheap red wine, a so-so prime rib dinner, and the glow and fumes of hundreds of cheap cigars replaced the noble goals of the planners. Probably the one characteristic surviving history came from the toasts given over slurred words one imagines also happened in merry England long ago.

To many of the younger Air Force officers, their sole exposure to wine prior to entering the Air Force came from a thimble full at communion. In the sixties, wine hadn’t the popularity it enjoys today. However, at a Dining In, opportunity for quarts of the stuff existed if they wanted to give it a go. Couple that with the fixed price of the event, inviting a “more is better” consumption strategy and one could count on several Lieutenants winding their way to the men’s room, there to upchuck the noxious grape ferment.

The following raucous story over a Dining In occurred in February of 1965, at the now closed Loring facility.
Loring Air Force Base was located in the north eastern tip of Maine, near border towns named Presque Isle, Caribou, Moose River and Limestone. Just a few miles away lay New Brunswick, Canada. Its’ military population was about 5,500, the officer population being about 500 of that. The base comprised of B52 bombers and KC 135 tankers belonging to the 42nd Bomb Wing, and a squadron of F106 fighters for their protection. From its unique location as the closest continental U.S. location to eastern Europe, Loring’s mission, if ever enacted, bore unimaginable consequences: Nuke Russia. Opened in 1953 and staying open until 1994, Loring’s harsh climate and isolation caused the prevailing view to be less than desirable. But as deployments usually lasted three years or less, most airmen just made do with it.

Having been in the Air Force for about four years at this juncture, I managed the Officer’s Club. The story I want to share with you revolved around that setting. As background, back in the sixties, officers clubs enjoyed a fair amount of prestige within their communities, especially remote locations like Loring. Officers and their wives and guests could attend and spend considerably less than what a comparable civilian enterprise would charge, plus the added snobbery of being referred to as a club. The good prices came from the financial benefits that these clubs enjoyed, including a government supplied structure, free heat, light and power, and four free military types including myself, by then a young captain, and three sergeants. With no initiation fee and dues at seven bucks per month, belonging was considered mandatory.

In early 1965 I received word from my boss, Colonel Edington the base commander, that a Dining In needed to be scheduled for February of that year. The format would be basic. Provide an endless supply of red wine, a prime rib dinner and plenty of ash trays. Set the tables up in banquet style rows and supply a head table presided over by Edington’s boss, the Wing Commander named Colonel Shy, his key commanders, and his guest, a two star general from a Massachusetts headquarters location, who would be speaking after the meal. We could plan on about five-hundred officers attending, only ten of them being female, unlike today’s Armed Forces mix.

Not looking forward to a third boring Dining In, I studied my options. For one thing, I had become well established. Having a degree in Hotel Management I’d asked for the club assignment from Colonel Edington upon arriving at Loring from Germany to be a supply officer. And after about six months, Edington, a very popular leader among the predominantly ‘ground pounder’ non flight rated officers under him, worked me in. The club now operated quite well as opposed to the past and that success earned me much freedom in the areas of entertainment and food and beverage selection. I could take some risk in other words. For another, I’d gotten to know on a limited basis the intense and hardened wing commander, Colonel Shy, Loring’s head guy. Shy looked the part of a Strategic Air Command leader. Powerfully built, the Tennessee native spoke directly and sparingly while maintaining laser eye contact to run his tension filled operation.

Loring’s mission carried with it images of Armageddon like carnage. Nuke Russia. Couple that with a less than desirable locale and boosting morale appeared high on the Colonel’s desires. Comparing his job with that of a Wing Commander running a silk scarf clad fighter pilot operation out of Florida, and Colonel Shys’ appeared measurably tougher. From his personal secretary, I gleaned that Shy enjoyed a seldom seen sense of humor. I decided to test that premise.

With my strategy in place to prevent this event from being just another drunkathon, morale boosting being a corner stone of it, I called Shy’s secretary for an appointment with the man, subject the Dining In. At the appointed hour, I showed up, uniform pressed and cleaned, shoes buffed, but losing the battle to keep the palms of my hands dry. “Go on in, Captain, the Colonel is expecting you” his gracious and affable secretary allowed.

Walking into a spacious office, I halted 18 inches from Shy’s desk and popped a starchy salute, holding it until it was returned. Behind the seated Colonel, who could miss the Air Force Flag, the 42nd bomber wing Flag, and the U.S. flag as well as three phones, one painted bright red? I’d heard about that one, a direct private line to Strategic Air Command headquarters in Nebraska.

“What’s on your mind, Captain?”came the direct question from my seated commander who had an unlighted cigar in the corner of his wide jawed mouth. Taking a deep breath I came right to the point, sharing my views of previous Dining Ins, and my desire to avoid yet another by providing a little ‘lively’ entertainment.

The Colonel’s eyes brightened at the word lively and his jaw muscles began the process of rolling his cigar across his generous mouth. “I’m listening”. I pressed on. “Well, sir what I have in mind is importing a female dancer from Canada for the entertainment… I’d have her placed in a giant cake made out of chicken wire and napkins, like you see in cartoons in stag magazines, wheel her in at the conclusion of the General’s speech, have her step out onto one of the banquet tables I’d have re-enforced and let her kind of just prance around for awhile. Absolutely no nudity of course, sir.” And then I shut up, sweating out the verdict, figuring it could go either way.

The Colonel continued working his cigar in earnest, finally getting it rolled all the way across his mouth. A long pause ensued before the Colonel spoke. “I like it, Beardslee. The reason it’ll work is that the guest General can handle something like that. He’s a friend of mine and I’ll brief him about it.” The Colonel then gave me some coaching which basically spoke to the importance of anonymity otherwise officers’ wives could kill it if they got wind of it.

Basking in the glow of my risk taking success, my Colonel well in tow, I began a series of calls to talent agents in the adjacent Canadian province of New Brunswick. As an added bonus I took a call from Colonel Shy’s wife, wanting to get involved with making the cake and promising the needed anonymity. Wow! With her on board the risk of a Carrie Nation like movement coming from the wives appeared nil. Life was good. My mind spun out various scenarios of how the shock of a lady bursting out of a cake would play. All of the scenarios complimented me, the implementer, of course.

Preparations went quickly and well. One of my sergeants dug out some colored spot lights and a record of the music entitled “The Stripper”. Mrs. Shy and her close knit friends, all wives of senior officers, went to work on the cake, an immense structure large enough to store a fullly grown woman. And I contracted for a dancer who promised to dress in red, white and blue, and put on an energetic prance down the runway I had in mind. ‘Marie’ would come out of a strip joint up on the northern border, winning the job from my impression of her easy going personality over the phone.

The big night came with our secret largely intact. Only about a dozen people including Mrs. Shy’s helpers and my staff were in the know.

One row of tables leading to the head table had been carefully wire reinforced. I even made my sergeants get up on them and stomp around, assuring adequate support. That row would be my runway. If my gal fell, curtains for me. Marie the stripper, a great natured gal as it turned out, changed in my upstairs office and looked terrific. A little pot gut, in her forties, scantily dressed, she showed all red, white and blue replete with tassels in strategic places. Perfect! She’d shared with me this entertainment opportunity loomed by far as the biggest she’d ever been given. From her jittery movements and loud chatter, keeping her calmed down as best I could seemed the priority. All I could think of was giving her brandy, the alcoholic beverage of her choice.

The uneventful dinner plodded along with prodigious amounts of the cheap red wine, served in plastic carafes, being consumed, dulling taste buds enough to get through a mediocre dinner featuring not so prime rib, mashed potatoes and green beans without issue. Many toasts were offered, most in good taste, but some not, as alcohol began to show its effect. Then the inevitable lighting up of the cigars as the tables were cleared and Colonel Shy introduced his friend the General.

Out of sight of the 500 officers amassed in an open area, we’d stashed Marie in the cake, sitting high atop a food service cart. We could roll it up to the runway, making her entrance an easy transition. Marie’s only request meant keeping her in brandy which I became only too happy to accommodate. And then the General talked-and talked-and talked some more. The fifteen minutes I’d planned on turned into forty-five. Every ten minutes or so I’d reach down into the cake and hand Marie a refill.

The General concluded to a smattering of applause which would have normally ended the event but not for this one. Show time! We simultaneously turned the lights low, trained the colored spots on our reinforced, smoke filled runway, and rolled the cake out next to it. The top flipped open and out popped Marie, glistening with sweat from her confinement. Our music box blared away, right on cue. Da dum dee dee-diddle dum dee dee to the hit tune “The Stripper”.

The next few minutes were a blur as I watched Marie slowly work her way up the runway, kicking and prancing for all she had. Her fifteen minutes of fame and she was not to be denied. No sir. The tassels came quickly in to play. “You got engine number one fired up, baby, now go for number two”! Five Officers had left their tables, streaming for the main exit, just two of them women, meaning eight women remained. One Lt Colonel, a Mormon, told me in passing he was sure I’d be fired for this. But five out of five hundred appeared on the low side of what I’d figured. Especially the women. And the base Chaplain, a lt. colonel sitting at the head table, stuck it out, bless his heart.

My head felt giddy from the success and controversy surely to come from this event. Wow, wow, wow! Even better than I’d envisioned. Now, Marie simply needed to quickly head back up the runway, crawl into the cake, and exit the stage. Show over. Wait a minute. What was going on? What was she doing? She was saying something? Hard to hear from the din. Then the place quieted down as 500 people strained to hear her. They weren’t disappointed. “Which one of you old farts kept me in the cake so long?” That followed by deafening silence. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no! The adrenalin and brandy had put her over the top. Five- hundred officers, apprehensive. General’s never, ever got this kind of treatment.

Then I heard the engaging sound that would save my Captain’s bars. It was the General’s laughter. Starting out with a chuckle he ended up with a full blown lunger. And you know that when the General laughs, we all laugh.

Not wanting to risk any more brandy induced dialogue out of Marie, I quickly got her back in the cake, off stage, and escorted up the stairs to my office, accompanied by a boisterous ovation. In the meantime, Colonel Shy, full of himself for his part in this boisterous event, his arm around the General’s shoulder, walked by and stabbed a finger in my direction. “Captain, the General wants to sing. Get me a piano player.” Well, hell yes, I thought and I knew just the man for the job. “Yes sir!”

Lt Jack Potucek, a close friend and somewhat accomplished piano player could be counted on to get the job done. He’d played in a rock band, had a flare for the unusual and would get the job done. Just one problem. Where the hell was Jack? Well, that question became quickly answered. A loud shriek pierced the smoke filled air, female, and coming from my upstairs office. The stripper! What was up? Four or five horny, older officers, lined up outside my office door, hoping to get a peek of Marie and maybe give her a pinch or two, answered the shriek by barging into my office. Marie, about half dressed, pointed down to the floor. Lying under my desk, face up, was none other than the mustachioed Lt Jack Potucek, piano player of renown. Quickly, several pairs of condemning eyes aimed at his wine flushed face.

Getting immediately involved and quoting Colonel Shy’s orders every step of the way I rescued Jack from further miscue and dragged him down the stairs, plopping him on the piano’s bench. “Play, you son of a bitch, play.”

And that’s the end of the story. It did become a bit of a legend around the 8th Air Force, which encompassed Colonel Shy’s wing along with five others. A year later I processed out as a civilian, happily carrying with me the memory of the Dining In. Jack remains a close friend to this day, as an attorney in Wellington Kansas, wanting to become a larger part of this story but thus far being denied.

Read about the author on the Writer’s Bios Page