From the Poobah Files: The Tale of the Exploding Coat

Despite our omnipotence, we have made some spectacular mistakes over the years. True, we weren't screwed up enough to let people drown in their own houses, stumble into a no-win war, or let the nuclear Genie out of the bottle - but, we've had some pretty spectacular cockups nonetheless. We just admit them, unlike some others we could mention. Given the recent weekend of snow, this is the perfect time to admit to one of them.

During the winter of '78, the Air Force sent the Poobah on a mission to Ft. Drum in Watertown, NY. The mission? Support a Marine Corps training exercise that had been moved from Alaska to New York because - wait for it - there wasn't enough snow in Alaska.

While the Marines dug their accomodations in the snow by hand, the Air Force bunked at the local Ramada Inn. This was in keeping with an Air Force doctrine that suggested that the Air Force would not like to attend any wars unless there were suitable accommodations, a nice restaurant, and a bitchin' bar somewhere close by. Oh, and everyone had to be paid per diem too.

Before deploying, the Air Force issued full arctic gear for all the mechanics, despite the fact we expected to be outside of our heated hanger for no more than 15 minutes at a time. Unlike the Marines, who were issued no special winter gear, we toted a goose down parka and matching pants, a pair of goose down filled and fur-lined gunner's gloves, a warm hat, and a pair of Bunny Boots - weird white, inflatable things designed to keep the tootsies toasty warm.

For the first three days after our arrival there was almost no work. The weather was so bad that aircraft could not land to deliver the Marines' supplies. That happens when you deploy to a location with lots of, well, um, it snows.

We passed the empty time going to the movies, hanging out at the bar, and lounging around the heated, indoor hotel pool. The Marines mostly shivered in their ice caves and occasionally stopped by the hanger to see if we could spare some rags to insulate their field jackets and wrap their feet like refugees from Valley Forge.

On the fourth day, we were told there'd be inbound flights by mid-morning and were assigned to a "painting" detail. But this type of "painting" didn't involve houses, but snow.

Pilots landing in blowing snow have a very difficult time maneuvering because of a lack of depth perception. The Air Force's quite pragmatic approach was to "paint" the snow along the runways with lines similar to the ones you're seeing this week on the Olympic ski slopes. The lines give the pilots something to fly by and are much cheaper for the taxpayers than a multi-million dollar airplane spread around the place in large flaming pieces.

We used emergency flares to "paint" the snow. One end was a red smoke flare and the other that spewed white phosphorous - Willy Pete or WP for short. You ignited either end by pulling a small loop of string.

As we finished with the smoke flares we would put them into our parka pockets to take them to a "safe" location to burn off the Willy Pete. Simple. Expedient. What could go wrong?

We were loaded down with about 10 flares in each pocket - not quite as much explosive power as a WP rocket, but plenty of firepower nonetheless. As we pulled our the first flare, the loop of string caught the button of our parka pocket.

Suddenly, POOOOSH! A giant white-hot flame leapt from our pocket. Goose feathers flew. Unignited flares began to fall from the burning hole. Several more ignited as they fell around our Bunny Boot-clad. We stood there in a rapidly expanding pool of melted snow, looking a bit like a cross between Fourth of July fireworks display and a Winter Carnival celebration.

It really was quite merry.

As people began to come back from the places they'd run for cover, they began throwing snow on us to put out the fire. Of course, this devolved into a rollicking snowball fight with the Poobah as the target in the middle.

Soon enough the fires were out. Our brand-new, temporarily-issued parka lay in a smoking heap on the snow. Dozens of unignited flares lay where people had thrown them when they saw what happened to the Poobah. We saw stars from the blinding flash and lost a little hair off our arms, but were otherwise untouched. If it hadn't been for the fact it could have killed us, it would have been great fun.

When we returned home to North Carolina we returned our arctic gear to supply. The Poobah handed over the equipment as ordered, saving the parka for last.

We lay it like a dead bird on the sergeant's desk. There was a huge open burn in place of a pocket. The coat leaked goose down every time it was touched. It also had an 18 inch rip down the back where a piece of wire caught us. The beautiful rabbit fur lining on the hood looked like a hunting victim. It was missing clumps of red-stained fur and skin showed through in places. The damage came two days after the big fire when we'd spilled bright red hydraulic fluid while burying some in a snow bank. It scared the snowblower operators into thinking they'd hit a person with their huge chewing blades. Worked quite well as a matter of fact.

The coat laid there like a dead thing. Its mottled fur gone, huge burn in the side, leaking feathers, and with rips. It was obviously a total loss.

We began to explain what happened to the supply sergeant, but he held up a hand and said, "Don't worry kid. I don't even want to hear it. This shit happens every year."

Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Monday, February 13, 2006

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