Recently, while my husband, Francis, and I were lugging our window air conditioners out of the attic, he relayed a personal story I’d never heard in our 25 years of marriage. I’m not sure if it was the sticky weather we were experiencing or the sweat mustache that had sprouted on my upper lip, but Francis was reminded of an incident that happened 30 years ago in the oppressive heat of Pensacola, Florida — one that could have ended his military career before it ever really started.

He was eight weeks into Aviation Officer Candidate School, when on a sizzling morning, his battalion was called outside the barracks to line up for an inspection, which were really routine harassment sessions meant to test the candidates’ resolve. Francis stood at attention with his fellow recruits, eyes forward, monitoring peripherally as Staff Sergeant Hodgeman, USMC, made his way down the line. One recruit missed a belt loop. Another had a scuffed shoe. Each was doled out a dose of humiliation, along with an appropriate number of “hop and pops.”

Upon reaching Francis, the Sergeant glared intimidatingly from under the bill of his Marine Corps campaign hat, slowly turning his line of sight downward to look at Francis’ uniform. His carefully measured scrutiny stopped abruptly at Francis’ belt buckle. Francis braced himself for a verbal assault.

“Did you even polish this?!” he spat out.

“Sir, yes SIR!” Francis lied.

“Look at this!” the sergeant demanded.

“SNAP!” Francis shouted as trained, and dropped his eyes to the hazy, dull buckle.

“If you polished it, how did it get like this?!”

In such crucial moments during every military service person’s basic training, one is expected to swallow one’s pride, admit all transgressions, and accept the consequences without complaint. Francis knew that recruits who buck this time-honored system generally fail, but on that steamy Florida morning, while his angry superior was waiting for the expected response, standing rigedly, eyes pointed, Francis felt a twinge of mischief.

Although fully cognizant that mischievous behavior could ruin his chances of becoming a military officer, his mind quickly weighed the pros and cons of being funny rather than obedient. (Incidentally, Francis and I would later realize we had this character trait in common — we both place inordinate importance on making other people laugh, even when a situation calls for restraint.)

It is not certain if the heat had impaired Francis’ judgment, but as the scales tipped toward impishness, he formed the response that would either charm his superior officer or throw eight weeks of basic training down the latrine.

After a tense pause, Francis, standing at perfect, obedient attention, barked the risky reply for all in the battalion to hear: “PERHAPS THE HUMIDITY, SIR!”

For several knife-edged seconds, all that could be heard was the distant whirring of aircraft propellers. Francis’ mind flashed with scenes of heading home in disgrace on a Trailways bus to report that he had been kicked out of the Navy for insubordination.

But then, he heard a snort, a muffled chuckle, and felt the welcome relief of a battalion full of stifled grins. Sergeant Hodgeman’s hat remained angled toward the buckle, concealing his face, but Francis could see the marine’s jaw clenching in an effort to hide a smile. With a restrained grunt, the sergeant regained his composure and raised his head, and with a twinkle in his otherwise fearsome eyes, he sidestepped down the line to the next recruit, leaving Francis’ Navy career intact for another day.

Military friends have told similar stories, of moments when they took a stupid risk with a superior. One friend relayed, “I once said ‘Marine Corpse’ to a Gunnery Sergeant. I felt like a corpse by the time he was done with me.”

Another was ordered by his boatswain’s mate to be sure he had the bitter end while securing lines, and he replied indignantly, “I know I’m new here, but I’m not going to put the line in my mouth to see if it’s bitter or not!”

No one knows why each foolish recruit survived their own idiocy in those fateful moments, but one thing is for certain: It most definitely wasn’t the humidity, Sir.

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