Part III-The Driver/Accountant and The Magical Slide Rule

(Be sure to start with Parts I and II before proceeding)

After some time off and a chance to say goodbye for now to my parents, I arrived in Korea.  When I got there, the first news I heard was that the Mets had won the World Series.  What was the world coming to?  In existence for only seven years, including their first where they lost 120 games, they were now World Champs!  Unbelievable.  As we were waiting for where we would end up, other GI’swould be shouting numbers at us.  I couldn’t figure it out until we were told that since Korea was a 13-month tour, everyone knew how many days they had left before they would go home.  They had been taunting us since they knew we had a long way to go.  There were special celebrations for breaking each 100 day barrier and a one for when you became a “one digit midget” (when you went from 10 to 9 days left).  No time for that now.  I was anxious to see where I would end up.

I was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division whose role it was to man the DMZ.  Those wacky North Koreans were just as wacky then as they are today.  If anything were to occur, it was our mission to delay their advance as long as possible.  Not exactly my cup of tea but somebody had to do it.  The thought of spending the next year or so in a foxhole staring north was not appealing.  But then I thought about all my training buddies who would trade with me in a minute.  Time to stop feeling sorry for yourself, I thought.

Something very peculiar happened.  I was told to see a Specialist Petrelli.

I never found out if he did what he did on his own, with his superiors turning their back or what, but I know it couldn’t be in accordance with Army procedures.  It defied Army logic.  What he did was to screen the personnel records when the new troops arrived in country and he looked for those with special skills/college graduates.  As a result, I summoned to him and he said:

P: How would you like to be assigned to Division HQ?

Me: What does that mean?

P: HQ is like the corporate headquarters of a company.  It has a three star General (CEO), various department heads (Vice Presidents).  The section in charge of Supply and Maintenance needs an accountant.

Me: But I’m not an accountant; the Army says I’m an 11B10 rifleman/grunt soldier.

P: I know but they want an accountant but their organization charts says that they don’t need one.  But they are having problems achieving their mission with their current personnel who are not competent enough to perform simple financial functions.

Me: So where do I come in?

P: Here how it works:  They have an opening for a driver.

Me:  But I don’t have an Army driver’s license.  (It was true.  Although I aced the written exam and had the fastest reaction time, I had never driven a stick shift before.  It seems that using the clutch properly is a pre-requisite for driving the test vehicle, a deuce and a half, a 2 1/2 ton truck).

P: Right, but you go there and become the accountant they want but are told they don’t need.

Me:  So I’ll be their driver, who can’t drive who becomes an accountant for the organization that the Army says they don’t need and can’t have?  Is that about right?

P: Precisely!

Me:  Let’s see.  A desk job in Division headquarters or standing in a foxhole in sub-zero temperatures.  Sign me up!

I get it.  Another Army work around!

So there it was.  I became a Driver/Accountant.  The thought crossed my mind that a lot of this could have been avoided if the Army had listen to my original  idea of making me an Army accountant in the first place.

When I arrived at the new place, I was shown where I would live.  It was an old Quonset hut that had seen better days.  But as bad as it was on the outside, the inside was spectacular.  You see it was filled with a group of about 30 guys, many of whom were also saved by Petrelli.  Most were college graduates.  I was not an intellectual by any means but I had forgotten what it was like to have an intelligent conversation on a consistent basis.  For the remainder of my tour in Korea, it was a place where I would go to feel some form of normalcy.

I soon reported for duty and after the short orientation, was shown to the room where I would work.  It housed 2 officers and 3 sergeants.  They told me of the first assignment.  The general wanted to know how much fuel would be needed to move the division 100 miles.  I thought to myself for a moment.  I guess we would need to know how many of the various vehicles there were, split by whether they used gas or diesel, the consumption rates, miles per gallon (or in the case of tanks, gallons per mile).  Didn’t sound too bad.

I waited for them to tell me more.  After a short staring contest, I realized that they were looking for me to make the call as to how to proceed.  I guess it was true.  They didn’t have any real financial people there.  I finally blurted out what I had been thinking.  They said that it sounded like a plan and started to assemble the data for me.  My empty desk was soon filled up and overflowed quickly.

Although the concept was pretty straight forward, the execution was a little more difficult.  I’m not sure if Bill Gates was born as yet but even if he was, I know now that an Excel spreadsheet wasn’t invented yet.  Neither were PC’s or believe it or not, a calculator.  There was an adding machine and concluded that when they had to multiply and divide, it was the old fashion way: by hand withpaper and pencil.  Things would be a little tricky.  As I rummaged through my desk looking for supplies I found something that would help.  It was a Slide Rule.  A quick refresher course on its use and I was on my way.

Not sure how long it took me to complete but it wasn’t in hours or weeks.  If given the assignment today, I’d expect most could do it in a few hours including the set up time.  But I was finally finished and handed in my test paper.  They looked at the work paper with all the calculations, then me and my magical Slide Rule and gave it a big thumbs up.  Slide Rules are great but probably not as accurate as say a calculator.  But it was close enough.  I think this is where the phrase “good enough for government work” came from.  They put their magic stamp on it and sent it over to the general’s office.  I hoped that it was OK and more importantly prayed that the general didn’t want a different version of it with slight different assumptions.  Remember I thought, Excel hasn’t been invented yet.

The phone never rang from across the street and that seemed to satisfy everyone.  Silence was the best praise I found out.  That’s how things worked here.  If there was a problem, they’d let us know.  The office had a basic problem.  It dealt with speed and accuracy.  They had neither.

After the success of the first project, I was given other assignments.  They had problem meeting a weekly deadline for certain reports that the general staff used to understand how operationally ready the weapons and vehicles were.  Sounds like it would be a good thing to know.  However, reports would always arrive late and be filled with errors.  Then the phone calls would start.  I was tasked with fixing it which I did with a few tweaks in how to collect the data and some attention to detail.  It was no big deal.  I mean it was nooo big deal!! Any accountant would do the same.  After the first week or two when they would review the reports, I got into the routine of compiling the data by contacting the units over the division, summarizing the info and preparing the reports making sure it all tied together.  It deliver it to the general’s office across the street on time.  It was what accountants do; put little numbers in little boxes and neatly make it make sense.

At any rate, the irate phone calls stopped and I started to attain a cult status around the office.  They had no idea what I did but were happy that nobody was complaining.  I continued this way for the rest of my tour.  My trusty Slide Rule and I continued to crank out reports and everyone was happy.  I did have a fair amount of power but was careful not to abuse it.  I made sure however to take it to the edge.  If threatened with additional work like guard duty or such, I’d sometimes remind them that I might have forgotten how to do a certain report that was due the next day.  They seemed to get the idea. 

As I look back on things, I can’t help chuckling at the quarterly briefings given where all departments would get together to share the current status.  The colonel we worked for was part paranoid and part insecure so he brought a whole entourage with him.  I was included in the group primarily so that he could have someone to point to (blame) if things went south.  I couldn’t help but roar with laughter inside when I looked around the room.  Everyone else was an officer.  They were discussing the data on a chart.  My chart!  The chart was one that I prepared with my favorable blue grease pencil, from data I compiled that nobody bother to ask check!  If they only knew that they were making decisions based on what some PFC said was the state of their world!  How sick is that?

I eventually became a One Digit Midget and left behind my enchanted Slide Rule with instructions for my replacement.  By this time, my brother had thankfully returned from Vietnam.  I had my tour curtailed so I could sit for the CPA exam where I managed to put achieve the lowest test score ever recorded.  I guess I was expected to study for the test.  I served nineteen months and 4 days and left as a Specialist 5th Class E5 (buck sergeant if I was in the infantry).  As a returning veteran, I got my old job back, passed the CPA exam, received an MBA (thank you GI bill) and had a fairly successful career in corporate America where I recently retired.  My colleagues there are still trying to figure out how and what I did all those years but realize that it must be OK since they hadn’t received any complaints.  Sound familiar?

Lastly, remember to always carry a rag; you never know when you’ll need it to clean something up or just look busy.

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