In the course of your life, certain lessons are sent your way. If you are astute enough, you piece together the story and learn the lesson.
This story happened in the space of one day, and so I was able to learn a little something.
I had been working diligently to patch together a 3-way secure datalink between Denver, Seattle, and Los Angeles to carry SECRET data. It had to be up and ready for use in time for our launch of a classified recon satellite.
A simple matter today, this was 1982 and no one had ever tied together 3 VAX mainframe computers together in this manner — passing data through department of defense encryption devices (KG-13s) and running the data over dedicated phone lines.
One of my contractors had, in support of this and under my direction, ordered dedicated phone lines into our offices at Los Angeles Air Force Station. He had done this without consulting the USAF Communications Mafia, er Squadron.
Unbeknownst to me, until I got this phone call, they were very upset.
I was sitting in my office behind my government issue grey desk in my government issue grey chair feeling almost caught up and thus, almost competent. I knew this feeling would be short-lived since it usually meant I had forgotten something important. So I tried to savor it.
I was mentally patting myself on the back for the fact that my walls were not the government-issued sickly green, but a nice subtle beige. The only one with this soothing color in the entire Space Division. I had accomplished this by simply doing it, knowing that permission would never be given, but detection and punishment highly unlikely.
I glanced over at the keyboard, printer, and various other 1980 hardware that I and friends had kluged together to create a word processor for myself. It was a lot of equipment sitting over there in the corner taking up a lot of space. But it was nice to be able to quickly produce my own correspondence. It was still a couple years in the future before word processors would start appearing on our secretaries’ desks.
(When this happened, the major in charge of office stuff took it upon himself to start collecting up all the typewriters in the program office. I ran around after him practically yelling “no!”And “this won’t work!” I finally got him to understand the huge problem that remained with filling in government forms. Computers could do that, if you spent a ridiculous amount of time formatting for each form. Typewriters were still better for that for some time to come.)
Then my government-issued phone rang. Foolishly, I broke my 5 minute mental vacation and answered it.
“CAPTAIN! JUST WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING!!??”
“What can I help you with?” I said in my calmest voice. I had learned as a Doolie at the Air Force Academy that people yelling at you was to be expected. But yelling back seldom helped.
In this case, there was about a 5 minute exchange in which a civil servant in charge of the communications squadron repeatedly told me in a raised voice that I had violated every important law and regulation in the book. “THIS IS SERIOUS!”
I spent my words trying to ascertain what had happened and how we might set it right.
“THIS CANNOT BE SET RIGHT! I AM TALKING COURT MARSHALL!!”
OK then, well. It really hasn’t been very pleasant or productive to talk to you, I thought to myself. I hung up the phone.
OK, it might have been a bit more vigorous of a hang-up. But it definitely wasn’t a slam.
It was probably ten minutes later. I had cooled down and had started considering what to do about all this when I looked up and the Deputy Program Officer Director, a lieutenant colonel, was entering my office.
I stood up.
“Charlie, I just got a phone cal from a very upset person who works over in the Comm Squadron. Did you order a dedicated phone line?”
I provided a quick 30-second recap of why getting that phone line was so important and the conversation I just had with their boss. Of course, breaking the rule of answering the question first. But he got the idea the answer was “yes, I had ordered a phone line”.
I braced myself for, as a minimum, a good chewing-out.
He sighed. “Look, you need to tell me these things before I get these phone calls.”
Moral of the story: when bad things happen, tell your boss, as clearly and simply as you can, hiding nothing, right away.
As a captain, I had often suspected that colonels might be human. I also learned this was true in the case of this lieutenant colonel. It was clear that he just wanted to get the job done and wished he had captains that would help with that and not hurt it.