I HAD JOINED the New Jersey Air National Guard in 1961, checked out as a pilot in the F-84F. A slow airplane by today’s fighters, it could barely fly past Mach One. It was big and heavy, 14 tons at gross weight, it took a whole lot of runway to get the airplane up to flying speed. The Republic company called it the Thunderstreak, pilots called it the Super Hog.
I was a new pilot in the squadron, nobody knew me, nobody knew how well I could fly. Could they trust me?
Back in those days, just like today, I despised alcohol. What are pilots doing drinking that stuff, when the airplanes needed sharp minds? I never went to the McGuire Officers Club, where they served alcohol, unless it was required. And sure enough one Friday evening it was required, a pilot’s meeting at the Club for some sort of get-together and of course for drinking.
I ordered my Ginger Ale, and a couple pilots of my new squadron said, “Ginger Ale?”
I said, “Yeah.”
Later in the evening, while some pilots turned drunk, I was sitting at a table talking with another about the F-84. He said the airplane had a barrier sniffer on the nose. When the sniffer sensed the end of the runway, around 130 knots, he said, the F-84F would fly. I laughed, and he did too, and I remembered, This is not an F-86, it is not a day-fighter It is heavy, keep your airspeed up.
About that time the rest of the squadron appeared, and stood around our table. They were humming a song. Someone took my glass of Ginger Ale and replaced it with a tall glass full to the brim of clear liquid, an olive on the bottom.
Oh, my, I thought. They’ll sing their song and I’m supposed to drink all that gin in one gulp, maybe two. They began to sing.
“Hi Ziggy Zumba, Zumba, Zumba, Hi Ziggy Zumba, Zumba, Zumba Zay.
Hold ‘m down, you Zulu Warriors, Hold ‘im down you Zula Chiefs,
Hold ‘m down…”
Time slipped cogs for me, then.
What did they want? They wanted me to forget my silly no-alcohol habit, since this is a rite for every new pilot. If he drinks, it means that he trusts us more than his strange principle and we will let him fly with us. If he doesn’t drink, it means that he despises us and we’ll never trust him in the air.
“…you Zulu Warriors, Hold ‘m down…”
I thought about that, made a decision. I will drink this glass down, and it will have no affect on me at all. My mind is not at odds with the pilots, it’s with my belief that alcohol will hurt me. I will drink it down, because I’ll be one of he best F-84 pilots in this squadron. I shall not be touched…
“…you Zulu Chiefs. Drink! Drink! Drink!”
And I did. I lifted the glass, olive and all, and drank it down.
There was a cheer from the pilots, and a second later I knew the truth. The glass I drank was filled with water (and an olive).
Someone there decided against filling the glass with gin, since he thought (drunk as he was) that a full glass of gin might kill a guy who didn’t drink. Test ‘im, learn what the song would tell us about him, and not have to drag his lifeless body into the night outside the McGuire Air Force Base Officer’s Club.