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.

It worked.


17 thoughts on “Ziggy-Zumba

  1. The song seems like a riff off South African singers Marais and Miranda’s 1946 hit The Zulu Warrior .

    I came across it as a team-building for a similarly Apartheid country, about seven or eight years after you did. Seems that team-building for death-sowing is in the lifeblood of that song.

  2. And now i understand why i often was not readily accepted into groups when i was growing up…. One would have needed really good insight to understand where this was coming from at the time-i wouldn’t have had that insight when i was younger. Do not know if knowing this now, if i had to return to the initiations of the past (the few that i recall), that i would be able to overcome the intial part of me trusting them and drinking the glass. i still wouldn’t be able to drink it….not knowing what it was. I need to think more about this one…..

  3. Funny. My grandfather told me about a very similar story. Only he ended it with buying a round for everyone and walked out of the place.

  4. Society rituals, how powerful they are, spiked with their embedded presumptions.
    Here’s to the kind-hearted water-server……an olive though, ugh, I have yet to acquire the taste for those! Though I understand they are very nutritious 🙂

  5. I see this a bit differently.
    You were entering an arena where you required total trust and commitment from your squadron mates, and they required the same from you.
    The question was, would you Richard set aside part of you for us? And in answer, they set aside a part of them for you.
    Was the theatrics of this initiation a little silly? Maybe. However, the end result was an unspoken knowing amongst the flyers gathered, one that is absolutely necessary in that type of flying.

    • I think it was trust.
      If it was a politician sliding the glass across the intent might be otherwise – and I’d expect turpentine.

  6. Good story, Richard. That the glass was full of water made it clear that you could trust your wingmen to protect you. And your drinking it showed that they could trust you not to follow a principle inflexibly, which might some day endanger them. So you all did well in that skirmish.

  7. Thank you, Richard. I enjoyed that story on many levels. I’m glad your fellow pilots tried to initiate you, while still respecting your values.

  8. Excellent story Richard. Trust goes both ways. I was first turned on to your books in 1986 English class, Illusions was my first taste, our English teacher had the entire class read the book during class. Then we would discuss what we read at the end of the hour. It changed my life and really opened my eyes, all of your books have. Thank you for sharing this part of your life.

  9. As a recently-retired fighter pilot I can tell you that the same silly games are still played out. As a non-drinker as well I can also report that alternatives still exist. The squadron in question was very careful to ask beforehand if anyone had issues with alcohol, as they wanted everyone to be able to participate without compromising their beliefs or values. So, while my classmates at F-15C training were consuming large quantities of alcohol, I imbibed radical mixtures of different caffeine laden soda-type beverages. The team was still built, trust was established and no values were harmed in the creation of a new “Eagle Driver.” Unfortunately I rarely drink caffeine either (not moral, just a choice which I vary from every now and then) so I was awake for the next 36 hours or so!

    I think that most people want to respect the values of others and only a very narrow minority feel the need to rigidly impose their world-view; even in an organization as rigid and conservative as the military.

    • Amazing to hear! So glad to know that times have changed, at least in your squadron. Had I been the Secretary of the Air Force years ago, I would have made a simple policy: pilots who consume alcohol shall not fly single-seat aircraft. Would fighter pilots have chosen drinking over flying? I never heard an answer.

      • The Air Force has tried to “de-glamourize” alcohol over the last decade or two, but there is still a macho “sub-culture” that thinks alcohol consumption equals being a fighter pilot. There were many times during my career when younger pilots told me that they valued my example…that is was OK NOT to be someone you’re not in order to fit in…that it was OK to go home to your wife and family on Friday rather than drink in the bar with “the boys.” Did my choices hinder my career? Probably. Do I care? No. As I always tried to explain…the day after you leave the Air Force (whether after two years or twenty-two) someone else will sit in your chair and do your job. Likely better than you did. The week after you leave, the company will have forgotten that you even were ever there. But…you still have the rest of this life (at least) to spend with your family. If you have neglected that relatiuonship in order to further a transient career or “fit in” then, I believe, you have erred.

        To answer your question…I believe that most would have stuck around. The allure of flying (what I thought at the time were) the finest flying machines the world has to offer is very strong. They would have grumbled and some would have left, grousing about the loss of “the good old days,” but most would stay. By the way, I now own and fly a Pitts S1 and that airplane IS the Finest Flying Machine Ever. Her name is Daisy.

  10. Richard, I just bought Part-time angels and read this post in it. WE SHARE McGuire AFB. One more connection for me with you.
    My father retired from the Air Force (desk jockey) from McGuire AFB and bought a farm near there. A neighbor was paired with me in a ski club and we dated for years. He was a Navy Instructor Pilot! I logged my first 10 hours with him, the first in a WACO (nearly lost all my hair cause he wore the leather cap). Later, I was loving a man stationed at Ft. Dix who took his ground school at McGuire AFB for a private ticket. I studied with him and took my exam. Then got my license at a local field before moving to Georgia (saw you at Albany, GA airshow).

    Thank you for your books, your angels, your deep understanding of the partnership of planes and pilots (I did not have that, so did stop flying). In retrospect, I have thanked all my planes for the wonderful experiences we had.

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