Military Officer Clubs

Military Officer Clubs have probably been around since as long as there's been military organizations.  Many people might think that they're somewhat exclusive but my personal experience is that I've never been asked to identify myself upon entering regardless whether or not I was in uniform.  Like most other institutions the O'Club has changed a great deal in the last few years. 


The technical name for one of these clubs is Officers Open Mess. Not understanding this fact led to a reporter being asked to leave an air base in Vietnam.  Early in the war the reporter had sent a story home saying that the morale was so low at Da Nang that there was a sign in front of the officers club saying D.O.O.M.  What he'd fail to understand was the sign referred to the Da Nang Officers Open Mess (DOOM).  Needs to say the officer was asked to leave the installation and no return.


The first club I remember was the one at a place in the Northern Panhandle of Florida at Eglin AFB.  They actually had two clubs.  One on the base and another on the beach of the Gulf of Mexico.  They used to serve the best boiled shrimp at that beach club but what I really remember was the bands on Friday nights.  The wildest time I ever recall at that club was the time that a fellow named Dr. Feelgood played there.  Dr. Feelgood was an aging albino Afro-American that could really make a place rock.  As I recall his most famous song included a line, "Hot nuts, hot nuts, you get'em from the peanut man."


Anyhow I didn't think much about O'Clubs until I got to Vietnam.  This was a much smaller place and everyone was expected to take an active interest in the wellbeing of the O'Club.  Each of us took turns being bartender.  All of our buildings were constructed the same.  They were called SEA huts.  They were wooden one story affairs with tin roofs (sprinkled with sand bags to keep the high winds of blowing them off), and walls that were louvered boards half the way up the wall and the rest was just screen.  Actually there was screen all the way up the walls to keep bugs out but the louvers provided a slight degree of privacy.  They had concrete floors and nothing else inside.  There was no ceiling, no bathroom, just a big open room. 


Over the years people have learned that keeping busy makes the time go much faster and helps to keep their mind off of missing their loved ones.  Building the O'Club was a perfect project.  During the 15 months that I was in Vietnam you wouldn't believe how the officers improved that facility.  And it was all done with their own hands and their own money.  No work was done except by the individuals that would benefit from the improvements.  The floor was tiled, the walls paneled, an air conditioner put in, a bar was constructed, and a ceiling was installed.  When it was finished it had an electric stove to cook a simple meal if someone was unable to eat at the dining hall.  It also had a beautiful salt water aquarium.  What made this aquarium special was that we caught all of the fish ourselves by snorkeling among the rocks at the island's edge in the South China Sea. 


Travel posters from faraway places decorated the walls but one of the strangest things on the wall was something that my dad had sent me.  I was in high school when the freeway, Interstate 5, was completed near my hometown.  One night a group of us were up on an overlook above the freeway imbibing in a few underage beers when someone suggested stealing on of the I-5 signs.  It sounded good at the time but after we stole no one knew what to do with it.  I finally agreed to take it home and hid it in my dad's cluttered workshop.  It stayed hidden for several years and I had forgotten all about it until I got a package in the mail while I was in Vietnam.  It was the sign.  Dad had found it and shipped it to me along with a note asking, “Do you know anything about this?”  I hung it on the wall of the club and I left it there when I departed.  So somewhere in Vietnam is an I-5 sign and I'll bet it's the only one in the entire Nation.


One of the real amenities of the establishment was the ladies restroom that we constructed at the back of the building.   To accomplish this we had to dig a septic field and fill it with rocks.  Then we had someone who was going to Bangkok, Thailand buy a commode and bring it back on the airplane with him.  The commode was one of those French affairs with the tank high on the wall and the pull chain above.  Then we installed a water tank outside to fill the commode.  Since we didn't have running water the tank would occasionally be filled by the tanker trucks that brought us water from the mainland. 


The tank didn't have to be filled very often since there were no females that lived on the island.  The only females that used the commode were those that visited as part of entertainment groups or Red Cross personnel.


Most of the parties were simply going away affairs for the personnel that were returning home.  But there still opportunities for some interesting games.  Most weren't too serious.  One fellow would hold his hand in front of the dart board while another one tried to throw darts between his fingers.  Or someone would drop an empty beer can on the floor and someone would fall on it as if it were a live grenade.  Probably the most serious anyone was injured was an accident involving the prank from "Rowan and Martin's Laugh In".  It was Goldie Hawn, I believe, that would say, "Sock it to me" and someone would throw water at her but when she ducked someone else would get it in the face.  We started doing that at parties and continued until someone used an old coffee pot to throw the water.  The fellow ducked as one of the people turned around and took the edge of the spout right between the eyes.  It was a little bloody for a short time until the doc took over.  He walked the poor chap down to his office and sewed him up.  The fellow didn't even need pain killer since we'd been partying for a while.


Another game that was played throughout the clubs was called "dead bug."  These two words are so sacred among fighter pilots that even when they weren't in the club they would refer to the activity as "deceased insect."  It's a very simple procedure.  Someone in the bar yells, "dead bug!" and the last person to fall on the floor, roll on their backs and stick their hands and feet into the air lost the round, and bought drinks for everyone else.  People on bar stools would push themselves over backwards, drink glasses and beer bottles or cans would fall where they might, and an entire room of conversing individuals would try to collapse as quickly as possible.  I've seen this game played at very formal affairs with all of the attendees wearing white uniforms which are called mess dress.  Those times it was usually announced while everyone was holding a glass of red wine in preparation for a toast.  Such actions led to some healthy cleaning bills.


Another activity is called "aircraft carrier."  I've seen it played on table tops as well as on linoleum floors.  It is pretty simple.  Your body is the aircraft and the table top or floor is the aircraft carrier.  Several beers are poured onto the surface to make it nice and slick for sliding.  One disrobes to the waist, runs across the room, and jumps into a prone position, before sliding across the slick surface on their belly and chest.  I have been told but never saw personally that a variation of this in Southeast Asia existed where they would put broken bottles on the far end of the table so if they went to far they'd fall into the glass. This was to add the realism of a carrier landing, since those pilots that overshoot an aircraft carrier and go off the end are seldom recovered.  This is because the aircraft carrier is moving forward into the wind at the time of landing.  Donna and I were in a club at Patrick AFB, FL, near Cape Canaveral in 1992 and watched both men and women alike play this game on a linoleum floor.  The women, of course, maintained their dignity by wearing tee-shirts.


There's another game that is still played at many O'Clubs today.  It is called Crud.  It is played on a pool or billiards table but only involves two balls and no cue stick.  The game was invented at a RCAF base near Cold Lake, Canada in northeastern Alberta during joint flying exercises in the early 1970s.  The first clue that a place plays Crud is the size of the pool table.  They'll have the largest pool table you've ever seen.


There are two teams of usually five on a side.  One person begins by rolling the cue (or white) ball at the object ball sitting at the other end of the table.  This may sound easy, but the difficulty of throwing it by hand rather than with a cue stick is exemplified by the fact that the person gets three tries to hit it.  The key is to keep the object ball in motion at all times by hitting it with the cue ball.  After one person throws the ball it alternates to a player on the other team and then back to the next person in line.  When it is your turn you can pick up the cue ball and move around the table with it before throwing it but you must be at one of the ends of the table to throw.  If the object ball stops moving before you touch it with the cue ball or it is knocked into a pocket you get a life given to you.  When you have three lives you are out of the game and your side continues until one side has lost all of their players.


Crud is simple enough to play but it is a semi-contact game.  When the object ball is put into action people start to scurry around the edge of the table in anticipation of their turn.  Players can not block each other but they are not required to move out of the way either.  It therefore leads to a certain amount of running, pushing, and shoving around the table in an attempt to quickly get the cue ball and touch the object ball.  One of the first thing that players learn is that hitting the ball harder is not necessarily better.  Depending upon where the next person is standing the person with the cue ball may just barely touch the object ball.  The only place I've ever seen Crud played is in AF O'Clubs and I've seen it played by both men and women with equal skill.  It is as much a game of strategy as physical skill and the worst injuries I've seen are occasional broken fingers.  Anyone interested can do a search on YouTube (Crud Air Force) and see numerous examples of both Air Force Officers and their spouses playing Crud.


In the last couple of decades the club system within the military has changed a great deal.  With the emphasis on more responsible drinking, downsizing of bases, and competition for off base establishments, most clubs are struggling to attract customers.  Many locations have combined officer and enlisted clubs and others are closed down except of weekends and special occasions.  Some people predict most of them will be gone in the future and I suppose they should when they can't support themselves, but in years gone by they did provide interesting entertainment and offered some unique games.