Show ‘em ‘The Lights’

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. David Duncan
  • Misawa Airman Leadership School
Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Pelfrey makes up in character anything he may be missing in his 5-foot-4-inch stature, as he demonstrated with his recent speech during a senior NCO induction ceremony here.

With an eastern Tennessee twang that northerners may have to work at to understand, Chief Pelfrey relived his beginnings in the Air Force and told a story of one leader who made a difference in his life.

He explained to the senior NCO selects that "perceptions are reality whether they are true or not, and it is your job to show (Airmen) the lights."

A bit of a self-admitted "country bumpkin" whose only experience outside Tennessee was deer hunting in Alabama, the chief said he saw the Air Force as his ticket to a different way of life than working at the paper or hosiery mill in his hometown.

He enlisted in 1978 to be a heavy equipment operator in civil engineering.

"My first job was running the flight line sweeper at Rickenbacher Air Force Base in Columbus, Ohio," he told the audience. "I loved that job and believed with all my heart, as I still do today, that I worked for the best company in the world."

As a flight line sweeper, young Airman Pelfrey was trained to request permission for clearance from the control tower before entering the active runway and what to say when he departed. Happy with that, he ran that sweeper day-in and day-out without a problem, until the day the squawk of the radio interrupted his sweeping.

"Sweeper five-zero, Rickenbacher tower."

"Never before had the control tower called me while I was on the active runway," Chief Pelfrey said. "My heart dropped to my feet. I stopped the sweeper, slid over to the middle of the seat and began to pray.

"Lord, I need you more at this moment, than any other time in my life, to tell me what this man is going to tell me."

He received his answer from the squawking radio. "Sweeper five-zero, expedite the runway."

"Thanks a lot, Lord. Now, how about that word expedite?" the young Airman thought to himself.

Not having a clue as to what expedite meant, he just kept right on sweeping. The tower persisted, calling again and again. "That radio wouldn't quit, so I leaned over and shut it off," said Chief Pelfrey. The audience laughed at the thought of the young Airman turning off the annoying tower controller.

Airman Pelfrey returned to his prayer. "Lord, if expedite is something I need to know, please send me a sign." He hadn't noticed the KC-135 circling the runway, waiting to land where he was sweeping, he said.

His "sign" came in the form of the man he perceived as the "meanest, most hateful and intimidating individual" he'd ever met, his supervisor.

"Perceptions are a huge part of reality," Chief Pelfrey told the audience. "My reality right then was this huge technical sergeant driving beside me with flashing lights and shaking his fist at me. At that moment, I knew the word expedite was important."

The young Airman picked up the suction hood and drove the sweeper as fast as it would go back to the equipment section. There, he jumped out, ran to the snow barn, climbed up and hid in the back of a plow and began to cry.

"You see, I was sure I was going to get kicked out of the best company in the world. I was the type of Airman who proudly wore his service dress to church while home on leave. What was I going to tell the people back home? What was I going to tell my brother, who raised me after mom and dad passed away?"

His boss was screaming for him to come out of the snow barn.

"Tommy, get your little butt down here now!" But the scared Airman refused.

"My boss went and got my best friend, Dave Clark, and he came in the snow barn and called, 'Tom.'" At the sound of his best friend's voice, he reluctantly climbed down and went into the office.

"I could hear the big heavy footsteps coming toward the office," Chief Pelfrey said. "To me it seemed like John Wayne was standing in the doorway."

To the Airman's surprise, that technical sergeant who conjured up such fear in his mind, put his arm around him and said, "Tom, you're my best Airman," he said.

With tears rolling down his cheek, Pelfrey listened as his supervisor asked, "What if I can show you how to run the sweeper without talking to the tower; will you do it?"

With his southern drawl, Pelfrey answered, "Yes, sir."

From there, his supervisor took him to base operations and introduced him as "his best Airman." He explained that the Airman struggled with understanding the communications from the control tower.

"So when you hear Airman Pelfrey call for clearance on the runway, could you please show him the lights (green, white, or red) from the tower to communicate with him?" asked the supervisor.

From then on, the tower simply gave Airman Pelfrey "the lights," as he proudly swept that runway.

The chief then directly addressed the audience, "Senior NCOs, when was the last time you showed someone 'the lights'? Now, I'm not talking about the lights on the runway or explaining the word 'expedite.'"

"I'm talking about calling your folks together before they depart on a TDY, telling your married subordinates you expect them to act married... you ought not do things you wouldn't do in front of your spouse."

"Institute a promotion program so all your subordinate Airmen are encouraged to succeed in their careers... that is what I mean by showing them the lights. Have roll calls and share with them if you choose to drink and get into a two-ton bullet that endangers the lives of others, then we have no room in the Air Force for you. Gather all the male Airmen under your supervision and tell them if they take advantage of a female while she is intoxicated, we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law."

Switching to a lighter note, Chief Pelfrey walked up to one of his Airmen, and put his arm on her shoulders saying, "Put your arm around your best Airman and tell them 'I count on you more than anyone on a daily basis,' ...this is what I mean by 'showing them the lights.'"

The chief closed his speech with a question, "Ladies and gentlemen, and especially our newest senior NCO selects, it is our job to show them 'the lights.' Because if we don't, who will?"