The picnic table

  • Published
  • By Yancy Mailes
  • 366th Fighter Wing History Office
It was hot, I was sweaty, and I was in no mood for another pep talk or quiz on Air Force customs and courtesies, or worse yet, history. We'd been launching jets for several hours -- pulling pins, checking fuses and making sure the airplane was ready when the pilots took off.
In the months before, as we drove around the flightline on similar days, my supervisor would pull out a ragged promotion fitness examination and ask me questions to prepare me for the senior airman below-the-zone test. As evident by my new rank, I aced that board and though I was grateful for his help, I was still in no mood.

Returning to the aircraft maintenance unit, the launch van pulled into the shade, and I started to step out. As I slipped my arm through the sleeve of my green uniform, I heard Sergeant Ashcraft. 

"Yancy wait a minute, I want to talk with you," he called out. 

I grumbled, turned around and headed to an overhang with the all-too-familiar picnic table. 

As we sat there, Sergeant Ashcraft told me he was impressed with my progress and commented on how well the new stripes looked on my uniform. We discussed multiple topics including my home life, progress in college and finances. The conversation quickly turned to a pep talk, and he began to stress that I could do whatever I wanted -- be it making rank, moving to another base or even applying for another special duty assignment. I smothered a scoff and began to stand. As I did so, he slipped a staff sergeant stripe into my shirt pocket and told me to carry it until I made my next rank. I was a bit dumbfounded, but as always, I did what he told me to do.

Flash forward roughly a year later. I walked across the tarmac with a big grin on my face. Although he was no longer my supervisor, he more than likely knew what I was about to say. I pulled the staff sergeant stripe from my shirt pocket and pushed it into Sergeant Ashcraft's hand. 

"I don't need this anymore," I told him. 

He congratulated me with a hard pop to the arm and then revealed a technical sergeant stripe. He told me to carry it until I made technical sergeant, and I did.

I later took an assignment and moved on, but I never forgot the times Sergeant Ashcraft and I sat at that picnic table. Throughout the years, I had multiple supervisors, but they were never as engaged as he was. They never asked me about my home life or my desires and sadly, few even knew my wife's first name. To fulfill the void of poor leadership, I would often contact Sergeant Ashcraft, and he would give me one of his pep talks to carry me through the rough times.

As I reflect on my past and those times at the picnic table, I realize that I was more than just a subordinate to Sergeant Ashcraft. I was part of his family, the Air Force family. In the early years, he represented my dad, and as we both grew up in our Air Force, he became my big brother: someone I could glean advice from or share a thought with. He was someone who would praise my positive accomplishments and correct the hijinks of a very young man. 

Overall, he shaped the person I am today, and I thank him for being a strong supervisor. While it's hard today with the constant deployments and shortages of people, I believe we can all copy some of Sergeant Ashcraft's leadership style. He took the time to lead a young, often unruly, Airman and left a positive and indelible mark on my personal history. I challenge you to do the same with your troops.