“I Don’t Want to Belong to Any Club That Will Accept Me as a Member” – Groucho Marx
When I first joined the Air Force I was an officer assigned to an F-4E tactical fighter unit. Back then, and likely even now, you had to earn your street cred by being able to not only be knowable on every aspect of weapon systems (the gimbal limits of missiles or the proper tactic against orthogonal G-movements) but also to be able to hang properly with the boys. The “boys” of course were obnoxious, Alpha-male egotistical self-absorbed pilots who flew extremely fast moving machines through the air trying to dog-fight against other like-minded self-absorbed macho men.
Fighter pilots back then in the 80s and 90s were the idolized knights of the US military. Less technology and more seat-of-the-pants flying and reactions that were an innate art. Once, the famous pilot Chuck Yeager made an appearance at our base and aircrew flocked like giggling teenagers at a One-Direction concert to meet him. Turns out he was just as an obnoxious, self-absorbed pilot as the rest, and they loved him for it. Or in spite of it.
In the mid-90s our unit was participating in an exercise in Alaska. Our wing had just converted from fighters to air refueling tankers, but the starting line up consisted of ex-fighter pilots, some of which were the best of the best. My boss happened to be a former instructor at the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, a.k.a the USAF Top Gun. He knew his stuff. And he was not about to lose a second to tell others his Curriculum Vitae. If in a party, how do you know if someone’s a fighter pilot? Wait 2 seconds and he’ll tell you.
In the dead center of Alaska at a USAF airbase during the middle of a joint exercise, we all congregated at the officer’s club, as usual, for the expected rounds of drinking and shenanigans. And of course, a game of combat crud broke out. Crud is a game invented by fighter pilots for fighter pilots, and the convoluted rules are listed here:
Essentially, and to summarize, it’s a twisted game that involves a pool table, billiard balls and complex rules. The complexity is a form of fraternalistic ritual to ensure no novices can infiltrate and dilute the essence of this drunken sport. The drinking games of “quarters” and “beer pong” are like tic-tac-toe compared to this advanced system of chess played by drunken Kasparovs and Fishers.
But back to Alaska. We were there during the summer solstice and endless daylight. Long hard hours of drinking and bravado. Officer’s Club at midnight with the sun still shining outside, but the beers flowing from the taps. Various flying squadrons challenging each other to tournaments of crud – combat crud no less. And an A-10 fighter unit brings forth a challenge to our visiting air refueling members, normally considered the lowest of the low in the pecking order of aircrew. But what they didn’t realize was that most of our air refueling (“tanker”) pilots were former fighter pilots and aces. Ringers. It’s like the New York Yankees challenging the Mudville Hens to a game of baseball not knowing that the Hens were former Cooperstown Hall of Famers.
The game started with a selected referee. The lights were drawn, and the smoke filled the air (yes, it was allowed back then to smoke in bars). Background noise from the jukebox and the clanking of glasses provided the ambiance for this contest. After the initial introductions the game was on, and the A-10 pilots assumed this would be an easy match against these easy mark tanker pilots.
Once the game of combat crud began, it was quickly determined that our guys were not going to be pushovers. Gary, our Operations Commander, was a former OV-10 pilot in Vietnam and was teamed with Frank, the Nellis AFB Fighter Weapons School ace. Clark Kent had begun to take off his glasses and tie and was now moving faster than a speeding bullet around the pool table to grab the billiard ball. Combat Crud involves hard physical checking and teamwork. I had learned from them a lesson that applies to travelling through the Lincoln Tunnel in Manhattan at rush hour: mass combined with speed defeats your opponent.
Not too long into the game, our A-10 pilot opponents quickly realized that they were facing a team that was not what was advertised. Hard body checking and mental/physical acumen, plus a seasoned experience of combat crud by our aircrew were demolishing their team. The Mudville Hens were racking up points to the astonishment of the Yankees. The Officers’ Club bar started to become even more alive and now the jukebox was turned off and people started to watch in amazement as our pilots checked and physically pushed the other team into submission for placement and field position to score. The underdogs were winning.
A decisive moment came on the final serve, when Gary gave a crushing bow to one of the young A-10 pilots, a cub of a man, into the boards and he fell vigorously into the bar stools and face first into the beer stained floor. This pilot staggered and moaned, and turned out later that Gary broke his ankle, which precluded him from participating in the combat exercise for the remainder of the tour. This was quite the stir, and reached the eyes of the base commander, but like some unspoken code, once “Crud” was introduced into the discussion, it was dismissed as an unfortunate “accident”. Wink-wink, nod-nod. Boys will be boys.
Combat Crud is a serious game played by irresponsible aircrew. It’s a fraternity rite of passage and a ritual unbeknownst to most people. A barroom parlor game that stimulates the mental and physical; necessities for the challenges they may face in the air.
The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war.