Once at a Chicago Auto Show luncheon, I sat between Flackenmester, on the left, and Pennywit, on the right: PR guys for Very Large Motors. As one of the two Mazda PR women at Flackenmester’s elbow would later put it, “Good old boys.” Pennywit initiated a dialog with Flackenmester that excluded everyone else. He cackled about old times, referred to former cronies by their first names, and even yammered about his own cholesterol level.
As this luncheon was occurring in the middle of the auto show’s press preview, there was occasion for Pennywit to excuse himself before the meal was served. He needed to speak to a woman colleague at another table on some urgent business he had remembered. But he wasn’t sure which woman. This was before Very Large Motors employees had received sensitivity training about sexual harassment, and he asked Flackenmester, “Is she the really good-looking one?”
Indeed, Flackenmester confirmed, she was the really good-looking one.
Pennywit rose from the table. “If I’m not back right away, you’ll know I’m getting some action.”
The dominant scandal of the moment—this was February 1997—was the discovery that Marines engaged in “blood pinning.” Some videos had made their way to network news programs, and in them we civilians were horrified to learn that young paratroopers who had just completed their jump training received their pins by having them punched into their chests.
When Pennywit returned from not getting any action with his really good-looking colleague, he sat back down and started in on Flackenmester for being a prep school boy who hadn’t served in the military. Although I had so far said very little during the back-and-forth between them, I suddenly blurted out something about blood pinning.
“You know the military?” Pennywit asked, sounding almost ecstatic that someone would have mastered such esoteric lingo. Evidently he hadn’t been watching TV during the previous few days, because any viewer would have picked up the lingo. The fact was that I knew almost nothing about the military. But one thing I’ve learned is that whenever enthusiasts are involved, whether the subject is cars or military life, it might only take a key term to get them going.
Pennywit said, “Take a look at this.” He pushed out his tie pin for my appraisal. It featured a silver war eagle against the Great Seal of the United States.
“What do you think of that? Full bird,” he bragged.
Instead of finding myself babbling about my dear friend Budd, who had been a conscientious objector during the Korean War and done his service among the Amish of Pennsylvania, for once in my life I kept my trap shut.
When Pennywit became distracted, I asked Flackenmester, “What’s a full bird?”
Rather too loudly for my tastes, he explained—it must have been something he picked up at prep school—about full colonels and lieutenant colonels. I expected Pennywit to overhear and force a salute. He appeared not to notice, though.
Back then I wore bow ties. Getting T-boned like that by Pennywit supported my argument that bow ties should be mandatory for everybody, colonels included.