We Air Force types are always looking for an excuse to dress like we have a court date and eat food that looks fancier than it tastes, so naturally there’s no shortage of formal dinners to attend. And it soon becomes clear that all these formal dinners share, albeit difficult to grasp, common threads. Thus, in an attempt to bottle the lightning that is an Air Force banquet, I have organized these recurring characters and elements into a simple formula. As far as I know, I am the first to attempt such a daunting task, but I’m confident that you’ll find my research fascinating.
Dressed to the nines, you arrive at a banquet hall strictly populated with sharply dressed, stiffly pressed American sentinels. Quiet jokes told with pursed brows and the nose laughter that follows constitute the evening’s soundtrack. This is a posh event, nestled innocently within closed doors, but it’s socially prickly, and the minutes clunk by. That is, until cocktail hour officially begins, at which point a blue blazered tidal wave of relief blows the doors open and forms a hive minded Chinese-parade-dragon that writhes its way straight to the bar. This line cycles twice, and now the party is officially ready to rumble.
Hobnobbing begins immediately. The high brass are assaulted by the plastic etiquette, breathless praise, and premeditated bursts of laughter of self-promoting suck ups. The easiest way to find the epicenter of this hysterical mess is to count ribbons and medals. Find the guy who looks like he’s been hit square in the ticker by a shot from a blunderbuss loaded with Lucky Charms. This is probably the Vice Commander. Impressive as he is, he will likely pale in comparison to the Commander, who looks like he just finished body slamming the Care Bears. Stay within earshot of these two and the swarm of lampreys around them. Chuckles will not soon subside.
To sweeten the deal, high rankers with no interest in shameless politicking sit back and mercilessly open fire on their obsequious contemporaries. Keep in mind that the whistles are wet, and nobody is aware of how loud they’re speaking. This period between drinks and food should be noted on the program as “Free For All Roastathon” or “Flogging the Obeisant” and is by far one of the most amusing events of any evening.
You’ll notice a Public Affairs airman buzzing about with a camera. Don’t fret. Their sole purpose is to scare people into minding their p’s and q’s, but, much like the evening’s menu, it’s all sizzle and no steak. Understand that the moment this “photo journalist” clicks that button to capture an image, they simultaneously punch that image a one-way ticket to their supervisor’s desktop recycling bin. The Air Force does not publish its own embarrassment and ain’t about to start tonight, rendering this nerd more irrelevant than a washed-up flapper making the rounds with a tray of Lucky Strikes.
By now half of the room is eating, and every table is less boring than the one you’ve been planted at. The most antisocial person at your table will always try to occupy their mouth with food. To tear this pathetic safety net to shreds, ask for their opinion on a harmless subject. Let it be known that you wholeheartedly agree before grossly misstating their position to the rest of the table. This is a great way to force a flustered stranger to stay in the ring of conversation. Side note: bonus points for purposely ordering less food than all of the women at the table. This essentially eliminates “food talk” as a conversational three-foot-putt because a woman will invent a new language before admitting that she’s the only one with a triple helping of cherries jubilee. Downside: sometimes everybody leaves the table a smaller person… figuratively.
I could rattle off a few more, but from here on out the night will generally become its own. However, there is one more important mainstay worth mentioning – the last and perhaps most reliable constant – the parade of yesteryear’s mistakes in the form of corny shoulder and center-back tattoos adorning the officer’s wives. While the mere contrast of a flowing gown and skeezy parlor art is hilarious per se, the real majesty of this spectacle is the optimism it inspires. These ultra-regrettable tattoos immortalize just enough of who she was 15 years ago to tell us a bit about who he was 15 years ago. And to know that your boss’s boss’s boss once got weak in the knees for some Goo Goo Dolls lyrics and a lopsided dream catcher is to know that there’s hope for us all. Cheers.