Storytime: My favorite tech support story

This is my favorite tech support story, at least from my own personal life, because it’s not that often God gives us a perfect little gift like this, all tied up in a bow.

I might very well have told this story on the blog at some point over the years, but with as many posts as I’ve done, honestly, if it’s in the archives, screw it, I ain’t going looking for it. If this sounds familiar, well, sorry!

Sit back and relax for a very short story. Oh, stop laughing at me. It’s gonna be short!

Now, this is no shit. Back when I was in the Marines, during my first four years, I was an Aviation Radio Technician. All that fancy title means is I got to work on Marine Corps Air Bases attached to communications and control squadrons, units that provide mobile radio and radar control facilities for fixed wing fighter aircraft.

Mobile, as in we’d throw all our crap on trucks, tranport the trucks by boat or plane, roll out to the field somewhere, drive around, and when we found a likely looking spot we’d stop the trucks, run out the generators, extend the remote masts and aerials and radar antennas, cable up all the closed-up huts on the backs of the 5 ton trucks and dragon wagons into a network, and then establish our map grid and align our systems so we could direct airborne flights of fighters, usually F-18 hornets and AV-8B harriers, to their targets.

The long and the short of it is, I was the guy responsible for making sure the radio part of the communication and control net was operational. If something, anything, went wrong I had to fix it, and I mean right now, because when the officer-type person in a hut ain’t able to talk to the officer-type person in the put put jet fighter = not good for enlisted-type radio tech.

Now, the officer-type peeps in the main control hut wanted control. They fancied themselves Top Guns that could be up there flying, if they weren’t doing the far more important task of directing flights from the ground.

The ancient radios we used, while frequency-hopping and having crypto links and all that stuff, had remote control arrays so the officers could change frequencies manually right there in the hut. But the officers didn’t like that… the little control box may have been in the hut, but they didn’t trust that magic cable to actually change the frequency on the radio over in the radio hut. It confused them. Strange things might happen.

So, the officers decided they needed a radio, an actual radio, in their hut. Being officers, you don’t have to justify what you want to do, and you don’t have to make sense, you just have to outrank the person you’re telling to do something. Voila!

There were no physical mounts for the radio, so it got set in there on a box, but they wanted a $125,000 radio sitting in their hut, they by God get a $125,000 radio sitting on a box in their hut.

The radio weighed about 75 pounds, and generated quite a bit of heat internally, so the top was mostly aluminum framing mesh vent squares. I just looked the radios up on the internet to check weight, they were AN/GRC-171 A(V)2 versions, which these days you could probably get for about $50 at a used surplus store for all I know.

They’d stick a headset and toggle switch to the front of the radio, and flip the dials for changing frequencies right there. Damn, they loved playing with the frequency dials.

There was absolutely no reason for sticking a radio in there, other than for them to feel like mad scientists or something. The remote boxes worked great.

So, there we are, we’re out in bumf&*^ wherever (it’s still classified, sue me), I’m in my commo box on top of a truck, with the AC keeping me chillin’ reading a comic book or something, waiting for my commo shift to be over, so I could head out for my shift as perimeter security, which was actually fun, because then I didn’t have to deal with phone calls from idiots on the damn comm net over bullshit.

Keep in mind, I’m in a comm hut on the back of a 5 ton truck, totally enclosed, chilling out. All the main UHF hardcore radios are in there with me, and controlled by me, all 9 of them, except for the one in the control hut. I’m looking at all of them, and monitoring their activity, and listening into flight chatter randomly to verify we’re all good to go.

These radios, at the time, cost around $125,000 each, did I happen to mention that? Anyway, they weren’t the fanciest things around, but I sure as hell didn’t want anything to go wrong on my watch. Thanks to modular design and good training, if anything did go wrong, I had spares and quick swap capabilities and, if a bullet went through a wiring harness, well, there’s always solder and duct tape. I was determined that if something were to happen, we’d be cool.

Having a spare radio I, um, happened to find laying around somewhere ready to patch in, just in case, didn’t hurt anything, of course. What, it’s not on the TOE? Really? Damn, I missed that. I wonder how that thing got there?

So right, I’m sitting there, and a call comes over the comm net for me. It’s the flight officer of the day, calling for me. My callsign was Echo Five Bravo on the net.

Yes, I still remember my callsign. Again, sue me.

Anyway, officer-dude calls over the net, “We’ve lost comm on radio 10, need back up asap.”

Just as an FYI, when using comm, you never say the word “repeat” if you didn’t hear what the other guy said the first time. You say “Say again your last”, because in arty circles in the Marines “repeat” means “liked your last shot, fire another round, thanks.” Umm, you don’t say repeat. I’m just saying. I used to find myself on vent in WoW saying, “Could you say again your last, over”, mouth on automatic pilot while the brain failed at tanking.

Oh wait, I was telling a short story here. Well, hey diddle diddle, guess what? Radio ten is in the control hut. All of it. The only part not in the comm hut was the antenna mast, and I’d run a cable snaked through a ventilation duct to get it hooked up. There’s no way for me to monitor what is happening with radio 10 from where I am.

Now, I could go over to the control hut and check it out, but before I went to those extreme measures, I decided to use my professional experience.

I thought about what I knew concerning the officer in question who was reporting the problem, and I considered what kinds of issues this officer had reported in the past.

There were several potential failure conditions that seemed possible to me, but I finally settled on the most likely one considering the time of day, the fact that there was just a flight controller changeover, and that the officer had entered the hut only a little bit prior to calling.

I then picked up the mike and called back on the net, “Echo Five Bravo, roger that, is the OH EN SLASH OH EFF EFF switch in the OH EN position, over.”

There was a long ten count of silence.

Then a quick burst of static, followed by, ” Ah, roger, cancel that trouble call, over.”

A few minutes later, I hear a clatter of boots coming up the metal ladder to my hut, the door is cranked open, and backlit by the sun shining through the cammy netting is revealed the beaming face of my best bud, Staff Sergeant Robert Watson, esteemed radar tech and all around great guy, who SHOULD at that very moment be sitting at his post on his ass in his own radar hut listening for a trouble call on the comm net, ad working on his D&D character for our game that night. 

Yes, we played in the jungle. We played everywhere. Johnny Cash wrote our themesong, “I’ve played everwhere, man, I’ve played everywhere”, and we used to talk about having gamer jackets made up with those city/state/country badges on the sleeves showing where in the world we’d run RPG games. We’d a had long, full sleeves. Damn, I wish we’d of done that, that woulda been fun. Funny how silly that kinda stuff seems these days, like, who cares where we played RPGs? But we thought it was very cool to have played RPGs above the Arctic circle.

So, SSgt Bobert looks at me through the doorway, and with a huge shit eating grin on his face, says, “Are you shitting me? You did NOT.”


“Is the ON/OFF switch in the ON position? Really? Really?!?”

I just looked at him, and replied, “Hey, I calls ’em like I sees ’em.”

53 thoughts on “Storytime: My favorite tech support story

  1. Small world BBB I was a 5937 from 84 – 89. Spent most of my time at Camp Pendleton and Oki. Never had to put radio in the comm hut though. No wonder many of your stories bring home memories! Did you ever get sent for frequency grease or an antenna key? Good story.


    • Hey Taz, send me an email and let me know you’re name, it’s a small 5900 world out there, and I might have crossed paths or heard of you before…

      I’m the maintenance manager of my branch of the company here, but the maintenance manager of the Cincinnnati branch is actually one of our old instructors from 29 palsm, from the Crypto cage. We started comparing notes one day after I mentioned the Marines, and it’s just a small damn world, man.

      I’m ashamed to say that I was never the one sent for frequency grease of an antenna key or flight line or a BA1100N… I was the one that was mean enough to do the sending.


      • And the rank of a first sergeant is E (enlisted) 8.

        So you sent the poor guy out to ask the First Sergeant if he knew where to find a prick 1st sergeant.

        You know, it’s kind of sad, but that never really does get old, does it?


  2. Great story BBB. While I was in the army I was in an armor unit for a couple of years. We always had the officers ignore the warnings that there password expired in a day just before we went to the field for a month then would call in a panic the day after we got back that they couldn’t log back in. The support new me by voice after the first time that happened.

    My favorite was in both the armor unit I was in and the Mechanized infantry (we had Bradlys and other vehicles) we had jumper cables so the tower could here the crew during gunnery. You would always get at least one crew that would bad mouth the commander or the communications section.

    I learned to dread the words when I ask how did this happen. Umm…well…you see…


    • “Umm, well, you see….” damn, you’ve got a great point there. That calls to mind the scene from Get Shorty, where Travolta tells Gene Hackman, ” Are you trying to tell this so you don’t end up looking stupid? Well stop, because you can’t, just tell me what happened.”


  3. Hey… another good read, thanks. I work for USACE and a friend sent me the Kiss Tribute to the Military video on YouTube (I had never seen it before). I’m sure you will enjoy this, Semper Fi.


  4. Ya know, Since work Application support for one of the biggest hospitals in the country you have reminded me you can NEVER set the bar for user intelligence too high


  5. I think XKCD sums it up well with the Tech Support comic.

    Sometimes, though, it really does just stop working. No one touches my computer but me; even all the auto-update crap is disabled (what part of “no one but me” did you not understand?) Yet, without any changes being made, iTunes will randomly decide not to play music. No matter how many times you click play, or double click the song name, the song stays stuck at 0:00. After a great deal of fiddling and internet searching and fiddling and internet searching and fiddling and internet searching etc, I found a post from some genius who figured out that deleting the Quick Time preferences file in a hidden directory in local settings would solve the issue. Yeah, that’s obvious.


    • No, that’s whats called a legitimate problem requiring a skilled tech support guru to help you fix quickly… but they’re all tied up with idiots and can’t help you right now.

      The few times I’ve called Comcast tech support for internet issues, after a few minutes I can almost hear the palpable relief on the other end as it becomes clear I actually did troubleshoot the problem before picking up the phone because the stupid cable came unplugged.


      • Glad you liked the comic. 🙂 XKCD became an instant favorite of mine a few years back when I read the disclaimer: “Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).”

        Actually, given the way the iTunes bug plays out, it doesn’t appear to be a legitimate problem. What I left out is that it’s been a multi-month effort. After the first time it just stopped working, upgrading iTunes fixed it (and added Ping!–blech, but that was only 10 minutes of searching to disable). A week or so later, it just stopped working again. I built up a few dozen bookmarks on suggested fixes, which would sometimes work, before finding the one that worked consistently. I’m about to consider other MP3 players as having to fix iTunes every other week or so is really getting on my nerves. But I wouldn’t be surprised that less stubborn people would’ve have given up on it long since.


  6. There I was, no sh-t, working Avionics for Uncle Sam’s Big Grey Canoe Club, on EA-6Bs, having to tell Pilots and ECMOs (Electronic Counter Measures Officer) that according to NATOPS (the manual on how to operate EVERYTHING in the aircraft) you do not turn on the Inertial Navigation System (INS) until AFTER you have switched from ground power to aircraft power because the resulting power spike WILL reset the INS computer, dumping that inertial fix it takes 10 minutes to get, and that yes the RADAR Altimeter needle is supposed to go behind the mask when the aircraft is in greater than a 25 degree bank because that is the limits of its performance, so quit writing these up as “it’s broken”… Also the *censored* won’t work if the circuit breaker is in the On Full Force (OFF) position… Also the RADAR (or any radio type device) will not transmit in the “standby” position… Also, having to tell an Admiral that every time he calls me, I have to shut down the tests I’m doing on the *censored* to answer the phone, since the tests take at least 90 minutes, and he’s calling every 30 minutes, I’m not getting anywhere in my troubleshooting… Also…

    Sometimes I miss some aspects of it, but it sure is nice to go home every day and see the wife.


    • LOL… yeah, that sounds sooo familiar. And yet, i don’t miss that at all.

      I don’t have to, I still have the same kinds of idiots. At least i don’t have to call them sir or pretend like they’re superior when they don’t know how to pour piss out of a boot with instructions written on the bottom.


  7. Departmental tech support here, and I always like listing the error as being either PEBKAC or Eye Dee Ten Tee (ID10T). “Is it on?” “Did you reboot it?” = the first 2 questions you always ask. Great story. =)


  8. Oh man… I wasn’t in the military but I work in IT and problems like this happen all the time. Usually they are solved by one of two ways: 1) If it’s OFF turn it ON, see what happens 2) If it’s ON turn it OFF then back ON and see what happens.

    I mean like 80% of my “fixes” are like this, BBB glad we had/have smart soldiers like you :D.


    • Well, truthfully speaking the radios were far less electronic in terms of brainpower… they never got what I like to think of “so smart they got confused for a second”, the way a lot of PLC and program driven electronics seems to.

      And of course, most of the confusion usually comes from a fluctuation in a +5V DC to 0V reference line for data channels causing screwed up zeroes and ones downstream… and shutting off/turning on to reset clears it. For the radios, solid state was where it was at. Transistors and resistors and caps, and very litle else.


  9. Kirk, while it may not be advised to stand behind the M1A1, I can tell you form personal experience after being wet and cold from an all night “movement to contact” in the National Training Center-standing behind the exausht of one of those at times was almost heavenly.


  10. that was a classic, In my 6 years of tech support where I work(ed, i leave my current job tomorrow and start teaching monday) I have had numerous PEBKAC trouble tickets. (Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair)


  11. I used to be a 2651. Thankfully we had SCIF requirements to meet that prevented our officers from demanding custom coffee tables. What we did have was a proud history of low-grade enlisted telling officers to f**k off because they weren’t properly cleared for access.

    Lexicon for the non-military:
    2651 – Special Intel SysAdmin/Communicator (Maintainer of SCIFs, proud memorizers of the DSSCS message format, and most likely subjects in long-term sensory deprivation experiments)
    SCIF – Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (ie, Top Secret windowless building/tent/cave, wrapped in EMF shielding/barbwire, protected by 2651’s, and THE place to hang out when you wanted to pretend like you knew what was going on)
    DSSCS – A cryptic pre-email message format that, when sent through the proper channels with the right markings, supposedly allowed you to send a direct message to the President.


    • well, that was the part where I was riding the ragged edge…. but I knew my NCOIC had a good sense of humor. 🙂


  12. very funny! this kinda camp fire taletelling is what keeps me at least coming back for more 😉 now to go search for the phase 2 and see if it exists in the archives


  13. Oh man that was great 3B.

    I had a buddy tell me a story about mil spec connectors once. He was watching a computer screen in one building that was connected to another system in the building next door, the cable ran out the wall and over a cable channel to the other building. He said he was sitting at the desk and heard a rumble of a 5 ton going down the alley way really slow. When the sound got to him he watched the computer jerk off the desk and proceed to travel up the wall till it got to the ceiling were it vibrated for a minute then crashed to the floor, the cable had finally broke. His phone started to ring, it was the major in the other building screaming at him, yelling what the fu*& was he doing. I dont know if the story was true but I always got a chuckle out of it.


  14. Actually, the story is kinda often…. sure, it shouldnt happen with an officer in the marines, but I worked a bit as tech support and the whole “did you turn it on?” or “plugged it in?” where the first questions I asked always, cause 30% of the times thats was the issue. But again, any moron can get into an office job….. I wouldnt have thought that could happen to an officer in the marines.


    • Well, as is usual here on the BBB, the facts of the story themselves may not be all that original or interesting, but all the fun is on my part, ’cause I get a kick out of writing it. 🙂

      Look on the bright side… now you know that there’s always that 10% no matter where you go or what you do.


  15. As a 1LT in Korea, I was assigned to a brigade as a junior (VERY junior) plans officer. As such, I had no assigned office or computer. As such, I took the best spot available and moved into the brigade’s secure plans vault, which also contained the brigade’s secure video teleconference (VTC) system. (VTC systems are all the rage in the Army these days.) Now, most VTC systems continuously transmit, which means in order to talk, you toggle mute off, say your piece, and turn mute back on (or leave it off for an extended conversation.) This system, however, due to the secure nature, used a push-to-talk system.

    My boss, a MAJ, HATED the push-to-talk thing, and ordered me to replace it with a standard on/off button. I did so…and watched, a few weeks later, as he began talking smack about HIS boss during a VTC…while forgetting that the VTC line was still off mute.

    I’ll spare you the details about the fallout. Suffice it to say that a 1LT CAN fill a MAJ billet. 🙂


    • That’s hilarious…. and all too likely an outcome.

      I’d say he was hoist by his own petard, but it sounds like he’d have wet powder. He’d have a flame retardant petard?

      Okay, I’d better go have some caffeine.


  16. “Yep, officer used the top of the $125,000 radio they insisted on having in their hut as a coffee table.”

    Personal bet: they used it as a coffee warmer more than as a coffee table.


    • In all the years since that happened, do you know, not ONCE did I ever think of that? And yet, that makes total sense.


      • Yeah, well, I had an advantage for the insight. Remember I was an ossified type in an armor (M1A1) battalion. In case you weren’t aware, the exhaust at the grill door runs well over 1700F. If you didn’t mind the fumes it was a great way to quickly heat your coffee. But that’s not where the knowledge comes.

        We’d get these people, usually infantry, who could afford to stand around when attached to us. They had a habit of gathering behind a tank despite being advised not to do so. In more than one case, they learned. See, they’d pour their water and instant coffee into their metal cup and stand somewhat in the exhaust, leaning forward to warm the water. What they inevitably learned is that the hand and arm, at least, were also in the warm spot. Goretex melts. Leather gloves bake. Metal things like watches and rings get hot and stay that way. During really cold exercises, new LTs and Captains (who’d been light infantry as LTs) plus the occasional Major would discover their zippers, rifles, and other equipment were also metal as they got into the blast to warm up.

        Now before you laugh too hard, please know that even the tankers would use the exhaust. Oh, we tended not to get as close, but more than one soldier had damaged gear from his coffee – and it wasn’t just the junior enlisted and officers. It is amazing what army types will willingly undergo for a hot cup of coffee.


      • Like standing in the edges of the jet blast of an EA-6B in the middle of winter to keep from freezing your dangly bit off during a launch? I’ve done that…


  17. If I told the story somewhere before, it might actually not have been this part, which is technically phase 1. I probably told phase two, which would have been when the inevitable finally happened, and the flight officer of the day called to let me know all the magic smoke inside the radio in the hut was let out…

    And when I went to the hut, and cracked the cover, I found an amazing amount of wet, sticky black… coffee.

    Yep, officer used the top of the $125,000 radio they insisted on having in their hut as a coffee table.

    I’m pretty sure I told THAT story at some point.


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