During my Junior year in high school I decided that I wanted to become a radio operator in the United States Air Force.
At that time the Air Force was accepting only high school graduates, but I had learned that the high school requirement would be waived if one passed a special audition for the Air Force bands.
I had no real desire to be in a military band, but if I had to enter the Air Force as a musician I would do so, then wrangle a transfer to radio operator's school. So at the end of my junior year I said goodbye to school and set my sights on the Air Force.
I knew that there was a band at the Air Force base near Panama City, about fifty miles south of my hometown of Chipley, Florida. So a couple of weeks into June I set out at around noon one day for Tyndall Field. From home I went over the hill, down around the back of the school, and south along the street that ran in front of the school, following it across town to where it meets the Panama City highway. From there I hitch-hiked to Panama City and on out to Tyndall Field.
II arrived there at about 3 o'clock. After a short search I found the band's headquarters, and informed the sergeant on duty that I planned to enlist in the Air Force, and had come to audition for the Air Force bands. He questioned me at some length, I suppose to determine if I were for real, and finally summoned the band director, who questioned me some more and then asked on what instrument did I wish to audition. I replied, "drums, tuba, baritone horn and trombone." He instructed an aide to fetch those instruments, then told me to proceed when ready.
I did pretty much the standard workout on drum, baritone and trombone, but on the tuba I played the first trumpet part on the "Washington Grays March". Those familiar with that number will remember that not only is it a bit technical, but it is in five and six flats. When I finished, the director studied me for a moment, then wrote out a note and slipped into an envelope. He handed the envelope to me, with the instruction to give it to the Air Force recruiter. Arriving there, I presented the note to the recruiting sergeant. He read it, then looked up and asked when did I wish to enlist. I replied, "As soon as possible."
A few days later I completed processing at the Jacksonville induction center, and on the morning of June 19, 1953, was sworn in as Airman Basic James V. Lewis AF14489908. At around 6:00 pm that afternoon I and a dozen other inductees boarded the train for Lackland Air Force Base (Texas) and basic training, with acting Airman Third Class Cruz of Miami in charge.
Basic training was a bit rough, but I decided that if a million others had completed it, so could I. Near the end we were given career qualification tests. I made high scores, including dit dah dit dah dit, so I was confident that I would be able to achieve my objective. At the classification interview I glibly informed the sergeant that I planned to attend radio operator school, whereupon I was informed, "No, Lewis, you secured your enlistment by auditioning for the Air Force bands, and that is where you will serve."
That is how I ended up, near the end of September 1953, in the 604th Air Force Band at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, reported to Chief Warrant Officer Charles Vesely, and was promptly handed off to First Sergeant Cedric Smith of Tennessee.