“Anyone who has ever been in the military has spent an inordinate amount of time in a stand-by formation waiting for someone to get the orders to start some activity. Many man-hours were spent in an activity that was commonly known as Effing the dog. Back home in civilian life this was cleaned up to the slightly more acceptable screwing the pooch.”
Gus Grissom always wanted to be a pilot. He flew over 100 difficult combat missions in an F-86 in Korea, became a test pilot, and was chosen by Nasa as one of the seven original Mercury Astronauts in 1959. Astronauts were confined alone to a tiny Mercury capsule, with a small round window, and a lot to do manually. The pressure was great on them.
Guss first space flight was somewhat less than a complete success. Upon splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, the 70 explosive bolts which held the hatch in place inexplicably exploded prematurely, forcing Gus to evacuate the capsule and swim while the rescue helicopter frantically tried to save the capsule from sinking. It was not successful, and Gus nearly drowned while the capsule (which contained a lot of information) sank to the bottom of the ocean, never to be recovered.
Since then, this information has been repeated on numerous websites. While its quite plausible that “screw the pooch” is a euphemization of “fuck the dog” (Greens Dict of Slang agrees), the rest of this seems a little dubious. Various sources suggest that there was indeed a Joseph L. “Jack” May who DJed “The Candied Yam Jackson Show” on the Yale radio station WYBC when he was an undergrad from 1947 to 1951. And Rawlings is mentioned alongside May/Jackson in this article about the Chi Delta Theta literary society in the Feb. 7, 1950 Yale Daily News:
Gus went to his grave unflaggingly insisting that he did not screw the pooch, which was test pilot jargon for submitting to panic. “I didnt do anything. I was just lying there and it just blew, said Grissom.” However, the media painted him as a failure, a coward who panicked and blew the hatch in an attack of claustrophobia.
In fact, May is still alive, and, as I would soon discover, has many stories to tell. Now 84, he is the retired president of the May Hosiery Mills, a family concern in Nashville established by his grandfather, Jacob May. When I talked to Jack May on the phone, he brought to my attention an epistolary memoir that he published in 2010, titled An Alphabet of Letters, in which he tells the “screw the pooch” story. Here it is in May’s own words: Advertisement Advertisement
The story sounded somewhat implausible, but a dive into the archives of the Yale Daily News (where I was once a news editor) confirmed that there were indeed undergraduates named John Rawlings and Jack May around 1950. Rawlings was noted for his various artistic pursuits, including a choreographed staging of a book of e.e. cummings poetry, One Times One. And Joseph L. “Jack” May really did go by the name “Candied Yam Jackson” as a DJ on the college radio station WYBC.
We will likely never know for sure if Rawlings was solely responsible for bringing “screw the pooch” into use in NASA circles. It’s not impossible, after all, for various military personnel to have independently transformed “fuck the dog” into “screw the pooch” on separate occasions. After my Wall Street Journal column was published, former Navy Lieutenant Commander Arthur P. Menard wrote in to say that he recalled “screw the pooch” being used to describe fatal crashes in 1959, when he was a midshipman aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, and again in 1960 in flight school in Pensacola. He described it as “black humor in the Naval air arm for a very unfunny incident.”
In his book New York in the ‘50s, Dan Wakefield remembers how Rawlings, a high school friend, thrived in the Greenwich Village scene as a writer, musician, and artist. He befriended sculptor Alexander Calder, as well as e.e. cummings, the inspiration for his Yale production. At night he’d accompany himself on piano at a midtown nightclub, where he was billed as the Playing Mantis.
After the splashdown of Grissom’s capsule, Liberty Bell 7, the explosive bolts unexpectedly blew off, requiring a messy rescue operation. Many wondered whether Grissom himself was to blame for the error. Did he “screw the pooch”? (The movie unfairly implies that he did.) Advertisement
“The accident board convened, took weeks to gather its findings, took months to file a report, and finally confirmed what everyone had assumed: pilot error rather than equipment failure. The betting in the office on the Apollo 17 crew had long since switched—aviators characteristically do not wait for the accident report—‘That sure cinches it for Dick,’ the refrain went. ‘Ol’ Gene just screwed the pooch.’ ”
May goes on to explain that Rawlings enlisted in the Air Force and helped design early prototypes of space suits for chimpanzees on NASA missions. When May saw the film of The Right Stuff in 1983 and heard “screw the pooch,” he was convinced that Rawlings had introduced the expression to the space program. However, May couldn’t confirm this, since Rawlings had died in 1980.
The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, suggests that “screw the pooch” may “perhaps” be derived from the “coarse slang” American expression “fuck the dog,” which it defines as “(a) to shirk one’s duties or responsibilities; to mess about or waste time; (b) to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something.”
What does pooch mean in slang?