Reflections from the River

Learning military skills: Floor buffer operation 101

March 19, 2023 Bill Enyart
Reflections from the River
Learning military skills: Floor buffer operation 101
Show Notes Transcript

As a veteran let me attest that the military teaches you some invaluable skills. Skills you will carry with you for a lifetime. Let me give you an example...

Mastering military skills: floor buffer operation 101

As a veteran let me attest that the military teaches you some invaluable skills. Skills you will carry with you for a lifetime. Let me give you an example.

Running a floor buffer. Even now, well past my retirement as a lawyer. Past my retirement as a general, I can still operate a buffer with the best of them.

So what’s the skill there, you ask. Well let me tell you proper operation of a floor buffer is a complex skill. It’s like sitting on top of one of those great big yoga balls, rolling down the floor while pulling a fire house behind you balancing a seventy-pound machine spinning a bristly pad like a WW II fighter plane propeller seeking to smash into every stick of furniture and freshly painted wall in sight. 

Like many jobs at the lower end of the wage scale, it’s not as easy as it looks and a real master at the trade makes it look simple. 

It’s all about a light touch. You don’t wrestle the machine, you gently guide it. You control all that humming power with your fingertips, not your biceps.

A skilled operator can make a tile floor glisten like a new diamond ring on a pretty girl’s finger. A new trainee looks like a farm kid wrestling a pig in the mud. Not many reasons a kid would want to wrestle a pig in the mud, but it happens, or so I been told.

My first experience operating that whirring behemoth came as a fifteen-year-old stockboy working in what was then called a “dime-store”. Today we call them dollar stores, but that’s inflation. The end of winter had come to Northern Illinois and the tile floors in the store where I worked were a mess. We couldn’t get a maintenance crew in to clean them so the store manager decided to rent a buffer and he and I would do the job.

After store hours he turned me loose on the store aisles. The hulking chrome covered machine weighed about half my one-hundred-forty-five pounds and with the power handle pulled fully back could outrun my track team one-hundred-yard dash time.

Watching the machine carom back and forth smashing into sales cabinet bases, his amusement turned to alarm. A scream of “Let go of the handle!” stopped the incipient destruction of the store’s fixtures. “Let me show you how to do it,” he said. He taught me the inside tips of how to balance the machine so its spinning underside brought the gleam out of the floor rather than wreaking havoc bouncing off obstacles. A reasonably quick study, under his watchful eve, it didn’t take long for me to learn the touch. 

Four years later, as a newly minted airman basic, housed in firetrap World War II era barracks, whose only saving grace could have been the highly polished tile floors, I watched with alarm as fellow newbies attempted to remove the black marks left on the barracks floor center aisle by the drill instructor’s gleaming black combat boots.

Alas their ineptitude had the buffer careening into steel bunk bed frames, then bashing government issue footlockers housing our newly issued uniforms, boxer shorts and t-shirts. It wasn’t so much leadership as fear of the drill instructor, who would unquestionably become deranged at the sight of uncontrolled buffer damage to valuable government property such as two-decade old footlockers, that caused me to step up and say, “Here, let me show you how to do that.”

To fully understand the story, you need to know that in a World War II era basic training barracks there are no rooms, there is only a large open room with bunkbeds in two precisely ordered rows and footlockers front and back lining a highly polished center aisle. As new enlistees we were not allowed to set foot in the center aisle. 

On the very first day of basic training, the drill instructor screamed at some hapless young soul, “What are you doing walking on my center aisle! Get out of there! That’s my center aisle! Don’t you ever walk there!”

Lesson learned, stay the hell off the drill sergeant’s center aisle. Henceforth, the only time a slick-sleeve young airman could be found on the center aisle would be operating a buffer to ensure the drill sergeant’s center aisle gleamed with not a mark, footprint or dust mote marring its perfect surface. For you civilians, a slick-sleeve is a new enlistee who has yet to even earn their first stripe, which goes on the shirt sleeve between the shoulder and elbow. As an E-1, slick sleeves are the lowest ranking, lowest paid person in the military.

Under my tutelage, those airmen assigned to keep the drill sergeant’s center aisle perfect mastered the art of operating a floor buffer. I may have been an apprentice floor buffer on entering the Air Force but by the time I graduated basic training I was a master.

That skill stood me in good stead a decade later while working a summer job in law school. As the only white kid on a night shift janitorial crew composed largely of middle-aged black women, I had to earn the respect of my elders. Blithely operating that spinning buffer one handedly while feeding out the heavy power cord with the other was enough to prove my worth.

Five decades later my wife stood openmouthed with amazement as I calmly brought our century-old hardwood floors back to life with a new ultralight battery operated buffer. I sure hope those other nineteen-year-old slick sleeves retained their buffer operator skills, if not, I’ll be glad to give them a refresher course, just not on the drill sergeant’s center aisle.

© William L. Enyart, 2023, Reflections from the River,, Email:

Audio production: Tom Calhoun,