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I was on the phone with my mom the other day, and she said a couple of words that I’d never, ever heard from her.
We were all going through a rough time, so she wished us well, she said, “individually and collectively”.
The last time I’d heard those words said like that was in 1978, at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and I realized I had another story to write.
Back then I was in Civil Air Patrol, and our squadron, based at McChord Air Force Base, had one of the best military style drill teams around. We had a group of young men and a few young ladies who could march beside each other, between each other, we could literally march rings around each other. You name it, we could do it, and we looked sharp. Each state was organized as a “Wing” – and several of these “Wings” made up a Region (several states)
We had Wing drill competitions, (Youtube link as an example) and our reputation was such that the folks at Wing wanted us (McChord Composite Squadron, CAP) to compete simply because they wanted to see what we’d do at the Regional competition.
In fact, now that I think of it, for these Wing competitions, we had to get our uniforms looking absolutely perfect, including the shoes, and we learned how to spit shine them so you could see your teeth in them. At one Wing competition, I’d gotten a brand new pair of shoes that didn’t have any creases in them yet. I shined them to within an inch of their lives, and then walked carefully out to where we’d go through a very thorough inspection. The fellow doing the inspecting noticed those shoes with the mirror finish and no creases, and looked me square in the eye,
“Wha’d you use on those shoes, Cadet?”
He said the word “Cadet” with all the affection a cat might have for a hairball it’s trying to cough up. Clearly he’d noticed, but also clearly he thought I’d used a spray shine, which was way faster, way easier, and was definitely considered cheating. Not knowing what else to say, I answered truthfully:
He wasn’t sure about that response
“Are you mocking me, Cadet?”
I was just being honest…
He’d asked a question.
I answered it…
He just wasn’t used to seeing shoes without creases – so not only could he see his teeth in them, but he could see his eyes, his nose, heck, if he wanted to, he could even see his nose hairs – really, they were good (the shoes, not the nose hairs). They’d be that good only once, but once was all I needed, and so to answer his question of whether I was mocking him, I said,
“Sir, No Sir!”
I mean, he couldn’t get me on anything, I wasn’t being disrespectful, I was answering his questions truthfully, so he harrumphed a bit, then turned off to inspect and harangue the next cadet.
Well, we won that competition, and were officially the best drill team in the state. We were going to Regionals – which was a tremendous honor, and it was held at an airbase in Klamath Falls, Oregon, a place none of us had ever been.
The Regional competitions at the time seemed to be a little more involved than the Wing ones. They involved the drill competitions as expected, competitions in individual physical fitness, meaning a mile run, and team physical fitness, which was a volleyball game, I believe there was some level of written test or tests, and of course, you were expected to be on your best behavior at all times, because anything, and I mean ANYTHING you did could sway the Judges’ thoughts or ideas about your ability – or eligibility – to compete.
What this meant is that You Did Not Want To Screw Up.
The ride from McChord to Klamath Falls could take well over 7 hours, but with an old Air Force van, and the requisite stops complete with fluid exchanges (for both the vehicles and the passengers) it took a bit longer.
By the time we got there, we had just enough time to get out of our traveling clothes and into our uniforms for a meeting in a classroom, where the schedule would be given, the expectations would be set, and the law, we learned, would be laid down…
We’d just gotten in and were thinking we were pretty cool for making it when we heard the sound of marching.
In the hallway.
That just didn’t make sense. But as we turned toward the door see where the sound was coming from, the squadron that had won the Nevada Wing competition marched in.
This was clearly not their first competition.
They all had matching flight jackets.
They all marched to their seats, and stood there…
…in those glorious flight jackets…
Which we didn’t have.
…and they were at attention.
Which we weren’t.
We were stunned into silence..
Their commander called out, “Ready, Coats!” and every one of them took off their flight jacket, held it over their left arm, and at the command “Seats!” they all sat down…
As a unit.
Our eyes must have been big as saucers – this was clearly psychological intimidation, and to be honest, right then, it was working just a bit on us, in spite of the fact that we thought they were really pushing this thing over the edge just a bit. Later, we were all wondering if they did everything in unison, and imagined that same march, only not through a classroom door, but through the men’s room door, followed by the command, “Ready, Zip!”
Nahhhh… not possible…
We knew good, but what we were seeing was more than good, it was just plain arrogant, and we weren’t having any of that.
We’d learned that at some of these competitions, a squadron might send out spies to watch another team practice, and actually steal their moves. If the team with the spy went first in the competition, the team who’d invented the moves would look like they were the ones stealing them.
With all the talk of honor and stuff that we’d had drilled into our heads, this was just not right – but, as has been said many times over the years, all’s fair in love and war.
And in the inimitable words of Bugs Bunny, “Of course you realize, this means WAR!”
So that evening, we did a quick run through of our routine as far away as we could get from the barracks. It was very, very clear that we were ready, we were functioning as a machine, and we were simply ON. So on the way back we figured if they wanted to see something, we’d give them something to see.
Now the way it works when you’re marching in a situation like that, is you’ve got one person, the commander, giving the commands, and the rest follow.
And the way the commands work is this: there’s the Preparatory command, which tells you what to do, and then there’s the command of execution, which tells you to do it. So you’ve all heard “Forward, March!” in movies and the like, well…
“Forward” – that’s the preparatory command…
“March” – that’s the command of execution…
And instead of “March”, we’d learned to say “Harch” – because when you’re trying to say it really loud without yelling, you can just get more volume into it. Also, if you ever did something that was different than the standard “Forward, Harch” – (like Doubletime, Harch) – you could always undo that command with “Forward, Harch” again.
You always start out on the right foot, and even if the command was “To the Rear, Harch” – you take one step forward, pivot 180 degrees, and then go on your way, as a unit.
So now that you know all that, remember, we’re marching back toward the barracks we were staying in, (think dormitories, if you’ve never heard that term ‘barracks’) and we just knew that some of the Nevada team would be on the lookout, and we wanted to make sure they saw something, and that what they saw would mess with them just as much psychologically as they’d done with us – just from a different direction.
We had this fellow in the squadron named Ken Meloche. He was Canadian, and reveled in the whole “for Queen and country” bit – and when he marched, he liked to march like the English did, with their arms and legs swung high. So just as we came in sight of some of the windows in the barracks, and to mess with the Nevada boys a bit, our commander gave the command,
“Meloche Walk, Harch!”
– and every one of us, without skipping a beat, started walking just like Ken did.
– and we all marched normally again, like a drill team should march.
Heh – this was fun.
We marched for a bit, and could see more of the windows in the barracks – and out of nowhere came a command we’d never, ever heard before in our lives:
“Double to the Rear with Three Hops in the Middle, Harch!”
– and again, without skipping a beat, we did a ‘To the rear, Harch’ – which is just a reversal in direction, but we all took one step, and literally as a unit, did three hops. I think there were twelve of us there, and I remember hearing the sound of three distinct impacts, we were that in sync. We took one step forward, then did the next ‘To the rear, Harch’ and tried like heck to keep from grinning from ear to ear… (we tried that double to the rear with three hops in the middle again later – and could never repeat it).
This was just NOT what drill competition was supposed to be like. It was supposed to be more serious than this.
When the final windows of our own barracks came into view, we heard the command,
“Walk like slobs, Harch!”
And I suppose the best thing that you could liken what we did to that exists in current culture is that we walked, in formation, like a bunch of zombies, knuckles dragging, feet dragging, drooling, the whole bit.
For about 10 steps.
And we were back to looking sharp as tacks.
It was great…
If the Nevada boys wanted to mess with our minds, we’d mess right back.
So after we’d had dinner, and gotten into our bunks and everything – there were four of us in each room, and we were all full of spit and vinegar, the night before the competition. One fellow in the room decided that since the body can produce, – let’s just call it a ‘greenhouse gas’ – one that is flammable, he wanted to show us that it could be done. And in a split second, I found myself taken back to a story my dad told me from when he was a kid. Well, not so much when he was a kid, but when he was in that ‘no man’s land’ between childhood and adulthood, where bodies grow faster than brains, you know… And in it he’d told me it could indeed be done. So as background, let me tell you that story from his “young adulthood”, as it affected things a little further down the road in my “young adulthood”.…
So I knew from my dad that “it” could be done. He’d told me the story of when he was
a) Young, and
…of how a group of his friends got together to prove that this, um, ‘greenhouse gas’ could be produced by a human, and could be lit.
(Note: male… teenager… fire… cue the ominous music)
One of that group of his friends produced some matches, and two separate things happened that changed the outcome of that story forever.
Note: there was no one suggesting that this might, in fact, be dangerous, or that there was a possibility of injury… No, these were young men, with at that age, possibly a single functioning brain cell between them. That they had to share. And the fellow with the match was rather modest, so his plan was to demonstrate this flammability factor without exposing any skin – the implication being that this gas could escape through cloth and everything would still work.
That it would work was true, but the cloth also kept a bit of it between the skin and said cloth before it escaped. This would have been well and good, and had the experiment been successful, there might have been the possibility of some hair follicles being ignited. Other than that, no problem.
This was under the assumption that the cloth was cotton, or wool, or some natural fiber.
But it wasn’t.
This was back when the artificial fibers that we’re now used to wearing – be they Nylon or Rayon or whatever combination of things we have that make cloth last longer now – were just being experimented with.
And if you didn’t know, Nylon is flammable.
And those pants were made of Nylon.
So when this greenhouse gas came into contact with an ignition source, that which had made it past the Nylon ignited very well.
But remember about the cloth? – and that some would gather inside before making it through?
Which meant that on both sides of this flammable Nylon was flammable methane.
That was on fire.
The Nylon pants didn’t stand a chance.
They caught fire, and melted, and… let’s just say the area around the source of the methane was tender and blistered for weeks to come. It’s likely that the ‘modest’ young man had a story to tell his grandchildren years later – and a peculiar scar in a place only his doctor would see once a year.
It was with this story in mind that I suggested to – we’ll call him ‘Bill’ – that maybe getting the layer of cloth away from the – um – source of the methane would be a good idea, and given that I’d told the above story fairly well, including using the words “second degree burns”, “blisters”, and the phrase “his pants were melted to his butt” – ‘Bill’ agreed, and lied down on his bunk on his back, his knees up by his shoulders, trying to arrange things in such a way that the gas would be lit, but other, shall we say, delicate objects in the vicinity would be safe.
It took quite a number of tries with a little Bic lighter that someone had with them, and eventually, the timing, and location of everything was right. There was “fuel”, there was “ignition” and it really worked. It was indeed evident that methane was flammable, though not with the full blown cataclysmic flame-throwing display that we’d all been hoping for. Slightly disappointed, Bill put everything back where it belonged, but there was some evidence of our attempts with the Bic wafting about, and one of the rules that had been laid down early on was that there would be no smoking, no matches, no fires.
An adult who was supposed to be responsible for safety on that floor of the barracks we were in came storming into the room and absolutely wanted to know what was going on.
We thought we were dead.
This was the night before the Regional drill competition. We were the best Washington had to offer, and we realized might have just blown it, in more ways than one – so to speak…
The tone in his voice made it clear he was taking no prisoners, and taking no excuses. He wanted answers, and he wanted them now.
“Have you been smoking?”
Not knowing what else to say, we answered truthfully.
“Have you been playing with matches?”
Matches? We didn’t have any matches, we had a lighter.
He kept at this for a bit, asking us as a group, then one by one, the same questions.
We told him the truth, every time.
The problem was, he kept asking us all the wrong questions.
He then called his superior into the room, explained the situation, and asked the same questions all over again. Eventually he said, as if justifying to his superior why he’d even been called into the room:
“I’ve asked them individually and collectively whether they were smoking, or lighting matches, and they all said no…”
They decided that they needed to go talk this over, and about the time they left, we looked at Bill and suddenly realized that this could disqualify us before the competition even started. The dawning realization of how deep the doodoo was that we might have gotten into – and what we would have to tell the people back home if we were disqualified, was agonizing, but we knew what the right thing to do was.
We told Bill he had to go down to tell the guy everything and straighten it out, and he did. Well, we don’t know what exactly he told him, but we told him to tell the guy the truth.
And I’m sure, as Bill was trying to explain this whole thing to this stern adult, that deep in that stern adult’s mind was a young man who’d likely done exactly the same thing a few decades earlier.
We were let off with a warning – as long as we <snicker> didn’t do it again….
And somehow, we got away with it…
The problem was, not ONCE had he ever asked us if any one of us was using a Bic lighter to try to light farts with.
We were allowed to compete.
We came in second – I mean, we did really well in the drill competition, and did okay in the volleyball game, and I remember my time for the mile run being okay – a little over six minutes – but my pulse was 228 and my gums were bleeding as I crossed the finish line – so I knew I’d given it pretty much all I had. The reason we were a little short in the physical fitness part of it was because we were used to the elevation of McChord Air Force Base –a whopping 283 feet. The 4,000+ foot elevation of Klamath Falls just did a number on us.
I don’t remember what maneuvers we did for the drill competition, really, it was the silly stuff we did that we remembered. The stuff we got away with.
So… when I heard my mom say “individually and collectively” the other day – the floodgates in my memory opened up, and I realized, “Oh, no… there’s another story there…” – and I told it to her pretty much as you read it above, and she laughed…
© 2011 Tom Roush
I worked at Microsoft a number of years ago, and at one point, changed jobs and moved from one group to another. By that time, I knew not only how to do my job well, but how to get things like moving done, who to call, etc., so when it was time to move, I didn’t think much about emailing Facilities and telling them I had some boxes, computers, and phones I needed to have moved from one office in one building to another office in another building, I just did it.
Before that, I’d gone over to the other building, done the interview, got the tour – and was led to an office and told, “Here’s your officemate, Jae.”
Jae, hunched over his keyboard, doing some web development stuff, was in a ratty tank top, old shorts, and a pair of flip flops.
It was a little more casual than the typical Microsoft dress code of the day, but not by much.
Most of the skin that was visible was covered in Tattoos.
What wasn’t covered in tattoos was pierced.
Now understand, this was not how I’d been raised, so it was just a touch foreign to me. Jae had been concentrating pretty heavily on some code, and also had some kind of piercing between his eyebrows, so when he turned around as I was introduced, he just looked livid.
I was terrified.
Had I met him on the street, I would have crossed to the other side.
That was the first impression on my end.
On Jae’s end, it was a little different.
When I was sure I’d be taking the new job, like I said, I’d contacted facilities to move my stuff, and they’d come and done just that. In my mind, they were gone. I didn’t think about them anymore.
On the other end, Jae was busy hunched over his keyboard, and all of a sudden these guys, without saying anything to him, came in with boxes of stuff, hooked up the telephone, brought in computers, hooked them up, brought in a chair, and in general, prepared the place for me.
Jae’s jaw hit the floor.
His first impression, he told me later, was 5 short words:
“This guy knows his s**t”
So when I got there, the office was ready for me, I had an interesting kind of respect for Jae, and though I didn’t know it, he had the same for me.
He worked on the web front end of an internal web site, I worked on the SQL back end of it, and we would often go to meetings where we’d be tasked with some level of work that, given the environment, we just said “Yes” to…
We’d get back to our office, kind of collapse into our chairs, and ponder for a bit.
Invariably, Jae would ask, “You know how to do this?”
“IIIII don’t know how to do this…”
“Alright. Let’s do it then!”
And we did.
Over time, we got to know each other pretty well, and we talked as only office mates can talk. We talked about our children and our wishes for their future. Jae came to see my son’s soccer games and we stood on the sidelines, two proud dads.
It was a neat time, going to work having a good friend to share the day with, having a good colleague to – well, be friends with.
At one point, he said something that startled me. “You know, Tom, this isn’t going to last forever.” – and Jae – having gone through the school of hard knocks like few people have, was right.
We did move on.
Jae’d been in the navy, and as such, had the language of, well – a sailor. He would use words that, in my life, were the equivalent of habaneros like other folks use salt and pepper. It took a little getting used to, but underneath that capcaisin coated exterior was a heart of gold.
He moved on to another company, and encouraged me to join him. I did just that, and we stayed there for some time, and then it was time to move again, which we did, and will likely repeat at some unknown interval in the future.
I thought about that first meeting many times – clearly am thinking about it as I write this, and wonder what would have happened had I allowed my initial fear to get in the way of a relationship that I treasure to this day.
Take care Jae, wherever you are.
So based on Greg’s comment on last week’s story about me ‘embellishing’ things – I just had to put this story up. It happened in August of 2010, and like a lot of my stories – it started out as an email to a friend, in this case, one who’d told me to go out and do something fun that weekend.
It involved Greg.
And he gave me permission (well, actually, told me I had to) write this story.
So without too terribly much editing, here’s the story/note I wrote to my friend who wanted me to go do something fun, and come back with pictures to prove it…
I chatted with my buddy Greg for a few hours in the parking lot of the Museum until the coffee we’d drunk earlier at Randy’s needed a place to go…
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Greg and I had been sitting in my ’68 Saab, sharing stories, and watching the planes at Boeing Field. One of the stories involved something that had actually happened about 50 feet from where we were sitting right then, it was a story of me talking my way onto the only flying B-29 in the world, but before that, successfully badgering a newspaper photo editor I didn’t know,
…for a paper I’d never seen,
…into holding space on the front page
…for a picture I hadn’t taken yet,
…from a plane I had never been on,
…and was quite literally trying to talk my way onto.
We laughed, and Greg kept talking about my golden tongue and how I could talk my way into anything – using that B-29 as an example. I needed the laughter. I’d been feeling a little down about a lot of things, wondering about life and stuff, and recovering from some recent surgery, and Greg’s a very good friend, and did a lot of listening, and a lot of encouraging, for which I’m grateful.
Eventually, the coffee we’d had earlier needed to be dealt with, and since it was still raining, we just drove down toward a row of Porta Potties at the far end of the parking lot. As we did, we looked around and noticed we were one of only two cars in the formerly crowded lot. We saw that the other car was parked beside the Porta Potties we were heading for, right next to this canopy kind of a thing with a sign on it that said something like “SR-71 Pilot and Author”.
That got us talking about SR-71’s, (there’s one in the Museum of Flight) – and I told Greg about this one mission – the only one I could remember reading about right then, in which one of the pilots had flown from England to Libya, and on the way back out, the plane just flew faster and faster – and they had to hang a left to meet their tanker out by Gibraltar. They did (when you’re flying Mach 3+, that takes a bit of geography) – and the pilot pulled the throttles back over Sicily – and still ended up overshooting the refueling tanker over Gibraltar… (note: if my math is right, that’s about 1,100 miles of coasting – you can read the story here.
We stopped, Greg got out to take care of his stuff, and I took a second look at that sign, “SR-71 Pilot and Author”.
It was still raining, and under that canopy was a fellow, sitting in the only dry chair in the parking lot, surrounded by a bunch of empty, wet tables, all of whatever he was selling was gone – he was just sitting there with his feet up, talking on a cell phone.
In the parking lot.
In the rain.
Well heck, I figured that there couldn’t have been too many of those, I wondered if he knew the guy who’d done that Libya flight Greg and I’d just been talking about. So while Greg headed off to take care of his business, I approached him – and he motioned he’d be off the phone in a minute, so I waited, and while I was waiting I saw the name on his banner – “Brian Shul.”
Hmm… I had no idea who Brian Shul was, but it seemed like he must be that SR-71 pilot – or maybe know him.
He ended his call.
“Are you Brian?”
“I sure hope so, been signing his name all day.”
“Say, I was just telling my buddy here about an SR-71 pilot who did a mission out of Libya and ended up overshooting his tanker out by Gibraltar… “
“… and I was wondering if you happened to know who that pilot might be…”
“In fact – the whole story’s in my book, would you be interested in a copy?”
My mind was already several sentences past that last one before it came to a screeching halt and processed what I’d just heard.
“He… you… that pilot – waitaminute…”
I had no idea that I’d actually stumbled into one of my own stories – and turned around to see Greg, who’d heard that interaction as he was coming back, and saw his jaw do what mine must have done just seconds before, which was to simply obey the law of the acceleration of falling objects and hit the pavement of the parking lot in just under a second.
You see, one of the things we’d been talking about was how Greg thought I might have embellished some of my stories – and about how easy it can be to do.
But the funny thing is – if I tell a story – well, I tell a story… I don’t think I embellish it, I just tell it. (often they simply didn’t need embellishing, they just needed to be told well).
We talked with Brian for a bit.
I shook his hand.
I bought his book.
He autographed it for me.
Greg took a picture of him and me – beside my very definite “sub-sonic” Saab, because I needed proof to show a friend that I’d done something fun that weekend.
And the funny thing is, Greg and I both learned something that afternoon.
We learned that you never know when you’ll stumble onto – or into a story, and it had become very clear that I didn’t need to embellish a dang thing on this one, because no matter what anyone asked, it was absolutely true that at the very moment I was telling Greg the story of the SR-71, the very pilot of that plane in that story, was sitting not 100 feet away, under a canopy, in the rain, on the south end of the parking lot at the Museum of Flight, right next to the Porta-Potties.
If you’ve been paying any sort of attention, you’ve picked up on the fact that old Saabs have been part of my life since before I could drive them.
The Saab in this story is a red 1967 Saab 96 with an 850cc, three cylinder, two stroke engine in it. (this is the same car you might have read about here).
When driven gently, the engine, with 7 moving parts, would sound almost as smooth as a turbine.
Of course, if you drove it ‘un-gently’ it sounded like an army of chainsaws.
I was more familiar with the chainsaw sound, to be honest, and just loved the way it sounded when I drove it like that. It was a contemporary of the original VW Beetle, and kind of like the Beetle, had what they called ‘unibody’ construction – meaning there wasn’t a steel frame to put the car body on. The VW’s body was bolted to the floor pan, I believe, with 13 bolts, the Saab’s was welded. The idea on these two was that the car body was built strong enough to essentially *be* the steel frame.
Now because of this, the Saab pretty much operated under ‘Vegas Rules’ – those being “whatever got in the car, stayed in the car” – which meant it required cleaning out every spring after a typical wet Washington winter to the point of taking EVERYTHING out of it and letting everything down to the steel of that unibody construction dry out so it didn’t get moldy or rust or anything like that.
One of the things I noticed one of those times was that at the front of the floor pan, about where you might put your feet, were three holes about two inches in diameter, with stamped metal plugs in them. The right one was rusted. Both good and bad, it allowed water to drain out, if you were lucky, but also explained the fairly constant wet spot on the floor there.
I figured I’d fix it before fall, and just left everything to dry for a while.
Meanwhile – well, some years back, actually, the pastor of our church had taken us four wheeling, he called it “Stump Jumping”. I was young and didn’t know if I could do something like that, but he reassured me it was okay to strap myself into an itty bitty Jeep with an ‘ever so slightly’ modified 307 cubic inch V-8.
I also didn’t understand that one of the basic tenets of four wheeling the way he had in mind was to drive like a freaking lunatic.
Wait a minute…
Driving like a lunatic?
I could do that.
And off we went.
Now before we go on, you must know: There were two types of roads on Fort Lewis:
1. The kind that had been surveyed, graded, paved, and marked by professionals, and had speed limit signs to keep you on the straight and narrow, so to speak….
2. The kind that were made by a teenager driving an M-60 tank, were ungraded, unpaved, and most definitely weren’t marked (though it’s hard to keep a tank’s passing a secret). They didn’t have speed limit signs, because the roads were so rough that a sane person didn’t need them.
But we’re not talking about sane people now, are we?
So in doing our four wheeling, there was this one road, out on Fort Lewis, (it’s still there, but flattened out considerably, and they’ve built quite a bit up around it in the years since this happened) that was smooth enough so you could actually get up to about 40 miles an hour. At the end of that smoothness was this wonderful “yump” – where, if you were driving sanely, it would fling you up in the air kind of like going over a hump on a roller coaster.
If you were driving a Jeep, or driving insanely, you gunned the heck out of it, caught some serious air, and kept your hands inside the vehicle while you thanked God for seat belts and roll cages. Anything not fastened down started doing its own little Zero G spacewalk wherever it wanted to.
It’s what you saw during your personal Zero G “Thank God for seat belts” moment that took your breath away.
We’ll get to that in a bit.
Now the roads I was mentioning came in one of two stages: dusty, or muddy. Rarely did you get one of the roads in that perfect condition between the two, and on this particular stretch you had that little yump that would get anything airborne (heck, if you hit it right, you could get a semi-truck flying)
But there weren’t any semi-trucks on this road. In fact, while there was evidence of them, there weren’t even any tanks. But it was that evidence that told me so much… See, those tanks were driven by young men not much older than teenagers, and when driven “properly”, they caught air too. All 60 tons of them.
You’ve heard the phrase, “what goes up, must come down” right?
That goes for flying 60 ton tanks as well as it goes for anything, so when all that flying armor came back down, still traveling 20-30 miles an hour, the earth moved.
In fact, there was a depression a foot deep where those tanks had landed – about 100 feet long, and about 20 feet wide.
Really, the earth moved.
Now the Saabs of the vintage that I was driving had been used in Rally racing, driven on roads not much different from the logging roads familiar to people out here in Washington, (or tank roads familiar to people growing up near Fort Lewis driving in places they maybe shouldn’t have been driving). I’d seen pictures of them catching air, driving on two wheels, flipped over on their roofs (yes, really) and they were just more fun to drive right on the edge that way.
Well, given that, one day that summer I decided it’d be fun to take the Saab out to where we’d been four wheeling– or ‘stump jumping’ those years earlier – and do a little ‘rally practice’ and see what would happen if I took it over the same ‘yump’ that we’d gone over with the Jeep.
I figured I’d hit the yump, just like I did in the jeep, catch air, just like I did in the Jeep, and land and rumble through that 100 foot by 20 foot depression, just like I did in the Jeep.
It’s just that when we did it with the Jeep, the road was dusty, and dry, and there was a depression, and when we hit our little Zero G moment, what we saw was a dent in the road to land on from where the tanks had hit.
When I was did it with the Saab, it was after some wet weather, and there was no dust. The road was damp, and when I hit my little Zero G moment, what I saw ahead of me stopped my heart cold.
Instead of a dent, I saw a puddle about the size of the Pacific Ocean. Seriously – that huge dent in front of me was now filled with close to a foot of water, it was more than a puddle. In the brief moment I had, I thought I saw a ‘no fishing’ sign at the edge. It was just enormous.
The thoughts that blasted through my head right then were fast, frantic, and mostly useless, but they gave me one, and only one option.
I was easily 3 feet in the air at the time of those thoughts. At that altitude, the wheels, and all they symbolized, were less than useless.
Not good, well, not bad, but it affected all the other decisions that followed.
Steering to the left or right at that moment to try get out of the puddle would have made those front tires into rudders when they hit the water, and landing with the wheels aimed anyplace other than straight ahead would have been more than a touch dramatic and likely rolled the car.
In a foot of water.
Hitting the brakes, while useless in the air, would just mean I’d get stuck in the puddle once I landed.
Also not good.
So if left was no good, and right was no good, and slowing down was no good, what option did I have?
My only option was to hang on and ride it out.
So I did, and I floored it, just before I hit.
But I wasn’t out of the woods, literally or figuratively, yet.
Now as I hit the surface (and Lordy, “hit” is exactly what it was, this was not a gentle landing), a number of things happened…
The engine screamed, the wheels spun, and the hydrological equivalent of Mount Vesuvius erupted inside the car.
See, that little plug that I was going to fix that spring, and didn’t, chose that moment to give way, and a two inch jet of water shot straight up from the floor, blasted the carpet and floor mats out of the way, kept going up behind the glove box and radio, and continued on inside the windshield on the passengers’ side, all the way up to the roof and the sun visors.
Of course, I was trying to keep the car under control at the time, so didn’t really have too much time to process that little event, but Vesuvius in the car…
It took a long time for it to dry out after that one.
But it did.
And in the drying out phase after this little event, I found the plug, saw that it was pretty rusty, but given that I didn’t have any others, put it back in and smacked it with a hammer, figuring that would make it stay.
Insert ominous music here…
Later that year, in the fall, I went on a date with a young lady who shall remain nameless. I just know that I did my best to be a gentleman. I knew her parents were missionaries in the Philippines, and wrote them a note asking about her favorite things. And one Saturday, I tried to make a day of making some of those favorite things happen. I took her to her hometown on the Olympic Peninsula, I tried to do some of the things her parents had told me she liked, and I found out that no matter what I did, she was clearly upset.
I had no idea what was wrong.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that most men simply want to make the women in their lives happy. So in this case, I’d spent weeks talking to her parents and friends to find out what she liked, so that I could do just that, make her happy…
For whatever reason, she didn’t want to be happy, no matter what I did.
I was stumped.
By this time it was evening, and the weather outside was cold, and wet, and even though I had the heater on full blast in the car, the atmosphere inside was absolutely frigid. As we were driving from her hometown to mine, for some reason I went a slightly different way, and ended up on a road I seldom used.
And as I came around a curve on this unfamiliar road, in the rain, there must have been a plugged up storm drain, because in front of me I saw something I’d only seen once before through this windshield.
I saw a puddle.
A big puddle.
But I saw it at the last second, and realized that…
If I tried to swerve now, my unhappy passenger would be even unhappier.
If I hit the brakes, she would be unhappier still.
…and then, in a flash, I realized that given how bad things were, it really didn’t matter what I did, so I held on and floored it.
And our hydrological equivalent of Mt. Vesuvius erupted a second time in the car, only this time there was a passenger in it. In fact, there was a passenger’s foot just to the left of Mt. Vesuvius, and the water shot straight up and caught her between her leg and the jeans she was wearing.
She was instantly, and I mean *instantly* drenched. I’d say ‘from head to toe’ but her pant leg funneled most of the water someplace else, and only a little of it got to her head.
Ooooh Lordy… If I thought she was mad earlier, I hadn’t even come close to seeing mad.
Given where we were, I took her to my folk’s place, where she dried off, and then took her back up to Seattle, where she lived.
It was a very quiet ride.
A library might have been quieter, except for the sound of a two stroke engine and dripping water.
Not surprisingly, it was our very last date.
© 2011 Tom Roush
What heaven must be like.
I’m an airplane nut who’s seen airplanes from the ground once too often.
I’m a cancer survivor who realizes that “someday” is not a day of the week, that life is not a dress rehearsal, and that I have been given a second, and actually a third chance.
I’m a guy who’s spent far too much time working and not enough time playing.
It’s been my dream to fly since I was a little boy, when my dad was in the Air Force, and when times were simpler, and the magic of the skies was still new and still fresh…
And I’d seen sailplanes, here in the states, and in Germany where I spent part of my growing up years, and there was a magic to them, an allure that no other airplane had. They would fly circles for what seemed like such a long time – and just magically stay in the sky.
I mean, to fly is simple…
There, you flew for a second.
Wanna fly longer?
Get a trampoline.
Wanna fly MUCH longer?
Well, now you’re talking wings of some kind – and that’s where things get interesting.
If you want to fly even longer than that – well, now you’re talking engines and propellers. And when you talk engines, then you need fuel, oil, electricity, a cooling system, and gauges to tell you what they’re all doing – and things get simultaneously a little simpler (to go up, push the throttle(s) forward, to go down, pull back on them), and a lot more complex (in addition to flying, you also have to manage all the systems that have anything to do with the power you have available with that throttle).
Another side effect of having an engine is that it also makes things noisy to the point of often having to wear earmuffs to filter out the noise…
They say that the main reason for the propeller is – well, it’s a fan to keep the pilot cool, because if it stops running when he’s in the air, he starts to sweat, but really – it’s to make the flying thing simple… Push forward on the throttle, go up.
Pull back on the throttle, go down.
So if that engine, whether that’s a piston engine, a jet, or rocket engine quits, you are now officially flying a glider. A Cessna 152, for example, will go forward about 9 feet for every one foot it goes down. It might do that at 60 mph. That’s called the glide ratio, in this case, it’s 9:1. The space shuttle – which is also a glider when it’s coming in, goes forward about 3 feet for every one foot it goes down, so a 3:1 glide ratio, it’s just that it does it a WHOLE lot faster, from a WHOLE lot higher up.
Now aside from those types of planes, there are planes that are designed from the get-go to fly without engines. They’re called Sailplanes, and the best of them can have a glide ratio where they’ll go forward 60 feet for every one foot they go down. They are truly, truly amazing works of engineering, craftsmanship, and art.
This means that the space shuttle, for all its engineering brilliance, has a glide ratio a lot closer to that of a crowbar or a brick than that of an actual airplane.
So I made myself a promise awhile back – I guess you could call it one of the things on my “bucket list” – that I would fly. There were so many things that kept me from doing it – but the other Sunday, I realized once again, that life is not a dress rehearsal, that “someday” is not a day of the week, and that there is no contract anywhere that says anyone is obligated to give me tomorrow.
Realizations like that tend to be fairly deep.
The events that cause realizations like that are often quite a bit deeper.
But on the day I had this realization, the weather was perfect, and the next two weekends were the last of the season. I knew I’d be gone on one of them, and had no guarantee of the weather on the second one.
This made the decision relatively easy to make.
I asked my son if he wanted to get out of the house for the afternoon, and with such a perfect fall day, he agreed. I told my wife and daughter we were heading out for a bit – and I have to say that even though I wasn’t sure that I’d go flying – it seems I was subconsciously setting things up so that my options were never limited.
We drove for about an hour to get to this little airfield (Bergseth Field) out in the middle of nowhere – and on this gorgeous Fall day, they were as happy to see us as we were to be there…
We watched – and the difference between this airport and any other airport I’d been at in a long time was like the difference between a calm pool and a roiling river.
If you wanted to take off, they’d look up in the sky to see if there were any other planes coming in – and then you’d hear them yell ‘Pattern Clear” – and off they went, quite literally taking off from the edge of a cliff.
It seemed that for the exchange of a few little oval pictures of dead presidents, one could buy a ride in one of those sailplanes. Michael was more interested in me going than in going himself, so the exchange was made, and along with the pilot, I got into the two-seater sailplane, a Schweitzer 2-33. After I was buckled in, and Michael had handed me the camera, I looked right…
…and saw him smile, which told me I was doing the right thing, and that he was simply happy because I was living a dream.
We took off heading west for a bit, swung north, then did a 270 degree turn to the left, climbing the whole way…
Notice I said, “We took off…”
Something to realize is that flying a sailplane is the only type of aviation I’m aware of that has the aerial equivalent of calling a triple-A tow truck as a standard, expected part of the deal. You don’t take off like a normal airplane, because you have no engine. So you essentially ‘borrow’ one from somewhere. Some places have huge winches that launch you into the sky, some will use a car or other vehicle, some even use huge, huge rubber bands, and some will use another airplane – and that’s the one that’s the aerial equivalent of a tow truck. Very strong, very stable, very reliable.
And that’s the one we used.
As we climbed, near Enumclaw, Washington, the pilot of the tow plane turned toward nearby Mt. Rainier.
I was awestruck.
After we got up to altitude and the tow pilot had let us go, the pilot sitting behind me asked a simple and profound question…
“Would you like to fly?”
The little boy in me, the one who had wanted to fly for over 40 years, was jumping up and down so hard that the seat belts were strained and the canopy was in danger of cracking. The 40+ year old man that the little boy was in, sitting in the front seat of an old, but still graceful sailplane, tried to hold down his excitement and said, “Sure, I’d like to give it a shot”.
And for a moment, both the little boy and the man, held the stick for the first time.
And a breeze blew, and Heaven’s curtain parted for a moment to allow me to peek inside.
The pilot brought me back into the cockpit by asking if I could keep the wings level, and the nose just below the horizon. I’d done it often enough in my dreams that it was easy.
He had me turn the plane south, and I learned that when you bank a sailplane to the right, for example, the plane wants to go straight for two reasons, one, it just likes the whole equilibrium thing, and two, the drag and the leverage from the aileron on the “upwing” side pulls that wing back a bit, turning the nose left, not right. I gently pressed the right rudder pedal with my right toe, got the nose going the right way – and I learned what was meant by ‘seat of the pants flying’ – you really do feel it in the seat of your pants.
We turned again, and the pilot complimented me on the turns and asked if I’d flown before.
In dreams and in my mind?
The adult in me was soaring – I was above the cares of the world, and nothing else mattered.
But the altimeter unwound just like a timer, when there was no more altitude, our time would be up. He landed it, and I saw my son smiling as he walked toward us.
His smile matched my own, but for different reasons. He was simply happy for me to have finally lived that dream.
So was I… So was I…
We talked a bit as we drove home, about life, and the usual things, but my mind kept drifting back up to that blue, blue sky, and I found it hard to keep both feet on the ground when I’d held the sky in my hands.
(C) 2011 Tom Roush