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It’s funny what happens when the phone rings in our house.  There are the usual calls from family and friends, the usual telemarketers that get ignored, and the usual wrong numbers. But every now and then we get a call that just has to be remembered.

The other day I got a call from a friend of my dad’s, who had worked with him in the Air Force over half a century ago. He told me a story from his youth that had stuck with him all these years, and – well…

…fade back with me

… to a long time ago, in a country far, far away, where a shepherd had members of his village both enthralled and in disbelief at how he had fought off two fire breathing beasts who had been attacking his flock of sheep.  The beasts were bigger that he was, stronger than he was, and much, much faster than he was.

The beasts were metal, he said, and attacked over and over, terrifying the sheep, scattering them all across the meadow on the mountainside they were on.

And yet he fought them off.

And won.

And they never, ever bothered his sheep again.

Some people doubted him, but he stuck with his story, resolute in his claim that he was telling the truth.

But there is more to this tale.

See the job of being a shepherd is one of those jobs that is necessary, requires wisdom, bravery, and an understanding of a particularly unpredictable type of animal.  But given those parameters, it hasn’t changed much in millennia.  In fact, there are stories in the Bible about sheep, and shepherds, dating back thousands of years.  The Christmas Story very clearly involves shepherds, get this, “Keeping watch over their flocks, by night”.  It means the only thing predictable about the sheep was that they would get into trouble.  The only thing unpredictable was what kind of trouble that might be.  Given that, even at night the sheep couldn’t even be left alone without being protected or watched.  The Bible doesn’t say whether the shepherds were protecting the sheep from poachers (likely) or predators (also likely) or their own stupidity (no, really).  It should be simple, right? You keep the sheep happy, you keep the sheep where they can have food and water, you keep them out of danger, and keep the predators away from them.

And that should be it, right?

Well, to quote the author Gary Paulsen (in his book Haymeadow)

Things just happen to sheep. I don’t know why it is, but if you have 15 horses, 20 cows and one sheep standing on a hill and a thunderstorm comes, lightning will hit the sheep. Every time.”

And in this case, the lightning came in the form of…

…well, again, let’s step back a bit, no, not just a bit, let’s travel, you and I, to a place completely foreign to the world of the mountain meadow.

There is no grass in this world.

There are no trees in this world.

There aren’t even parts of any sheep in this world, other than the wool that had been used to make the uniforms being worn in what was known as the ready room of a military airbase.

Those uniforms, when cared for, made young men look sharp, and two of the best of the bunch were very, very proud to wear them.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Clothes make the man” – and at some level, they do. The right clothes can make a young man look far more mature than one might expect, and in this case, when the two young men in question were barely out of their teens at 24, if you took the uniforms away, you’d have two young men who looked very much like they could be seen playing volleyball on a beach, or out for an evening with a lovely lady on each arm, without a care in the world.

This time, in a young man’s life, is a strange combination of development, with the body in almost peak condition, but not all of the brain has caught up with that peak condition of the body… See, the frontal lobe of the brain, the one dealing with responsibility and mature thinking, acknowledging the consequences of one’s actions and the like, especially for boys growing into young men, that’s just not all there yet.

And yes, it is safe to make the assumption that this plays into the story.

See, this is the time when a young man often somehow manages to put a lot of money either making or buying a car or motorcycle far more powerful than he has any right to be driving, but these young men weren’t recklessly riding motorcycles with 50 horsepower or driving cars with 200.  No, these young men had been trained by the military to fly the F-100 Super Sabre, which had two fully afterburning turbojet engines powerful enough to push the plane past the speed of sound.

That meant if the plane were flying at you,  you’d have no warning that it was coming, because it was flying faster than the sound it was making.  When it flew past, all the noise it had been making would show up in an instant in a sonic boom, and then you might hear it roar off, and that would be that.

So, the military could teach them how to fly, but only time (and experience) would teach them how to fly wisely.

Let’s go back to the ready room, where we join those on active duty, and those working maintenance, but who couldn’t do anything till the planes came back, all chatting, playing board games or cards, or studying maintenance manuals to help them understand the complex machines they would be repairing.  In one corner, an old refrigerator grumbled as it kept drinks cool.  The sound of the games and laughter going on inside was accompanied by a bass line of activity outside.  Turboprops rumbled and turbojets whined as planes taxied to the end of the runway, and roared as they accelerated planes to takeoff speed and onto their missions.  And, as was the custom, one man in the ready room had a hand held radio tuned to the tower frequency, just in case a pilot radioed something like this:

“EMERGENCY! We need to get in, losing hydraulic fluid!”

Emergency?

EMERGENCY?!

Chairs, cards, and manuals scattered across the floor as everyone rushed outside to see what they could do.  Of course, there were procedures for this… They’d been practicing them for months, but this time it was clearly for real.  The tide of humanity rushed back in through the one door.  Manuals were pulled off shelves, checklists were consulted, and all aircraft not declaring the emergency were cleared from the area.  All  had to land at other airports, some barely had enough fuel to get there, but an emergency was an emergency, and at the risk of creating another possible emergency, the pattern had to be clear for the one they were sure about.

Eventually, those in the tower with binoculars looked downwind and saw two planes, one rock steady, and another one clearly struggling to keep the pointy end forward and wings level.

By this time, all other airborne aircraft had been redirected and the runways and approach patterns were clear.  The fire engines were already growling their way out to their appointed positions near the runway in case they were needed.  There were still 75 fighters parked in rows outside that there wasn’t time to move out of the way, but both planes managed to make a safe landing, and they taxied to the flight line, shutting down without incident.

The pilots climbed out, and both of them gathered around the crippled plane. One kneeled down and saw a huge dent, then a gaping hole in the bottom of the fuselage, leading to the main hydraulic pump where the lines and pump itself were mangled.  They knew what had happened, the question now was explaining it.  As they were trying to figure that out, standing there looking at the growing puddle of the last of the hydraulic fluid, the squadron commander, a, dignified man, his maturity showing in his bearing, his spotless uniform, and the graying of closely cropped hair at his temples,  came out to find out what the nature of the emergency was.

Understand, that to get to his position in that country, and in the military in general, he had to have some experience in letting people know what kind of behavior was acceptable and what was not.  He also had to have some experience getting his thoughts across succinctly, with very little room for interpretation.  He took one look at the plane, which, despite the fact that they were not at war with anyone, looked like it had been hit by anti-aircraft fire.  As commander of the squadron, this plane was his responsibility.  Any damage to it would be expensive, both financially and in the terms of someone’s career.  The consequences of those thoughts came out succinctly, and with little room for interpretation.

“What? Am I going mad? What happened to the plane?”

The two young pilots looked at each other, and clearly had to explain something.  The only question was how.  The looks on their faces were the looks of young boys with their hands caught in the world’s biggest cookie jar.  One of them cautiously tried to explain:

“We… we were intercepted.”

The look the commander gave them could have easily blistered paint.

“You were what? Intercepted? By whom? The Enemy? Where were you? Who intercepted you?”

The other pilot, before he could think of something that sounded more sane, blurted out, “The shepherd.”

“The what? You were intercepted by a shepherd?”

There followed a long diatribe about the logic of a supersonic jet fighter being intercepted by an old shepherd who was supposed to be watching a flock of clearly subsonic sheep.

Slowly but surely the story came out.

It seems that inside the uniforms of those two first lieutenants were indeed two 24 year old kids, who might otherwise be driving fast cars and chasing pretty girls.

Instead, they were flying fast planes and chasing thousands of sheep.

They’d seen them on the way back from a mission, and decided to have a little fun, so they dove down on the sheep, pulling up at the last second, low enough to singe the wool on the sheep that hadn’t scattered, and then they lit their afterburners to accelerate and climb, leaving their own thunder to fade as the sound and smell of scattered, panicked, and smoldering sheep spread all over the hillside. Time after time they climbed to altitude, then dove on the sheep, laughing behind their oxygen masks,

Eventually, the shepherd, neither he nor his sheepdogs able to defend against this kind of attack, in an act of desperation and pure defiance, waited until the plane came again, and heaved the biggest rock he could find up at it.

The Super Sabre, flying over 400 mph as it buzzed the sheep, flew directly into the rock just as it was pulling up, and the rock took out enough of the hydraulic system to immediately cause a Christmas tree of warning lights to flash brightly on the instrument panel.  There were clearly some serious, immediate problems, and being that close to the ground was not the place to be with problems, so they climbed up for as much altitude as they could get and headed back to base, declaring their emergency to anyone who would listen.

The pilots were reprimanded, and were given quite a bit of time in the brig on base to allow the frontal lobes of their brains to be realigned with reality so they would understand the consequences of their actions. The cost of all those planes that had been diverted, the crew and staff who ended up at bases not their own, all the fuel that had been burned getting them there, passengers who had missed connections, meetings, and flights, cargo that hadn’t been delivered, plus the cost of the repair, refit, and testing of the airplane, which was a figure far more than the two pilots made in a decade, much less a year, slowly sunk in over the weeks and months.

But the plane was repaired and flew again.

The pilots eventually learned their lessons and flew again.

The shepherd and the sheep, on the other hand, were all but forgotten.

And that bit – that little bit about the shepherd – got me thinking.

See, one of the things I’ve learned over the years takes me back to one of those first things I mentioned about shepherds.    For the most part, the sheep are unaware of them, unless or until they’re needed, like when there’s danger, or when there’s trouble.

Then the sheep are very aware.

Kind of like us.

I found myself thinking back to the Christmas Story – where the shepherds were watching their flocks – who should have been sleeping – but the sheep were so valuable that the owner felt they were worth protecting, so he made sure there was someone watching them, protecting them, guarding them, 24/7.  And understand, just because the shepherds were out there with what looked like a peaceful postcard image doesn’t mean they were weak.

Oh no, not at all…

The shepherds were there to protect the sheep, because sometimes, the sheep needed to be protected from predators.

Kind of like us.

The shepherds were there to protect the sheep, because sometimes, the sheep got themselves into trouble and had to be searched for and found.

Kind of like us.

And sometimes, like us, they had to be protected from themselves.

Hmmm…

Kind of like us…

Day or night.

I thought some more…

If we’re not careful and either wander out of sight of the Shepherd, or get so involved in our own lives and our own pursuits that we lose sight of the Shepherd who protects us from fire breathing beasts, we do run the risk of being burned by those flames.

It makes me thankful for that Shepherd we have, the One who protects us when we don’t even know it…

For that matter, especially when we don’t know it.

It gave me a far greater understanding, and respect, for shepherds, and for our Shepherd.

===

And I found my thoughts drifting back to a small village in a country, far, far away, where now live the grandchildren of a shepherd who was revered by the villagers for a story he told, how he fought off two enemies much bigger, much stronger, and much, much faster than he was.

With nothing more than a rock.

And I realize that on many levels, it’s a true story.

© 2013 Tom Roush, all rights reserved

Tom Roush

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