Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Collateral Damage

Rumor is out I am no great hero of combat aviation. I confess it. Yeager can rest easy as I am, alas not his peer. I got to Vietnam only in time to cover the retreat, and in the Persian Gulf War, I pushed cargo jets around the sand box. My only combat medal is an Air Medal, which is awarded to you for being shot at, not because  you did something heroic. That said, I feel compelled to confess that one of my most successful missions resulted in a grievous unintended casualty.

It was a damned cold day for a bunch of Mississippi air guardsmen to endure. We had just landed our C-141s at the Salt Lake City airport. Snow piles stood high where the plows had shoved it, and we hurried, shivering and cursing with fogging breaths to put the two Starlifters to bed.

The mission was typical for us: Fly somewhere, spend the night, pick up a military load and fly it somewhere else, and then go home to Jackson. Three days, two nights. That was the life of weekend warrior heavy jet crews. I don’t remember exactly why we were in Salt Lake City, only what happened that night.

We had many people with us—more than we needed so that some currency training could be done. Each crew was composed of three pilots, two to three engineers, and at least three loadmasters. It took three rented vans to get us all to the hotel. The ride was raucous. Mississippians have an instinctive propensity to horseplay and b.s. with each other. I knew when the beer came out even before we reached the hotel that it was going to be a lively night.

My NCOIC (Non-commissioned officer in charge), who was my head loadmaster, began handing out keys to our crew. The other crew was doing the same. Lt. Col. Bill “Chalky” Lutz, the aircraft commander on the other crew yelled over to us, “Meet in my room in 30 minutes!”

We all knew what that meant. We would assemble in Chalky’s room to decide where to go for dinner. I was the aircraft commander on the second C-141, but I knew Chalky was over me in rank and would be calling the evening’s shots. And I was cool with it.

Lt. General William "Chalky" Lutz
Chalky and I went back a few years. We had both flown A-7D Corsairs at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson and knew each other back then. Chalky had two combat tours under his belt, one as a legendary Raven FAC. He had a couple of Distinguished Flying Crosses and more Air Medals than you can shake a pitot tube at. 
Now we were together again, this time in the Mississippi Air Guard flying aluminum overcasts all over the world. The difference this time is we both had civilian jobs. I was a petroleum geologist; Chalky was a lawyer and was soon to become a judge. I was looking forward to spending some time with him. But I had no idea that in less than a half hour I was to cause him to be a causality of war.

Our hotel was huge and was laid out like a campus with open courtyards between buildings. Chalky’s room was quite a walk through the brisk night. I changed quickly and headed out the door, feeling the cold hit me like a sledgehammer. As I turned toward Chalky’s room, I noticed Catfish Brown hurrying along on the opposite side of the courtyard.

Catfish was a feisty staff sergeant and flight engineer on Chalky’s crew. I had tangled with him before—had thrown him into a pool while still clad in full flight gear, but at the expense of him dragging me in along with him. He didn’t see me. The stage was set. 

I paused to make a big snowball, then darted along in the shadows waiting for him to get in range. I nailed him good. Snowball fragments burst in all directions from the impact point squarely on his chest. I took off running, hoping to get to the relative safety of Chalky’s room.

The "Col. Rebel patch" (right) was out-lawed by the Mississippi Air Guard, but thanks to the miracles of Velcro was often worn with pride by crews away from base.

Now, to those of you who are under the impression that officers and enlisted men don’t engage in such fraternal relations, I remind you that this was the Guard. In the Guard (the Guard of those years) we held each other as equals, used first names, ate and drank together, and got the job done together. 

The military √©lite had always said you couldn’t do that—it would result in a breakdown of discipline if the two factions got too chummy with each other, and the result could be mission failure. That's clearly true for active military units, but we were the Air Guard, and our unit’s multiple awards and citations proved we could handle the mission our way.  

My current mission—to nail Catfish—had been decisively successful, but a counter-attack quickly got underway. We made our way from obstacle to obstacle, exchanging frigid missiles across the snowy courtyard without Catfish getting his revengeful shot on me. Fortuitously I was the first to reach Chalky’s door. It was ajar. Music and laughing issued from within. And warmth. Oh yeah! That’s what I wanted the most. My hands were frozen. I grabbed the door, jerked it open and scurried in. Just as I slammed it behind me, a loud bang signaled the impact of a round intended for my backside.

“What the hell’s going on out there?” Chalky demanded. I turned and saw him lying sprawled out on his bed, spread-eagled, boots off but still in his zoom bag, the zipper pulled down to his belly button. With a glass of Irish whiskey in one hand (his preferred poison) and a local restaurant guide in the other—he was the very embodiment of a day’s work done; a mission accomplished; a task completed and a pleasurable agenda under careful assembly. “We’re trying to pick a restaurant!” he called to me. “Go get a beer!” I glanced behind me. The door was still closed and Catfish had not yet knocked. I knew the truth. He was waiting. He knew we would all soon be coming out.

Several crewdogs moved aside as I followed Chalky’s pointing finger to the bathroom sink. It was full of snow with beers and sodas sticking in it. One look at it and my mind exploded with devious thoughts. I grabbed a bunch of snow.

They all wondered what I was doing with the double handful of snow as I walked to the door molding it into an icy grenade. “What the hell you doin’?” Chalky demanded as I carried on by his bed toward the door.

“Just watch this!” I said, snickering, while I positioned for the ambush. Catfish would never, never expect a shot from within. As I reached for doorknob, I noticed the banter in the room subsided and changed into giggling expectations, but Chalky’s face was buried in the restaurant guide. Just as he said, “This might be a good place—” I parted the door and peered out.

The spectre of a white comet growing bigger and bigger headed for my nose set my lightning reflexes in motion and I lunged out of the way. Although I didn’t plan it thus, I pulled the door with me.

The snowball came in fast and furious, a white streak thrown so hard I would have hated to be standing in its path—Catfish was a stout kid. Very athletic.

The thing whooshed past me and headed hell-bent for the bed. I cringed as it impacted on Chalky’s genital area, smashed against his pelvis and cascaded up his body breaking up into snowballettes, fragments and flakes, shooting and tumbling into the recesses of his T-shirt, underarms and upper body. The glass of Jamison's Irish Whiskey tumbled backward onto the pillow and the restaurant brochure launched into a spinning trajectory toward the floor. That traumatic sight—I’ll never forget it: Chalky grimacing as white slivers of frigidness broke like a sea wave across his neck and face.

Insensitive, wild guffaws exploded from the crowd in the room as I stood, mouth agape at what I had done to my friend and my superior officer, but then I remembered that the enemy was still outside the door and would likely be astounded himself at what was happening inside. Another opportunity. I took a deep breath, rounded the door and let go my missile square into Catfish’s chest.

Helplessly laughing, I sank back against the wall while Catfish stomped in, took careful aim and nailed me from point blank. Crewdogs howled, and curses and proclamations, the likes of which you have never heard issued from the bed. If Chalky had had a gun he would have emptied the clip on me.

We composed ourselves and swept the snow off the bed while the grumbling Chalkster changed clothes, then headed for the vans. We had fought the good fight and it was a fitting start for another Magnolia Militia Starlifter weekend.

How can you not love the Starlifter?
Click here to take a ride on it.