Monday, April 1, 2019

Christmas, 1972

There comes a season in a guy’s youth that finds a niche and lingers on in his aging mind and body. It resides there, warm and sweet, lying like a purring cat that you don't pay much attention to, yet are aware it's there, and once in a while you glance at it and nod.

For me it was December 1972.

A week-long Christmas break approached. Soon all the jets at our base would go quiet. Icicles would grow long from their wings and noses, and we, who rode them daily, made plans to head home. “Who is going near Memphis?” I heard a guy say during the commotion of student pilots closing books and gathering gear. I told him I was going through there. He would be welcome to ride.

Three days later we made our way east across I-40 alternately driving and snoozing. There wasn’t much talk. We both were mentally exhausted. Willie loved to crack jokes about my car. In fact, he never saw a chain he didn't try to jerk. I had bought a new Chevrolet Vega (don’t laugh). Being a Corvette man—although he didn’t have one yet—he had asked to see what was under the hood. I popped it and he howled, “Someone stole half of your engine!”

I dropped Willie off in Memphis in the kind of deep cold dark that only December can manufacture and then started south on I-55. By the time I turned east on US 82, my eyes were shutting down. Cold fog and mist streamed by the Vega as I yawned and tried to think about what I was going to tell my mother about who I had met. I didn’t relish answering her inevitable questions about my personal life outside of her purview. Maybe I would just say nothing.

The depressing night wore on and my gas needle fell low. I didn’t want to run out of gas at that time of night in rural Mississippi, so I perked when a “Sinclair Dino” sign came into view. I pulled into the pump. The station was old and run down, the front festooned with huge tobacco and soft drink adds. An old, bundled-up, stooped-over fellow began to fill my tank. I was thankful of the Vega’s tiny gas tank and soon the fill-up was done. I followed the man inside and saw a pot-belly stove near the counter. I heard its hissing, felt its warmth. I paid the man and he gave me a paper cup of coffee with my change. As I turned toward the door I heard him say, “Come to the fire and sit a while.” I paused and peered at the stove again. I thought about the two and a half hours left in my drive. I uttered no-thanks, and went out into the freezing gloom without softening that fellow's loneliness and maybe having my own life enriched from him. Not lingering by that fire with that old soul has been a nagging regret.

Three days at home was a good respite but hardly relaxing. I had to make the rounds. Nobody talked about the war, although it was all over the news. It had heated up again. A huge air campaign was underway over North Viet Nam—Operation Linebacker II. Although I was moving in a pipeline that ended at that war, strangely I paid no attention to it. I had had fallen in love with two mistresses in the past few months, a woman named Eleanor and a plane named Talon. My mind never really came home.

With my brief visit over I left home without so much as a word to my mother about Eleanor. She would have wanted to know that. She certainly did have a right to know. I guess I was afraid the relationship would break up and I didn’t want to have to tell her that.

Willie was packed and waiting when I stopped to get him in Memphis. He was as anxious to get back as I was. We hit I-40 west and resumed the drive/snooze routine without much talk. At one gas stop he came out of the station and threw a handful of objects into the car. He howled like a hyena as they scattered and fell, some sliding into crevasses. I picked one up. It was a condom. I searched the car for days to get them all out.

Just inside Oklahoma we stopped again for gas and decided to get a bite at an adjacent restaurant. As I parked the Vega I saw blue lights behind me. I told Willie I would join up with him in the restaurant. The officer said I had failed to stop when I came out of the gas station. I told him I didn’t see a stop sign. As he jotted on his ticket pad he said there was a law in Oklahoma that says you’ve got to stop when joining a main highway, sign or no sign. I admitted my ignorance of the law and apologized. He then paused and looked at the base sticker on my car. “Are you in the military?” he asked. I told him we were in Air Force pilot training and were headed back to the base after Christmas break. He lowered his ticket pad. The look on his face puzzled me. It wasn’t one of respect, as a veteran might get today from a law officer, but one of sympathy. People were profoundly tired of the Viet Nam war, and he seemed one of them. He finally said, “Well, I guess ya’ll have got enough to worry about.” He wished us well and left. Willie was astounded when I told him.

We checked back in at the base that night and suited up the next morning to start the final weeks of training. Linebacker II roared back after taking Christmas day off and the slaughter 10,000 miles away resumed. We paid it no mind.

A few days before graduation, when all the flying and academic work was finished, a great party erupted and we vented off colossal amounts of pressure in a little known room in the basement of the officer’s club called the ‘stag bar.’ No women allowed. Expect for certain invited ones. Since I was now about to get issued both wings and a wife in the same week, squadrons of bottles and glasses were shoved front of me and great slaps of congratulations descended on my back. The same songs got played continuously on the juke box, mainly "Witchy Woman" and (ironically) "Love Train." Hearing them this day takes me back to that stag bar.

Suddenly a shout went up followed by hoots and whistles. I turned and saw my classmate Phil had gone onto the stage, joined the dancer and was having a hootin’ good time, as were we all. In the wee hours the party died out and I started toward my dorm. Somebody in the darkness was staggering alongside. It was Willie. “Which way is it?” he slurred. I couldn't answer because I had no idea where I was. There was a lot of grass under us, so it could have been the parade field. A few yards later we were crawling and that’s the last I remember of that night.

A couple of days later our mothers or wives pinned our wings on us on that parade field. My mother got the honor for that with Eleanor at her side, but she wasn’t too happy about being kept in the dark during my Christmas visit.

With a suddenness that struck me with a sense of loss, our close-knit class spilt up and went all directions to pick up new jobs in USAF cockpits. The war had ended right after Christmas. Linebacker II was a bloody blow to our adversaries and caused them to seek a settlement. None of our class would ever see combat in Viet Nam, although many of us went there in the aftermath to cover the retreat. But that did not guarantee there would be no casualties. Two years later Phil died in a corn field in northeast Michigan along with his C-130 crew. A few years after that Willie, call sign Thunderbird Two, met death in the desert north of Las Vegas. Neither of the crashes were the result of pilot error.

And so I remember Christmas 1972, and the rest of that winter because of a string of little things, that started with a missed opportunity at a stove, all of which portended things to come—profound things. Good things and sad things. Things that began in a season. 

1 comment:

  1. glad you're back with decision height.
    i love what you do with words