The following tale is one of my favorites. Both in the remembering and in the retelling.
It occurred during the dawn of my second decade and was most certainly one of those “day of days” that many of us are graced with. I fervently hope it will forever be a heartwarming part of my family lore. I offer it as a small peek into my distant past, and as a possible explanation of why I turned out like I did…
For us Baby Boomers, I ask you the following question;
Do you remember as a child watching the television shows of the 1960s? Those family-friendly themes often depicted one of the kids happily heading off to work with his (or her) dear old Dad. Be he the town constable, the local hardware salesman, or even the boss clown at the rodeo, the chance to be seen with “the ol’ man” at his place of work was a treasured thing for a youngster. Those shows in the innocent early days of television captured that perfectly. Somehow you knew that in your very own life when YOUR Dad walked out the door for work, he was embarking on yet another quest to gain riches for the family and slay the proverbial dragons, thus keeping the family safe. The problem as a young lad was that you rarely had the opportunity to see him in all of his glory, doing the actual “dragon slaying” as it were. In that realm, I was far more privileged than most of the young men of my generation; a privilege that gives me comfort in firmly ensconcing my father as one of the true heroes of my life. Having the chance to spend time with him at his workplace was undeniably an experience that helped shape and ultimately gave direction to my young life. It was an adventure that few can equal, for you see, for the first 13 years of my life, my Dad was an active-duty Army helicopter pilot.
(This is what an ACTUAL hero looks like…at least in my humble opinion.)
Let me back up a bit.
I am my father’s son. To be more precise, I am what he was, because he was what I admired and hoped to someday become. We are both amazingly fortunate to have spent a large part of our life literally with our heads in the clouds. We’ve both each logged thousands of hours twisting and turning through the skies, far above the world of the earth-bound folks we served. I am a professional aviator today in large part because he was one back then. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that my love of flying machines was a gift he (slowly and gently) gave to me as a child. In that respect I owe him a lifetime of joy, excitement and happiness at my place of work.
Back to the present.
Over the years, my children have asked me many times, “When do I get to go to work with you? My friend (fill in the blank) went to work with her Dad (or Mom), so I want to go to work with you.” From a person in my profession, there lies no easy answer to such a question. I recall a flight thirty years ago (as a brand new pilot for Northwest Orient Airlines), seeing this play out first hand. On this particular day, we were tasked with finishing a long duty stretch with a “milk run” from Great Falls, over one of the Bitterroot mountains ranges into Missoula for a two-day layover. It was a late summer evening, clear blue skies fading to dusk, with a very light passenger load, including the Captain’s young son accompanying him to do some fishing. Shortly before pushing back from the gate in Great Falls, Captain “Smith” did something that I’ll never forget; something that greatly shocked both myself and the First Officer (I was working the entry-level position as the Flight Engineer). He excused himself from the cockpit and returned a few minutes with his son “Timmy”. He proceeded to promptly strap “Timmy” into the cockpit First Observer’s jump-seat on the Boeing 727. To our confused looks, he offered the mundane explanation, “Oh, and Timmy will be riding up front with us on this leg”. What the heck?
This was blatantly “verboten” in regards to company policy, strictly against copious amounts of Federal Aviation Regulations, and as far as I was concerned (as a new employee whose job was on the line), probably counter to most of The Ten Commandments! Again, the airplane was essentially void of passengers, and the flight attendants could care less if little “Timmy” were upfront with us. Couple that with the fact that, back in those days, the Captain of the ship was just that…the number one honcho, the “El Hefe”, the “dude in charge”….period. What he said was The Law, and that was pretty much the end of it. Dare I say, if I attempted something like that nowadays, umm… let’s just say I could be writing this from a large brick building with bars on the windows. I would love to take one (if not all three) of my kids to work with me someday, but if they harbor any notions of being in the “same room in the pointy-end” with me when I’m actually working, then they can just forget that nonsense. I look horrible in stripes, have a distinct aversion to bars on the windows, and eating my meals from a metal tray with a “spork”.
The 1960’s rocked as a kid.
My days as the child of an Army Aviator were full of excitement, incredible fun, and lots of adventure. To add some perspective, those were the magical days of the 60s and in my world most things fell into one of three categories: “neat”, “keen” or just plain “cool” (yes, we actually spoke like that). Some of the upsides to life back then were events like; playing with toys that DIDN’T require an internet connection, attending a movie at the base theater for 50 cents (25 for the ticket and 25 for popcorn and a drink), and riding our bikes (sans helmets) long past dusk without an “Amber Alert” being flashed across the heartland of America. It’s not that our parents didn’t care for us; they just had a far different list of worries than parents do these days. As children (and as a society), we were in many ways blissfully clueless. We would watch Mom enjoy a martini and a Salem to calm the anxiety and jitters of being pregnant (yet again), and every Sunday evening we’d gather around the black and white Magnavox, and watch “Bonanza” not knowing that color TVs (and shows like “16 And Pregnant”) were the frame of our future. When we’d pile into the “woody” station wagon off on yet another family adventure, we’d sit serenely bereft of seat-belts as Dad cruised down the street with one hand firmly on the wheel and the other clutching an ice-cold Budweiser. Yep…those were the days.
(Just another Ball Family adventure in the mid-1960s…yours truly on the far left. Told you I look like an idiot in stripes.)
The downside for your average fourth grader was fairly ambiguous, but nonetheless a fact of life. At school, we were presented with a stream of drills about stuff that seems pretty asinine in retrospect. For instance they told us that when indeed the “Red Horde” Soviets launched the nukes, we were to stay calm, get under our little wooden school desk, cover our heads and for heavens sake, “don’t look toward the flash”. We “Baby Boomers” now laugh at this idiocy, but back then we accepted this wisdom without question, somehow believing it would be all OK (as long as we didn’t look at that dreaded flash). As a parent I now understand why parents back then didn’t want to pop our collective bubbles, for it would surely cause more angst than it would cure. Also, back in those halcyon days of childhood, acting out usually meant more than a stern glare or a “time out”. It could mean a whack upside the melon or a kick in the posterior (by a size 11 combat boot) that would make Beckham proud. “Corporal punishment” was a tool in every parent’s arsenal, and 99% of them had no issues using it (I can attest to that from personal experience). For the most part however, the 60’s were magical days to be a kid, and for this kid more special than for most. So incredible that riding out to the airfield with Dad was just something my brother and I did on a regular basis. Much like getting our weekly “high and tight” haircut at the base P.X., or tucking in our shirttails before we entered the school building, it was just part of our life, and life was indeed good.
The day of days.
One dreary Fall morning in Munich, circa 1967, my Dad rounded my brother and me up, marched us to the Plymouth Fury wagon and off we motored toward the airfield. On this cool, misty day however, our regular routine was interrupted by an unannounced en-route stop. He pulled into the parking lot of the base liquor store, and dashed inside. Within a few minutes he returned carrying a paper bag containing a bottle of the finest Army Aviator’s “go juice” in the world (that would be Jim Beam whiskey for the uninformed). We took little notice of this other than the extra ten minutes we spent in the car, but this all changed when we crossed the MP guardhouse signaling our passing from the quasi-civilian base housing to the actual military part of our Dad’s world. Here we were greeted by a stern-faced guard (weapon strapped in plain sight), and a razor-sharp salute directed toward the Warrant Officer driving the station wagon (and my Dad’s crisp return). We instantly knew that we were firmly back in his world of deadly seriousness. A world of zippered olive drab flight suits, meaningful gaits, heavy-duty vehicles and loud flying machines. We were in the company of men that did things we barely understood, things that only heroes could accomplish, and we were somehow a very small part of it all. We had been here before, and we knew it was little-boy heaven.
As we entered the building that housed these larger-than-life men called Army pilots, we came face to face with someone that could throw a wrench into my Dad’s plans for this day. We were hell-bent on hanging out “at work” with our beloved Dad, and being turned toward home would simply not do. In military terms, this man was called the Officer of the Day…or simply the “O.D.”. In civilian terms, he’s a person that has drawn the duty (for that day) from the Company’s pool of pilots to be the “unit fireman” as it were. If anything in the world of that particular unit needed timely attention, he would be there to make decisions, affix a solution to a problem, and generally stamp out whatever fire had sparked to life. On this day the O.D. was (like my Dad) a Warrant Officer, an Army aviator, and most importantly, a good friend of the family. They greeted each other warmly, smiled like Cheshire cats while the paper bag holding the bottle was passed between them with a soft murmur of, “is it still on?”, followed by an almost imperceptible nod. This slight exchange between the two conspirators was barely noticeable, but apparently, it sealed the deal. Whatever that “deal” happened to contain.
(My Dad hamming it up for the camera on one of his days as the “OD”. Nuremburg circa 1966.)
In no time, we three entered the hangar for my Dad’s unit and were greeted by a wave of familiar sights, sounds and smells. Later in life I would spend two years working as a “hangar boy” at the airport of the aviation university I attended in Oklahoma, and all those sights, sounds, and smells would come home to roost. My boss back then, an old, grizzled mechanic by the name of “Ralph” once shared with me this snippet of wisdom; as a pilot, I should never trust the work of mechanics from a hangar that gleamed with cleanliness and pristine order. Ralph lived by that mantra, and I’m happy to say that this particular Army hangar would’ve made him proud. The smells of cleaning fluid mixed with engine oil, grease, aviation fuel, sweat, and cigarettes permeated the entire hangar, and to this young nostril, it was the perfume that flamed my passion for these exotic flying machines. My Dad stopped and briefly chatted with one of the mechanics, he then signed something and before we knew it, we were walking toward the flight line. The tall one in our group was adorned in his flight suit, carrying a flight helmet bag and privy to the conspiracy afoot, while the two short ones sported an air of nonchalance adorned with their typically clueless expressions.
As we approached the far end of the flight line, we found ourselves standing next to a machine that was as familiar to us as our Schwinn bikes strategically laying back in our front yard. We were preparing to climb into an Army OH-13 “Sioux” helicopter, the one that became world renown from the opening scenes of the TV show “M.A.S.H.”. My Dad introduced us to her at an early age, and I learned to be as enthralled by her as I’m sure he was. A large amount of his flight time (and the one peace-time accident he had) were logged in that beautiful bubbled cockpit. A great deal of his flying yarns starred him and his beloved H-13, and someday I’ll relate the story of the time he attempted to do a loop in that little whirlybird.
(The Bell OH-13 Sioux…the civilian world knows it as the Bell G-47.)
The OH-13 wasn’t my only airborne love as a young boy, for I was fortunate enough to spend many hours with my rear-end firmly planted in the various helicopters that my father flew (and a few airplanes, or as the Army calls them…fixed winged). I’ve “logged quality time” in the Bell OH-13, the Sikorsky H-34 “Choctaw”, the Dehavilland L-20 “Beaver” and the Cessna L-19 “Bird Dog”, plus many that my Dad never flew, but provided me with a guided tour (for instance the CH-37 Mojave). All reeked of an intoxicating mixture of leather, canvas, avgas and cigarette smoke, and these became a vitally important part of my childhood. My brother and I would happily spend hours sitting in the pilot’s seats, twisting every knob, throwing every switch, and pulling (or pushing) every flight control apparatus. This was standard procedure for us when we would follow my Dad to the airfield. He would be tasked with some sort of paperwork issue or office-type duty, so he would drag us to the airfield, find a machine at the far end of the flight line, render said machine inert (I assume by disconnecting the battery cables), and leave us with the following warning: “Play here. DO NOT leave this machine. Move any switch or knob, jerk any lever or push any pedal, but stay with this machine! Understand?” We of course would happily nod while barely hearing the issued statement. We were already engrossed in our collective imaginations and about to depart on yet another adventure.
(My brother in front of a Cessna L-19/0-1 “Bird Dog”.)
(The CH-34 “Choctaw”…the last type of helicopter my father flew while on active duty.)
The day in question would prove to be FAR different in many ways. First of all, when we got to the helicopter, my father didn’t leave us. In fact, he had us climb in, then he buckled us up while he did an abbreviated “walk around” inspection. As your average 11-year-old, I understood that before one took a flying machine into the air, you first had to do “something”…I just didn’t completely understand what that something might be. His absence was short-lived, and before we knew it, he was buckling himself in, grabbing what we knew was a “checklist”, and beginning a routine that was as familiar to him as starting up the family lawn mower. His hands were a symphony of motion, setting dials, adjusting knobs, moving levers, and when finished, he strapped onto our little noggins the two flight helmets that “just happened” to be awaiting us in the cockpit. Within seconds he was talking to us through the inter-phone system, and the faintest of ideas began to gestate that this day would not be like the many other days at the airfield with Dad. We were speechless.
His next move confirmed that thought. With a practiced flow, he moved all of the controls through their range of motion (checking for…well, whatever he was checking for), his hands quickly set the throttle, mixture, and magnetos, the engine was primed, and after looking out the open door and letting out a loud “CLEAR”, he moved some mysterious switch and we were treated to the sound of a large engine barely three feet behind us coming to life! Holy Guacamole! He had actually started up this beast! This fact was confirmed as the two big rotor blades above us began their dance of follow the leader. Within moments, they were up to speed, and our shell-shocked expressions were met with his unforgettable grim. He was not only going to let us peek into his world as an Army helicopter pilot, but he was about to give us a “full Monty” stare. He was taking us with him into his world of the sky, and we sat frozen, our eyes locked onto him, clutching the seat belts and having no idea what was to come next. We were fairly sure of one thing. We knew this probably wasn’t an approved thing, for no other kid we knew had ever mentioned something like this in the middle of a playground dodge ball grudge match.
(My Dad in the cockpit in the skies over Vietnam…this was the grin that greeted my brother and me…maybe with a far less dose of worry and stress.)
He pulled on the collective, the engine began to strain, and the world around us disappeared in a spray of water and wind! The engine revved a bit more and as if by magic, we lifted into the air! We were flying! Not like the TWA and Pan Am flying, we did to move across the country (and the ocean) a few years earlier, but flying as in hovering in a United States Army helicopter! As we would find out much later, this machine was in need of a “hover check” after some sort of maintenance procedure was accomplished, and he took that opportunity to give his two young lads a ride in the very type of machine they had sat motionless in for many an hour. We did pedal turns, some forward and backward flight and generally never got more than a few feet above the ground, but that didn’t matter one bit to us! We were flying as high as if we’d just done a max performance take-off and roared out of a hot LZ. The incredible noise, the vibration, the sounds of him talking to us in that staccato “pilot style” in our helmets, the up and down dancing under the roar of the blades; it was all a part of a special moment in time in my young life, and I’ll never, ever forget it. He allowed us to lightly hold the controls, so we gingerly grabbed the vibrating cyclic and collective controls, and put our feet on the anti-torque pedals. We were “helping” him hover this amazing machine, and it was better than any amusement park ride I’d ever been on (or since I might add).
All too soon, we settled back to the original spot of our liftoff and the “flight” was over. He placed the helicopter exactly where she had been sitting when we arrived; as if the “crime” had never occurred. He accomplished his shut-down and securing checklists, signed the maintenance forms, and we unbuckled and climbed out still reeling in a state of shock. As we walked toward the hangar, I turned back to look in awe at the thing that a short time before had given me wings. It sat motionless with two large drooping rotor blades, and all the systems dormant. It now sat silent as the engine made that faint snapping and popping sound that only piston engines do as they cool down. It was probably the adrenaline still coursing through my young veins, but I know I felt a connection between that little chopper and myself. I smiled at her, and I swear she winked back.
Maybe that day was the beginning of my journey as a pilot, maybe my Dad saw the spark in me and that was all a part of a plan of his to fan the flames. He’s been gone many years now, so I’ll never know for certain, but I do know that many times over the years I’ve felt the same “connection” between myself and my flying machines. This started early as a fledgling pilot in the little Cessna’s, and now at work, I like to gently pat the big Boeing on the painted skin as I enter the cabin door from the jet-bridge. Maybe I simply love to feel the strong metal of the fuselage against my touch, or maybe I’m unconsciously giving it a gentle assurance that I will fly it as smoothly and safely as I’m able. Not sure, but I am certain that on a cool rainy day in Munich, almost fifty years ago, my Dad took me to work with him as he had done many times before. But this day was very different; this incredible day at work with my Dad literally changed my life. You see in many ways I left the house that morning a boy, but came back a few hours later a pilot.
Addendum: On the ride home, my brother and I were subjected to a thirty minute speech about how “the last few hours never happened”. He didn’t go into any particulars; suffice to say that he made sure we understood that this was to be a huge secret just between the three of us, not even my Mother and sisters could know about what had transpired. We swore a sacred oath of secrecy that lasted roughly until we were on the playground the next school day. I have no doubt that more than a few of my friends, finding themselves embroiled in a dodge ball grudge match, were distracted by that crazy kid and his crazy story. You know the one that said he went to work with his Dad and got to FLY A HELICOPTER! Yeah, right.
(Yours truly a top an M4 Sherman tank display somewhere around Dad’s airfield in Nuremburg, circa 1966)
till next time,