The other day Pamela and I were standing in line at Wegmans. A woman in front of us had just left and Pam looked down and saw a roll of money. She picked it up and handed it to the check-out guy. He ran out the front door to find the gal, but she was gone. Then he called his supervisor over and he actually knew who the gal was. Seeing so much nastiness on TV, it was nice to watch regular people behaving the way they’re supposed to.
Driving home, the conversation morphed into moments that define who we are. We bantered, trying to nail down what a defining moment really is. Pam said that it could be good or bad, something to be proud of or something that could cripple the rest of your life. I’m curious to hear from you about some event in time when you became YOU.
It could be that one job promotion that changes everything. Or having a child, or surviving a lethal illness. It might even be the first time that life knocked you flat and you had to pick yourself up again.
While we were stowing away the groceries, the topic expanded as our son, Cameron, came in to help us unload the bags. He said, “I bet you five bucks that your defining moment happened when you were in the military.” Without even thinking I said, “Yeah. You’re right.”
Quick thumbnail: In the 60s and 70s the Vietnam War had become an undeclared civil war stateside. Families sometimes became armed camps. My dad was an aviation writer and had been an officer in the Navy. More importantly, he’d written a best-seller called Air War Vietnam and was interviewed on all the TV shows. He’d seen what Vietnam had to dish-out first hand. As such, the book was somewhat schizophrenic…as was the war…possibly all wars. There were feats of great bravery often coupled with horrific events no one wants to remember.
On one of his visits, he brought back handfuls of up-close shots of napalm victims, entire villages that had been incinerated. It put a different light on things. FWIW, when you drop canisters of napalm, you kill EVERYTHING that is below you. Everything. Men, women, children, babies, goats, mice, birds…everything. And you can’t rub napalm off. Much like the ancient Greek Fire, if you try to rub it off your leg or arm…it spreads and won’t go out. You just burn to death. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.
When I went to college, I grew a beard during finals first semester. My dad concluded that I’d suddenly turned into a commie just in the process of growing some facial hair. Bad fights, lots of arguing. For four years, I was persona non grata. (I’m trying to keep this short. It’s harder than I thought.)
With a lottery number of 17 (!) I had a few choices: I could go to Canada and essentially turn my back on my country. That was never an option. I could burn my draft card and go to jail, or enlist as an airman and spend 18 months in the Army. Or…I could enlist as an officer and spend six years of my life in something I had serious questions about.
I vividly remember driving with a recruiter down to McGuire AFB, New Jersey, for some tests to see how I stacked-up. The fact that I was already a civilian pilot weighed in my favor, but there was one key question that concerned me. I asked my recruiter: “Is there a way that I can choose what kind of airplane I fly? ” I remember watching him smile. He said, “Yup. If you’re in the top 10% of your class, you do the choosing.” It was important enough that I pushed it. I said, “Are you sure?” He looked over and said. “Yup. That’s SOP in the Air Force.”
Then came pilot training. Unlike OTS there was no bullshit, no quarters that you had to bounce off your bed blanket, rolling your socks so that they “smiled”, no hours each day spit-polishing boots. Pilot training was a year of doing one of two things: studying or flying…and it was EXCITING! Doing a full-power military take-off in a jet is as close to excellent sex as it gets. It doesn’t get much better. And flying a fighter has nothing in common with sitting in row-37 A on Delta Airlines. Better yet and hugely important: I was #3 in my class, so my worries were behind me. Or so I thought…
The Vietnam War was at its height and every day there were articles in the paper about the politics, repercussions, lies and casualties. That we were in an invisible civil war stateside was a gimmie, particularly if you were wearing a uniform. Having had a beard in college, it was strange getting spat-on when you walked down the street. I quickly gave up trying to explain anything at all. There are closed minds on every side of an argument.
And then one day… In pilot training, you learn quickly that if you’re not 100% prepared and in your seat by exactly Oh-Five-Thirty, you don’t fly that day. I’d never had that happen, but I watched buddies around me get hammered just by hesitating a second while reciting the procedure for a Twin-engine Flame-out or Air-restart below 10,000 feet. There were about thirty procedures that had to be memorized verbatim and spat out without hesitation. I was ready. Eventually we all were.
That day, the squadron commander stormed in, already mad as hell at something. He’d read something in the paper and as he was walking up to the podium he belted out: “I just read the morning paper….and I want to know if there’s ANY man in the room who’s got a problem droppin’ napalm on a village. If so, I want him to stand up….NOW.” The room went silent. Thirty-two guys looked around at each other. And then I looked around and noticed that I was standing at attention. The commander looked at my name tag. “Harvey…” He looked down at his roster. “As of this second, you are number three in this class. And so I am going to give you exactly three seconds to sit the hell back down.” That didn’t happen.
It’s difficult standing in a room full of friends, drinking buddies and fellow pilots and going from #3 to highly radioactive in thirty seconds. Afterwards, I was interrogated intensely. I explained my point. “Sir, I am not afraid of flying in battle. There are MED-EVAC teams (medical evacuation), FAC pilots (Forward Air Controllers) and battlefield transport, each with a much higher rate of attrition than the fighters.” Forward Air Controllers had the highest rate of attrition of all of them. The major agreed. “You’re right, lieutenant, but you’re still out.” “Doesn’t being three in my class give me the right to choose?” “Yep. But it’s understood that you’re going to choose fighters.” That night, seven or eight of my flying buddies showed up in my room. They confessed that they had the same feelings. They just couldn’t stand up at that moment.
It was banned by the United Nations Protocol III by 106 countries in 1980. Unfortunately, the United States, the country that had perfected napalm in secret research conducted at Harvard, chose to keep its options open regarding this weapon. As far as I know, we’re still the only country that is attempting to keep its options open on this one.
A slightly ironic twist of ethical standards: Although I had become radioactive because of my ethical stand on napalm, other branches of the Air Force found my case…interesting. Rather than bury me in some job counting rolls of toilet paper to get rid of me…which could have easily happened, I was approached by the TEMPEST group to spearhead an extremely low-profile, top-secret team in the Pacific Theater.
That entailed a security check the likes of which I’d never even heard of to get a rating of top-secret, cryptographic, special intelligence, TEMPEST. Virtually everyone I’d ever known, every church I’d gone to, and back to all of Pamela’s family going all the way back to Europe. All interviewed. Very weird, very James Bondian. It entailed a year of going into a huge black cube of a building with no windows, where we couldn’t take a pencil, pen, or any piece of paper…just coffee. Everything had to be memorized and never repeated. Because of all the background checks, Pamela knew something was up. I couldn’t tell her much and this was obviously a source of friction when I’d have to disappear for weeks at a time.
At Davis Monthan, in Tucson, I was an LES officer, (launch enable) for the 18 Titan II missiles. It too was…a very strange job. Imagine having your finger on the trigger of a huge ICBM. In Japan as a TEMPEST officer, I was one of only two in the Pacific Theater where we wrote our own orders and traveled around making it so that the USSR and Red China couldn’t listen in to what we were doing. It was hugely important. The only annoying thing was that none of my team, including myself , was able to even speak of what we did for 20 years. And those were some of my proudest moments. What was strangest of all was the fact that the stand I took had made me desirable for a much different job.
That was the turning point in my life, a growing up point, though at the time, I was certain I had branded myself forever by standing up. Heady times in the military…..
P.S. There’s an old adage, “That which doesn’t kill us…makes us stronger.” I don’t think that’s actually true very often. But I think that being bent to the point of nearly breaking…and coping with that, can temper you to handle your future a bit better. Going into the Air Force, I had thought my life was over…literally so. Those were the times. In retrospect, I learned more in that time than any other job I can think of.