Monday, April 5, 2010

How I became a Navy Pilot

The fourteenth Hour

Three cents - a handful of ju ju bees, three sticks of liqorice gum or a postage stamp. As I licked the stamp, visions of it's promise "Learn to Fly by Mail" excited my thoughts. Someday !!
Daily trips to the post office were my task and, if my mother wondered why I seemed more eager to run that errand, her workload soon eraced that thought from her mind. Books secretly hidden in the barn before the mail was brought into the house drew me too often: their words and pictures burned into my memory - but - bills followed and demanded attention. Old world no-nonsense and real world depression packed up my treasures and committed them again to the post office. Gone !
"You'll just have to learn to do with what you have and to do without that which you do not and cannot have," were the words with which my monther tried to console me when, in the depths of the Great Depression, my hot tears fell in the dust of our poverty. Pride kept us from "going on Relief" and a single pork chop was divided; half to my father and the remaining half cut into three for the children.
But I had dreamed ! I had tasted ! I had reached for the sky and, inspite of hand-me-down clothes from our church, the sky was still above me, still calling. I could see and I could hear ! And the sounds I heard roared out of the clouds of war that filled the sky with Lightnings, Wildcats, Thunderbolts, Hellcats. Thunder rolled in their engines and lightning flashed in their tracers as they straffed and bombed targets on the restricted areas of Fire Island.
At the beckoning of a guard, I climbed over the chain link fence surrounding MacArthur Army Air Field. Up on the wing, into the cockpit of "The Jug" and I was king - no - slave; an immediate slave to the smell, the feel, the knobs, the dials, the - - - sudden, forceful, crude yank from the cockpit and tossed over the fence.
The War ended. I was too late - too late to avenge Colin Kelly, too late to scorn flak, too late to watch tracers follow rounds into Jerry's machine. But not too late to see a "Learn to Fly" sign appear in the pasture of Broadway Dairy - only a few miles from home. Stolen days, a hard pedaled bicycle trip, and a borrowed plow horse to clear stumps for runway-to-be were eagerly traded for a fifteen minute flight lesson. "Push on the Rudder." "dear God, which one? and how hard? Look ! I'm flying."
"Aww, the thrill is gone" my brothersaid, "You push the throttle forward and go, no big thing." He had 14 hours, had soloed, had flown cross country, all 32 miles to Riverhead and back. NO! Thrill, you cannot fade ! You must not fade ! I had but 2.5 hours, had yet to solo and a deep fear gripped me - this incredible love cannot end at fourteen hours ! School ended the summer and with it, no more time to earn money, none saved to spend on flying.
"I do." And before I knew what I had done, I was on my way to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Boot camp, Basic Battery tests, GCT, ARI, Mech, and Cler. "Why don't you apply for the Aviation Cadet Program?" Glenview Naval Air Station: F8F Bearcats on the line. Aptitude tests, spatial relationship tests, coordination tests, physical tests - and back to Electronics Technicians School.
Upon graduation, a new assignment - the USS Rehoboth, AGS 50, a former seaplane tender, now a geodetic survey ship. Deployment to the North Atlantic, Iceland, Europe and return to roll a motorcycle into a stay at the St Albans Naval Hospital. Finally back aboard the "ReBob," I was awakened shortly after midnight by the ship's radio man. Orders had just come in. Pensacola ! the NavCad Program ! Basic. Advanced.
In the cockpit of a Hellcat at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning over Aransas Pass, Texas, the light bulb came on ! I was in LOVE !!! My beloved had wings and in rolls, snaps, high positive and negative G's we consummated our marriage. Hellcats, Skyraiders, Corsairs, Stoofs, Panthers, Cougars, Tinker Toys, G-suits, pressure masks, torso harnesses, helmets, tail hooks, and cat shots. A 21 year marriage that began with Korea and intensified in Vietnam, became only more elusive as it too soon dodged behind paper bound desks. The desks had to go.
She's changed her tailors from Douglas, Chance Vought, Grumman, and North American to Cessna, Beech, Piper, Sweringen and Dassault: her dress from armor plate to alclad. G-suits to business suits. She's become only more beautiful. The thrill is ever new.
The fourteenth hour has never arrived.


  1. Sheepdog, welcome aboard. I look forward to more of your tales.

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