THE DARKEST NIGHT

April 17, 2016
F-100nightIsaiah68

From the cover of The Intake, the magazine of the Super Sabre Society

Forty-seven years ago this morning I sat alone, bleary-eyed, slouched despondently in a reeking, salt-ringed flight suit on the homebuilt sundeck/roof of Dusty’s Pub on the beach of the South China Sea. A missing man formation of F-100 Super Sabres flew low overhead. They bombed the floodgates in my eyes.

A few hours earlier, just after midnight, I had led the memorialized missing man, my friend and wingman, Robert “Vince” Willett, to his death in a gunfight on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. A lifetime later, sorrow is still an inadequate word.

I’ve written and spoken about that night in multiple venues, and prayed for Vince’s traumatized family, including a twice-widowed wife (both fighter pilots) and two stepsons. I’ve even fictionalized that combat sortie in a novel entitled, Son of Thunder, (second edition, in paperback and ebook). Sometimes truth can best be communicated in fiction format. It serves as a shield for a fragile ego, allowing the writer to bare his soul under the guise of a tall tale. And, not least, he can put what’s on his heart into the mind and mouth of the protagonist and communicate things he’d never have the nerve to say otherwise. Now I’ve discovered that with codgerhood comes the courage to speak your mind—I have so little left to lose and maybe even something to gain for His kingdom, if God is willing. So, on this sad 47th anniversary, I’ve ditched the shield on the novel’s version of that fateful night, admitting it is indeed my scarred soul laid bare. It conveys the cry of a broken and contrite heart better than anything I’ve been able to write, fiction or non-fiction, on a subject so personal and tragic. And further I confess that the protagonist’s (John) dialogue and interior monologues in this abridged excerpt represent my thoughts and feelings that night. Some of the flying scenes in SOT actually happened, with varying degrees of embellishment. This is one of them, with less literary license than most. The fictional “Vic” is based on Vince, and from the first long-hand draft 27 years ago, when my sentences finally became coherent on the subject, I have striven to honor him. The book is dedicated to him. The unvarnished truth is a brave American patriot stood up in the midst of national turmoil and said, “Here am I. Send me,” and made the ultimate sacrifice. Greater love hath no man …

 

Vince-Willet.jpg

Vince Willett and crew chief, Robert Smith

Tuy Hoa Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, April, 1969. On Vic’s first night mission to Steel Tiger as a married man, John laid out his philosophy of night air combat against the big guns. It was the same old philosophy, but delivered with more fervor.

“Vic, I want you to know that if we get shot at tonight, and we probably will, I’m going to shoot back, whether it’s 50 caliber or 57 millimeter. You know the Rules of Engagement leave the decision up to the flight leader. Our primary mission is to stop the trucks, but if everyone goes home when the shooting starts, whose going to stop the trucks?  Somebody has to care. I think the politicians who got us into this are no longer trying to win this war, but I am. Duty and honor still mean something to me, even if the leaders of my country have abandoned theirs.”

“You’re absolutely right, sir,” Vic replied with a smile. John knew Vic used that “sir” business only when he thought John’s intensity was getting out of hand. John chose to ignore the signal.

“This is serious stuff, Vic. That’s not confetti they’re throwing up out there, and I’m going to fly right down the gun barrels if that’s what it takes to destroy them. You can watch me or you can follow me. It’s your choice and I won’t hold it against you either way and I am very serious. Copy?”

“Copy. I’ll fly your wing  anywhere, brother.” This time Vic was serious….

The mission scheduled on the frag order from Seventh Air Force that night was the usual—truck patrol. Their call sign was Dusty Seven One Flight. The rendezvous with the FAC—in a C-130 with a Starlight Scope—was over Saravane after an outbound aerial refueling over Pleiku. Northbound at twelve thousand feet, 50 miles south of the rendezvous, they switched to the C‑130’s radio frequency.

“Blind Bat One, this is Dusty Seven One. We’re a flight of two Fox‑100s carrying six seven-hundred-fifty pound bombs, two CBU‑24’s, sixteen hundred rounds of twenty mike mike.”

“Roger, Dusty Seven One Flight, this is Blind Bat One. Copy your munitions. We’ve got a truck convoy moving south below us. The Scope is showing about a dozen trucks. In thirty seconds we’ll be dropping two white phosphorous logs.” He gave Dusty Flight the target weather and terrain information. It was a road on a steep mountainside. Blind Bat concluded with what was becoming the standard warning, “We’ve had heavy ground fire the last few nights.”

“Roger, Blind Bat,” John answered. “Dusty Flight, set ‘em up hot. Bomb single. Arm nose tail.”

“Twoop,” replied Vic.

“Okay, Dusty Flight, the two white phosphorus logs are on the ground burning,” Blind Bat called. “Let’s call the line they form north‑south and the distance between the logs one hundred meters. Put your first bomb fifty meters east of the south log. We’ll be holding off to the west between eight and ten thousand feet.”

John rolled in from the south at fourteen thousand feet, high and close to the target again for a steep dive angle.

“Dusty Seven One’s in.”

Vic answered with the click of his mike button.

The night was as black as the inside of a cow. A high overcast obliterated all stars. John could not tell where the earth ended and the heavens began. Aside from the burning white phosphorus flares on the ground, there was no refer­ence outside the cockpit to tell up from down.

He pickled off the first bomb at his best guess of fifty meters east of the south log, and then hauled back hard on the control stick. As the attitude indicator on the instrument panel showed the nose of his aircraft coming up through the hor­izon, he eased off the back pressure on the control stick. He banked left, continued climbing, and looked back over his left shoulder to survey the damages. It wasn’t a bull’s-eye, but it was close enough. The shrapnel pattern from the seven-hundred-fifty-pound iron bomb penetrated the fuel tank of the lead truck and flames flared up like a freshly lit match. Within seconds the flames engulfed its load of mortar shells and the truck began to cook like a popcorn popper with the lid off. The light from the burning truck illuminated the mountainside, revealing a dozen trucks nearly bumper‑to-bu­mper.

Vic rolled in on the last truck he could see. “Two’s in from the north.”

“Roger,” John answered.

It was impossible for John to see Vic because they were running lights out and he pulled out of his dive above the dome of illumination formed by the burn­ing truck, but there was no mistaking where his bomb hit.

“That was a bull’s-eye on the number ten truck, Dusty Seven Two. You Dusty guys are all right,” called Blind Bat.

Once they had bottled up the convoy, it was a midnight massacre. There was no place on the steep mountainside for the trucks to pull off and find cover, and their bombs had effectively barricaded the road fore and aft.

John’s second pass blew the third truck in line off the road. It cartwheeled down the mountainside in an avalanche of fire and explosions. Vic and John dropped a total of three bombs each in the cool, professional style of the executioner. Since they saw no ground fire, John decided to save the CBU-24 just in case somebody decided to shoot back.

“Blind Bat, Dusty Flight would like to make a few twenty mike mike passes and hold a Hammer apiece in reserve,” John announced.

“You’re cleared for the strafing runs, Dusty Flight.”

“Copy, Blind Bat. Lead is in from the north.”

Vic and John ravaged those trucks like two starving jackals working over a bloat­ed rhino carcass. John counted eight of them burning or destroyed.

A glance at the fuel gauges told John the party was about nearly over. “We’ve got enough fuel for two more passes, Dusty Flight,” he called.

Coming off the next strafing pass it finally happened. A geyser of red, orange and yellow tracers erupted about a half mile to the east, pointed in John’s direction, and he was bracketed. The airspace on all sides of John was filled with multi-colored tracers, but before he could initiate an evasive maneuver the air was clear and dark again.

“Dusty Seven One, this is Blind Bat. You can pack it in if you want. You’ve done a night’s work here.”

John’s first attempt to respond to Blind Bat produced thumb pressure on the mike button, but no simultaneous vibration of the vocal cords. Two deep breaths later the cords came un­stuck.

“If it’s all right with you, Blind Bat, we’ve got just the weapon for those guns, and enough fuel for one more pass. I think I know where that triple A was coming from.”

“Well, the ROE says it’s your call, Dusty Flight,” Blind Bat replied.

“Some of us still think this war is worth winning, Blind Bat.” It was the first insubordinate comment John had ever made over the radio in his Air Force career.

The AAA had come from somewhere in the blackness to the east of the target, but John had only a rough idea. He hoped that if he rolled in and pointed the nose in that general direc­tion they’d shoot again, and he might be able to see the muzzle flashes.

“Dusty Seven Two, I’m not showing any radar tracking us. Are you?” John called.

“Two, negative.” If Vic was scared, nothing in his voice betray­ed him. If married life had rearranged his priorities, John couldn’t tell it. With no radar tracking, those guns could only be shooting in the blind.

Sure enough, as soon as John pointed the nose toward the ground, he got a face-full of Christmas tree lights streaking by the canopy, but he no longer flinched at such distractions. He aimed at the middle of that circle of muzzle flash­es, pickled away The Hammer, and began the dive recovery.

The bomblets hit the ground in a slightly oval circle. The shooting stopped. There was nothing but black ink on the ground where before there was a circle of deadly fireflies.

“Dusty Seven One, where to?” Vic called.

“Same place as mine, Two. Let’s give them a double dose.” John was sure there was nothing but bloody carnage left at that gun site.

“Roger,” Vic responded, in that perfect bored‑to‑death tone of voice, the one they all worked so hard to perfect.

John couldn’t tell if it was the same site that he had hit, or another one, but the geyser erupted out of that ink bottle again, right in the vicinity of where Vic should have been.

Again Vic’s bomb hit the bull’s-eye. The circle of bomblets perfectly super‑imposed the ring of muzzle flashes. A second after the bomb hit the ground there was an enormous mushroom shaped fireball right at the edge of the circle of death. It momentarily lit up the mountaintop like noonday.

I’ve got the best wingman in all of Southeast Asia, John thought to himself. “Bull’s-eye, Two,” he crowed.

“Fantastic shooting, Dusty Seven Two. Looks like you got their ammo supply with that one,” Blind Bat shouted.

“Dusty Seven One Flight, let’s head home…. Dusty Seven Two, this is Seven One…” John called.

Silence!

“Dusty Seven One, this is Blind Bat. I’m afraid that fireball was your wing man.”

“Roger …” The fighter pilot cool was completely drained from John’s voice.

“Dusty Seven One, I know you’re bingo fuel. You’d best head home. You can be mighty proud. That’s the finest piece of work I’ve ever seen, and this is my second war. We’ll hang around as long as we can and see what we can see. We’ll make a decision on whether to launch Search-and-Rescue tonight or in the morning. Thing is, we can’t get a good look from where we are and I’m not inclined to get any closer. We’re a much fatter, slower target than you are.”

“Roger, Blind Bat. There’s no way he could have ejected successfully,” John answered.

“Good night, Dusty. We’ll forward your bombing results and notify headquarters. So sorry. We love ya.”

“Thanks, Blind Bat. Dusty Seven One out.” John’s voice trailed off.

“Dusty Seven Two, this is Blind Bat…Dusty Seven Two, this is Blind Bat. How do you read ..?  Dusty Seven Two, this is Blind Bat on guard. Come in, please …” Blind Bat’s re­peated calls to Vic were met with silence—deathly silence.

One’s a very lonely number three hundred miles from home at twenty thousand feet on the blackest night in all eternity. John had a vague realization of fuel gauges reading alarmingly low and of fear that he’d flame out prior to touchdown. Pretty critical stuff, but tonight it didn’t seem very important. Life didn’t seem very important to John, because life had ceased for Vic …

*     *     *

Vince rubbing

 To this day not a trace of Vince or his F-100 has been found, despite Search and Rescue’s immediate efforts and years of searching by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. MIA torments the family so much more than KIA.

As for me, God has made Himself known to me in His Word, and my trust and consolation rest securely in His providence, which explains why, for reasons known only to Him, I survived that night and Vince did not. And when Satan tempts me to despair with taunts like, “But it was your fault, it was your decision,” I cling to the same promise God made to the Apostle Paul. When Paul thrice prayed for relief from a hard go, God answered, My grace is sufficient for you …*. It is sufficient for this unworthy sinner, too. Divine grace and my grateful heart are inseparable forever.

RIP, Vince. I hope and pray we meet again where no eye has seen, nor ear heard nor the human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him, ** in the mansions of the Lord.

*   2 Corinthians 12:9     ** 1 Corinthians 2:9

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH JUDAS ISCARIOT

March 26, 2016

 

Silent Saturday, 2016.  This holy week millions of people commemorate the last chapter of the central event of history, the most amazing act of love the world will ever witness—the Passion of Jesus Christ.  On Good Friday we gratefully honor the crucifixion of Christ, God’s son, who intentionally suffered and died as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of his people.  He died as our substitute because, since the fall of Adam, we are all inherently incapable of meeting God’s requirements of holiness and righteousness, or even caring about them of our own volition.  According to a plan designed in detail in the throne room of God before time began, a sinless Christ, our Savior, was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities…and with his stripes we are healed, as Isaiah prophesied 700 years in advance.  And because Jesus rose from the dead on Easter, all who have faith in him and his work on our behalf can look forward with certainty to a similar great resurrection morning—though he die, yet shall he live forever, by Christ’s own promise. This is indeed the Gospel, so simple it is mind-boggling, the best “good news” that could ever enter the mind of man.

A key participant in this drama was a man named Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ disciples, who betrayed the best friend he could ever have.  Judas, a sinner not unlike you and me, turned his back on eternal bliss for cold, unsatisfying, transitory cash; Judas, a master of self-delusion, as is everyman, convinced himself the wrong thing was the right thing to do; Judas, an impatient, egocentric man, just like the rest of us, forsook waiting on the Lord and took matters into his own hands.

We do not know all the details and we can only surmise the thoughts that ran through Judas’ mind, so I have taken what is known from the biblical record and filled in the blanks with my imagination based on a lifetime of Bible study.  I cannot know the heart of another, especially a traitor like Judas, but sometimes I think I know the heart of this sinner saved by grace, and I confess I am appalled.  My thoughts are sinful almost all the time, and when my words and deeds are not, my motives are. And I know that, absent the sustaining grace, the utterly unmerited favor of God who loves me beyond my comprehension, I could have been Judas.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who witnessed more evil than most, said,

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Christ on the cross provides the only solution to this universal dilemma.  Ponder these truths and examine your own heart as you read the anguished last words of Judas Iscariot.

Let’s suppose that network news existed in first century Palestine and a TV reporter was in Jerusalem to cover Passover, the highest of Jewish holy days. The scene is the Garden of Gethsemane, outside the city’s eastern wall on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, just 24 hours after Jesus’ was arrested there. The camera is rolling and the reporter is saying:

“Jesus of Nazareth, controversial itinerant preacher, alleged miracle worker and nemesis of the Jewish religious authorities, was crucified just west of the city walls today.  Coincidentally, he died at the same time that Jews were sacrificing their paschal lambs on the great temple’s altar, a centuries old ritual.  The man who, according to eyewitnesses, last night led authorities to Jesus of Nazareth right here where I am standing, was one of his closest twelve associates, a man named Judas Iscariot.  According to those who knew him best, none of whom were willing to talk to this reporter on the record, the betrayer was an enigmatic sort, a mixture of altruism and selfishness, loyalty and deceit, patriotism and self-centeredness.  Candidly, the impression this reporter got was that he was a pretty typical person….”

Something stage left, off camera, catches the reporter’s attention.  A dejected, disheveled looking man, deep in thought with a coil of rope in his left hand, is wandering aimlessly through the garden.

“I believe that is…yes it is.”  The reporter realized with excitement that he had the news scoop of the ratings season and quit reading his prepared script.

“Cameraman, if you could pan to my left, here he is now.  Judas Iscariot!”

The man looked up, startled at the sound of his name.

“Judas, you look like a man with a tormented soul…and for good reason, I hear.  Here’s your chance to justify your traitorous act before the world.  Speak to us.”  He walked over to the man and held the microphone to his face while the man stared back angrily.

“Speak…you want me to speak?  No matter what I say you’ve already condemned me. You’re a sorry sounding sinner with that holier-than-thou tone of voice.  Who gave you the right to judge me?

“Judas, the world is watching.  You’ll never get a better chance than this to justify yourself.”

Judas looked down at the ground, took a deep breath as he pondered his options, then dropped his rope and wrung his hands.  He began in a pleading voice full of self-pity.

“Do you know what it is to long for recognition?  For acceptance?  Do you know that awful, lonesome feeling of an outsider?  You know, in my whole life no one ever said to me, ‘Judas, it’s good to see you.’  I wanted so badly to be somebody special.  Am I so strange?  Haven’t you had longings like that?  I bet you didn’t get where you are without them.  With me it became an obsession.  I’d pay any price…any price whatsoever.”  He paused and took another deep, quavering breath as he rubbed his bewhiskered face with both hands.

“Listen to my story.  I’m not asking for forgiveness.  I’m beyond forgiveness.  Let my life be a warning.  There is not a viewer out there who is not capable of doing the same terrible thing I did.” As he talked he shook a pointed finger right into the camera, then stopped, dropped his hand to his side like a dead weight and looked up into the branches of the olive trees.  With another uncomfortable pause, he resumed.

“It all began so well.  I was born in Kerioth, in Judea.  Home of God’s chosen people, home of this holy city, home of almighty God’s magnificent temple.  I alone was a true Israeli—the rest of the disciples were from Galilee.  Galilee…whose only claim to fame is that nothing good ever came from there.  And I was the only one of the bunch who had a resume worthy of the job.  That’s why Jesus made me treasurer.”  With that he threw his shoulders back and thrust out his chest.

“Like all Jewish parents, mine were so happy at the birth of a baby boy.  My father proudly announced that my name would be Judas.  That means ‘praised of God.’ Did you know that? Judas, praised of God.” A smile briefly crossed his countenance as he stared into space over the head of the interviewer.

“I was raised like all Judean boys.  I was taught to fear God and to await the promised deliverer.  That’s what attracted me to Jesus the first time I saw him.  He had that aura of authority.  I heard him on several occasions and he stirred me like no teacher ever had.  Then that amazing day came when he delivered that sermon just up the slope here on the Mount of Olives.  Wow!  I was sure that the kingdom he kept talking about was the promised kingdom we’d all been waiting for. At the close of his sermon I stood there starry eyed…transfixed.  And he came right up to me, looked deep into my eyes and said, ‘Judas, follow me.’  And I did!  He was irresistible.

“Jesus chose me.”  He looked incredulous at the thought, but his tone of voice was prideful.  “He chose me, along with a  few others…and I had the purest, noblest intentions when I shouldered my knapsack that day.

“‘Why would he chose me,’ you ask?  Why would he chose you?  Judas pondered it himself for a few seconds, then continued.

“In those early days we were such great pals.  We hung on every word that came out of his mouth.  Then, out of his presence we were always trying to guess when his revolution would begin.

“‘How to explain the change?’  I…I don’t know if I can.  It was a gradual thing.  You know we lived like vagabonds and paupers, and somehow greed and self-centeredness just crept in.  With the passage of time…what an awful lifestyle…and no move on his part to declare his kingship of Israel, I just grew more and more disenchanted. As treasurer I found myself filching coins, telling myself I’d pay them back…but somehow never did.  Jesus saw the change in me.  He warned me.  ‘Judas, beware of covetousness.  A man’s life is not measured by the things he has, Judas.  There is nothing hid that shall not be known, Judas.’

“But as terrible as my greed was, it was nothing compared to my desire for recognition.  I hungered for that more than I hungered for food.  And yet people laughed at us, called us names, chased us out of town.  I had given up everything for Jesus and they made me feel like the scum of the earth.  And the folks we hung out with—down-and-outers, lepers, cripples….  Poverty-stricken hordes dogged us day and night.  And when we complained to Jesus about it he always said, ‘My job is to do the will of my father.’  How can you argue with that?”  Judas stared at the reporter as if he were looking for agreement.  He pressed on with increased intensity.

“Well, finally I got up my nerve to make my move.  You see…I figured that if he really was the Messiah, then his legions of angels would protect him from anything.  And if he was not who he claimed to be, well…then…he deserved to be exposed, and the man doing the exposing would be proclaimed throughout the land.  Judas Iscariot!  I would be somebody!  I didn’t do it for the money—thirty pieces of silver, the price of a slave …?   Are you kidding?

“So I set it all up with the Sanhedrin for his arrest, then joined the others in the upper room for the Passover Meal.  I was so nervous….  I had never done anything like that before.  While the meal was being served Jesus did the most demeaning thing imaginable: he washed our feet.  You know in our part of the world showing the sole of your foot to another person is the most insulting thing you can do to him.  Servants wash feet,” he shouted indignantly.

“When he was done he said, ‘All of you are not clean.’  I knew who he was talking about.  He added, ‘One of you will betray me.’  Just like all the rest, I said, Is it I, Lord?  I might have fooled the others but I didn’t fool Jesus.  My heart was beating so hard I feared everyone could hear it.  So when he leaned toward me and said, ‘Do it quickly,’ I got out of there.  The man was reading every thought in my head.

“Well…you know the rest of the story.  Jesus allowed himself to be condemned in a trial that was the biggest travesty of justice Israel has ever seen.  Then he let them kill him in the most hideous way they knew how.  They scourged him—ripped the flesh off his bones till he was unrecognizable and nearly dead—and then crucified him…and he went like a lamb to the slaughter…and I knew…I had made a big mistake.”  Tears were running down his cheeks into his beard.

“Jesus was forever preaching about repentance and forgiveness…and I know I have sinned and need to get down on my knees and repent…but I cannot bring myself to do it.  I have betrayed innocent blood—I have killed the Son of the Most High God.  I can’t forgive myself.  How can I ask anyone else to forgive me?  I threw the cash back in their faces but my guilt…and my despair have consumed me…and I can’t stand it any longer.” Judas was almost incoherent now.  He buried his face in hands and great choking sobs were broadcast to the world.  He turned his back on the camera for a moment, then slowly turned around, stared straight into the camera and said in a composed, resigned voice, “I deserve no common decency.  Don’t mark my grave.  They’ll just dig me up and hang me again….

“Hmmph.  I have my recognition now.  The world will never forget my name.  But if we meet again where I am going, you are in big trouble sinners, and you will share my pain and my agony for all eternity.  Fall on your knees and repent…while there is still time.  You know not the day nor the hour.”

Judas picked up his coil of rope, studied it a moment, then turned and resolutely walked off through the trees.

“Well, there you have it, folks.  Back to you in the studio, Augustus.”

The Bible states that Judas hanged himself outside the city in a field called Akeldama, the Field of Blood.  To this day when you go to Jerusalem they will show you where he obstinately took his own life rather than ask a merciful God for forgiveness.

This holy week consider the sins of Judas, and where he spends eternity, and remember that Christ died for the sins of those who believe in his life, death and resurrection and are sincerely repentant.  There is no sin so great that Almighty God cannot forgive a truly contrite heart but for the asking, nor will the smallest unconfessed sin in thought, word or deed be overlooked by the Gatekeeper of Heaven. And human effort will never be perfect enough to earn admittance to the perfection of heaven.  Faith alone in Christ’s amazing act of love alone is our boarding pass to eternal glory with him.  Blessed is he whose…sins are covered.

The night before he was crucified, Jesus stated simply and unequivocally, I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me. His disciple, Peter, who frightfully denied knowing Jesus the night he was arrested, a few weeks later declared to the same authorities who crucified Christ, with a boldness that astounded them: …there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

Renowned eighteenth century hymn writer, Isaac Watts, penned the best possible response to this exalted Easter passion.  May it be your response this holy week:

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

 

 

 

My “Hun” on a Pedestal

March 17, 2016
F100 on stick Lakenheath
F-100 at RAF Lakenheath, England  © Frank Duarte. Jr.

 

I just rediscovered another old love, so beautiful without bombs and rockets and drop tanks slung under her wings! She’s one of the “huns” (F-100) I flew in combat, who now spends her retirement years on a pedestal welcoming visitors to RAF Lakenheath, England, near Cambridge, my last duty station as a USAF fighter pilot and the birthplace of our son. My grey matter is more like charcoal matter these days, but I can still recall forty-seven years ago, in 1968-9, on the opposite side of the planet from Lakenheath, angel #048 took me into combat and brought me home safely every time I flew her, and if memory serves she was the one who even took a hit without flinching for me once. I was on a low angle strafing pass over the jungle of Southeast Asia when I took a 50-caliber slug in the left leading edge wing slat, three feet from the fuselage and six feet from the cockpit. I must have been diving right down the 50 cal gun barrel and it was part of my target, though I did not see its muzzle flashes nor realize I’d been hit.   

CIMG4623A 50-cal is a belt fed weapon that has downed a lot of planes in the history of air warfare. I doubt the gunner gave me “the whole nine yards” (27 feet of the ammo belt), but it’s a reasonable assumption, from where the bullet hit, that there was a lot of lead in the air in close proximity to my face that I was not aware of. But, as Stonewall Jackson proclaimed, God has numbered our days, and until they are up, he was safe in his saddle (and I in my cockpit) no matter how much lead (or steel) was in the air. I was firing four 20-mm cannon (the silver bullet above to the left of the belt of 50 cal bullets) at a rate of 1700 rounds per minute in his direction, and my bullets exploded on impact. I was doing 400 knots and jinking around while he was stationary. It was not a fair fight—the best kind in war. The enemy has my admiration for having the courage to stick to his post and fire away at me as I bore down on him. He was obviously a better than averageF-100 silhoutte headon shot—an F-100 head-on is a slender silhouette and he hit one of the slenderest parts—but I was a pretty fair shot too, so it was most likely the last thing he did on this earth. Our bombs and bullets made such a helter-skelter pile of smoldering kindling out of the jungle that we could not know for sure.

The copper-jacketed, steel-core 50-cal bullet jammed the left wing leading edge slat, rendering it inop, so my final approach to landing was a bit testy—my wounded angel kept wanting to roll left. I compensated with a few more knots of airspeed and right rudder and #048 kissed the concrete more passionately than normal, and all ended well by God’s grace. And today she resides on a well-earned pedestal and I in an easy chair, and it appears she is aging better than I.

 

 

CANONS OF CODGER CONVERSATION

March 2, 2016

A random compilation for the amelioration of insufferable codger conversation, composed by the chief of codger conversational sinners.

  • As the codger conclave convenes, repeat to yourself three times: I will not interrupt.
  • No more than three sentences about health issues. Organ recitals are absolutely forbidden.
  • Serious talk is encouraged, grave talk is not.
  • Three sentences, maximum, about a grandchild. One grandchild, maximum, mentioned per conversation.
  • Be abstemious with first person pronouns and superlative adjectives.
  • Listen for edification, not for an inhalation break so you can slip a word in edgewise.
  • Do not jump on a word in the speaker’s sentence to take the conversation in a hard turn down a new topical bunny trail. It is maddeningly rude and cannot be excused under the cover of advanced years. (Perhaps the canon most often violated.)
  • If you cannot stick to the thread of the conversation, take another sip of coffee.
  • Humble brags are forbidden. Bald-faced brags are grounds for banishment.
  • The purpose of conversation is not to eradicate silence. If you abhor silence, you have not yet mastered the art of conversation, and time is running out.
  • When a conversational thread is exhausted, the best way to initiate a new one is to ask a question.
  • Listening, or better yet, interviewing, makes new friends and strengthens old friendships.
  • If you realize you are the only one laughing at your jokes, cease and desist. Perhaps one in ten self-diagnosed comedians really is. Observe with discernment: if the laughter of listeners sounds politely forced, it probably is. Apply the same remedy.
  • If the conversation is scintillating, ask more questions to keep it going. If it bores you, remain silent. When all listeners are mute and/or gazing about the room, a considerate codger will cease his monologue. Such discernment with the mouth engaged is a codger’s most challenging multi-task.
  • If your expressed original idea or analysis comes back to you as established knowledge at the next codger conclave, quietly congratulate yourself—do not try to claim the credit.
  • The following are banned:
    • A mid-sentence interruption correcting an insignificant, self-evident error in the speaker’s story—a codger conversation killer.
    • A pause, mid-sentence, followed by, “I’m having a senior moment.”
    • “That’s what I said.”
    • “That’s what you said.”
    • “I bought last time.”
  • The following are allowed:
    • “Tell me again your wife/son/daughter/brother/sister’s name.”
    • “Tell me your name again?” (allowed only for the most advanced codgers)
    • “What did we decide about________?”
    • “Who bought last time?”
    • A one word interjection, when it is apparent the speaker is having a senior moment, filling in the blank in the speaker’s sentence. (He’ll love you forever for demonstrating you are paying such close attention to his story.)
  • If you’ve heard the story before, casually raise your right hand, with only the index finger extended, even with your right ear. When all listeners have their hand in the air, the talker must stop. No exceptions.
  • Debrief yourself on the way  home. If you think you might have dominated the conversation, vow to amend your ways.
  • The toughest commandment of all the canons: Before opening your mouth, ask yourself, would a majority of this group give a hoot about this subject.

If every codger in the conclave can master these canons, they’ll be bosom buddies for life—candidates for sainthood.

Rhymes and Roses: A Personal Testimony

February 14, 2016

 

RHYMES AND ROSES

In my garden, I recall,

In the waning days of fall

My tea roses bloomed the most

Just before a killing frost.

Why it is I can’t explain:

Rhymes and roses flood my brain.

God ordains. I want to say

The metaphor’s untimely.

The back story:

Item #1. Thirty eight years ago, a move from Chicago to Florida ended my rose garden hobby. I had 59 unique plants—hybrid teas, floribundas, and climbers, all with individual name placards, a special underground watering system, and Styrofoam cones to protect them through the Midwest winter. They were labor intensive—a labor of love.

Item #2. Last summer, my literary endeavors began to rhyme. Perhaps it’s my DNA.  My mother wrote lots of poetry and I still have much of it in a three ring binder somewhere. Around the turn of the year, the periodic trickle of poems became a gusher, one or more a day some days, and all with a strong Christian message. Quality aside, I keep asking myself, why is this happening.  If my sphere of influence as a writer/witness for Christ is the metaphoric equivalent of a baseball (and that may be an exaggeration…), the potential for my poetry is the equivalent of #7.5 birdshot. I content myself with the thought that it is a good dementia antidote in my codgerhood. Most importantly, it causes me to focus more on the paramount priority of life—my relationship with Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. There really doesn’t have to be any more reason than that.

Item #3. Last fall, a Mayo Clinic doctor told me that my TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack with no permanent damage) was a precursor of a major stroke—a one in three chance within the next year. Well, that has a way of upping the motivation to live coram Deo, though certainly none should be required beyond God’s promises in Holy Writ. I am praying that if and when it happens it is a life-taker, not a vegetable-maker. And I think it’s a very good thing to live each day consciously aware that it may be your last, at any age. Since my days as a young combat fighter pilot, I have not feared death, looking with gratitude on my life as borrowed time, each day a gracious gift from a Sovereign God. With the passing of my beloved, godly brother last year-end, I find myself envious of his state. I so look forward to the day when I can be with Jesus and John and a couple of other famous John’s of the Bible, and other loved ones.

Item #4.  Between 3 and 4 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 10, 2016, in the twilight zone between asleep and awake, that 38-year-old memory of my rose garden came to mind, specifically the season mentioned in the first quatrain of the poem. My first thought was…bizarre! I began to construct it in my mind in poetic terms. Then that memory melded with items #2 and #3 and suddenly I was wide-eyed awake. Is this a metaphor for my stage of life? God talking? A premonition of my demise? Or just paranoia?

I got up, turned on my computer and both quatrains of the poem came together on my screen in not much more time that it took to type it. Extraordinary. I was standing at my stand-up/sit-down desk, and when I reread what I had written in a frenzy, I needed to sit down. I tweaked it a bit to make it a little less morbid, let it age two days, and posted it on Facebook February 12.

Time always adds perspective. A few days later I’m still here and thinking that one-in-three chance mentioned above means there’s a two-in-three chance this is paranoia. An objective observer who knows me might put the probability higher. But our Sovereign God laughs at statisticians.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The Apostle Paul spoke much more to the truth: Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5) One of my favorite Puritans, John Bunyan, made this impassioned plea: “Reader, whoever thou art, think of this, it is thy concern, therefore do it, and examine, and examine again, and look diligently to thy heart in thine examination, that it beguile thee not about this thy so great concern, as indeed the fear of God is.”  In the providence of God, I read that Bunyan quote the same morning I wrote the poem!

So, with a cloud of witnesses of that caliber behind me, I’m not calling this providence paranoia or even idle introspection. My self-examination leads me to credit Rhymes and Roses to the Holy Spirit that dwells within, inclining my will to live more coram Deo. I’ll get that confirmed one day, when faith becomes sight. Maybe the poetic metaphor is untimely. Maybe, at age 72, it is not. My Sovereign God knows.

That is how 8 rhyming lines of 7 syllables per line came to be. The Westminster Confession, Chapter Three, paragraph 1, declares “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass …”   Soli Deo gloria. 

JUMPMASTER

February 5, 2016

Jumpmaster 2

Three years and half-a-century ago I was a Jumpmaster in a new-fangled sport called skydiving. I worked hard to earn that title, and bore it with the arrogance of the young and immortal. In those ancient days only the 82nd Airborne jumped out of perfectly good airplanes, and that for a modest stipend. It was considered pretty radical to do it for the sheer thrill of freefalling at up to 180 mph for up to a minute, then, 14 seconds before life on earth would end abruptly, to pull the ripcord, endure a deceleration that  puts your chin on your chest, your feet over your head and sometimes black and blue brands on the body where the chute straps dig in, thereupon to float in silken serenity, the only sound being the pounding of your heart subsiding in your ears, on down to terra firma…and to pay the pilot for half-a-flight.  I suppose some unfortunate earthbound souls would still consider it radical, even though it’s become a common sport, and much safer with sophisticated, expensive parachutes and designer accessories. You can experience it with excellent HD videos all day long on YouTube from the safety of your sofa.

We used Army surplus parachutes—28-foot diameter C-9 chutes with 28-foot shroud lines, in those early days—and cut panels out and rigged a lanyard on each riser to make them somewhat steerable, about as rudimentary and effective as the Wright brothers pulling on a wire to bend the wings to make their plane turn. Perfect parachute landing falls (PLF’s) were paramount, because the missing panels allowed the parachute to  descend even faster than a normal WW II paratrooper’s chute. I am reasonably certain some of my codgerhood aches and pains have their roots in those whiplash chute openings and hard landings in the middle of the last century, but I have no regrets. When it comes to pre-jump butterflies, I doubt any of the players on the field awaiting the kickoff at the Super Bowl will match the butterfly population in my stomach the first 20-30 times I jumped.

As Jumpmaster we did not jump until I said it was time to jump. I guided the pilot of the plane to putCIMG4613 it in that precise point in the sky, calculated by me (as in the pic above, using thumb and index finger as a gauge), where skydivers would exit the airplane and end up as close as skill permitted to that big white X in some farmer’s pasture. And I taught like-minded crazies how to do it. It was pretty heady stuff for an aspiring fighter pilot who still measured his years in the teens.

After mastering the rudiments of falling in a controlled manner, a process not without its heart-stopping moments, it felt more like flying than falling. In fact it was important not to get so mesmerized with the flying aspect—time seemed to stand still—that you forgot about the ripcord thing. I dreamed of flying then, sometimes waking up in my bed on my stomach, my back arched my arms and feet spread wide and wishing I were a bird so I could do it forever.  There is a video clip of a dream in my grey matter archives that periodically bubbles to the surface (prompting this nostalgic tale), where I am doing loops and rolls over the barn on the western Illinois farm where I grew up…so vividly bizarre I haven’t forgotten it 50+ years later.

There are other images you have not dreamed of that periodically clarify in my fading memory. My mentor was my (not your average) dentist. Doc and I twice jumped into the Mississippi River from 12,000 MSL, one for a summer celebration in Burlington, IA, called Steamboat Days. At a mile wide and length to the horizon in both directions, the Mighty Mississippi was an easy target to hit. We wore US Army surplus smoke flares mounted with homemade brackets on our jump boots that day. Doc’s made red smoke and mine made white. We went out of the plane a second apart and pulled the lanyard on the flare canisters when safely away from it. We then joined up in freefall (not as easy as it might look on YouTube), head-to-head and holding wide-spread hands as we “flew” at 120 mph, turning like a merry-go-round, making a 1000-foot-tall barber pole in the sky with our smoke trails. As we fell face-to-face, Doc had a wide open-mouthed smile and the rushing air blew into his mouth, making his cheeks flap comically like an English bulldog’s jowls when he sticks his head out of a moving car’s window. (We wore goggles to keep our eyelids from fluttering in the same manner—not so comical.) There’s an archived video clip of that adrenaline-soaked moment in my mind that I see every time I think of my dear old friend, and I smile, long after I’ve forgotten the pain he inflicted on my teeth.

I was a founding member of the first Big Ten skydiving club, at the University of Illinois. It was a great date magnet, attracting curious co-eds when more mundane activities could not, especially with this socially-challenged country boy. In the history of depraved mankind the possibility of death in a spectacular fashion has always drawn spectators. I took a date up one Saturday afternoon to let her watch me show off from the perspective of the airplane. As I fell away from the plane, I rolled over on my back and waved.  She had a I’m-not-taking-this-guy-home-to-meet-Momma look on her face. And she was not exactly ecstatic about flying around in a little Cessna 172 with its (large!) passenger door and the right front passenger seat removed, but she was the star of the dinner hour at the sorority house that night.

Once my uncle approached me, shaking his head, as I folded my chute after jumping at a Fourth of July celebration outside a village near home, and boldly prophesied I would not see my 25th birthday.  He was no Isaiah—he was wrong by 47 years so far.

My AFROTC professor at the University asked me if I would teach his knockout teenaged daughter how to skydive. I couldn’t say yes fast enough—few (actually no) fathers threw their daughters at me in those days. His trust in me with such a priceless possession astounds me to this day. After a few weeks of quality time together in training, the big day came. At 2500 feet AGL she boldly eased out the open door of the plane, at my command, and put one foot on the step into the cockpit, the other on the plane’s tire, and leaned forward and grabbed the strut of the high-wing plane in a two-handed death grip as the prop wash tried to blow her off her precarious perch. I was right beside her in the open door, and in the fullness of time I forcefully slapped her fanny, another memorable moment—the noise and her positioning  precluded any other kind of communication—and she pushed off like a well-trained trooper. Her static line snapped taut and opened her orange and white chute a few feet below the plane, then I went up higher and made a free fall jump. When I rejoined her and her father, an Air Force pilot, on the ground, her pretty, smiling face, framed in long, disheveled black hair, was still flushed from the excitement. As he enthusiastically embraced her she said, “Daddy, I did it for you.” I got an easy A in that ROTC class, and graduated with a “regular” commission as a Second Lieutenant in the USAF, just like an Academy grad, rather than the usual “reserve” commission routinely given to ROTC grads. And it was all acquired while having more fun than any testosterone-driven young stud should be allowed to have. Only the LORD knows His mysterious ways.  

The skydiving experience was helpful a few years later when I flew 268 combat missions in Vietnam in an F-100 Super Sabre. I had no fear of the unknown, should I have to eject, where a millisecond’s hesitation could mean death, but by God’s grace I never had to log another parachute jump.

They were glory days, yet another chapter proving the sovereignty of a Gracious God in my life, in spite of my best efforts to shorten my allotted days. To Him be the glory.

ANCIENT OF DAYS

January 16, 2016

F-100F reborn

How old must you be if your airplane has outlived even the US Air Force’s massive “boneyard” of antique airplanes in the desert near Tucson, AZ? At the risk of being accused of spending my codgerhood focused on the rearview mirror, I find this story compelling enough to preserve for my posterity, if no one else.  I am sure my grandchildren will never read of it in any public school history book, for two sound reasons: 1) it is not politically correct and 2) they are, by God’s grace, homeschooled, for which I am forever grateful.  The following article with the picture above appeared January 12, 2015, in the Daily Air Force Magazine :

The last F-100 Super Sabre stored at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., recently left the boneyard for refurbishment and display outside the National Guard Bureau at JB Andrews, Md. The airframe was refurbished by the Iowa Air National Guard’s 185th Air Refueling Wing, which actually flew serial number 63-3880 in combat during Vietnam. The two-seat F-100F was repainted in honor of the “Misty” fast-forward air controller (FAC) who directed strikes on some of the most heavily defended targets during the Vietnam War. After retiring from the 185th TFW, the jet was converted into a QF-100F full-scale aerial target, but managed to survive to retirement, unscathed. The 185th ARW’s base at Sioux Gateway Airport is named in honor of Misty FAC pilot and Medal of Honor recipient Col. George “Bud” Day who began his career in the Iowa ANG. The F-100 is slated to arrive at Andrews for display in late January, according to a release. (See F-100 Airpower Classics.)

My life intersects with this story in a number of ways. I flew 268 combat missions in Vietnam in an F-100 (mostly the F-100D, the one seat version, though I flew the two-seat F-100F model across both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean and on a few  combat missions). A fictional version of that experience appears in my first book, Son of Thunder. (A novel, but the air combat scenes bear varying degrees of association with reality.) During my Vietnam tour of duty, the “Misty” fast forward air controller (FAC) program, mentioned in the article, was created to try to stem the losses from using slower-moving light planes as FACs. The guy in the back seat of the F-100F would do the looking and control the airstrikes while the guy in front would fire the smoke rockets to mark the targets while jinking—twisting and turning erratically—at very high speeds and low altitudes to keep them alive. The article says their mission was to “direct strikes on some of the most heavily defended targets during the Vietnam War.” The precise truth is their targets were along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in adjacent Laos and Cambodia, which were officially “neutral territory” by UN declaration. But any fighter pilot who found himself jinking in the crosshairs of brutal enemy AAA along that vital-to-the-enemy supply route would snicker and snort at such an outrageous fiction. Both sides officially denied their presence there.

When the call went out to F-100 pilots for volunteers for this most dangerous mission, I was stationed at Tuy Hoa Air Base and already flying half my missions “out-country,” that is over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, unlike half the F-100 wings located  further south in South Vietnam.  I chose not to volunteer because, in my young adrenalin-addicted, immortal ego I did not want to “direct” other F-100s’ strikes along The Trail. I was already living my fighter pilot dream, killing the bad guys and breaking their stuff on The Trail, and I much preferred to continue, not just locate targets for some other fighter pilot to ravage. I worked hard to get the “good missions,” that is, night patrol on The Trail, when the southbound supply truck traffic was heaviest. As Butch and Sundance justified robbing banks because that was where the money was, I justified the high-risk night missions because that was where the best targets were. It was relatively easy to talk the flight scheduler into assigning me those missions because I was eager to fly them, quickly became the most experienced at them and was smashing a lot of stuff. Besides, most of the other eligible pilots, older guys with families in my squadron, all knew that if God had wanted man to fly at night, he would have been born with a rotating red beacon mounted at the base of his tailbone. To this melancholy day I have vivid memories of dead friends, one whose spectacular demise I witnessed and some who just went out and never came back from those out-country missions, including some Misty friends, and have never been found. My roommate on the beach of the South China Sea, Lacy Veach, USAF Academy grad, future Thunderbird Team member and astronaut, did volunteer to be a Misty. A few months later, as I was coming off the target on a daytime mission in that neutral territory, I heard his voice over the emergency radio frequency, a few octaves higher than normal, swinging under his parachute hung up in one of the jungle’s taller trees, with his unrecognizable F-100F in a smoldering hole not far away. I flew “cap” for him, strafing the enemy soldiers trying to get to him as he anxiously awaited the Jolly Green helicopter’s  arrival (another group of incredibly brave pilots) to perform a daring, successful rescue. In my invincible mindset that was confirmation that I had made the right decision.

Fast forward 30 years, when I was a brand new author and the Misty pilots, now well-deserved legends, condescended to invite a regular old “poge” F-100 jock to speak at their annual gathering of eagles in Colorado Springs. I was humbled and excited beyond belief. Two of those alumni, Ron Fogelman and Merrill “Tony” McPeak, became Air Force Chiefs of Staff and Don Shepperd became director of the US Air National Guard. Bud Day was the first Misty commander who gained renown and a nation’s gratitude as a Medal of Honor winner as a long-time POW and the most highly decorated fighter pilot in US history, and who spent his retirement years fighting for veterans’ causes. Dick Rutan became the first pilot to fly around the world nonstop, non-refueled, and whose plane, built by his engineering genius brother, Burt, resides in the Smithsonian Air Museum. Ron Fogelman and Dick Rutan’s book cover endorsements of Son of Thunder had a great deal to do with its success.

In my introductory remarks to that august body of stick-and-rudder souls, I opined that it was the greatest concentration of heroes ever assembled in one room in the history of America, with the possible exception of when Bud Day dined alone in his cell at the Hanoi Hilton. Afterward Bud came up and shook my hand and said, “God bless your heart,” and I’m pretty sure God is blessing his heart right now in heaven. At the reception after my talk, Don Shepperd’s charming wife, Rose, tried to convince me to write the story of the Misty’s for posterity, but I begged off, sincerely declaring that I was unqualified. Don ended up writing that book himself. Actually he edited it. He wisely let most of the pilots tell their own story. I highly recommend it: Misty. A decade later, in our fulltime RV days, at lunch with Don on a balmy winter day in a Tucson restaurant, he affirmed that I had been correct to turn the assignment down. In telling their own stories, Don had the nearly impossible task of containing their pent-up disgust put on paper at the political micro-mismanagement of that sad chapter in our nation’s history. As an insider he was able—barely—to convince them to tone down their lifetime of frustration. The F-100F in the story above is a tribute to Major General Donald Shepperd, to be placed outside Shepperd Hall, the Air National Guard Readiness Center at  JB Andrews, MD, and his name is now painted on the side.

One final intersection of my life with this story: A year-and-a-half after my tour of duty in Vietnam, while assigned to an F-100 wing in Torrejon, Spain, I was tasked, along with others, to fly an F-100F back to the States and deliver it to…wait for it…the Iowa Air National Guard at Sioux City, Iowa. I’m pretty sure it was not the exact one in the picture, though I did not keep detailed flight logs like some of my friends, and the supply of F-100F models was pretty small by then, due primarily to Misty’s loss rates, the highest of any fixed wing unit in the war.  But by luck, as John Calvin would say (not!), my flight path to Sioux City, with only some minor ad hoc rerouting on my part, passed right over my home town, a village in western Illinois. I got to fulfill another fighter pilot’s dream and buzz my hometown at an altitude approximating the village water tower, then pulled up and did victory rolls till out of sight. For years after, when I visited, townfolks and nearby farmers would be eager to tell me what they saw that day, and no two stories had it quite the same…nor quite right. Over the years the story got embellished in the retelling, and I confess I never let the truth stand in the way of the legend. When I was recently home to bury my beloved brother, so many years after that blatant proof of pride, the essence of original sin (as Augustine diagnosed it and Packer reported it), the witnesses were mostly under the grass in the local cemetery and those still topside are no longer reliable sources.  Now they ask, “Did you really do that?” As Roger Miller summed it up, ‘Kansas City Star, that’s what I are,’ but on a micro scale … and yet another one of countless reasons for repentance in my codgerhood.  Now I know that song really dates me, but I don’t mind. My dearly beloved grandkids think I am so ancient I must have flown top cover at the crucifixion. And that’s okay, too, as long as they know, by the gift of faith, that  Christ died there for their sins and mine  so we could spend eternity with Him in bliss beyond the power of words to convey. Thank you, Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9), for giving me grandchildren and great, consequential friends, and for blessing me with a long life, so undeserved, that I tried so many times to shorten.

And should you, dear reader, in your travels in the USA, come across one of these Super Sabres planted around the country, say a quick prayer of thanksgiving for the pilots, that our Creator chose to make such men for America, just one segment of a vast number who have served our country in war. I’m so grateful our Sovereign God let me hold the stick and dance the wild blue with an inanimate angel for a little while.

ON THE “WRONG” SIDE IN TWO WARS

May 7, 2015

 

Fuzzy tiger shot smallThanks to that internet haven of narcissistic silliness called Facebook, I recently reconnected with a friend I flew F-100’s with 46 years ago in Vietnam.jd tiger shot bw (2) We discovered we live 4 miles apart. Bob Fosnot (left) had a great career flying jet fighters, while early on I (right) gave up racing the wind and opted to race the rats down Wall Street and LaSalle Street. Foz’s career was more fun—no contest.

The camaraderie of fighter pilots, who must put their lives in one another’s hands, endures even in a vacuum, and with the first sip of dark roast at the local coffee house that 46-year hiatus disappeared. After a quick mutual debrief of our post-war lives, the best of our airborne joint ventures came to the fore. The two of us had been scrambled off the alert pad in the middle of the night to aid a remote Special Forces outpost being overrun by the enemy. It was the scariest kind of graveyard shift work. It entailed adrenaline-drenched, bullet-sweating stick and rudder work in very close proximity to the irregular treetops of the jungle, under appallingly poor visibility conditions—flares floating down under small parachutes in an inky sky. We dropped napalm bombs at a very shallow dive angle very near the ground, inducing a rolling fireball that instantly incinerated all in its path. With friendly troops hunkered in their trenches 50 meters from where we were dropping, precision was paramount.  Intense focus on the job at hand was essential, while ignoring the fireflies in the jungle—the muzzle flashes of AK-47’s aimed at us. It was like performing heart surgery by candlelight with lethal mosquitoes swarming in your face.

We whupped ‘em.

SOT for homepage Xmas 11The flight home, as dawn was breaking, was a thrilling celebration of survival, what Churchill called the exhilaration of being shot at and missed. And there is no greater job satisfaction than saving the lives of America’s mighty men of valor. The sun came up over the South China Sea in a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors, like God himself was smiling on our endeavors. I managed to take a picture of Foz in his F-100 against that glorious dawn with a newly purchased camera that did all the thinking for me. It made the cover of the first book I ever wrote, though neither of us will ever need a visual aid to remember that flight home.

At Dusty’s Pub, the junior officers’ hangout on the beach of the South China SeaDustys PubTuyHoaAB, where humility was an unknown attribute, we never credited our killed-by-air and busted enemy asset tallies to anything other than superior skill and cunning, and in a single-seat jet no one else would know what panic and pandemonium may have taken place in that mini-mobile office in the heat of battle. Now, well into codgerhood, Foz and I readily agreed it was by God’s grace Foz and Wetalone that we survived not only the best the enemy could throw at us, but also our own adrenaline addiction.  Nothing fed that addiction like laying napalm down at 50 feet above the ground and 400 knots, walking 20-millimeter exploding bullets through an enemy force coming through the concertina wire of a friendly base camp, or jinking in the crosshairs of enemy AAA. Gen. Robert E. Lee was a kindred spirit in this regard: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Driving home from our joyous reunion, and well into the wee hours, with the lid blown off the archives in my mind, I pondered how much life has changed since Wet and Foz flew into combat for God and country, and my joy was sorely tested. America won every major battle but lost that war, and we are still paying for it in so many ways. Today Ho Chi Minh has a dozen imitators thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam, with similar results. Vietnam vets came home to a different culture, shockingly hostile to many of us in some quarters, and adrift from its moorings. Half a lifetime later the drift has become a riptide. My post-war biography is a testimony to amazing grace, but the culture appears to be under the judgment of an angry God. What I have steadfastly, mundanely been for 46 years is now reclassified as counter-culture … or worse—a no-remorse Vietnam veteran; a devout Christian, and therefore a proponent of the sanctity of heterosexual monogamy as the clear, exclusive biblical model of marriage, and an opponent of killing unborn defenseless children; and an unabashed, proven patriot ashamed of the politicians in charge. Freedom of religion, if it is orthodox Christianity, is under vicious attack. In 268 combat missions I was miraculously spared from becoming a prisoner-of war, but that is far from a preposterous possibility, given my worldview, in this increasingly hostile culture war. A renowned preacher friend told us listeners recently that he expected to be “running an in-house prison ministry in five years.”

But my Bible-based worldview, shared by all of my favorite theologians, from R. C. Sproul to Jonathan Edwards to John Knox to one-hundred-fifty 17th Century Westminster Divines to Martin Luther to John Calvin to the Apostles Paul, Peter, James and John, holds that, in reality, it’s a cosmic war of biblical proportions with a foreordained outcome. God wins. That makes me a joyful warrior who fears not, even in the face of hostility in his own country.

I’ve been on the “wrong” side of two wars in one lifetime, and it’s still the noblest calling, and now the holiest calling. I am forever grateful that a sovereign God drew me irresistibly to Him in spite of my best efforts to the contrary (John 6:44). If you’re wavering, dear reader, as to which side of this culture war you should fight on, consider a modernized version of Pascal’s Wager: If I’m wrong, I’ve wasted a lifetime. If you choose the other side and are wrong, you’ve wasted an eternity.

Meantime, onward Christian soldiers. Put on the whole armor of God and prepare for persecution.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9).

THE MAKING OF A NOVEL

March 22, 2015

ITPOJ small coverMy fifth book, second novel, went on sale at Amazon this week. The back cover blurb reads as follows:

Unlike John Bunyan’s 17th century pilgrim, who fled the City of Destruction for the Celestial City, JD Wetterling’s 20th century pilgrim is reverse-wired. He’s an unwilling pilgrim dragged toward the Celestial City while doggedly fighting to return to the City of Destruction. IN THE PLACE OF JUSTICE is an adult Christian worldview novel about a wealthy financier who lives large on a sailboat but has an empty soul.  He struggles under a heavy burden, from Chicago’s futures trading pits—capitalism’s octagonal altars to the goddess of greed—to the Vanity Fair of Washington DC and slothful Sarasota to the poverty-stricken, saint-inhabited mission fields of Haiti. Jack’s pilgrimage through a fallen world meets tribulation with every step, and then he’s forced to run for his life from an evil man sworn to kill him. It’s an action/adventure, love-at-all-levels story for the ages. 

Here’s how this story came about: Since I don’t find book research all that much fun, the settings in this novel are all places where I’ve spent various periods of my life—uncommon, even exotic places, to be sure. Sailboats have been my passion, along with airplanes, since adolescence, and I’ve owned, enjoyed, and terrified myself with both on more than one occasion.  They play a key role in this story. After my fighter pilot days, I spent 7 years at one of planet’s largest commodity futures exchanges in Chicago as a trader/broker in the organized chaos of the trading floor, and was elected a member of the exchange board of directors. A fictional re-creation of the exchange is the foundational setting of this novel. I spent a fair amount of time on Capitol Hill, representing the industry’s interests in Washington DC, also a significant venue in this story. The supercharged air one inhales in that center of the universe intoxicates the power-hungry souls who gather there, some of whom (imaginary), make an appearance in this tale.

I then lived for over a decade on the delightful, slothful shores of Siesta Key, Sarasota, FL, the opening scene in the story. While living there I sat on the board of a small non-profit that flew mail and supplies to the missionaries in Haiti. It was on flights to that poverty-stricken, saint-inhabited island that I learned what real Christians do with their lives. I’ve been wrestling with my conscience ever since about how I’ve squandered my allotted days, the vast majority of which have been exceedingly self-centered.

All that was needed to create a fictional drama out of these fascinating places were some interesting characters who could inhabit them, so I ransacked my soul and found some. There are varying degrees of the author in all of these characters, from the lovable to the loathsome. Then I just tried to keep up with them on my keyboard as they went about their “lives.” What I ended up with was a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that’s what makes a story.

A writing professor at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop said, “For the writing to be good, the reader must be able to feel the pressure of the soul behind the words.” IN THE PLACE OF JUSTICE grew out of such pressure. Deo volente, you will feel it, too.

Go to Amazon, click on “Look inside,” and read the first 2.5 chapters.

A Psychotic Art

February 15, 2015

Thanks to about five degrees less than good beach bum weather in South Florida this winter, my keyboard has been my favorite winter venue, and unreal characters have begun to show up on my computer screen. I love it when that happens! Fiction writing is a psychotic art–delusions are the stock in trade–but it can be a lovely place to spend the day. It is amazing to me how created characters can become so real to the writer, at least this writer. (The challenge, of course, is to make them real to the reader.) Sometime in the late last century I noodled around with a short story that never got beyond a few close friends. Today those characters comprise a whole novel with a whole ‘nother plot, soon to see the light of day. They’ve been joined by a delightful character who had a cameo in Son of Thunder, written in the last decade of the last century, and has refused to go quietly into the night. Now I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning to see what they are going to do next.  Some writers plot, but I just let the characters talk to me. If it takes a plot outline and summary sheet to write a bestseller, then I’m just banging away for my own pleasure and that of a few friends. It’s sure a fun way to pass my codgerhood. Thank God I’m not doing it for a living. The novel should be out next month.  It’s entitled, In the Place of Justice, and you can get a few hints about it by following the link.

Amazon is offering my memoir, Grace in the Growing Season, (2nd edition, 2015), Kindle version, FREE today and tomorrow, Feb. 15-16. Please check it out. It may be worth no more to you than you what paid for it, but you never know.


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