STILL THE NOBLEST CALLING

May 26, 2019

This Memorial Day op-ed piece was first published in the Wall Street Journal, May 24, 1996 and in numerous other periodicals and anthologies since. It has generated more letters to the editor and author than all my other published works combined, and I still receive occasional heartwarming correspondence in this season. I reread it myself annually on this day of grateful remembering and still get emotional as I think of the catastrophic loss to their loved ones. And I pray for grace to stifle my anger at the ingratitude of so many Americans who spew such hateful accusations against our nation and denigrate the military, the very patriots who make it make it possible, at great cost, for them to mindlessly inhale the fresh air of liberty.           

I visited with three old friends recently at a park in my town. It seems like only yesterday that we were all together, but actually it had been 28 years. There was a crowd at the park that day, and it took us awhile to connect, but with the aid of a computer we made it. I found Lance at Panel 54W, line 037, Lynn over at Panel 51W, line 032, and Vince down at line 103 on Panel 27W. We were gung-ho young fighter pilots in Vietnam, the cream of the crop of the US Air Force pilot training system, and now their names are on that 250-foot-long, half-size model of the Vietnam Memorial that moves around the country. I had intentionally avoided visiting the wall when it came to town in years past, because I did not trust myself to behave in a composed manner, but after nearly three decades it was time to try for some closure on this issue. I told my wife that I preferred to go alone, if that was all right, and, truth be known, I nearly backed out at that.

Standing in front of that somber wall, I tried to keep it light, reminiscing about how things were back then. We used to joke about the psychiatric term for a passionate love affair with inanimate flying objects—we flew F-100’s—and we marveled at the thought that the taxpayers actually paid us to do this “work.” We were not draftees, but college graduates there by choice, opting for the cramped confines of a jet fighter cockpit over the comfort of corporate America. In all my life I’ve not been so passionate about any other work. If that sounds like an exaggeration, then you’ve never danced the wild blue with a supersonic angel.

I vividly remember the Sunday afternoon, in the summer of ‘68, when we flew out of Travis Air Force Base, California, on a troop transport headed for Vietnam. Lynn, Lance and I crowded around the same porthole and watched the Golden Gate Bridge disappear below broken clouds. We had gone through fighter pilot school together and had done some serious bonding. In an exceedingly rare moment of youthful fighter pilot humility, I wondered if I would live to see that bridge again. For reasons I still don’t understand, I was the only one of the three who did.

Once in Vietnam, we passed the long, lonely off-duty hours at Dusty’s Pub, a lounge that we lieutenants built on the beach of the South China Sea at Tuy Hoa Air Base. The roof at Dusty’s doubled as a sun deck and the walls were non-existent. The complaint heard most often around the bar, in the standard gallows humor of a combat squadron, was that it was “…a lousy war, but it’s the only one we have.” (I’ve cleaned up the language a bit.) We sang mostly raunchy songs that never seemed to end—someone was always writing new verses—and, as an antidote to loneliness, fear in the night, and the sadness over dead friends, we often drank too much.

Vince joined us at Dusty’s Pub halfway through my tour of duty, and since he was a like-minded country kid from Montana, we hit it off. He had a wide grin, slightly stooped shoulders, and his own way of walking—he just threw his feet out and stepped on them. But what he lacked in military bearing he made up for with the heart of a tiger. He often flew as my wingman, and we volunteered for the night missions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One starless night, the longest, saddest night of my life, we got into a really nasty gun duel with some anti-aircraft artillery batteries. I watched Vince die in a mushroom shaped fireball that for a moment turned night into day.

Lance—a New York boy who took unmerciful grief from the rest of us because he talked like a New Yawker—crashed into the side of a mountain in the central highlands while attacking a target. Lynn, a happy-go-lucky jock from Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock College with a hound named John the Basset, returned to his base on a stormy night in July after weather aborted his mission. Two miles of wet runway weren’t enough to stop an F-100 landing at 160 knots with all it bombs still on board. He ran off the end, flipped over, and slid through the minefield at the perimeter fence, setting off a gruesome sound and light show.

At the wall, I told the guys only about the good parts of the last 28 years. Lacy, one of our associates from Dusty’s Pub, became an astronaut, and a few summers ago I watched from my back yard, near Tampa, as he blasted off. His voice over the radio from space was at least an octave lower than it was the day I heard him radio for help while swinging from his parachute hung up in a tree in Laos. Another Dusty’s patron, Rick, is now a two-star general, and I reminded them of what we used to say about the military promotion system—it’s like a septic tank, only the really big chunks floated to the top.

I didn’t tell them about how ostracized Vietnam vets are, that during that same week, one of the nation’s leading newspapers has run an article that implied we Vietnam vets were, to quote one syndicated columnist, “either suckers or psychos, victims or monsters.”   I didn’t tell them that the Secretary of Defense they fought for back then has now declared that he was not a believer in the cause for which he assigned them all to their destiny. I didn’t tell them that a draft age kid from Arkansas, who hid out in England to dodge his duty while they were fighting and dying, is now the commander-in-chief. And I did not tell them we lost that lousy war. I gave them the same story I’ve used since the Nixon administration: “We were winning when I left.”

I relived that final day as I stared at the black onyx wall. The dawn came up like thunder after a year and 268 combat missions in the valley of the shadow. The ground trembled as 33 F-100’s roared off the runway, across the beach, and out over the South China Sea, climbing into the rising sun. On the eastern horizon a line of towering deep purple clouds stood shoulder-to-shoulder before a brilliant orange sky that slowly turned powder blue from the top down. From somewhere on that stage, above the whine of spinning turbine blades, I could hear a choir singing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” in fortissimo: The “…Lord God Omnipotent reigneth…,” and He was bringing me home, while Lance and Lynn and Vince will remain as part of the dust of Southeast Asia until the end of time.

I was not the only one talking to the wall through tears. A leather-vested, bare-chested biker two panels to my left was in even worse shape. I backed about twenty-five yards away from the wall and sat down on the grass   under a clear blue sky and mid-day sun that perfectly matched the tropical weather of the war zone. The wall, with all 58,200 names, consumed my field of vision. I tried to wrap my mind around the mega-tonnage of violence, carnage and ruined lives that it represented. Then I thought of how Vietnam was only one small war in the history of the human race, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of mankind’s wickedness.

My heart felt like wax in the blazing sun, and I was on the verge of becoming a spectacle in the park. I arose and walked back up to the wall to say good-bye and ran my fingers over the engraved names—Lance and Lynn and Vince—as if I could communicate with them in some kind of spiritual Braille. I wanted them to know that God, duty, honor, and country will always remain the noblest calling. Revisionist history by the elite dodgers who are trying to justify their actions cannot change that.

I have been a productive member of society since the day I left Vietnam. I am proud of what I did there, and I am especially proud of my friends—heroes who voluntarily, enthusiastically gave their all. They demonstrated no greater love to a nation who’s highbrow opinion makers are still trying to disavow them. May their names, indelibly engraved on that memorial wall, likewise be found in the Book of Life.

 

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A HOLY WEEK DIARY, 2019

April 20, 2019

The Palm Sunday Plot: a stranger comes to town

Literary legend has it there are only two plots in all of literature: 1) A person goes on a journey, and 2) A stranger comes to town. Surely this story in the planet’s perpetual bestseller is the pinnacle of all plot 2’s.

“Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

He was known for his words and deeds throughout ancient Israel, but virtually unknown in truth—the Son of God come to die for His chosen. He was deliriously adored arriving astride the donkey in the Sunday spectacle, and heartlessly, hideously slain in the Friday apocalypse. It was an outrageously implausible plot in the feeble mind of fallen man, but a perfect plan by Infinite Wisdom, a divine rescue operation designed and decreed before time began and foretold 500 years in advance: infinite wrath redressed by immeasurable love from One and the same, on a crude cross with rusty spikes. He instead of me. And then He arose from the dead, led his followers in an intense seminar in what it all meant and how to spread the Word, and, before their eyes, ascended into heaven, promising to return … as a judge. I can but fall on my knees with Job, “…abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

“Behold, I am coming soon…” (Revelation 22:12)

A Somber Anniversary—Mid-Holy Week

One-half-century ago tonight, just past midnight, April 17, 1969, two F-100’s over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos were attacking a southbound North Vietnamese truck convoy carrying ammunition, transforming it into a spectacular spontaneous fireworks display on the mountainside. In a heartbeat it was high-noon with AAA—head-on with geysers of fearsome firepower. We gave far more than we got, but the price was still too high. Our Sovereign God spared me and took my friend and wingman, Robert V. (“Vince”) Willett, in a mountain-sized mushroom-shaped fireball. MIA still. A merciful God sustains his family and me.

Today his name is engraved on a somber wall on The Mall in Washington D.C. (panel 27W, line 103) and on a memorial stone on a quiet bank of the Missouri River in Oddfellows Park in Great Falls, Montana, scene of Vince’s all-state exploits in football and basketball, placed by the citizens of Great Falls.

Somewhere deep in the dense mountainous jungle of Southeast Asia, half the planet away, there’s another plot of holy ground known only to God, likely a serene tropical Garden of Eden where no other human has ever trod, the final resting place of an All-American hero awaiting Jesus’ return. It has been my lifelong prayer that Vince and I would fly together again one day, with a host of angels in heavenly skies and never night, where war will be no more. RIP, bro.

The First Maundy Thursday: an upstairs room in Jerusalem, circa 0033

All knew something was up that evening. Can you feel the tension in the room as Jesus took off his robe, tied a towel around his waist and prepared to…wash their feet? It was the most menial of servants’ work and surely beneath the miracle-making man who called himself the Son of God. Can you sense the utter bewilderment after a baffling exchange between Jesus and one of their number, resulting in him slinking hurriedly out of the room? Can you wrap your mind around their frustration trying to comprehend wine called blood and bread called body. His body! His blood! Can you even begin to absorb the gravitas in his demeanor with the weight of the world on his shoulders? He knew precisely what would happen next. He already knew intimately the degree of pain he was about to endure. As you take the bread and the cup tonight, in commemoration of all that happens in the next 24 hours of our Savior’s life and death, remember he did it all for you, and marvel at such incomprehensibly infinite love. And confess your utter unworthiness, and pray that His grace will see you through to that great wedding feast in the mansions of the Lord. He, the Lord our God, has promised.  

Good Friday: A Picture of Sin

For 1,400 years Israel sacrificed animals daily on an altar under meticulous rules from God handed down through Moses for the atonement of their sins. Cumulative rivers of blood, a heap of carcasses that could reach to the heavens, and drops of blood as numerous as the stars in the sky, ceremoniously sprinkled on the corners of the altar, the priests’ robes, and the ark itself made it obvious to the most illiterate Jew that God loathed sin, and it all pointed to a future day and sacrifice. In sum it was all a precursor, a child’s crayon sketch of the abhorrent picture of sin as cosmic treason that God painted on that first Good Friday: midday became tempestuous midnight and the earth convulsed as our Creator was savagely slain by His creatures.

“Tetelestai” (John 19:30). And blood gushed from His riven side, splattering onto the dirt and refuse at the foot of His cross.

Think not, my friend, that the perpetrators were some nonhuman despicable species. The hand that wielded the spear, that hammered the spikes into his hands and feet, that cracked the whip across his bared back was yours…mine.

Silent Saturday

A dear friend is in the grave this day…because of me. My dearest friend was also in the grave this day…because of me. I put the former there with a command decision, in the heat of battle, to fight instead of run. I put the latter there with my incorrigible sinfulness. I can only hang my head in shameful silence this Saturday as I reflect on my culpability for both. The former died for a significant percentage of his countrymen who were ungrateful. Nearly all for whom the latter died were ungrateful and uninterested—in reality his enemies—at the time. The former died instantly, the later was savagely tortured to death. The former’s grave was new, dug at a speed of 500 knots or so with his own jet. The latter’s grave was also new, but borrowed. The former has been in the grave for fifty years last Wednesday, with an end known only to God. The latter entered the grave nearly 2000 years ago Friday, but stayed only three days. It’s a high-powered dose of humility this Holy Week. 

“…but Sunday’s coming.” We’ll commemorate with profound gratitude the latter’s rise from the dead and his victory over sin and death on our behalf. Because of the latter—the Lord Jesus Christ, our Redeemer—the former, Vince Willett, my wingman—will also arise one day, as will I, when the latter returns. O happy reunion day! Join me at the empty cross near the vacant grave tomorrow and we will celebrate love so amazing, so divine, that it demands our souls, our lives, our all!    

Easter Sunday

The Zen Buddhist says there are no happy endings. He never met my Risen Savior.

“I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore … I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he [also!] live” (Rev. 1:18, John 11:25).

Celebrate! Worship and adore Him, redeemed one! This happy ending has no ending!

crosses at easter

FAMOUS FIGHTER PILOTS I HAVE KNOWN

January 25, 2019

All of them blessed and enriched my life.  The first one also saved it.

Bob Hoover

Bob Hoover (1922-2016), “one of the greatest pilots ever to have lived,” was the chief bob hoovertest pilot at North American Aviation during the development of the F-100. As the first aircraft to fly faster than the speed of sound, it had some new “widow-maker” characteristics that Hoover sorted out. One was its inability to come out of a spin. Most planes spin if you sufficiently mishandle them, but there is a remedy for recovery, but not the F-100, as Hoover concluded after several really wild test hops. So he discovered a way to recognize the onset of a spin and the antidote to stop it before it developed further. He came to our F-100 class at Cannon AFB, NM, in 1968 and taught us that procedure, then we adjourned to the bar and heard flying stories that, coming from any other living soul we would have called fairy tales. (I’ve cleaned up the language a bit.) He was a plane whisperer—he could make any plane do supernatural things, as millions of people worldwide witnessed when he flew his yellow P-51 and Shrike Commander at airshows. I got to reconnect with Bob at Oshkosh, the nation’s largest airshow, in 2000, when we shared the speakers stage (think of me like the aspiring nobody that opens for a Willie Nelson show) and thank him again for teaching me the Hoover solution, and bear witness to the fact that it works wonderfully. I never lost a beat in the battle. Not incidentally, I also relearned that no matter how intense the fight one must always fly the airplane… And I thanked him on behalf of my children, who but for him would never have been born. A “pilot’s pilot.” 

Mark Berent

This week’s tactics confab (coffee and war stories) was with Mark Berent, age 87 and cimg6048he still doesn’t drool in his coffee. In fact I’d bet he could still do a Cuban eight in his F-4E or F-100 and not spill a drop. Mark had a Vietnam tour in F-100’s, then went back to the war a few years later in an F-4E, the most advanced fighter then in the inventory.  He commanded the Wolf FAC Squadron, the follow-on to the Misty FAC’s with a much improved loss rate from enemy AAA fire. “Papa Wolf” was his call sign.  Then he retired and wrote 5 New York Times bestselling novels about that air war. Other than that and running the Marine Corps Marathon the first time when most of us are reaching for the rocking chair, his life has been unremarkable…  Mark’s been a great friend, benefactor and inspiration to me for many years! Get his first bestseller in ebook free at Amazon: Rolling Thunder

Robert L. Scott

Bob Scott (1908-2006) was a double Ace (13 kills) in WW II flying a (single seat) P-40 cimg5729with the Flying Tigers in China.  He would have been a triple ace but for solid cloud layers below that kept anyone from actually seeing a few other falling out-of-control-on-fire Japanese planes hit the ground, a requirement for a counter. He retired a Brigadier General and spent most of his retirement as a highly successful fundraiser for the Georgia Museum of Aviation, now the second largest AF museum in the country.  I got invited to speak at a fundraiser there honoring Bob Scott, then a gregarious 90 years old, and we became friends.  He wrote a best-seller, God is My Co-Pilot, which was made into a very popular movie in 1945. The above  picture with a signed copy of his book in my hand and mine in his, was taken in front of his P-40 at the museum, not far from where an F-100 that I flew in combat resides. I have good cause to believe that Bob Scott is dancing the wild blue with his Maker now, and, notwithstanding the title of his book, he now knows God was his Pilot-In-Command.

Bud Day

I met Medal of Honor winner Bud Day (1925-2013), “the most highly decorated bud day_1987military officer since General Douglas MacArthur,” when I got invited to speak at a Misty FAC reunion in Colorado Springs in ‘98. He was the commander of the unit, flying F-100’s, when he was shot down and captured.  Bud spent 5 years and 7 months in the infamous Hanoi Hilton as a POW, where he escaped captivity and nearly made it back to friendly forces—they were in sight when the enemy recaptured him and made his life even more of a hell-on-earth, but gained him the MOH.  He returned home and finished out his AF career, then retired and went to law school, became a lawyer and spent the rest of his life fighting for military veterans’ benefits promised but never paid to vets by our government, of which all vets owe him a huge debt. In my speech to the Misty FAC’s, among whom were two Air Force generals, Don Shepperd and AF Chief of Staff Ronald Fogleman, I said I was honored to be invited to the greatest concentration of heroes ever assembled in one room since Bud Day dined alone in his cell at the Hanoi Hilton. The whole room applauded. Bud was the first one up to the podium when I was through, extending his humble hand and saying, “God bless your heart!” Would that mine were as big and brave as his.  

    What a blessing it has been to have lived and flown in an era with such fighter pilot icons, three of them in the same supersonic angel as I, and to have our contrails cross and become friends. Thank you, Lord.

jdf100 angled and tiger shot

SO STARK THE MIND SPINS

January 19, 2019

Foz and I had our monthly tactics confab (coffee and war stories) yesterday. Exactly half-a-century ago and half-a-world away, on the shore of the south China Sea, we were hot stuff fighter jocks living our dreams—the best the US military aviation training program could turn out.  Badass, as the current cool talkers like to say SOT-for-homepage-Xmas-11.jpgwithout knowledge! I flew on his wing and literally trusted him with my life through some of the darkest nights and double dog doo weather we’ve seen before or since. Our joint ventures saved many American mothers’ sons from violent death while visiting same upon the enemy. Not least, we survived to tell about it. I was flying his wing and took this picture of him—Bob Fosnot—leading us home at dawn from one tough scramble off the alert pad. He may not fit your fighter pilot image now, but that night he was lean and mean and hirsute, the conditions were nightmarish, and we were kickin’ butt—100 or so grateful Special Forces grunts survived to celebrate that same spectacular sunup.

The contrast between life then and now is so stark the mind spins. Today we’re just two doddering old toads drooling in our coffee cups, laughing ourselves silly, and struggling to understand a world we don’t recognize. But we’re still here on the preferred side of the grass and loving it, and grateful to God for every minute of our uncommon lives and loves, and living proof that Grace is truly Amazing.

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*Son of Thunder is a novel based on my experience in the 309th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, Tuy Hoa AB, Republic of Vietnam from June 1968 to May 1969. It is historical fiction, and as such the places and names and world events are non-fiction and the plot is fiction. Most of the flying experiences were mine with varying degrees of embellishment, and some were made up of whole cloth.

I came across a blurb from a blog I wrote a few years ago that still seems to be a pretty good thumbnail of the American fighter pilot culture in combat in the mid-20th century.  “At Dusty’s Pub, the junior officers’ hangout on the beach of the South China Sea, 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 alone 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.’”

As I mentioned earlier, the contrast between life then and now is so stark the mind spins.

Over the Valley of the Shadow of Death

July 21, 2018

Fifty years ago today, on a sanctifying Sunday morning in the summer of ’68:

CITATION TO ACCOMPANY THE AWARD OF

THE DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS

TO JERRY D. WETTERLING

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“First Lieutenant Jerry D. Wetterling distinguished himself by heroism as an F-100 pilot flying close air support at the northwest end of the A Shau Valley, Republic of Vietnam on 21 July 1968.  On that date, Lieutenant Wetterling diverted from a scheduled road interdiction mission to a location of active anti-aircraft guns. Although another aircraft had been shot down only moments before, Lieutenant Wetterling attacked these guns with complete disregard for his own personal safety. As a result two guns sites with several guns each were destroyed. The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Lieutenant Wetterling reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”

Notwithstanding the boilerplate language of the citation, the reality was far from distinguished flying. Panic-stricken stick and rudder input that should have destroyed plane and pilot, every novice mistake in the books, and inexplicably suicidal snap decisions amid enveloping tracer fire were overridden by a gracious God for His glory and my good—my literal survival and everlasting gratitude. Like the cross where the Son of God, the real hero of human history, chose to die to save my soul, this pot metal Maltese imitation is a memorial to the Sovereign Grace of the Author and Finisher of my life, my faith and my eternal salvation. Soon enough I’ll exchange it for a crown.  

The humbling details:

July 21, 1968, was a magnificent Sunday morning for a baptism by fire.  Below a cloudless blue sky a meandering, tan mullion of sand separated the lush green jungle of Vietnam from the emerald and sapphire stained glass of the South China Sea. Fire and brimstone were not a part of the spectacular scenery we beheld from our cruising altitude of 14,000 feet, but the equivalent was there. It lurked just over the horizon, loaded in the barrels of ten big Communist anti-aircraft guns awaiting our arrival.

I was a brand new fighter pilot in my first job out of college, flying the wing position in a two-ship flight of F-100 strike fighters, armed to the teeth with the weapons of war. “Gung-ho” did not adequately describe my supremely self-confident mind-set. I had busted my butt to finish first in my class at pilot training to qualify for a fighter assignment, then did it again to finish Top Gun at fighter pilot school. As a twenty-four-year-old country boy, patriotic and immortal, I was right where I wanted to be. To this day I believe the cause was just—the strategy was another matter. That beautiful morning I was sure I could never live long enough to grow tired of that business. If this sounds like hyperbole, then you’ve never danced the wild blue with a supersonic angel. But I had yet to confront a face-full of antiaircraft fire. 

We arrived over the A Shau (“ah-shouw,” rhymes with cow), a narrow, bucolic little valley still bathed in morning shadows, in the rugged mountains of northwest South Vietnam. Another flight of two F-100’s was attacking a target high on the western ridgeline. The Forward Air Controller (the “FAC”), flying a small spotter plane, was directing the strike. We watched one of the F-100’s dive on the target and drop his bombs. The target was shooting back. I could see the geysers of tracers from several 37mm anti-aircraft guns and the black puffs of their flak bursts. All the butterflies from all the football games I’d ever played began to congregate in my gut.

Just as the F-100 was pulling out of its dive, one of the North Vietnamese guns found its mark. The plane rolled upside down and dove straight into the ground. At the sight of an enormous fireball, and no parachute, there was a violent spasm in my solar plexus and I tasted my bile-soaked breakfast.

There was stunned silence on the radio, but I could hear my pulse thumping double-time in my ears.  My tongue felt like an oversized cud of sawdust in a mouth as dry as the Mojave. I reached for my water flask in a leg pocket of my g-suit and struggled to release my oxygen mask to drink. I was hyperventilating so badly I choked on the water.             

Finally the FAC stated the obvious. “Well, I guess there’s no need to call in search and rescue on this one. Sorry about your wingman, Panther One-Zero Flight. I’ll file a report from this end.”

“Roger,” said the Panther Flight leader. The self-confidence in his earlier radio voice had given way to the tones of a whipped pup.

The FAC then directed us to attack those guns. I thought I was hearing my own funeral sermon. There was never a more appropriate time for a prayer to God for His protection, but I recall no such plea. I don’t believe my conscious brain was functioning; it was paralyzed with fear. My right hand felt as if it had five thumbs as I fumbled with the armament switches in the cockpit.

As we circled over the target, just out of range of the guns, their flak bursts formed a broken deck of dark clouds below us. We would have to pass through that airspace as we attacked the guns. My flight leader, a salty veteran of two wars, peeled out of our circular orbit, rolled belly up to the morning sun, and pointed his nose toward the target in a forty-five degree dive angle. There was a steely, torqued-jaw tone to his voice as he called in over the radio. Five seconds later, I moved the control stick over against my left knee and rolled in from a different direction.

My leader was barely visible among the black clouds of flak. The target, on the other hand, was clear from my angle—two circular anti-aircraft gun sites, with five guns in each, staggered on opposite sides of the snaking dirt road on the ridgeline. The guns in one of those sites rotated around toward me, and I was looking right down the gun barrels as I rocketed toward the ground. The circle of muzzle flashes sparkled away on the ground and in the same instant I was surrounded by tracers and flak bursts. My face and bullets the diameter of golfballs were closing on one another at over 1000 miles per hour. I was sure every breath would be my last. From somewhere in my system Amazing Grace, in the form of copious quantities of adrenaline, was being injected, allowing my hands and feet to function in spite of a brain shut down by fright.

In desperation, I punched the bomb release button just to unload my bombs and escape from that fire hose spewing lead death. I was neither aiming nor watching the instruments. I pulled the control stick hard against the back stop in an effort to recover from the dive, a ham-fisted flying technique that caused me to black out from the excessive G-forces.

When my vision returned I was mercifully headed back upward. The operator’s manual says the wings of an F-100 fold up around your ears if you put over seven G’s of stress on them. The gauge on my instrument panel read NINE. Then I noticed the bombs had not come off the airplane. I had messed up the switch settings. That first gross error was the reason the second gross error did not destroy the airplane and me with it—the weight of the bombs kept the wings from folding up.

Then I committed the most outrageously suicidal act of all. Rather than explain to my flight leader that I had screwed up, rather than take that badly overstressed piece of machinery straight home and gingerly put it on the ground, I said nothing and continued to attack the target. It was an out-of-body experience. I felt like my mind and eyes had departed the cockpit, retreating to a safe place where they could watch a slow motion movie of my plane as we attacked the target like two mad hornets. When our bombs were gone we strafed them with our 20mm guns until there were no more flak bursts in that Sunday morning sky.  

I moved into loose formation on my leader’s left wing and we dove for the valley floor to have a closer look at the fruits of our labor. Coming up the valley right on the deck, we pulled up into a climbing turn and popped over the ridgeline just above the treetops. The devastation was complete. The gun sites were a smoldering junkyard of twisted gun barrels, scrap iron, bomb craters and crimson human carnage.

The FAC reported an estimated 100 enemy soldiers KBA.  “Killed by air” was the air combat scoring system in that grisly game of blasting souls into eternity.

It sounds grotesque, nearly three decades after the fact, but that flight home was just plain thrilling. The mid-day cumulus clouds had formed over the central highlands of South Vietnam. We played follow the leader like two larks flying through a forest of towering, puffy white clouds—in and out and up and down and over and around. The effects of the adrenaline had not even begun to wear off, and in a single-seat fighter no one else hears the whoops and hollers of ecstasy. The images of slaughter at A Shau, the terror of imminent doom that had paralyzed me, and the realization that by all odds I ought to be dead, were overwhelmed by the sheer rapture that comes from been shot at and missed.

We parked at the refueling area of the flight line and my crew chief and I inspected my airplane for battle damage. My flying suit was drenched and my boots squished like flooded waders, not from the tropical sun. Incredibly, there were no bullet holes, but many of the flush-mounted rivets that held the aluminum skin on the underside of the wings were all popped and hanging down a half-inch. The big steel main spars that hold the wings onto the fuselage had rivers of hairline cracks in them. The crew chief looked at me and his eyes told me what I already knew:  There was no earthly explanation for why I wasn’t splattered all over the A Shau Valley. My vocal cords froze up and walking became exceedingly difficult.   The Apostle Paul told the Ephesians, “It is by grace you have been saved …..” and surely it was by grace I was saved that sunny Sunday morning in the summer of ’68.

I have a cross to commemorate that sanctifying Sunday morning at A Shau—a Distinguished Flying Cross. That’s a misnomer. It was the opposite of distinguished flying. The citation mentions “heroism,” but that is incorrect also. My terrified reaction under fire was sufficient to kill myself, but for the grace of God. He forever changed my world view that Sunday over the valley of the shadow of death, and after all these many years my cup still overflows.  

Many nations use a cross in their medals for bravery. It’s in honor of the most heroic act of love ever witnessed on this earth—the voluntary death of Jesus Christ on a cross. Since that day when I returned, by grace alone, from that war, that citation and medal have hung on my office wall somewhere in my house or office as a humbling reminder that God saved my life on that sunny Sunday morning in the summer of ’68. But greater by far, it reminds me that His Son died there to save my soul.

Excerpt from Grace in the Growing Season: A Memoir, page 64-70 

 

 

 

    

MY DAD, MY HERO

June 15, 2018
Dad at the gate great pic

Wendell Wetterling and Mickey and the farmhouse where JDW spent the first 18 years of his life.

 

Dad’s been gone for 37 years now, but the passage of time has only intensified my love and gratitude for him and the worldview he bequeathed me.  The Lord knows I miss him.

He tilled Illinois soil all his allotted days, first with horses and then with tractors.  I was the oldest of two sons he taught how to milk a cow, plow a straight furrow and other agrarian arts which we got to practice far more than we preferred.  Around the breakfast table he instructed all four of his offspring in the straight and narrow way as he read from the Bible.  In my worldly wanderings those God-fearing, heartland roots that grew from the seed he planted and tended have served me exceedingly well.  No greater love hath any Dad.

Dad Jeff and JerryTo this day, when I smell cheap cigar smoke, I catch myself looking around for him.  In my mind’s eye I see him sitting on the metal seat of a steel-wheeled corn planter, leather reins in leathered hands and jaw clamped on a cigar, staring at the north end of two southbound draft horses named Jeff and Jerry.  I never had the nerve to ask, but I’m pretty sure the latter horse was my namesake.

Dad bought Emerson cigars by the box for six cents apiece and got more mileage out of them than any man I know.  He lit one end with a wooden match, drawn smartly across the back thigh of his bib overalls, and chewed on the other, working his way toward the middle from both ends.  On some occasions he worked from back to front only, never lighting the cigar but making it last all day.

Often he’d forget to drag on it and the fire would go out.  It was in my experimental years at the university that I came to appreciate the courage required to suck on a dead cigar.

When rainy days precluded fieldwork, I rode to town with Dad in a ’51 Chevy pick-up.  With the windows rolled up, cigar smoke filled the cab.  I don’t recall what I thought was in that village of 800 souls that was worth a five-mile ride in a rolling smokehouse.  And I’ve never understand why rolled up dead tobacco leaves smell so good in the box and so awful on fire.  Cigars are high fashion now, but I never got addicted and for that I’m also grateful to Dad.

On Sundays he left the cigar resting on a beam above the back porch (it was rarely allowed in the house, alive or dead) and drove the family to church.  While Mom’s angelic soprano voice rang out from the choir loft Dad shepherded four small squirming sinners in a hard oak pew.  As Psalm 100:1 directs, he, too, made a joyful though dissonant noise unto the Lord with his uninhibited monotone.

In pre-TV days—prior to age ten—I often spent evenings lying on the linoleum floor drawing pictures behind Dad’s overstuffed rocker as he read his Prairie Farmer, Capper’s Weekly and other farm magazines.  The same floor lamp that illumined Dad’s reading shined on my artwork.   My pencil sketches of magazine pictures or portraits were sufficiently recognizable to prompt my parents to spend scarce cash on special drawing paper and pencils.  The paper was coarse and thick and the lead soft, allowing so many more erasures than regular paper before wearing thru—the line had to be just right, in my eyes, or I erased it. As I recall noses got erased more than anything else and maybe that’s why I never pursued art.

But what sticks most in my mind is the sense of well-being, of security, of contentment those evenings on the floor behind Dad’s easy chair.  I recall no conversation.  Dad was never big on extended conversation with his offspring—that was Mom’s department.  He was just there and he loved me and I knew it and that was enough.  Add Mother to that scene, standing at her ironing board in the middle of the room, humming hymns as she worked, and it sounds like a fairy tale today.  Such domestic tranquility is a rare thing in this twenty-first century world of fatherless homes, absurd sitcoms blaring on TV and non-stop activity outside the home.  The sad results are our overcrowded prisons, overmedicated neurotic citizenry, and rage-as-acceptable-behavior.

Dad was a recycler long before it was environmentally correct. In the unheated “back room” off the kitchen, where he changed into and out of his work clothes and boots, there was a separate wooden cigar box for loose change, receipts, nuts, bolts, flat washers, lock washers and assorted nails–stuff that came out of his overall pockets before they went into the laundry. An old rusty horse tank just outside the barn door held baling wire that had been removed from hay bales through the winter as the cows were fed. A Midwestern farm in the fifties could not function without baling wire and its multitudinous manifestations. Dad could fix more things with a pair of pliers and baling wire than I can with a whole toolbox full of mechanically marvelous tools. The lower pant leg pocket of his overalls always contained a pair of pliers. Out in the shop a wooden keg held bent nails awaiting straightening on rainy days. The coal shed held corncobs for kindling in a separate bin.  And of course used livestock bedding from the barn made the corn grow, the logistics of which was my all-time least favorite job on the farm.

Pain was an everyday part of Dad’s life, a burden I relate to more with each passing year.  He was a passenger in an auto accident in his college days.  Though he was the only one who could walk away from it, he suffered from a bad back the rest of his life.  He wore a brace from his neck to the base of his tailbone and made weekly visits to the local chiropractor.  With all the hard physical labor of farming in those days it was a high price to pay for a career he loved.

He paid the same price to show his boys how much he loved them and to encourage their love of sports.  Brother John and I would beg him to bat us flies on summer evenings when he came in from work exhausted.  He could hit the ball so high and far it seemed like it took forever for it to come down as we danced around in the pasture underneath it with our gloves over our heads.  Every swing of the bat produced a yelp of pain, but we never felt sorry for him.  We thought all dads sounded like that when they hit the ball.  And I am sure when he watched us play our Pony League games that he thought it was all worthwhile.

While Dad was a sports nut, he was a world-class football fanatic, and he was in his glory when my brother and I played halfback and quarterback on the same high school team. He and Mom never missed a game, home or away, regardless of the state of the corn harvest. As a non-verbal communicator, high praise from Dad was silence, but it was golden silence—I could feel the vibes. When he disagreed with my play calling, or if we lost the game, he always found his voice, and would be waiting up for me, no matter how late I stayed out after the game. The fact that he played in the interior line at the University of Iowa, back when real men still didn’t wear helmets did not hinder his quarterbacking critique. Playing well enough to please Dad, and avoid that late night criticism, was my goal. I succeeded more often than I failed.

Dad was an avid fisherman and hunter and that, too, rubbed off on his sons.  Sometimes we fished from the banks of the Mississippi River with cane poles and earthworms for bait, dug up from behind the barn where the recycled lumber pile kept the soil cool and moist.  We munched on Velveeta cheese and Saltine cracker sandwiches as we anxiously waited for the bobber to disappear into the muddy water.  Anxiety turned to boredom in a hurry if the catfish weren’t biting.  Only a mature died-in-the-wool fisherman can stare at a bobber that floats undisturbed all day and still call it fun.  Other times we took our old outboard motor-driven boat and set out yards of trotlines with hundreds of hooks in the Mississippi River just before dark, then motored down river to Uncle Ed’s hunting and fishing cabin on Big Island.  Uncle Ed fixed us a feast and the men talked and laughed long into the night while the cousins played at the dock and in the woods till the “skeeters” drove us inside.  If the adolescent anticipation of the fish catch in the morning was not sufficient to preclude sleep, the high-pitched zing of skeeters, the chorus of katydids and the million voice Mississippi River frog choir, complete with the glorious bullfrog bass section, combined with the moon shining in my face through the bunkroom window made sleep impossible.

At first light in the eastern sky we shoved off to run the lines, that is to haul in the trotlines and our catch.  Both putting out the lines and bringing them in and taking fish off the hooks were a spectator sport for small boys, who were segregated for their own safety in the bow of the boat.  Hundreds of hooks and yards of line and jumping catfish thumping an irregular cadence on the wooden hull in a small moving boat was a dangerous sport only the men could indulge in.  But my Dad made it look easy from my perch, and in all my worldly wanderings, predawn on a placid Mississippi River on a summer morning has been the gold standard for measuring tranquility.

My fondest memory of life on the river with Father was not so tranquil.  It was an October dawn enroute to our duck blind in that same old wooden boat, as old as the ark, laboriously driven by a 25-horsepower Evinrude outboard.  The cold penetrated all the layers of clothes, inducing an involuntary reciprocal motion in my lower jaw and turning my cheeks to parchment.  Overhead, V’s of Mallards raced us down the river.  A gray forest of denuded elms, oaks and willows huddled at the riverbanks and on scattered islands.  The eastern sky was an abstract painting of broad orange and yellow and white horizontal brush strokes by the Divine Artist on a powder blue canvas.

In the stern, Dad clutched the steering arm of the outboard with the ever-present dead cigar angled out of a grinning, ruddy face.  His eyes sparkled below devilish eyebrows as the frigid rushing air drove tears back toward the flapping ear tabs of his hunter’s cap.

Baby brother, with his red nose dripping and a brown stocking cap pulled down to his pupils, sat shivering in the bow, facing aft.  He was drawn into the fetal position by an arctic bow spray of muddy water.  If he was enjoying himself it was not apparent.

The roar of the outboard made conversation impossible, but none was necessary—Dad was big on silence.  It just couldn’t get any better than that.  Perhaps you have to be a duck hunter to understand.

On a late winter morning in ’81, having spent ninety-nine percent of his life within twenty miles of the farmhouse where he was born, Dad stepped out the back door of the house and into eternity.  I think he was with the Lord before his face hit the snowdrift.  One day, when my race is run, I’ll join him in glory…and if cigars are allowed in heaven, they’ll be the sweetest incense.

Excerpt from Grace in the Growing Season: A Memoir

CROSSINGS

May 18, 2017

F100 takeoff painting Ferris

The happiest homecoming in my life to date began with a boot in the butt at dawn, as I engaged the afterburner on takeoff roll, fortyeight years ago today. It was the first leg of a semi-circumnavigation of the globe from Tuy Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. After an adrenaline-drenched year serving as a bullseye for enemy weapons systems while wreaking death and destruction on them, I was going home. The NM Air National Guard, also flying F-100’s from Tuy Hoa, and also due to return home with all planes (33), was short a pilot. They invited me to fill the slot. Jubilation! I turned in my boarding pass for the cattle-car air charter flight home, the standard way warriors came home from that war, and joined the preflight briefing with the “Taco’s.”

F-100s inflight refueling

“Mother hen and chicks” was a limited analogy—chickens can’t fly—but it was an apt description of that massive formation of 33 fighters escorted by three KC-135 aerial refueling tankers who joined us over the South China Sea. I’ve forgotten the number of aerial refuelings enroute, but there were many. The strategy was to always have enough fuel on board to make the nearest runway, should you not be able to take on more fuel for some reason (more later). With runways few and far between in the Pacific, that meant staying pretty close to full at all times—so lots of top-offs. Our overnight stops enroute were Anderson AFB, Guam, and Hickam AFB, Hawaii.

The mother hens were another advantage for us—they did all the navigation. That left the fighter F-100 refueling probepilots with nothing more challenging to do than fly loose formation on their assigned tanker and take turns refueling.  While it is one of the testier aspects of the business, especially for our method—“probe and drogue”— God was smiling on us and the air was silky smooth in a blinding blue sky, and we were all plenty proficient at it after numerous combat refuelings. That left nothing more to do but fly the plane. The unreliable autopilot had been disconnected years earlier, and trimming up an F-100 to fly hands-off was an impossibility.  In the beginning trying to keep the wings level was like trying to balance on top of a rubber ball, but it was second nature by this time.

Radio discipline got a little relaxed out there in the middle of nowhere. While no one got chatty, there were intermittent ribald quips found wickedly humorous only by a surviving combat veteran who was going home. And there was an occasional big barrel roll around the mother hen by some over-bored fighter pilot. It had the ancillary benefit of exciting the committee that was driving the tanker out of their languor—poor guys flew right side up their whole careers. The whole gaggle must have been a wondrous sight to any remote Pacific island native who might have seen us pass over 25,000 feet above him.

After a sleepless night in Guam, so excited that even the “stop” pills could not induce sleep (and the “go” pills for the long legs enroute were completely superfluous), we taxied out at dawn, behind a half-dozen B-52’s launching on their bombing missions to Vietnam. With their combined 48 jet engines, 12 of our tankers’ engines and our 33, no one on the entire island could have slept in that morning.  The B-52 behemoths, heavily laden with internal and external bombs, needed every bit of the 2.5 miles of concrete to get airborne. We were taking off to the east and the rising sun was perched on the eastern horizon just to the right of the end of the runway, which stopped at a high cliff’s edge falling away to the ocean far below. More than one B-52 went out of sight after takeoff, then slowly came back up into view far out to sea.

It was all downhill from Guam to a tumultuous hometown welcome in Albuquerque, with perfect weather and seemingly endless hours with nothing else in our field of vision but 360 degrees of ocean-meets-sky. I would learn just how lonesome that can be five months later.

It was on a homecoming Atlantic crossing from my new duty station at Madrid’s Torrejon Air Base to Myrtle Beach, SC, with only one other F-100. It was a ten-plus hour flight with the middle portion of the route unescorted by a tanker. Three F-100’s began that journey with the tanker, but during one of our earlier refuelings one pilot bent his probe trying to poke the flailing drogue in some rough Atlantic weather. He was forced to divert into the Azores for a dicey landing in a nasty storm. The tanker returned to Madrid somewhere west of the Azores and we pressed on toward our rendezvous with the stateside tanker over Bermuda. As he parted company with us in a sweeping U-turn, the Madrid tanker forecast clear skies ahead and gave us a magnetic heading on our “whisky compass”—think Lindbergh’s method—to hold for the next two hours in order to find Bermuda. In those days our primary navigation equipment (TACAN) used a line-of-sight signal from ground stations, so in the middle of the ocean the homing needle on my nav gauge slowly turned round and round, searching in vain. With no mother hen to cozy up to, when all I saw was empty sea and vacant sky and time seemed to stand still and that solitary jet engine made ominous sounds I’d never heard over land, that homeless homing needle served as a compelling prayer call for traveling mercies to our Sovereign God.

At last the homing needle found a home—12 o’clock sharp! Then, at the appointed time, such a sweet sight, Bermuda materialized under the nose, but the tanker was late arriving from the states. We orbited above the island, enjoying a God’s-eye-view of its beaches, hoping the tanker would not show in time and we’d get to overnight in Bermuda. Just as we approached minimum fuel he arrived. Our jets assuaged their voracious thirst and we flew on his wing, periodically slurping JP-4, on to Myrtle Beach for a happy landing with nose in the air at a jaunty angle. It was ample amazing grace for one weary unworthy for one day.

My friend and fellow F-100 pilot, Dick Rutan, the first man to fly nonstop unrefueled around the world in the propeller-driven Voyager (now in the Smithsonian)—a nine-day flight—said of his experience: Boy, there’s a lot of water in the world! I concur, and God was gracious to us both—neither got wet.

A lifetime of goodness and mercy later my bucket list is down to the dregs, but there remains one more homecoming crossing. John Bunyan says it will be wet, dark, and deep, but I fear no evil.  I have a warranty from the highest level of authority that I will arrive a sanctified soldier on the other shore in the happiest/humblest landing and superbly glorious welcome to the most magnificent metropolis. “Night will be no more …, the city has no need of sun …, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” No more sea, nor death nor sorrow nor pain. Home, “forever and ever,” in the mansions of the Lord. (Revelation 21-22)

 Pics: 1.) The painting of F-100’s on takeoff by Keith Ferris is a work in progress.  Limited edition prints may be ordered at supersabresociety.com  2.) F-100 refueling from a KC-135 while the wingman awaits his turn, enroute to the target on an “out-country” mission in Vietnam. Photo by jdw. 3.) Probe and drogue. The view out the right side of the cockpit during aerial refueling, somewhere west of Guam. Photo by jdw.

SO BLESSED TO MINISTER

February 23, 2017

We are nose-to-nose, well inside the normal space humans give one another when conversing, for both auditory and visual reasons.  Her sweet watery eyes are focused intently on mine as I look up while reading. I feel like she’s perusing the fine print in my soul through my pupils. “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” One misshaped arthritic hand cups an ear as she strains to hear my loud recitation of Scripture. Her amorphous 97-year-old body resides in a wheel chair, draped in a knit shawl and lap blanket, and her grey head is bent low over the card table adjacent to her bed in the small living room that is her 24/7 venue. “If anyone serves me he must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

I sit in a folding chair at the table corner nearest her, my knees touching her wheelchair and my feet warmed by her friendly long-haired cat. To the right-front of her on the card table are stacked her Bible and devotional books and two magnifying glasses with a diameter of fifty-cent pieces, taped together to double the magnification, with which she reads her books. I ask if I can try them, and she acquiesces. By putting my eye within an inch of the magnifiers, themselves an inch above a book page, I can indeed read…one word at time. And that is the way she reads entire books. Each visit she sends me off with another book she has finished. I agree to read it myself and add it to the church library when done. You see, her mind is undiminished by the aging process. Though her outer self is wasting away, her inner self is being renewed day-by-day (2 Cor. 4:16). A widow of a longtime church elder, her story-telling of a life well-lived for the glory of God is lucid and enlightening, and her witness to her faith in our Lord and Savior is heart-melting.

When it is time to go, we pray.  I put my hand on top of hers on the table, and she stacks her other hand, permanently fist-shaped, on top of mine. This time we both pray aloud the Lord’s Prayer. “…for thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen.” I arise, bend over and hug her, kiss her forehead and walk the few steps to the door as she profusely thanks me for coming.  I close the door behind me and pray, through tears, O Lord, what a blessing to spend these moments with your saint on the threshold of glory.  I ponder what a joy it will be to see her perfected body and wonderful spirit in heaven as I drive to my next appointment, a comely smiling saint with Alzheimer’s.

Somewhere in this fallen world there are a few old fighter pilots still living who may read this and exclaim incredulously, “What? Wetterling? Minister to shut-ins? No way!” To them I say, I am living proof there is hope for you, too, brothers. Our God works in mysterious and glorious ways, to my great joy.

 

A Preposterous Proposition

February 11, 2017

 

First, I’m asking you to believe that something came from nothing; moreover, that everything you see, feel, hear, taste and touch came from nothing, and the force that made it something was a word spoken by an invisible self-existent personal being. He is infinitely, eternally, unchangeably powerful, as is every attribute of his essence—his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. He reveals himself as God in the Bible, the book written under his inspiration that contains all that he has chosen to reveal about himself. Every detail of this proposition is beyond the power of reason to accept—a preposterous proposition.

It gets even more so. Secondly, everything was perfect until it shortly went bad, and it went bad because the devil in the guise of a talking snake convinced a lady, the very first one created, to eat a forbidden apple. Seriously. A lousy apple, you say, but it was the only prohibition, and a minor one at that, laid on a paradisiacal existence. As such it was an act of rebellion, an egregious crime against the crown rights of her Creator. God was not happy…he was really not happy. He booted her and her husband, a partner in the crime, from the best digs creation has ever known, and they and all created stuff began to die. All the couple’s progeny, you and I among them, has been born disobedient and destined for death to this day.

Thirdly, but the fix is in. God the Son became a man. I forgot to tell you something: God is three persons…in one person… (don’t ask…), and the one called the Son became a human named Jesus while simultaneously remaining God. I know, I know… suspend your disbelief and stick with me here. He’s infinitely smart and equally powerful, remember. He solved the problem of disobedience by allowing himself to be murdered in the most hideous way the mind of man could conceive. He took the full brunt of God the Father’s wrath in the place of the real disobedient culprits: Us! And then—if you have not already done so, sit down now—he rose from the dead! And, fourthly, he promised…God said that he did all this because he so loved the world, and if you will believe him he’ll guarantee you can spend eternity with him (John 3:16) in bliss beyond what your mind can conceive… as if you could conceive any portion of this story by natural reason.

Now here is a statement your spinning mind will finally agree with: It is impossible to believe this story. Impossible…unless…unless that same angry God, who made everything from nothing, works another miracle, this one in your heart, and opens your eyes to this truth. In Jesus’ own words, “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). A spiritual rebirth! Then he inclines your will to believe it. “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). And “no one can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3) And then—I’m telling you from personal life-changing experience—some of his promises and proclamations will become as plain as the nose on your face and some, like the mind-blowing concept of the Trinity, will be joyfully accepted on unwavering faith in the Son of God who loved you so much he died horribly to ransom you from eternity in hell. And that vision and trust is the product of the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit who has taken up residence in you. Scandalous! Preposterous!

If you are offended, dear reader, you are not the first. The “offense of the Gospel” is a 2000-year-old cliché. But if we meet again in the queue at Judgment Day, I could not bear to hear your hopeless cry, “Why didn’t you tell me?” Please ponder this: It’s only a preposterous proposition in our pea brains, wherein resides what Luther called “that old demon reason.” This proposition comes from the infinite intelligence of the Omnipotent God of the universe. It is his plan, his story, and his thoughts, which are as far above ours as the heavens are above the earth (Isaiah 55:8). “…the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). In other words, he is neither able nor willing to be able to be wise in the things of God. Faith comes not in one’s own power. It must be divinely conferred. Hence the absolute necessity of that spiritual rebirth of John 3:3.  

So would you ask God to work that miracle in your heart and open your eyes to reality? Pray that God the Holy Spirit would dwell in you and give you the gift of faith in Him and His story. Do it now. Please do it now, my friend. You do not want to die with God angry at you. Forever is a long time to hurt and weep and gnash your teeth. Alternatively, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

 

Honor Code Crash and Burn

January 13, 2017

usafa-pic

Fifty-four years after the fact this is still a hard story to tell. A shocking incident of self-discovery that occurred recently was like God talking, telling me that it was time to dislodge the stigma of an early career crash-and-burn that has haunted me all these years. In hindsight, it has God’s fingerprints all over it.

With visions of dancing the wild blue in a jet fighter, I joined the United States Air Force Academy Class of ’66 in the summer of ’62, at its magnificent campus at the eastern foot of the Rampart Range just north of Colorado Springs, CO. I arrived after a year of college (the University of Illinois and AFROTC), honored and excited beyond belief at having made the grade. Those emotions were immediately and jarringly buried by the intensity of daily, minute-by-minute survival as a “doolie,” the equivalent of a West Point plebe.

Doolie summer in those days was like Marine Corps boot camp, near as I can tell from Marine friends. At that it was nothing like what U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee went thru at West Point in the pre-Civil War era. What in my time was called hazing was SOP—standard operating procedure—when those iconic generals were plebes. I am told that today it’s a picnic by my class’s standards, to say nothing of the generals.

When classes began in the fall the physical aspects of doolie summer abated just enough to squeeze in an academic load that would have today’s college snowflakes crowding the cry rooms and demanding more coloring books.  By my lights I was excelling. I never once “fell out” of a marathon formation run through the mountains in Colorado’s thin air, in combat boots with M-1 rifle at port arms, even when, after the first few miles, its weight exceeded my body weight. I never once walked a punishment tour, similar to what the soldiers do at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, for some infraction of rules that only the military considers cardinal sin, and my classroom grades were excellent. At Christmas we were not allowed to leave campus, but our tormentors, the upperclassmen, did. It was the first respite since early summer and it was wonderful—heaven on earth.

Come second semester, we no longer had to eat three meals a day while sitting at attention, out on the front few inches of our chairs with back ramrod straight, head up and eyes locked on the center of our plates, and speaking only when spoken to, usually in drill sergeant tones and content. One more semester and life would get good again.

Second semester the ranks were shuffled among each flight and I got a new element and assistant element leader immediately above me in my chain of command. Early on I got singled out, for reasons I will never know, by the assistant element leader for “special instruction.” After all I’d been through I did not think the system could throw anything at me that I could not handle. I was wrong. The routine I remember most clearly was the order from him to appear in the hallway outside the door of my room, a nearly impossible few minutes after reveille, with bed made to inspection specs, in uniform with rifle, and stand at attention for a zealous, meticulous inspection. A most unhandsome, pock-marked face breathed all over mine as he scowled in creative pejorative terms and grilled me on memory work, both standard and some ad hoc stuff. Failure to regurgitate the information precisely, or the slightest imperfection in the arrangement of my attire, real or imagined, led to push-ups and other physical feats. The element leader was sometimes also in attendance, about half as tall but equally in disdain for the sorry specimen of a doolie standing rock rigid before them. None of this treatment in general was new to doolie life, except for the relentless time-consuming intensity of it during the school year, and their ability to find and exploit the chinks in my armor.

I had run out of minutes in the day and began to fail those character building tests, till finally I cracked. A question was asked—I don’t recall what it was—but I lied to avoid further “corrective action.” The cadet honor code, the bedrock of Academy life, states, “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” My violation of the honor code weighed heavily on my conscience, keeping me awake at night. Finally I was driven by my tormented soul to turn myself in for a violation of the honor code to which I subscribed with all my heart.

I sat in a straight chair in front of a panel of my judges, the Academy’s senior Air Force officers and senior cadets and was grilled most respectfully.  I was not allowed to (nor did I care to) be present when witnesses were called, including my element leader and his assistant. Also called to testify was my staff sponsor, an assigned mentor and surrogate parent.  Lt. Col. Hilda R. Echols was chief nurse at the USAFA hospital. Her face was horribly scarred from an oxygen tank explosion in WW II, and she was military bearing personified, but she loved the Lord and had a heart as big as the Rampart Range. Her home near the hospital was my only refuge on rare occasions when we were allowed to visit our sponsors. She testified before the tribunal and then came into the waiting room where I sat alone and we had a long soul-baring discussion. I remember only one sentence she spoke, and I can close my eyes and see her saying it now. It has preserved me untold times since, when life was tough and I was ready to throw in the towel. She said, “I told them that Jerry Wetterling was not a quitter.” She believed in me more than I believed in me at that point. I so look forward to seeing that saint with her perfected face in heaven.

Bottom line, I left the Academy, under terms unknown to me. I have not a single piece of paper in my possession that officially declares the verdict, but I assume it was in line with my confession. In my mind, to this day, I was guilty. My element leader and assistant leader were forced to leave. I can only guess their verdicts.

When I returned to the farm in western Illinois in the spring of ‘63, a broken young man, I could not give my father an explanation that made any sense to him. He took me into town, to the office of our State Representative, the man who guided us through the bureaucratic maze necessary to get into a service academy. They called some official at USAFA and talked at length over a phone and an extension, and I could not hear the other side of the conversation.

On our drive in the pickup back to the farm, not a word was exchanged between my dad and me. We walked into the house together and Mom met us with a questioning look at Dad. Dad took off his cap, scratched his head with the same hand that held the cap, the way farmers do, and said, “Jerry came home because he wanted to.” He, too, knew me better than I knew me. I am indeed a master of self-delusion, the mark of a sinner, and even now I’m questioning myself as I write, as to how much of this is objective truth and how much is shaded toward self-aggrandizing and/or blame sharing. Is the fog of my memory a result of my advancing codgerhood or the same old sinful preservation of pride?

Through that long spring and summer back on the farm I thought I’d left for good, my dream to be a fighter pilot, now a pipe dream at worst, seriously jeopardized at best, was undiminished. I went back to the University of Illinois that fall and applied for the advanced AFROTC program.  Miracle of miracles, I was accepted.  Uncle Sam would never have approved a USAFA dropout for advanced ROTC without reading the official report of my leaving. That told me that whatever it said, I was still considered Air Force officer material, or at least was worth giving a second chance, and could pursue my dream. After a painful healing hiatus in the desert of despair and self-recrimination, I was a born again fighter pilot wannabe!

God was gracious indeed to this recovering USAFA failure. I rose to the top of the AFROTC ranks—after my Academy experience I certainly had an advantage. I graduated with a regular commission in the USAF, the same kind of commission as if I had graduated from USAFA, but a rare thing in ROTC.  I rejoined my Academy classmates at USAF pilot training, and with perhaps more motivation than most, I finished first in a class of fifty-six, essential to getting a fighter assignment, and realized my dream. At F-100 training, in a class of twenty-four new pilots who all finished at or very near the top of their class, I graduated Top Gun, went off to war in Vietnam and my fighter pilot life was all I ever dreamed it could be.

There’s one more very important part to this story. When God in His providence sent me back to the University of Illinois, He put the most beautiful, wonderful woman in the world in my life through the ROTC program. A freshman, she wasn’t there my first time around, and she’s been my wife for over fifty years now. The saddest story in my life has had the happiest ending I could imagine, and it’s still playing out. And the best is yet to come.

 

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).


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