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.

Advertisements

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).

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.


%d bloggers like this: