Archive for October, 2014

PROXIMATE EVIL AND ULTIMATE GOOD: A HALLOWEEN ALLEGORY

October 24, 2014

 

My lexicon defines allegory as a work of art in which a deeper meaning underlies the superficial meaning. This story is an allegory—only God and I know if it is a work of truth, half-truth, or no truth, and hopefully it is told in an artful way.

The most dangerous season of the year growing up in the country in pre-indoor plumbing days was Halloween, and the most perilous prank, for body and soul, was upsetting outhouses. The day has pagan origins, and I can’t think of anything more pagan than upsetting thy neighbor’s outhouse. Like most sins, it was an attractive sport, and no other caper matched the testosterone rush so crucial to male adolescent development.

The most memorable conquest of all my Halloweens was the night we laid Gobbler Hollis’s big three-holer on its back. There were four of us: Stick, Face, Neg, and me. “Neg” was short for negative, an allusion to his IQ. The other two names had prurient connotations and are best left unexplained.

Gobbler farmed 240 flat-as-a-tabletop acres five miles south of Stronghurst, a village of 950 souls in western Illinois. His outhouse was behind a large coal shed located in the back yard. Both structures, made of wood, were about fifty yards from the back door of the big old two-story farmhouse and twenty feet in front of the barnyard fence.

We had a full moon that night, which was good and bad. It allowed us to see what we were doing, but it was so bright that it also kept Gobbler’s attack rooster awake and crowing at the moon. The rooster, with his 100-hen harem, had the run of the barnyard. Our strategy called for a semi-circular approach though the pasture, over a couple of woven wire fences and across the barnyard to the outhouse—out of shotgun range from the back door of the house—but that cocky rooster considered any moving thing inside the barnyard fence a major threat to his masculinity. (He had such a prodigious libido that Gobbler’s wife, Glennis, short and beamy, always had plenty of what she called “egg money” tucked in her cleavage. She had room for a lot of egg money.)

We were forced to double back around and make an assault through the front and side yard of Gobbler’s house. It was Indian summer, the windows were open and we could hear Gobbler snoring as we sneaked by the side of the house. Gobbler was not a little guy; he had height and awesome girth. If his shoelaces ever got tied, it was because Glennis tied them. He bore an uncanny resemblance to his namesake, both in form and movement. It was his size and terrible temper that had kept his outhouse upright in Halloweens past.

There were several obstacles in the yard to circumvent and remember. Remembering was important because, unlike ingress, which was slow and stealthy, egress was always at top speed and maximum panic.

Once past the side yard we had to traverse the rhubarb patch, which was well above knee high, and six rows of popcorn still standing right behind the rhubarb. Both should have been harvested by now, but Gobbler never got in a hurry about such things. Folks said that with ten kids he had other priorities.

The clothesline, consisting of two strands of number nine wire, Adam’s apple high, stretched the width of the back yard. Its only break was midway, where the boardwalk led from the back door of the house to the outhouse.

Staying in the deepest shadows, we arrived safely at our target hidden behind the coal shed. The hen house was nearby, just ten feet beyond the barnyard fence. In the still of the night we could hear the hens fluttering and intermittently pluck-plucking their way through the night. The rooster stood frozen at the door of his castle, head cocked, watching our every move.

Then we got a second bad break. A cloud floated by and hid the moon. It got dark as the inside of a cow as four adolescent heart rates approached their anaerobic limits. We were panting like pups as we felt our way around the outhouse. The night air was warm and humid, making it a noxious, eye-watering experience.

For all the heavy traffic it had to handle, it was not a sturdy structure. There was only one way to tip it over and that was backwards. The door was in the middle front, facing the coal shed, and opened inward, leaving precious little solid wall for four teenaged vandals to push against, and the coal shed was so close it allowed a very poor angle of attack.

The trick was to carefully tilt the outhouse past the point where it would fall backwards on its own. Anyone who’s ever done it, and there are probably very few of us vets still around, knows that to reach that point, especially on those big multi-holers, you had to lean well out across that odoriferous abyss. It can’t be a slam-bang kind of thing, like Nagurski slanting off-tackle, or you’ll end up face-down at the bottom of the pit. And if you’re really having a bad day the unit will settle back down where it came from and there you are without a paddle.

Well, Neg was so scared he asked if it would be okay if he used the facility before we upset it. We said, “Yeah, but make it quick,” and he opened the creaking door and went on in. The sound of him tearing pages out of the Sears catalogue seemed sufficient to wake the dead. When he rejoined us we went over our escape routes one last time. It would be four different directions approximately thirty degrees apart. Twelve-gauge birdshot probably wouldn’t kill anybody, but the pattern of one shell with split wads would be wide enough to put welts on the backsides of four boys running side by side.

Midnight. Zero hour. We took up our positions and four shoulders leaned against the outhouse wall. Slowly, amid grunts and heavy breathing, it began to tilt until we got it to the balance point. Stick, the shortest one of the bunch, was stretched out so far his whole body was trembling, setting up a harmonic wave in the whole rickety structure. On a whispered count of three we gave it the last tweak it needed to come under gravity’s spell. At the same instant the moon came out from behind the cloud, and that macho rooster began to crow.

The rest is just a muddle of sounds and sights overlaid with heart-stopping fright. I remember the deafening sound of crashing lumber as the outhouse disintegrated on contact, followed by the siren sound of Glennis’ call to battle. Boy, did she have a set of lungs. I vaguely recall a noise like a hog in a mud wallow. That would have been Stick. (We made him ride in the back of the pick-up all the way back to town.) I’ll never forget hearing what sounded like the roar of a distraught bull, followed by someone going through a door without bothering to open it, and followed by heavy artillery at close range. There were the sounds of kids crying and screaming, chickens carrying on like there was a skunk in the hen house, and the yowl of a cat in pain. I decided later, judging from the scratches on my leg, that I must have stepped on the cat during my egress. The only other sound was the dull thud of someone landing hard on the ground. It occurred to me, as I legged it through the night at Mach I, overdosed on adrenaline, that maybe Gobbler was firing deer slugs and somebody was dead, prompting me to kick in an afterburner I didn’t know I had. But we learned later that it was just Face trying to decapitate himself on the clothesline.

Miraculously, we all escaped with only superficial battle damage. I can only attribute it to a merciful God, who, for reasons beyond my comprehension, chose not to punish mischievous young men who were trying their best to get into trouble.

Other ultimate good came from that proximate evil the devil made us do. Gobbler replaced his shattered wooden edifice with a brick structure that stands to this day.

Excerpt from Grace in the Growing Season

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ONE MORE DANCE

October 10, 2014

It had been 28 years since I had danced the wild blue in a jet fighter—even the dream of ever doing it again had died. Civilian life has been good but I’ve never totally adapted to the dearth of airborne adrenalin. I did my duty and war is a terrible thing, but I confess to missing the camaraderie of passionate patriots who fly alone in fast airplanes, who willingly challenge the Grim Reaper for God, duty, honor and country. Truth be known I also miss that near psychotic love affair with an inanimate object, that single-engine, single-seat, sweptwing angel of death with soul of titaniumF-100D 4 ship and steel—an F-100 Super Sabre. (Picture from Bud Day’s collection) We were intimate so often (268 combat missions in 360 days) that when we slipped the surly bonds man mated with machine and the ailerons, elevator and rudder became extensions of the hands and feet. Complex maneuvers that seemed so hard to master in the beginning required no conscious thought in the heat of battle. And my lover never once let me down. (Neither did the Lover of my soul, which is the real reason I’m here to tell about it.)

Then, in His providence, in October of ’99, after addressing a graduating class of new fighter pilots at Luke Air Force F-16s threeBase near Phoenix, Arizona, I was offered a terrific honorarium—one more dance, a flight in the Pegasus of American airpower at the turn of the third millennium, the F-16 Viper. (Picture thanks to F-16.net)

Two hours prior to takeoff four highly disciplined, enthusiastic fighter pilots and one excited alumnus trying to suck it in and look cool began a pre-flight briefing as if it were the real thing. Sadly, in the ensuing 45 years since my last real thing, it has been real again tens of thousands of times for America’s fighter pilots. As Plato said, “Only dead men have seen an end to war.”

At the appointed hour we walked out to the flight line and the finest office an executive at Fearless Fighter Pilots, Inc. could ever want. I climbed the ladder, ducked under the canopy, shoe-horned my body into the back office of a two-seat F-16 and lay back in the same position I assume in my favorite recliner. It’s a mighty comfy way to go to war. If only technology could provide similar psychological comfort in the fur ball of air combat….

On takeoff roll it was immediately apparent this was neither your father’s aeroplane nor my beloved old F-100. In fact it put my Super Sabre in a class with Davy Crockett’s musket. We accelerated like a .44-magnum slug, and for the next hour I was Dirty Harry with ten thousand times the firepower. Unlike Harry’s weapon, this sophisticated heat does much of the thinking…and can outrun its own bullets.

Our target was a simulated missile site deep in the heart of southwest Arizona. We sneaked up on it at 500 knots and 500 feet, more or less, above the jackrabbits and mesquite, with a sultry, feminine voice reminding us when we were too low. As we approached a ragged ridgeline, Gordo, in the front seat, pulled up abruptly into a 30-degree climb and rocketed over the top of the ridge. From 12,000 feet up we spied the target at our nine o’clock low and dove on it, rolling into 135 degrees of bank and a five “g” turn while pulling the nose down through the horizon. When we were lined up on the target, the Viper pirouetted on its nose as Gordo rolled right side up in a nanosecond and pickled off the bomb.

Bomb away, followed by the anaconda squeeze of my g-suit inflating in a dive recovery that felt like a square corner. When pointed back toward heaven with the g’s unloaded, there ensued a reflexive rearward crank of the head to observe the fruit of our labors. That part hasn’t changed in all the years of air-to-ground gunnery—only the flexibility of the neck attests to the march of time.

For all its thrills, there were some key aspects of my wartime sorties thankfully missing. No Fourth of July fireworks here, just a puff of smoke as a small inert bomb hit the ground. And the mind was spared the remarkably focusing effect of flak in the face—the terror and ecstasy of being shot at and missed.

Arriving back at the base we flew initial approach 1000 feet above the runway in 4-plane echelon right formation, a spine tingling sight from any angle. Myriad memories came to mind—battle-damaged planes…adrenaline depleted and body exhausted…the grief of a missing wingman. Mostly I recalled the thrill of coming home victorious, of rescuing the grunts from the infidels, junking trucks and AAA sites,  and conquering my fear while jinking in the cross-hairs of enemy. At 3-second intervals each Viper snapped smartly into a 60-degree banked left-turn and all rolled out in single file pointed the opposite direction on the downwind leg to landing.

Then a descending 180-degree turn put us on final approach, and our Viper kissed the concrete with nose in the air at a haughty angle. My brief, intense, middle-aged fling with a supersonic angel was over. It had been a wondrous waltz around the wild blue in the company of gung-ho young men in their fabulous flying machines. God bless ‘em all. And as it turned out, that was not my last dance, but that’s a story of Amazing Grace for another day, or here:

Excerpt from Grace in the Growing Season


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