What If

The year was 1958, and Ben was serving in Military Air Transport Service (MATS),  stationed in Charleston, South Carolina. His folks lived in Medford, Oregon, a long haul from that historic town, but hadn’t seen them in two years.

Hitching a ride with a fellow airman got him somewhere near Atlanta. In order to save money he decided to thumb the rest of the way to Kansas City which was a huge mistake. It was already dark when he and his friend had that final cup of coffee and he headed for home. Ben spent hours at the roadside staying close enough to be seen in the headlights without being run down by some dozing motorist. That night and part of the next day were wasted before he reached Kansas City and purchased a ticket on Union Pacific’s Portland Rose.

Sure, he could have flown. But flying is about as exciting as a prolonged elevator ride.

The best part of three more days were behind him by the time Ben reached Portland. From there he took a cab to the Greyhound station and after a few hours wait he resumed his trek toward Medford.

The bus was loaded and Ben took a seat next to an attractive girl about his age who was  headed for a new job LA. She was Her perfume was light, unforgettable. Her silky, dark hair was shoulder length, her voice low and pleasant. Easy to know, the two struck a warm friendship right off the bat, bonded, you might say, talking all the way to his destination. When the bus wheeled into the station she fell silent and her pastel blue eyes grew serious, brooding. It was obvious she wasn’t ready for their friendship to end. Nor was he.

The urge to continue to LA was overwhelming, but his folks were expecting him. Disappointing them was out of the question.

For weeks, even after returning to Charleston, the scent of her perfume shadowed him and he couldn’t help but wonder – what if.

Black

In the summer of 1957, while stationed at Biloxi, Mississippi four of us often went to town together. One of us was a tall black man from Houston. He redefined the word black. On Saturday, after inspection, we all headed for town. A city bus came through the base. At the gate black people had to move go the four rear seats. He didn’t like doing that, so we all got off there.

The guy from Houston always wore yellow shorts, yellow shirt, yellow cap, yellow knee-high stockings, and black shoes.

His personality was just as colorful as his outfit. And we liked him.

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In the thin morning dawn I spotted Dan’s hangar. Pulling myself into the aisle I made my way forward. “Can you let me out near that lane up ahead?” I asked the driver.

“Sure,” he replied, glancing up at me. “I suppose you know town is another six miles,” he added, his features unreadable in the instrument lights

“I know.”

“You got luggage?” he asked, the heavy bus rocking from side-to-side as he brought it to a halt on the shoulder, the sound of his flashes adding noise to the surging Detroit diesel.

“Negative. Just this,” I said, swinging the AWOL bag so he could see it in the light from the doorway lamp as I waited for him to open the door.

Stepping out, I turned away from the diesel exhaust and the shower of grit that filled the air as the driver powered it back onto the highway. In less than a minute only his marker lights were visible. Then there was silence except for the whisper of the morning wind. Reflecting on my late friend, Dan, I tried to compare this silent world with the confusion I’d shared with him – the Vietnam War, the firefights, the womping sound of helicopter blades, the voices of injured men, the shouts of the frightened GIs. There was no comparison.

The Eastern Texas horizon grew paler as I hiked the lane, the gravel crunching beneath the thick soles of my combat boots.

Dan and I had crewed a medevac helicopter. We’d nearly finished a tour when a sniper bullet took him out. It happened in an instant. One second he was giving me directions through the Interphone, the next second his blood was everywhere and his weight on the stick was taking us in. Had he been the pilot rather than the copilot we probably would have lost the aircraft in that desperate moment. As it was, I managed to heave his body off the stick before we did. With only fifteen or so feet it was touch and go.

Sally was Dan‘s life. He talked of nothing else. If he showed me her picture once he showed it to me a thousand times – a lanky blonde with tangled hair and grease on her cheek.

“She was packing the wheel bearing on one of the Stearman,” he said.

She was a skilled crop-duster pilot, and she was a capable maintainer. But she wasn’t certified. Dan was so he checked over her work and then signed it off. He’d mentioned once that if something happened to him he hoped I would look in on her.

And this morning, while on my way home, that was what he was doing – looking in.

On the southeast corner of the hangar was a light blue entry door. I paused there, wondering if anyone was around. Then I heard the faint sounds of country music, maybe Ernest Tubb. I couldn’t be sure. I made a fist and knocked. The music stopped and I heard nothing but the Texas wind. I knocked again.

“Who is it?”

“Name’s Zeke,” I replied.

“Don’t know anybody called Zeke.”

“Probably not, unless Dan mentioned me in one of his letters from ‘Nam. He was my copilot.”

A brief silence was followed by the sound of a deadbolt. The door opened as far as the safety chin would allow and just enough to reveal Sally’s face. She was just as pretty as her photograph. In her left hand was a very large revolver.

“What do you want?”

“I didn’t come wanting anything. Dan just asked me to look in on you if anything ever … anything ever happened to him. And that’s what I’m trying to do. But if you‘d rather, I‘ll set this stuff down and be on my way.”

“What stuff? I didn’t hear anyone drive up. How’d you get here?”

“I’m on my way to North Dakota. I flew to Dallas from Travis Air Force Base in California. Then I rode a Greyhound to here.”

“You got any ID?”

“I got an expired North Dakota driver’s license.”

“What kind of stuff did you bring?”

“A picture of you and Dan standing next to a Stearman and a hanky that he said used to smell like perfume.”

Cornbread and Buttermilk

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This morning while shopping at Walmart we passed the milk display. My eyes focused on a half-gallon of buttermilk. I suggested we should buy some, and an ancient memory screamed in from my past….

The year was 1963 and I was a new arrival at an air base in the West Indies. Our newborn daughter, Evie, was required to reach the age of six weeks before she and her mother could join me. So i was living in the A&E barrack for that period.

We were in the midst of the Cold War. Keeping aircraft and flight crews at the ready everyday and around the clock meant that our duty hours were all over the place. But once in a while two A&E maintainers from Tennessee would join our rotating gab session on the small porch near the First Sergeant’s office. These two Tennesseans were previously acquainted from a previous SAC assignment. They had one thing in common – cornbread and buttermilk, the way Mama used to make it.

I heard their story so many times that I can’t imagine why it’s taken me so many years to give it a shot. But that’s what Barb and I are going to do today.

I’ll let you know.   

 

Leo and the Penny Dreadful

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Image Source: Internet

I suppose I’ve seen a few hundred Penny Dreadful novels during the course of my life, but didn’t know them as such. In my shallow literary world they were called Pulp Readers. The name was probably derived from the quality of paper they were printed on. I was no paper inspector by any stretch, but even I could tell it was carted off to the press before the paper maker was finished. That was why they cost a nickel. From those pages I learned about Tom Mix, Tom Horn, Buffalo Bill, and a host of others who, in my world became larger than life. One day while I wasn’t looking they vanished from the magazine rack and I forgot about them for some thirty years.

About 1982 I replaced my Sears portable with a Commodore 64 and a dot matrix printer. Spinning yarns was never so easy. I wrote stories for paying markets – columns and articles that paid anywhere from five cents per word to $50 per story. It was money, but the day job was what kept the whole bunch of us eating three squares. But my favorite targets, in spite of the money,  were the small, backroom presses and regional rags. Barb and I were cyclists during those years and I became a voice for middle-aged tandem bicycle cyclists.

That was about the time I met Leo.

Leo was a writer bent on reviving the Penny Dreadful Reader. He had placed an ad In what we called compte Newsgroups – kind of a redheaded stepchild to today’s Yahoo Groups – searching for writers for his Penny Dreadful venture. I responded and since he was local I drove by to see him. Leo and his wife Tweedy were living in what resembled a fabled gingerbread house where in exchange for rent he watched over a building contractor’s supply yard.

We soon learned that we both licensed amateur radio operators – another story – and had also attended air force electronic school during the same years. He became a maintainer of an early warning radar site on a Nevada mountaintop while I went to South Carolina to maintain airborne navigation equipment.

The fact that our paths crossed once again after 45 years is mind-boggling.

Funds kept Penny Dreadful from becoming a reality. But we had a lot of fun with projects we shared.

Our friendship continued into 2001 when he passed away.

Ouch

Sometime in the early 1950s one of my uncles was stationed in Japan. During his tour a reporter for the Argosy Magazine arrived to do a story on an aged Japanese man who could walk across hot coals barefoot.

A teenager, one of the watchers, decided he could do it if the old man could. But after a few steps be began running a cursing in Japanese.

“What’s he saying?” the reporter asked his interrupter.

“The boy says ouch,” the interrupter said.

One More Time

Copyright 2016 Scott B. Laughlin

Being a member of the launch team at Ramey AFB, supporting the 72nd Bomb Wing was no different from the same duty on other bases at which I’d served. Without question, it was a boring and time-consuming job on the flight line. Two hours prior to all scheduled launches a van bearing people capable of performing quick repairs to safety-of-flight systems were required to be on the ramp. The van is a cumbersome thing, similar to those used by UPS. Wooden benches occupied each side. And here we are, people skilled in the functions of aircraft engines, bombing navigation, flight navigation, autopilot, electronic countermeasures, radio, and fire control. Were it not for Platter, an engine man with a slow, southern drawl, we would soon be stark raving mad. I’m pleased to find him playing the part of a roving reporter, sticking a non-existent microphone in our faces, asking man-on-the-street questions.

“How long have you been doing this kind of work?’ asks Platter of the Autopilot man, Hendricks.

“Man, It’s been too long. I ought to be in Aqudilla, partyin’. You know what I mean?”

“I see,” mutters Platter, “what do…”

At that instant, the radio came alive. It is a voice from the command post calling for an engine man. The B-52 we were supporting has aborted its take off and is sitting at the end of the runway, nearly two miles away. It takes time to get there, and the high command is growing impatient by the time we arrive.

Platter pushes open the door and leaps out onto the tarmac, his pockets bulging with tools he might need.

“Hey! You forgot your book,” I shout, my voice hardly audible against the sound of the screaming engines. I am referring to the Technical Order, a publication of authorized procedures that are required to be in our possession anytime we are working on an aircraft.

“Piss on the book!” he shouts, running toward the aircraft to learn which engine was loafing. He knows what he has to do. We know, and watch as he goes through a series of hand signals with the pilot.

Platter unbuckles the engine cowling on number three engine and swings it aside. On his signal, the engine thrust is increased, and then the water injection system activated. The engine jerks, and bawls. The wing flexes. Our truck shudders while Platter “trims the engine” with a screwdriver. And all the while his feet are in constant motion. After a short time he steps away, and more hand signals are exchanged. We watch him echo a thumbs up, then swing the cowling back, and fasten it.

The aircraft commander heads for the high-speed taxiway and proceeds back to the starting point for another try. We follow at a distance. By the time we reach the far end he is rolling. As he switches on the water injection the black smoke emerges, and the ground shakes, and we are anxious to see him gone.

But he shut it down a second time. Someone in the command post is calling for an engine man, and again we race to the waiting airplane. Platter runs to the bomber and goes through the same routine.

Because of the weight and speed, the aircraft tires are too hot for a third try. Experience tells me the launch schedule will be changed, allowing two hours for the tires to cool. So, we wait for an update.

“Platter, don’t you think the job would be much easier if you kept your feet still?” I ask.

“No doubt, but I’m scared of those engines.”

No one said anything, and for a moment it seemed he would leave us wondering, but then he begins explaining:

“Three years ago, in England, trimming an engine on a B-66. It was at the end of the runway, just like today. I’d taken my Tech Order with me, as the rules dictate I should, and dropped it on the tarmac. After the engine was trimmed I’d stepped back to get a signal from the pilot. He gave me thumbs up and chopped the throttle. That’s when the engine came off the wing. It hit the ground, and hauled ass. Somehow, the Tech Order was in its path and evidently exploded. Pages came flying into my face, only I didn’t know they were pages, I thought engine had come apart and impeller blades were cutting me to shreds.

“So, now when the engine comes up to thrust and the wing twists, a part of me wants to leave, but another part says I have to stay until the job’s done.” He paused, and I could see he has relived the incident. The color in his face told me his story was no fabrication.

“So, why don’t you cross train into something else?”

“I tried, but they won’t let me.”

“Hey, look at that,” someone shouted. “I thought he was going to stand down for two hours.”

We all turned just as the water injection began, and conversation was impossible. Seconds later, as he lifted off, we saw both tires on the forward left gear explode. Nobody said a word.

The training missions that were not already airborne proceeded as scheduled as the damaged aircraft flew a pattern. Launch duty was soon finished, and everyone went back to their respective shops. Our radar navigation shop shared space with the radio shop. Having a first hand account of what took place was never a problem for us. In minutes we had two mockups working, one radio monitoring the command post while the other was tuned to the tower frequency.

“I’m declaring an emergency” came a voice over the command post frequency, and we knew before he said more that it was coming from the doomed bomber. “We’re heading off shore and making preparation for ditching the aircraft. Out.”

“Who’s in charge up there? Over.”

“Captain Higgins. Over.”

“Higgins, this is the wing commander. Everyone will stay aboard the aircraft, and take your orders from the command post. Is that clear. Over”

“Yes sir. Out.”

An elliptical flight pattern was initiated. Every ten minutes the aircraft would fly over the runway. . The landing gears were still extended, and everyone who was anybody had field glasses, assessing the damage. Someone reported that Boeing engineers were working on the problem in both Seattle and Wichita.

Each fly-over was the same as the one before, black smoke trailing from the engines because of its reduced air speed and low altitude. And we waited for some magic answer.

Several hours passed, and there was no change. The pilot reported he was running low on fuel, so a tanker was sent aloft to buy more time. After the refueling was complete, and the bomber resumed its flight pattern, a different voice was heard from the command post frequency

“Captain,” can you read me? Over.”

“Yes sir, you are loud and clear. Over.”

“Good. My name is Pruett. I’m an engineer at Boeing in Seattle. Your people have patched me through on radio so you and I can talk directly. There is a way, it seems to me, to retract one landing gear at a time, but I don’t think it’s ever been tried. Here’s how I think it can be done.”

The procedure was complicated, so the engineer walked the Captain through the steps, waiting for him to complete each task before moving on to the next one. After they’d finished, Pruett said: “How about it?”

“The gear seems to be retracted. Over.”

“Good. Fine job, Captain. I’ll help you transfer fuel so as to alter the weight and balance, because the wing tip wheel will be carrying a greater load. But for the moment I’ll standby until someone can get a visual to make certain the gear is stowed.”

After someone established the gear was indeed up Pruett was on the radio again. When the fuel transfer was complete, and he was satisfied, he wished the flight crew luck, and he was gone.

After the emergency equipment had assembled near where the aircraft would touch down, I heard the Captain announce he was making his final approach. Our shop was adjacent to the runway, so I left the shop and stood outside to witness the outcome. The Captain’s future rested on how well he performed these last few minutes. I was glad it was him and not me.

The bomber lumbered into view, a long trail of smoke behind. The flaps were fully extended and air speed was reduced. I held my breath, wondering if Pruett’s theory would work in a real live situation, or if this thing was going to end in a ball of orange fire.

The Captain brought the plane down as though he were bringing home his mother’s china. Fire trucks followed. The chute was deployed and bellowed out behind. It was obvious, by the distance he was rolling, that he was gentle with the brakes. And when he came to a halt in front of hanger five it seemed to lurch forward, sagging heavily to one side, like a bird with a broken wing.

It was over. The Captain had done a fine job. His aircraft would live to fly another day.

The Captain? Well, there would be an investigation. I doubted he would command another aircraft. Most likely he would command of a large gray desk where his moments of poor judgment wouldn’t do any great harm.

Flames

A long time ago while serving in the air force in the West Indies, an acquaintance traveled to a small village in the interior of the island where he found a community celebration under way.

He was drunk and insulted one of the locals who was running a concession stand. There were words. My acquaintance lost his temper and set their celebration structures aflame, burning everything to the ground.

The island didn’t have a jail. They only had a federal prison. The fellow in question was quickly tried and sentenced to prison time, with the condition that the base commander’s words could bail him out. But while there he shared a cell with an individual doing life for murder.

The fellow told me that eventually the base commander, bird colonel came to see about him and the two of them met in a conference room. When they were finished he heard the colonial tell the prison officials to let him rot.

A month later he was released to the air force and then court marshaled, and then did some time in the air force stockade before paying restitution for the damage he’d done to the town.

That was his experience with flames.

<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/flames/”>Flames</a&gt;

 

Air Force Orders

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In 1964, while stationed at Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico, I was a flight crew debriefer. That meant that I met the flight crews, mainly the navigators of both KC-135 and B-52 aircraft immediately after their return from a flight. My job was to ask questions and take notes regarding equipment failures during flight and pick their brains for details – how long after take off the problem occurred, what they did to try to correct the malfunction, any details they could share that might help in correction action.

There was always chatter between the crew members, discussing things there hadn’t been time to discuss while airborne.

One particular time a tanker crew was in the debriefing room. The navigator, a major, was an old guy, a World War II bombardier who had served over Europe on a B-17. I come to know him well over the three years I served as debriefer and I enjoyed his many colorful stories.

The time in question, about 0300 hours one morning they returned from their mission, supporting a B-52, transporting fuel. The mobile bomb target was on a train somewhere in Montana. The bomber they were assigned to refuel had aborted and they were instructed to stay in the area in case of an emergency.

During a lull of bombers running the target the old navigator suggested they run the target. He didn’t have the bells and whistles the bomber crew had – no electronic offset, no joystick, no 14” radar scope. He had to rely on the aircraft commander to fly where he told him to fly, and for the simulated bomb drop he had to use his microphone switch on the floor to squawk the target.

He scored something under a thousand feet and when they cleared the site they were asked to identify the tail number, type of aircraft, aircraft commander’s name and rank, and the same for the navigator.

When the ground crew learned the details the entire crew went on report. I never heard how long they were grounded.