Whatever It Took To Save Lives

From the Internet

Whatever It Took To Save Lives

My American Legion magazine arrived in my mailbox today. Though it covers many subjects the one that interested me most was the story of a Vietnam Nurse. She served in what was called MASH during Korea. Her story was not much different from a book I read many years ago. Even though her story impacted me, I I’ve long since forgotten the title. If you were to ask me, in a single sentence, what I took away from the book, it was that after Korea five years passed before she could eat beef.

I’m an air force veteran who served ten years active duty. No, I’m not a combat veteran. I don’t have any metals, ribbons, war stories, or battlefield injuries. I was an aircraft maintainer – airborne communications-navigation.

My first duty station after boot camp and then a year-long electronic education in avionics was Charleston AFB, South Carolina. My job was to maintain aircraft flying troops to and from Europe, Africa, South America, etc.. But about twice each week an air evacuation plane – a hospital flight – arrived from Germany with injured troops bound for Walter-Reed.

The aircraft commander always called ahead with his safety-of-flight problems and we were issued priority repair orders. Fix it as quickly as possible. Each patient had his own nurse and the atmosphere in the fuselage was absolute silence, with the exception of the sound of the ground power unit.

The aircraft I was most often assigned to was the C-121 – Super Connie – and some my equipment was located in the baggage area below the floor. A trapdoor gave access to this super-hot area beneath the floor we called the Hell Hole. Often I had to have the medic move a gurney wheel far enough to gain access.


Photo from air force

This is Tuesday. I should be ranting about something, but life seems to have smoothed somewhat. I can’t help but wonder if this calm is like the stillness that brings false comfort before an advancing hurricane.

Barb and I weathered several hurricanes when we lived in the West Indies. However, the positive life style we experienced there has caused those worrisome hurricane memories to fade into washed out images that have grayed with time.

The hurricane predictions for 1964 were so dire that six WC-130 Hurricane Hunters aircraft were dispatched from Mississippi and spent the summer with us. One of the crew members, a meteorologist, moved into the apartment beneath us. I came to know him quite well. Though much of his job was classified as a Need To Know, he shared a few aspects with me.

barometric pressure within a hurricane proper is so radical a typical barometer we might purchase from a store is useless. Instead, they depend on a radar altimeter my shop maintained at that time – a SCR-718. The aircraft commander relied heavily on this and had two identical systems with twin readouts which he monitored closely. If the readings indicated a difference greater than 50 feet between the two, he aborted the mission and went home instead of flying into the eye.

I asked about the ride. He told me the turbulence was so great the crew members remained strapped into their duty stations to prevent being thrown to the floor.
Eventually, the hurricane season passed. My neighbor packed his belongings and returned to Mississippi. And I’ve not seen him since.  

Zeke 8

Arrangements were made that Mr. Banner, Sally’s attorney, would arrive the following morning to draw up the papers and oversee an inventory. Zeke was admiring the Texas morning when an old Dodge pickup turned off the highway.

“I think you might have a visitor, Sally.”

She joined Zeke while drying her hands on her apron.

“That’s Mr. Banner.”

“I expecting him to arrive in a big Lincoln.”

“Dan asked him about that old pickup when we first started this business,” Sally explained. “He said he was finished impressing people.”

After rolling to a stop, he climbed out and fetched his cane and then headed inside.

“Morning Sally,” he drawled, reaching out to shake. “You must be Zeke,” he said grabbing Zeke’s hand. “I have two young men coming. I’m expecting them any moment,” he added, directing his statement to Sally.

“That must be them now,” she exclaimed, her eyes focused on a red convertible turning off the highway.

Mr. Banner sat up shop on the yellow Formica table, then issued preprinted forms along with detailed verbal instructions. And then everything was set into motion. By noon the inventory was finished and an asking price was established. Mr. Banner had already touched bases with the prospective buyer.

“These buyers wouldn’t share their plans with me. But I did some snooping and learned they use helicopters rather than fixed-wing aircraft. I suspect they won’t offer a fair price for these airplanes, so with your permission I have a second listing that excludes the planes and spare parts, just in case.

“What will I do with the Stearman?”

“That‘s a bargaining tool, my dear,” he said, smiling. “I’ll be in touch,” he added and then headed back to town.

Zeke continued on his inspection. Replacing a worn control cable took more time than he had figured. The shadows were lengthening by the time he was finished. Since it was late, she was preparing supper for him before heading back to the motel. He was closing the hangar doors when he noticed a bank of clouds moving in from the west. They were round and puffy. Orange lightning was playing through them, first lighting one, then another, in no special order. They reminded Zeke of gigantic Christmas balls.

“I don’t like the looks of that storm,” he told Sally when she came to fetch him for supper.

“I don’t either.”

He followed her to the yellow Formica table. After serving up two plates she turned on a white Arvin AM radio, a classic 5-tube superhetrodyne receiver that reached back into the years of Zeke‘s youth. After the filaments had warmed a local station issued a tornado watch advisory extending until 2 AM.

“What do you generally do when this sort of thing comes up? Do you have a shelter you go to?” he asked.

“No, I don’t have a shelter. I just stay here and stick it out. So far they’ve all missed me. I always keep a spare water jug, a propane camp stove, and a lantern in case the power goes out.”

“Dan wouldn’t want you being alone. I’ll stay here with you.”

She didn’t object. Instead, she fetched a fold-up cot from a storage closet and set it out for Zeke. And then they waited. In an hour the wall-to-wall static rendered the AM radio useless, so they turned it off and resumed waiting.

Eventually, the wind freshened and horizontal rain drops the size of quarters pelted the metal hanger like machine gun fire. Thunder made the Texas prairie sound like a giant bowling alley, rattling Sally’s dishes and cupboard doors.

In the midst of it they thought they heard the storm warning system sounding six miles away. Then lightning became continuous. Wind rattled the doors while testing every rivet and bolt holding the hangar together.

The severity of the storm lasted only twenty minutes or so before tapering off. Within the hour it was over, the only remainder being the sound of the storm growling its way in a northeasterly direction.

When he awoke the following morning he shoved a hangar door open and watched dawn usher in a new day.

Zeke 07

Sally took Zeke up on his offer for breakfast at the all-night café. As she got out from behind the wheel and started toward the entryway he noticed she had changed more attractive clothing. As he followed her to a booth he caught a whiff of her perfume. After they were seated he realized she had added a touch of eyeliner pale lipstick. A vast change from how he’d found her the day before. Again, however, he reminded himself he’d swung by to give her a hand, not stand around ogling.

“So what’s the plan?” she asked after the waitress had brought menus and coffee.

“We need to jump on that other inspection. If we don’t find any major problems we can knock it out before evening.”

“I thought about your suggestion of selling out.”


“It’s worth exploring,“ she said.

“Do you have any possible interest?” he asked.

“Maybe. I’d forgotten about a visitor a couple of months back. A corporation that sent an attorney by. I wasn’t much interested in talking to him, so we never got around to offers or much of anything, for that matter. I dug through my desk last night and found his card. I thought I might call and see if there’s still any interest. What do you think?”

The waitress brought their breakfasts and warmed their coffee. Zeke waited until she headed back for the kitchen before he responded. “It doesn’t cost anything to see if there’s any interest.”

“What should I say?”

“Just ask if his client is still interested. Do you have an attorney?”
“Yes. He’s represented me a few times when farmers claimed the wind had carried my chemicals onto their property.”

“Then he understands the crop-dusting business?” Zeke asked.

“To some extent. At least from the legal aspect.“

“Would he represent you reach an agreement with this corporation?”

“I think so …I‘m sure he would.”

They both finished their meals in silence and enjoyed two more coffee refills before heading back to the hangar.

Zeke set in on the second aircraft inspection while Sally spent some time exploring the possibility of selling the business.

They were having lunch when the corporation attorney arrived. Sally started to leave her meal, but Zeke suggested she should let him wait. “Don’t appear as eager as you feel.”

“Is there a place we can talk privately?“ the attorney asked.

“It’s okay to say what you need to say right here. I won’t be committing to anything today. I have an attorney who will be handling the details. I was just making certain your client is still interested,“ she said.

“Well, the corporation is interested. Of course, we need to establish what’s for sale – land, aircraft, vehicles, and equipment, or only a portion.” he replied.

“My attorney will be contacting you,” Sally said.

“There’s been some rumors of foreclosure. Allowing that to happen would only complicate matters. That’s why I’m here today.”

“I’m sure the rumors are running, but there is still time. My attorney will contact you as soon as we are prepared to negotiate.”

The corporate attorney was slow to leave, but he finally handed her a second card and then headed back to town.

“Zeke, my attorney will be here this afternoon to start an inventory. Can you handle the entire inspection by yourself?”

“I’m on it.”


Zeke 06

As Sally dropped him off at the motel she mentioned an all-night café nearby if he was so inclined. His plan was to go directly to bed, but after a shower and changing into the only extra clothes he’d brought in his AWOL bag he stepped out the door of his room to take stock of the area. As she’d stated, a 24 hour café was only a block away and promptly set off in that direction.

With the dinner hour past he was the only customer and waitress bearing his menu appeared exhausted.

“Rough crowd tonight?” he asked, gazing at the offering she‘d handed him.

“It usually is,” she replied, struggling to present a smile.

He, too, was exhausted after the late night plane ride to Dallas and then the westbound Greyhound at 0300 hours. So he let the conversation go and ordered a hamburger, fries, and coffee. Upon returning to his room and fell asleep.

Old habits are difficult to break. He was up at the first glint of dawn. After dressing, he set out for the café again. Pleased to find a booth at an east window, he ordered coffee and waited for the Texas sun to make it’s astounding appearance. He hadn’t been there long before a tall, young fellow wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson pushed through the door and chose a stool at the counter.

“So how’s trucking driving school going?” the redhead sat a steaming cup coffee in front of him.

“So so. They haven’t been able to teach me anything I didn’t already know. This whole CDL business is a crock,” he said. She walked away, but he kept on talking, pointing out weaknesses he’d noticed in his driving instructor. She made no comment – didn’t even look up – just kept on with her busy work, filling salt and pepper shakers and napkin dispensers.

An older man, perhaps in his forties, entered, nodded as he passed Zeke and then occupied the booth next to Zeke‘s. He was dressed in gray slacks with an extremely sharp crease, shirt and tie and a zip up sports jacket. He ordered coffee and a glazed donut.

He was about to take a bite of his donut when another man dressed in a similar fashion pushed through the door “Good morning, Steve. Where are you off to today?”

“Los Angeles.”

“That’s a good place to be from.”

“True enough, but I won’t be there long.”

“How long will it take, do you think?” Steve’s friend asked.

“Oh,” he said, pushing up his sleeve and glancing at his watch. “Maybe noon. Depends on the traffic. You know how that goes.”

“Noon!” shouted the cowboy truck driver. “Hell, it’s fifteen hundred miles to Los Angeles.”

“You’re right. What was I thinking,” said Steve, dropping a five-dollar bill and sliding out of the booth.

“Did you know that fellow is flying a Lear jet to Los Angeles?” the waitress asked the truck driver.

“No! I bet he thinks I’m an idiot.”

“That wouldn’t surprise me,” the waitress replied, heaving a visible sigh.

Steve’s friend smiled at me.

The truck driver paid for coffee and left without a another word.

Zeke was about to go into his room when Sally rolled to a stop. “Have you had breakfast?” she shouted through the open pickup window.

“Good morning, Sally. No I haven’t. I was waiting. Let’s drive up to the café and I buy breakfast while we plan today’s work schedule,” he suggested.

Zeke 05

“I asked my brother, Jed, if he knew of any crop dusting activity in North Dakota. He said he didn’t,” said Zeke after she’d returned and they carried the things into the hangar.

“You sure can’t say that about here,” Sally replied. “Everybody and his uncle is bidding for work here.”

“All the more reason to get out before you are forced into upgrading. I don’t know how many acres it takes to support a crop duster.”

“A lot. You’ve done a lot of this maintainer work, haven‘t you? What was the toughest job?”

“Repairing damage from a lightning strike,” Zeke replied without hesitation


“When I first enlisted, the air force sent me to school on airborne navigation systems and then assigned to the A&E Squadron with the 72nd Bomb Wing in Puerto Rico. I hadn’t seen any of the systems I found on the bombers and tankers. I played catch up for a few months.

“Our wing commander, a brigadier general, attended an Eighth Air Force Commander’s Call at a Massachusetts air base. I don‘t know how often he made the trip, but when he went he always used a base flight aircraft, one of the two 1942 C-54s. One night, while returning from Commander’s Call they flew into a severe storm somewhere over the Atlantic and took a lightning strike.

“It fried everything that required electrical power – generators, batteries, lights, navigation and communications systems. They were in the dark and alone. Fortunately, the navigator knew how to navigate with out all the bells and whistles. Using only a watch whiskey compass, flashlight, sextant, and of course the Celestial Navigation Book….”

“What’s a Celestial Navigation Book?“ Sally interrupted.

“Oh, that’s an old book published in England that lists the exact positions of certain stars used to navigate by at certain given times. With that book, a watch, and a sextant a navigator can calculate a present position, called a waypoint and from that lay in a course.“


He suspected she didn‘t know what he was talking about, but that was okay. It wasn’t important, so he carried on with his story.

“The navigator laid a course straight to Ramey AFB on the west end of the Puerto Rico. They had to pump the gears down by hand. Having no landing lights they had to buzz the tower so they would turn on the runway lights. Probably scared the crap of the guys in the tower,” he said, smiling.

“I guess.”

“The following morning the general came to our shop with verbal orders that he wanted a man assigned to base flight to fix that airplane. I’d been to school on APS-42 search radar system way back when, so I was sent to do the job.

“I found the wiring harnesses damaged beyond repair. Had the decision been mine, I would have thrown the plane away, but that wasn‘t an option. At that point I was in way over my head. I’d never done anything that extensive in my life.

“I was able to order wiring harnesses salvaged from the air force bone yard in Arizona. I then installed serviceable components – receiver/transmitter, antennas. That stuff was hard to get. Even with a general’s pull it took seven weeks before we could put that C-54 back in the air.”

“Did you get a promotion because of that?”

“Of course not.”

By evening we had finished one aircraft. As Sally drove Zeke to a motel for the night he explained that the industry was using the old biplanes anymore. They were changing over to Air Tractors and helicopters. “It’s only a matter of time before they force to upgrade or get out.”

She nodded and then swung into a motel with a vacancy sign.

Zeke 04

“You have a clipboard?” Zeke asked.

Sally pulled one from a desk drawer along with a few sheets of typewriter paper.

“And how about the log books?”

She went to a file cabinet in the corner of the hangar, on the far side of the two aircraft and brought them to Zeke.

“Wow, 1943 army trainers. Do you have any history on these birds?”

“Daddy bought them both new still in their shipping crates at a Houston surplus auction. I don’t remember how much they cost, but I think I could find out if it’s important.”

“It’s not. Did he assemble them himself?”

“Daddy was a bomber pilot flying out of England during World War II. In 1943 he was shot down over Germany and finished out the war as a POW. Back in England he and his crew chief were best of friends in spite of the notion that officers were not supposed to mingle with enlisted men.

“After the war he and Momma had made a road trip to Post, Texas to see Sergeant Pugh and offered him a job getting these two biplanes ready for spraying,” Sally explained as she followed Zeke on his walk-around.

“When was this?” stopping for a moment, listening more closely.

“I think it was during the winter of 1946. It’s in the records.”

Zeke nodded and continued his inspection. He was finished by noon and they returned to the yellow table.

“Well?” Sally asked.

In spite of her shapeless, baggy clothes Zeke could understand why Dan was attracted to her. He imagined she would steal the show in a party dress. Reminding himself why he had come calling, he kept his opinions to himself.

“They’re both due for periodic inspections. That won’t necessarily be terribly costly – well, the tires have to be replaced and wheel bearing packed, compression check all the cylinders – but it will take time – probably about 10 hours for each bird if we’re lucky and don’t find any ugly surprises. Then it could get costly and consume more time.”

“Can you spare me the time?” she asked.

“Let me find out.” I need to make a phone call. Do you have a phone?”

Sally pointed to a black wall phone near the entryway. “Do you want me to leave so you can have some privacy?”

“No. It’s nothing personal. I just need to touch bases at home.”

She started lunch while Zeke dialed the North Dakota number and then stepped outside and leaned against the door jamb. She had it ready to serve when he stepped back inside and returned the receiver to the hook. After claiming a place at the table She sat a plate of food before him then served herself.

“Well?” she finally asked, scooting her chair closer to the table.

“I can spare ten days then I have to high tail it home. That means we need to get cracking on these birds. Some of this you can do. You probably already know how, having grown up with them.”

He worked up a list of routine parts and she headed for town while he started the periodic.

Zeke 03

Sally and Zeke sat at the yellow dinette table and sipped their coffee in silence. Each deep in thought.

“Do you have any experience with reciprocal engines?” Sally finally asked.

“Quite a bit, actually. That’s what I started on way back when I was a kid in the air force. I worked my way up and eventually became crew chef on C-54s, Old Shaky’s, Super Connies, and supervised the maintenance on a few British Lancaster Bombers that wandered into my territory.

“I like the old prop engine more than the screaming jets – The smoke and sputter when they first start. It‘s music. A good flight engineer can make those engines sing.”

“What is an Old Shaky Is that an airplane?”

Zeke smiled. That’s the nickname for the C-124 Globemaster. They were built like an elephant, big and fat. A good airplane for its time, and versatile – a section of the floor worked in conjunction with an overhead winch it became an elevator. It was also easily converted to a double-deck troop carrier. Not to mention the nose opened up like clam shells with ramps for hauling vehicles – tanks, truck, helicopters. It was ahead of its time. But when it was empty it vibrated and shook to beat the band. It could bring a flight crew to their knees. That’s how it got its name. I liked that airplane in spite of its shortcomings.”

“I would have never guessed,” she said smiling while she absently stirred her coffee for the umpteenth time.

“But why the question about my recip experience?” he asked.

“The fellow carrying the note on this place knows a little about airplanes. He knows the periodic inspections are coming due. He also knows I don’t have an A&P license, that I have to hire it done.”

“How much of your stuff is he holding as collateral?” Zeke asked.

“Everything – airplanes, equipment, hangar, twenty acres of real estate. If he forecloses, I’m on the street.”

“So what are you asking of me?”

“I’m asking you to help me re-certify those two Stearman,” she said, pointing with a nod of her head. I’m in trouble, Zeke. I need your skills for a couple of weeks?”

Zeke expected as much, Dan had hinted around about future problems with a loan, but somehow hearing ‘I’m in trouble’ sounded more urgent. Zeke didn’t respond. Instead, he reflected on the family wheat farm in North Dakota. The corporation he and his two brothers had formed last year. It had saved the family farm from the greedy and powerful agribusiness people. But his physical presence was required. His brothers were counting on him. Besides, things were moving way too fast here.

“l can’t offer you much pay,” Sally continued. She was not aware that he had tuned her out while he reflected on the old family farm, the two-thousand North Dakota acres. “But I’ll put you up in a motel, feed you three squares, and loan to pickup to drive. Two weeks, that’s all I ask,” she added.

“You can’t know how much I’d like to help,” he said watching her hope fade, and wished he hadn’t been so abrupt with his response. “Look, I’m committed at home. The wheat will be ready for harvest by mid summer. I’ve got to be there to help with critical decisions. My brothers are depending on me.”

“Okay, a week. Can we get the inspections and maintenance done in a week?”

“I don’t know. There could be serious problems. Some of this stuff can’t be postponed. Not only would it be illegal, but it could endanger the aircraft and the pilot. I’d have to do a walk-around and then check the aircraft logs.”

She was silent. He saw from her expression these were things she didn’t want to hear. When she didn’t respond he continued.

“Have you ever considered selling out, get the cash and find something else to do. I mean this operation would bring a lot of cash.”

“I could never do that, Zeke.”

“Why not?”

“Well, for two reasons.”

“Such as?” asked Zeke, leaned over the table toward her.

“For starters this was my daddy’s place, his dream. It would break his heart if I sold it.”

“Where is he now?”

“He died a couple of years ago.”

Then that’s not a valid reason. What the other objection?”

“Dan always loved North Texas.“

“I understand, and as harsh as it sounds you can’t live your life for the wishes of a dead man.”

She stared at him, her eyes brimming with tears.

“Let’s take a walk. Let’s see what you have here,” Zeke suggested, scooting his chair back.

Skunk Works

Ed had earned his air force commission through ROTC and then his wings in the air force. After twenty years he retired, earned an engineering degree. With a Top Secret Security Clearance he sought to join a division of Skunk Works.

After a series of interviews he was offered a position with an engineering team and reported to work one Monday morning.

“We need to give you a tour of the big hangar so you what we’re doing with airplanes. See if you‘re up to the task,” stated Roger, his immediate supervisor, a tall man with thinning hair and a hatchet face. “We need to go out to Edwards to do that,” and ushered him toward an odd aircraft that had been modified many times for various flight tests and eventually became known as the “two-seater taxi”.

“This is a strange-looking beast.”

“Ain’t though? Here, you drive,” said Roger, tossing Ed the key.

Ed climbed into the left seat and after taking a few minutes to familiarize himself with the instrument panel and controls he started the engine, checked the gauges, got clearance, and they were on their way.

They’d been in the air less than five minutes when the left-wing came up. Ed glanced at Roger, as if to say what the hell. But Roger was admiring the view and seemed not to notice. After checking his controls Ed dialed in enough trim to bring the wing back down.

A minute later the wing was back up again. Ed dialed in more trim to get the wing down a second time. The third time the wing came up there was no more trim adjustment to be had.

“What the hell is wrong with this airplane?” he asked.

Roger laughed. That was when Ed realized the control cables ran along side Roger’s seat. After they were airborne and on course Roger had pulled on the cables. Each time Ed adjusted the trim, Roger pulled a bit harder.

“That was your final test, Ed. Welcome to Skunk Works.”

Why Do I Write

I’m an air force vet, been retired from the work force for going on 18 years, which makes me 79 years old come this autumn.

I don’t know if I’m a blogger or just a writer. With no ax to grind I doubt I’m much of a blogger. I more of a spinner of tales.

Writing seems to be what I do. An inner force compels me to make words. In following this call, I’ve used the Sears portable, an old Olympic upright founf at Goodwill for $3. I also wrote with a Commodore 64 using a word processor called Easy Script. Then, like many, I graduated to the 8088 XT. And finally, today, I use a Windows 7 desk top, an iPad, and a Nexus 7. Sometimes I even stoop to pencil and paper when the writer’s block is hounding me and brain storming is required..

This business began in 1964 while I was often on alert while serving with the Strategic Air Command. I often had time. 

Overdrive Magazine, a new trucker’s journal, was casting about for articles. They asked people to send them their hands-on driving experiences. I didn’t have many yarns to share, so I spun “The Hill” on a Sears portable and sent it in to Jim Drinkwater, the editor. He published it and then sent me a crisp $10 for my trouble.

I was hooked and never stopped spinning yarns related to the people who are amateur radio operators, truck drivers, motorcycle riders, bicycle riders, airplane pilots. Whatever needs telling at the time.

This entire thing boils down to three words: It’s a hobby..