One of my friends challenged me and a few others present to list the significant places in our lives that had a transforming effect on our behavior. It was a serious question and meant to be taken seriously, and I have been thinking seriously about what those places were for me.
First I’ll list the things that came to mind. Traumatic things where I was compelled by the personal situation to make a decision came first. In historical order: About age two, when I was barely walking, I remember being in a department store and being separated out of sight from my mother for what was probably less than a few seconds and realizing at that moment how important she was to me. A second moral event was coming out of my apartment house and seeing two of my buddies beating up on another of my friends. I asked why, and they replied, in all seriousness, “Because he lives next door.” That has puzzled me for years. A third thing happened when I was five and on a teeter-totter, during school recess in Homedale, Idaho; my friend told me to grip the board from the back edge, and then he stepped off of his end when he was at ground level and I was several feet off the ground. As I came down I caught my body weight with my legs, but having a grip on the board at the back meant my fingers were bashed against the ground. I still have the scars eighty years later. There are lots of those kinds of events and I suppose they made an impact that isn’t as visible to me as those scars.
When I was a sophomore at WSC in Pullman, Washington, I went to a dance over in Potlatch, Idaho. I drove over expecting a big party but there were some thirty guys and only a couple of girls. I listened to the song “Live hard, love hard, die young, and leave a beautiful memory,” and I sang that song while driving back to Pullman thinking, what would happen if I drove fast and got killed … would my friends remember me fondly, as in the song? The way I remember that moment now, “Hey, did you hear Chuck wrecked his car and got killed last night? … No, too bad. … What’s for breakfast.” Because of that moment, age eighteen, driving back and thinking ahead about the consequences of senseless risky actions, I have probably backed off at some moments and avoided some serious incidents.
The flip side of my response of that event was a review of my pilot performance by an Air Force check pilot. I had been a student flying T-28s for five months and was about to move on to T-33 jets in a week. I was assigned to Captain Chard, who had just failed seven of my classmates, and my buddies, said, “Goodbye, Charlie!” I went out to the assigned plane and did a preflight inspection, but Captain Chard wasn’t there so I snuggled up to a wheel with my parachute and dozed off. After a while, I felt the plane jiggling, looked around and saw this guy trying to rip the propeller off the plane. He had a captain’s insignia on his shoulders, so I assumed it was Captain Chard. Then he tried to rip the ailerons off, but no luck, so he went back to the more delicate tail control surfaces and tried to rip them off. Seriously, he tried to rip them off.
“Did you preflight this airplane?” “Yes, sir.” “Take me up to ten thousand feet.” Not another word was spoken and in a few minutes, I was at 10,000 feet over Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. “Put your head between your knees.” “What?” “Put your head between your knees!” “What??” “Put your head between your knees!!!” I did, and immediately he pulled back on the stick and with the G forces I was pinned into that crouch. He wrenched the plane around into a vertical rotating straight down dive, and I was able to sit up and watch the world spinning around, and the airspeed indicator move right on past the red line for top speed allowed for this airplane.
Down we went and up went the airspeed and soon we were a hundred miles per hour over the red line, and Captain Chard, screams something like, “Oh, shit, the wings are coming off, you got it!” At this point, my former classmates were probably getting a bit nervous. Anyway, I straightened up the plane, zoomed back up to a higher altitude, did the crash landing procedures, and picked out a likely place to land, gear up. That was the gear position for a crash landing for this plane, to keep the center of gravity as low as possible.
Air Force policy was for the command pilot to call out, “I’ve got the airplane,” and for the student to give the control of the airplane over to him. However, Captain Chard didn’t say anything, and soon I was holding the plane a couple of feet above the ground while the airspeed fell away. We probably had about five seconds before the plane would have landed on its belly when I pushed in the power. Captain Chard then yelled obscenities at me about how he was in charge of when we were to head back up. That went on until we were a hundred feet above the ground and then he stopped.
I assumed I had failed as had my classmates and said, “Captain Chard, if you want to come out here and crash land this airplane, do it without me in it.” “You’re done! Take me home.”
I passed. And he failed several more of my buddies. They did get another second chance with a second test pilot.
I learned that I could face death and still think.