Hovering Over Send Chapter 2

  • Published
  • By Col. Daryl J. Hartman
  • 911th Airlift Wing Operations Group
Mike was my first aircraft commander. I showed up at Ellsworth AFB in January 1980, a brand new 2ndLt B-52 copilot and I suppose they found it fitting to match up the worlds' oldest, crustiest LtCol with the newest squeakiest Lt. At the time I thought Mike was ancient although he was probably 10 years younger than I am right now. He had been a C-47 gunship pilot in Vietnam and an air attaché in the US Embassy in Saigon when it fell, one of the last Americans out of Vietnam. He followed that career path to the US embassy in Tehran and, you guessed it, he was there when the Shah fell and ended up hiding out with friends until he could be evacuated out of the country. Supposedly, the parts to his dismantled .45 are still under the ballroom stage in the Tehran Hilton, but that's another story. Enroute, during his evacuation from Iran, he was asked what he wanted to do and since he was tired of being chased out of war torn countries, he figured flying B-52s in South Dakota sounded pretty safe. So he moved there with his wife and 4 sons and settled in for a mellow last assignment.

I learned a lot from Mike. He taught me how to estimate surface winds by the size and direction of white caps on the water. He taught me how to fly a good NDB. He taught me that in the Air Force there are important things and then there are IMPORTANT things and how to tell the difference. He taught me about leadership and motivation and how it can happen with very little effort with the right attitude. He taught me that after facing enemy fire, every other crisis in life becomes a little less of a crisis. And, sadly, he taught me that a decision I had made years earlier was a good one.

As most of you know, I don't drink. It's not that I gave it up because I had some black out/woke up in a ditch experience, it's that I've never had a drink in my life. I'm not a Mormon or a member of a religious sect that doesn't allow drinking, I just grew up in a family that didn't drink and couldn't think of a good reason to start. I remember asking my mom when I was 8-9 years old what beer tasted like and after a thoughtful moment she looked me straight in the eye and said, "I think it tastes kind of like ear wax". Well I had tried that once and wasn't interested in anything that tasted even remotely like it. When I was 16 I started dating my future wife Peggy and in that first year of dating I became keenly aware of how her mother's alcoholism had affected her life. Kids shouldn't have to find their parents passed out, carry them to bed, clean up after them, find the hidden bottles, make excuses to friends and family, or be embarrassed when friends come over. I know I kid her about "retiring" 30 years ago, but when her mother finally passed 3 years ago it took her a long time to get her head around not having to check on her mom 3-4 times a day and deal with the weekly crisis. We stayed put in Pittsburgh these last 28 years so she could take care of her mother and she should be nominated for sainthood for it.

Anyway, we made a conscious decision before we got married that we wouldn't support the industry and wouldn't drink. I've never looked at anyone differently based on whether they drink or not, but the older I get the more I'm convinced that no good comes from it. Without much effort I can rattle off half a dozen great Air Force people who either died untimely deaths, have lost everything, or said and did things while drunk that they'll never recover from. I don't know if it's physiological, psychological, sociological, or genetic, but it seems to me that, like base jumping and alligator hunting, the risk assessment analysis points to avoiding it all together. Like anything, if you don't want your kids to do something, don't do it yourself. Alcohol abuse is a learned behavior and your young airmen ache for good examples and will emulate successful life choices if you demonstrate the results.

We deployed to Guam for 6 weeks at a time back in the early 80s and I found myself being the designated driver and helping Mike back to billeting on a very regular basis. One night the command post called me because they couldn't find Mike. His wife had had a miscarriage and they needed me to find him and break the news to him. I tracked him down at a local bar, did what 23 year olds shouldn't have to do, and then got him back to the Q. Eventually Mike divorced and the last I heard he was living somewhere in Utah, although the number I have for him is disconnected. I like to think that he went through rehab and is doing well but my experience is that, with few exceptions, the success rate isn't good.

All choices, no matter how seemingly insignificant, have lifelong consequences and we need to pick a good guide and take the forks in the road that lead to the scenic mountain drive.