Admiral Rickover Interview and Graduation from Annapolis 1964

The time came for first classmen to select a particular naval field. My experience had been with aircraft carriers, naval aviation, submarines, drilling like a Marine, gunnery practice, yard patrol boats, a summer aboard a personnel carrier as a crewman, and an amphibious Landing Ship Dock (LSD) that my father captained. Since my first class cruise aboard two conventional subs was my most enjoyable naval experience, and my brother had joined the submarine force, my first choice was to try to qualify for them. In order to become a submariner, each interested midshipman had to pass an interview with Admiral Hyman Rickover. His evaluation technique earned a reputation for one of the most intimidating. The date for this faceoff coincided with roommate Denny Lyndon’s, so we discussed how to relate to the abrasive icon. Denny went first. While waiting I thought about how to show the Admiral my qualifications  were adequate with a B average in science, math and engineering courses, and all A’s in Spanish, humanities electives, and senior composition. “Next midshipman,” a caustic voice beckoned and cracked the silence where I sat. Admiral Rickover remained seated as I entered and took a seat, while he poured over my academic record.  “You wasted your time with electives that didn’t apply to core engineering courses,” shot out of his mouth like a cannon blast and his eyes seared into my brain. “I thought expanding my awareness of the ideas in the world of literature offered a good contrast to the engineering course-load and would round out my education.”That he did not take my comment as a serious response was clear from his body language and smirk. “My father and brother graduated from Annapolis and encouraged me to select submarines. My brother selected nuclear submarines and told me how much he enjoyed that branch of the Navy and I selected conventional submarines for my first class summer where I enjoyed two cruises,” I offered hopefully. “You played around when you should have taken science studies more seriously,” he responded dismissing my academic efforts. Too acrimonious, simplistic, and unfair, he made me anxious. His abruptness left no glimmer of hope for subs. “Next interview,” he uttered, disposing of me as so much garbage without standing up, looking at me, or shaking my hand. In a fog of indifference and rejection, I walked out of his office and heard my footsteps echo off the wall as if my existence had no meaning despite my interest in the field the Admiral dominated. His rejection of my argument made me glad to leave. Our psychology course would predict such a man could not succeed as a leader. His style alienated many. However, Admiral Rickover had achieved something like sainthood to submariners because he guarded the field jealously and ensured its success. He was a godsend to the submarine force by his detailed investigations and demand for excellence. Chip told me as a submariner, he led a lonely existence under water for as long as sixty days away from his wife and kids with no means of communication to them. Before the interview, I thought entering the submarine program might constitute an adventure and a challenge that would help me get over the notion I had wasted my life by studying for an appointment to the Academy and a naval career. My future seemed uncertain  and the feeling I did not belong returned. Those officers who had not qualified as a pilot because their vision was less than 20/20 could become navigators in a new Naval Aviation Officer program on many aircraft: The anti-submarine P-3 Orion, super constellation hurricane hunter, and two-seater jet aircraft (A-5, RA5C, A-3, A-6, and F-4) that used a navigator bombardier or a Reconnaissance Attack Navigator (RAN). Successfully completing such a program might qualify me for space travel or future NASA programs recruiters said. With some trepidation I chose the NAO option at naval flight school in Pensacola, Florida.         At the graduation ceremony, we wore dress white uniforms, spit-shined shoes, white caps, and marched to the annual rite of passage. Nine hundred and twenty-five first classmen, from an entering class of fourteen hundred, occupied the front rows, followed by others of the Brigade, and the public. Our graduation speaker was Congressman Carl Vinson, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. The Secretary of the Navy and the Commandant of Midshipmen sat next to him. Our faculty and twenty-four company officers filled seats behind them. Next were other officers associated with the academy. The grad’s families and friends were followed by the press that always covered the annual event. After the Star Spangled Banner, Congressman Vinson urged us to “remain faithful to the virtues the Academy taught of duty, honor, and loyalty.” We were about to enter a dangerous world where our military must succeed in its mission to protect our freedoms. The new age of war we faced in South East Asia was counterinsurgency that required a complex strategy. He said we needed to halt the threat of the communist regimes expanding to third world countries and challenged us to give our best in service to our country including our lives if necessary. When he finished the crowd gave him a resounding applause.   Marching in single file, we received our diplomas, shook Carl Vinson’s hand, and returned to our seats. The Commandant of Midshipmen, Admiral Charles Kirkpatrick, affectionately known as “Uncle Charlie,” announced honors for classmates at the top of the class in each area of study. On command we stood at attention having fulfilled all Naval Academy requirements for bachelor degrees in Naval Science and Electrical Engineering (BSEE), and heard the long-awaited words, “Congratulations members of the class of 1964 you are now graduates of the United States Naval Academy.” “Three cheers for those who are about to leave us,” said the new first class president. “Hip Hip Hooray,” boomed out from the Brigade of Midshipman. “Three cheers for those we leave behind,” our class president shouted. “Hip Hip Hooray,” we screamed and threw our white dress caps high in the air in a frenzy of emotion. A classmate threw his cap into my face during complete bedlam. Overcome by joy, I hardly noticed my bloody nose feeling incomparable elation and found my Dad next to Aunt Jane. We walked to O’Leary’s Seafood Restaurant where Dad treated us to a crab and lobster dinner and ordered two gin martinis toasting me for the first alcoholic beverage I drank in an Annapolis restaurant, “I wish you a great future, Dan,” he said with admiration. I handed him a special ring I had ordered with Chip's class of 1960 crest on one side, my class crest on the other, and his crest of 1932 on top. “Dad, this ring is in your honor for giving me the direction I needed to fulfill your dreams that your sons would follow your example.” He turned the ring, eyes glued on the ornate gold crests, overcome with surprise. “How thoughtful Dan, I'll show it off to my classmates every chance I have,” he said with joy etched on his face. I wondered whether I had made the right choice despite going through the motions with Dad as if I loved the Navy when I had experienced some of the most repulsive personalities in my life at Annapolis and expected the Navy to challenge my decision for the next four years until I would be finally free to choose my future for the rest of my life.         (Click to zoom, Dan and Chip at Annapolis 1960 and Dad next)

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The Kerry Campaign in Annapolis at my 40th Reunion 2004

(Dan and Joan at Reunion-click to zoom)

Joan and I slowly made our way following the crowd back to the center of Annapolis on our way to our hotel after Navy beat Delaware in football 34-20 overwhelming the Blue Hens and silencing twenty of their despicable fans standing behind us. The Brigade of Midshipmen with the Naval Academy Choir and Band played and sang with Navy fans the traditional song the midshipmen in unison sing at the end of every football game:

(Brigade of Midshipman before the game--click to zoom)

NAVY BLUE AND GOLD

Now, colleges from sea to sea

May sing of colors true.

But who has better right than we

To hoist a symbol hue?

For sailors brave in battle fair

Since fighting days of old

Have proved a sailor's right to wear

The Navy Blue and Gold.

GO NAVY– BEAT ARMY!

(Annapolis Harbor area--click to zoom)

Soon we noticed in a major intersection a gathering of supporters for John Kerry for President passing out literature for the election in three days. “I’m here for my 40th reunion and glad to report many of my classmates, including me,  support Kerry for President,” I said to an organizer.

“I’m so happy to hear that. You can’t imagine how many angry swift-boat types are telling lies about his medals in this campaign. Please inform them of the gross distortions they have made of his record. Here’s a leaflet describing the dirty tricks campaign they launched,” she said.

Kerry’s presidential campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that ads from an anti-Kerry veterans’ group are inaccurate and “illegally coordinated” with Republicans and the Bush-Cheney campaign. Swift Boat Veterans For Truth claimed to quote from Kerry's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971: “They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads,” “randomly shot at civilians,” and “razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Kahn.”

The ad deceptively ignored Kerry's preface, recounting that he was reporting what others said at a Vietnam veteran’s conference. An official transcript showed that Kerry had been referring to a meeting in Detroit, Michigan, part of what was called the “Winter Soldier” investigation. He told the Senate committee that veterans had testified to war crimes and relived the “absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.”

In the swift boat commercials, former sailors falsely accused Kerry of lying in order to receive two of his five combat decorations, a Purple Heart, and the Bronze Star. The ad featured a sailor who commanded one of five swift boats in the Mekong Delta during an incident March 13, 1969. Kerry was decorated and that sailor had earned a Bronze Star in that incident, yet said “Kerry's boat fled after a mine crippled another boat and was not under enemy fire when he returned to rescue an Army officer knocked overboard by a second mine that detonated nearby.” In contrast the Navy citation for the sailor’s Bronze Star stated “All units began receiving enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks.”

Kerry also received a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts for other actions the ad overlooked. The Navy's letter awarding him the Bronze Star stated he exhibited “great personal courage under fire” in rescuing an Army Green Beret Lieutenant, who recommended Kerry for the decoration and who has publicly disputed the sailor’s account. He said Kerry wrote the report that was the basis for the citation even though another officer, Lt. Cmdr. George Elliot, signed the document.

In response the Kerry campaign published its own ad that featured the Green Beret Lt., a registered Republican, saying Kerry saved his life, “All these Viet Cong were shooting at me, I expected I'd be shot. When he pulled me out of the river, he risked his life to save mine.”

I feared the Republican deceptive tricks could detract from Kerry’s campaign and mislead the public. At this time our eldest son was a resident neurosurgeon at Case Western University Hospital and participated in organizing the “Doctor’s for Kerry” group in Cleveland. He and his wife, a resident pediatrician at the same hospital, had first row seats for Kerry’s final speech before Election Day. These hopeful family members with others tried their best to counter the Bush-Cheney-Rove machine ironically in the very city where I was indoctrinated in failed Vietnam policies. I thought our country faced a moment of immense importance. Could these false advertisements mislead enough people to allow the Bush administration to continue ravaging the Middle East and expose our military to more needless death while the depleting the treasury of the reserves the Clinton presidency established with a balanced budget? Isn’t this as bad as Vietnam? Kerry reminded us during his speech before the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations April 23, 1971, “Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be, and these are his words, 'The first President to lose a war.' We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

How appropriate were those words to the conflict in Iraq? How can the American people be misled by presidents and their administrations who so flagrantly trample upon the cherished principles of honesty, integrity, and the concept that war is always the last resort when all peaceful avenues have been exhausted? I was outraged when I learned that the Gulf of Tonkin resolution fabricated a phantom attack on the high seas to a docile and believing Congress in order to escalate the Vietnam debacle that sent more than 58,000 of our military to their death, not to mention the two million Vietnamese killed. Here we go again in Iraq I thought, unless the American people can withstand the fraudulent Republican campaign that will use any artifice to maintain their hammerlock on power.

Convinced because the Bush administration had committed themselves to “Shock and Awe” in the beginning of this war they were the single most dangerous crowd on earth, I recalled a famous Mahatma Gandhi quotation: “The Roots of Violence: Wealth without work, Pleasure without conscience, Knowledge without character, Commerce without morality, Science without humanity, Worship without sacrifice, Politics without principles.” Gandhi's words fit the Bush-Cheney-Rove team like a glove. My civil rights background, years of struggling against mean-spirited people and institutions like the military,  flashed before me as a reminder that all of us must do whatever we can to prevent powerful forces from destroying values we cherish in our society. If Bush won the election, I thought a most disastrous future awaited the world for the next four years. While I enjoyed the wonderful tailgate party, not even the aroma of garlic, herbs, fresh oysters and clam chowder and Bloody Mary cocktails, deflected me from my feeling of doom hanging over the upcoming election like a tidal wave ready to sweep away the gentle people committed to non-violence.

(Joan , Dan, and Kathy Lyndon at Tecumseh Statue taken by Denny Lyndon--click to zoom)

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BB Guns, Softball, and Boxing

     We had a target range in the basement of our Chevy Chase home for BB rifles and pistols Dad bought Chip and me. Dad marked off the distance where we should stand and gave us a safety lesson that included never pointing a loaded gun at anything living. Chip and I spent many hours shooting at thick paper targets with a bull’s eye marked on it with ever widening circles to the end of the target. One day Chip teased me so hard about not being as good a shot as he, “Stop teasing or I’ll quit,” I said. “You’re a sissy, can’t beat me, and want to leave like a baby.” “I’m not a sissy. Don’t call me that.” “You’re a sissy. What are you going to do about it?” “Don’t ever call me a sissy again.” “You’re a sissy. Danny is a sissy. What are you going to do about it?” “Maybe I’ll shoot you if you keep it up.” “You better not or Dad will take your pistol away, sissy.” Chip grabbed my BB pistol from my hand but I had too good a grip for him to take it. “Get your hands off my pistol or I'll shoot.” “You wouldn’t. You're chicken.” “Get your hands off I said.” “Sissy Chicken. Sissy Chicken.” BOOM THUD! “Ouch!” His unbelieving eyes and shocked expression met mine and I ran upstairs to escape retaliation. A small BB lodged in Chip’s hand. Silently, he came upstairs, tended his wound with iodine, and put a Band-Aid on the surface scratch that had made its point. He realized he went over the line with me. I had done something I was taught not to do and was embarrassed by my loss of control. For the first time I had asserted myself against Chip when he acted like a bully. I never had in my power such an opportunity before. Scary what a gun in a boy’s hands can do. Dad removed the BB guns to penalize us. Our cousins Lew, Phil and Nance Groebe, visited us the next week during summer when their parents drove them from Chicago. Dad rented a large cabin in a private community called Scientist’s Cliffs on Chesapeake Bay an hour and a half away. A community house, swimming pool, tennis courts, fishing, athletic fields, parkland, and community gardens were there for us to enjoy. Scientists' Cliffs comprise 276 acres of the Calvert Cliffs, which rim 25 miles of the Chesapeake Bay's western shore. Towering up to 130 feet above water level, the Cliffs contained exposed marine fossil deposits from the Miocene period, when the area and much of Maryland was covered by a shallow sea. We swam, fished, found prehistoric shark's teeth, and played with other vacationers as well as the locals. I brought my baseball glove, bat, a football, and a few balls to play catch.     While on a short hike exploring I noticed older kids playing a softball game. After awhile I asked a boy close to my age, “Do you need any good players?”   “Sure. My name is Tommy. What position do you play?” “Any position you need.” My new friend introduced me to his teammates saying, “This guy Danny can play softball good.” The captain looked at me with my bat and glove. “Danny, play left field. You bat fifth up after Tommy.” When the other team took the field, their pitcher whipped fast underhand pitches warming up trying to intimidate us as the sunshine glinted off the fresh cut grass at noon with its fresh smell. They wore orange, black, and yellow Baltimore Oriole hats and were in the fifth grade—I was in fourth and wore a pin-striped Washington Senator’s cap with a large "W" on the front. As I came up with two outs and two on base, their huge first baseman with pot-belly teased, “The Senators suck.” I hid my enmity, but was distracted. “Ball one,” said the ump as the ball whizzed by me high. Remembering Sam Mele’s coaching, “Always be ready for the first good pitch,” my eyes glued on the next one that came down the middle. SMACK! My line-drive went over the shortstop’s head in the gap between the outfielders driving in two runs and I slid smiling into second in a cloud of dust with a double. After an hour the game ended. Contributing to his team’s victory with a few hits and running catches of hard hit fly balls that could have been home runs, I was glad they thanked me for joining them. Although the Orioles were a minor league team in 1950, it made no sense to rag kids who looked up to them. “Do you know how to box?” Tommy said after the game. “Sure, my Dad taught me to box my older brother.” “Boxing is my favorite sport. Come over to my house and box a round. I have the gloves for both of us.” Looking at him again a little worried he might knock me out, “I really haven’t boxed for years.” “I’ll show you how to box for fun.” He was a good athlete, a little bigger, older, and stronger, but I thought maybe it would be fun. “ OK show me.” “I’ve taught lots of kids to box because my Dad taught me how to defend myself. I box in competitions.” These words frightened me even more. Not wanting him to think I was a chicken, I could not back down. We walked to his house where he took me to his room. “Head gear will protect you and the gloves are soft,” he said handing them to me. “Yeah, they are soft.” “Put on your head gear and follow me to a ring my Dad fixed in the back yard.”  My heart pounded as he was a serious trained boxer about to pound me. “OK Danny, stand there in that corner and I'll start here in my corner. When I ring the bell we have three minutes to box and then the bell will ring stopping the round. Return to your corner when you hear the bell.” “Aren’t you going to teach me to box first?” “Come on Danny. The best way to see what you need is to watch you box. After that I’ll teach you how to improve.” DONG rang the starting bell and out he charged at me eyes bulging with confidence like a bull-dog to a poodle. Holding my boxing gloves up in a defensive stance, I was determined to give him a good fight. He jabbed me twice with his left hand that I warded off. I threw a hard punch at him that he ducked and swung a mighty upper cut that caught my chin sending sweat and saliva in the air. CRACK…. Stars burst in my head and my body crumpled to the ground—head throbbing and mind spinning. No one had ever hit me so hard in the face. The gloves seemed to have added power to the blow, but at least there was no trace of blood, just hurt, watching from below. “I can’t box you. I haven’t learned to defend myself.” “Don’t give up. You need to protect your chin and face from any punch wherever it comes from. Get up.” “Don’t punch me again like that. You knocked me out.” “I always knock out anyone who fights me. Then I teach them to box. Don’t you want to learn?” “Yeah,” came out my sore mouth. BLAM and down my body fell from a punch that landed on the right side of my face from a “haymaker.” As I got up he attacked tenaciously with his left fist against my left cheek smashing it against my nose. My head was reeling. Dizzy and sweating, blood dripped from my nose into my mouth. I struggled to rise and charged him like a football player would before tackling someone. He dodged and hit me on the side of my head with another brutal punch, but the head gear cushioned the blow and then the bell rang. We sat in opposite corners. Heavy breathing and sweating revealed I was a fish out of water. After a minute the bell started the next round. Staggering, I came at him again jabbing with my left. He blocked each whack and pummeled me with two heavy blows to the forehead. Back-peddling, I led with a  hard right when he approached. He backed off long enough for me to lunge and I socked him hard on the side of his face, SMACK...that made him smile. He enjoyed pain! The bell finally rang. Feeling hurt in many places, sweating profusely, and red-faced, I was unsteady and bewildered. It seemed like we had been fighting for fifteen minutes, not six. “You’re the best boxer I ever met. I need to rest.” “Get some water and in a minute we’ll go another round.” The battle taught me to have a healthy respect for boxing, but I was so over-matched it would have been foolish to let him pummel me anymore. “My Dad allowed me two hours to play softball and I've been gone three. Thanks for showing me how to box. Can you ever hit hard!” “OK, but you should practice and learn to defend yourself.” Glad to have survived a boxing test as a 10 year old subjected to teasing, but not clouts to the face that brought blood, I was left with a splitting headache. Tommy used my face as a target pulverizing me relentlessly. Was life punishing me for shooting Chip with a BB pistol? Does Karma balance the cruelty in the world? Tommy was a brute I had no intention of emulating. His depraved smirk when my right fist connected with his face revealed the savage inside one could feed or reject for a compassionate life Grandma Ruthie taught. "One reaps what they sow," she often said. When I returned to our rental, Lew and Phil were taunting Chip about his interest in a girl they called, “Red Mouth,” causing him to blush and feel victimized. “Chip, I'm sorry I shot you with a BB,” I said with a smile. “Let's play catch,” he said, grabbing a football grinning. Lew and Phil joined as we threw friendly spirals to each other. “Sammy Baugh throws another Redskin's TD,”I said when Chip caught my pass. He spun around and fired one to Lew. Snagging the pigskin, he turned and connected with Duke, “Johnny Lujack hits Ed Sprinkle and the Bears win the game,” he said as Phil sped under it. Camaraderie between cousins replaced petty tension when deflected. “Come and get it,” said Dad ten minutes later. He and Uncle Lewis had prepared a BBQ and planned an evening of magic tricks and card games.  We joined them, Val, and cousin Nance as they served ribs, steaks, corn-on-the-cob from the grill, and a salad. It was good to return to civilization.

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RA5C Mishaps and Vietnamese Abuse of Downed Crew

The last phase of training consisted of missions where we performed a variety of maneuvers to learn all the features of the RA5C. We had a range of about three thousand miles. Fourteen thousand feet proved the best altitude to save on fuel while practicing the photographing of targets was at five hundred feet. With a jet airplane capable of going twice the speed of sound, we had to ensure we did not break the sound barrier near communities where windows can shatter. People file complaints to the FAA and could cause a pilot and his navigator a visit to the base Commander. Such conduct could result in a court martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.   After each flight, we inspected the plane for any safety problems and reported on systems that malfunctioned. On all my many training missions I made comments that all of the systems not affecting flying did not function, except the radar we used for navigation and rough identification of some targets we could verify with the closed circuit TV. None of the training jets had cameras.  I also looked at the safety bulletins in the ready room while waiting for our flights. The high number of helicopter accidents killed many aviators both in training and combat. When I noticed many RA5Cs had fatal accidents from hydraulic failure, pilot error, or other malfunction, I questioned the safety of our aircraft. When these accidents occurred at low altitude, often the crew would not have time for their parachutes to function properly after ejecting. While many seemed unaware, or did not read these reports, I found them troubling as no other aircraft from my review had near the number of fatal mishaps.   On a Friday morning, an unmarried congenial RA5C pilot a year older than I wanted to fly to New Orleans and asked if anyone would like to join him. He could check out an A-3 bomber that would take five passengers if any of us would act as crew. At the same time, we would earn flight training hours. I volunteered with some friends and prepared a navigational chart after discussing the flight plan with the pilot. We took off and in a short time circled New Orleans awaiting clearance to land. Our pilot started to descend and banked to the left to get on the approach path. At about five thousand feet I heard an explosion and the windshield shattered showering us with thousands of fragments. The outside air rushed in filling the cockpit with loose papers and spilling coffee adding to the confusion. We could have been sucked out of the cockpit if we had not been strapped in tight. Our pilot carefully maneuvered us directly over the runway and descended on the glide path and admitted he had never experienced such an incident. For the first time I felt vulnerable in the air. Anything could threaten the cockpit, even a bird flying in our path. We hailed a taxi and entered New Orleans, checked into a hotel, and walked around the entertainment area where jazz and pop musicians treated audiences to a swinging time. Fats Domino played at his own lounge and Al Hirt always had a crowd. I loved Fats and headed for his lounge to enjoy his rhythm and blues. As I walked in, I heard him playing Blueberry Hill. I took a seat with some of my friends only a few feet away from the star. His fans requested many of my favorite songs: I’m Walkin’, The Fat Man, and Yes It’s Me and I’m in Love Again. He had sweat beads covering face and his smile lit up the room. The music jumped off the piano keys while his deep voice drove the lyric as his body rocked and his head bobbed. The crowd danced and sang. Most of them knew the words. I could have lingered there until he closed, so sweet was his music and glad I was to be alive to hear it. His music was an escape from the reality I lived and the new fears that haunted me before sleep. On another occasion, after my pilot and I had completed half of a training mission, ground control radioed, “The Sanford Naval Airfield is shut down for incoming traffic due to a thunder storm with no visibility. You must divert. Please advise.” Navigators always consider what might go wrong in the event of the need to divert from each destination. “Dan, give me the course and distance to the nearest airfield on your divert list,” Todd said on the intercom. I gave him the name of an airfield a little south of Jacksonville. Ground control there radioed it had no visibility so I selected another just off the St. Johns River. “Visibility two hundred feet now and improving. We had a thunder storm but it has passed,”They advised. Since we had only a little fuel left, I gave Todd an approach course and mileage to the new airfield and contacted the airfield, “We’ve begun to divert, give us an approach vector, and clear us to land.” “Use incoming vector 275,”Ground Control announced. Todd banked into the assigned approach course. We descended through dark rain clouds, “I’m unable to visually see the airfield. I’ll continue until I do.” A few minutes later he said, “I have the runway in sight. Prepare for landing…..The runway is covered with rainwater from the thundershower that just passed. I’m going to land us anyhow.” The plane shuttered as he turned down the thrust and adjusted the flaps. The tires made a THUD on the runway as we glided on the rain-watered surface. Todd applied the air brakes and full flaps as we started to slow and then one of our tires blew. That prevented surface breaking power as we barreled, a surf boarding technological monster. On my radar screen I could see our jet rapidly approaching St. John’s River. “We’re going to go off the runway ahead. Prepare for some bumps,” Todd said. “Send emergency help. We are about to enter the swamp if I can't stop this plane," He notified the ground crew. If he could not halt this gigantic steel bird, we were going to take a hairy bath. Time slowed down. I felt helpless unable to see from the back seat how perilous our situation was. Even my pilot had limited control in this emergency. The vibration was intense. I feared we were about to skid off the runway! Finally, it lessened and the plane came to grinding halt. Todd opened the cockpit. I could finally see the scene hidden from my view from my tiny side windows. We had run off the runway and only a few yards away the swamp was waiting to swallow us. Just beyond that, the St. Johns River eased to the Gulf. A red flashing light from an ambulance glowed in the rain, casting a double image that reflected off the water. Its siren wailed. A fire truck raced to assist us. I crawled out of the cockpit, scrambled down the side of the aircraft, and jumped to the ground. The ambulance took us to the ready room. My head was spinning in confusion. I trembled from forces that threw my body like an NFL linebacker to a child. Was this “the best heavy carrier based jet?” Had I made a mistake selecting the RA5C? Other fears haunted me. In an unstable, difficult to maintain jet aircraft, we might easily be killed or become prisoners in combat if assigned to Vietnam. Like the Japanese and the Nazi’s I learned to hate as a kid, we were told the VC, the NVA, and the North Vietnamese were barbaric to aviator captives. To make matters worse, navigators were not given the respect of pilots. Commanders in charge considered pilots the stars of the program. They would advance quicker than navigators. As a navigator I was blind except for my radar, not in control of the aircraft, unable to see from my back seat to anticipate danger as I had to shut the tiny slots to view my instruments and felt like a pawn in a cage.  I drifted into restless sleep that night, reviewing shattered windows, burst tires, a close swamp, near death, and sirens. On the way back to my apartment I stopped at a sports bar for a cold Schlitz and watched a hideous sight on TV. A crew of aviators, whose jet had been hit by a missile, had parachuted into North Vietnam. The nearby villagers had killed them and were parading their dead bodies strapped to long stakes through a city before cameras shouting “Yankee go home,” celebrating their death. The North Vietnamese screamed and shook their fists at the dead crew members, holding up signs of babies, children, and naked women covered with burns from napalm and white phosphorous bombs. An intelligence briefing confirmed the RA5C pilot’s report, “When the villagers caught the Americans they cut off their genitals and stuffed them in their mouths.” I went to visit Mom and my grandparents the next week upset over the RA5C  and glad to be alive. When I arrived they informed me Grampa had fallen ill during the summer and ended his life by taking an overdose of medications at a hotel. Mom said, “Men from his family had done that for years rather than end their lives in a hospital and force the family to incur enormous hospital charges.” Apparently he did not have health insurance to treat his stomach cancer. I felt a great loss not having my brilliant grandfather around to joke with me, play cards, and discuss sports during my stay. His death made me feel deeply sorry for his pain, suffering, and need to end his life. It made my reckless life as an RA5C navigator seem an escape from reality. I decided to take Mom and Ruthie to “The Sound of Music” to lift our spirits. We sang many of the songs all the way back after dinner at the officer’s club re-energized. After we arrived back at the beach house, Ruthie hid her remorse playing her Hammond organ providing serenity that harmonized with my tranquil view of the ocean waves perpetually moving toward the shore and ending their journey only to start again.

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