Simple math equation for Thanksgiving tonight.
The correct answer is to not be late.
Until next time, keep on rockin
Quick story time today as I am all over the place this week.
In late 2002, Billy G was the Training Officer for the Squadron. At that time, I was still the Pilot Scheduler. I say still because I was an absolute train wreck as a scheduler. I can be a detail guy but the schedule was in constant flux and my talent isn’t being anal and keeping up with all the changes. So invariably, something would change and I wouldn’t update the schedule properly and either someone would show up to fly and not be on the schedule or they wouldn’t show up and they were on the schedule. Honestly, it was a deficiency of talent combined with a poor attitude.
Anyway, I walked over to Billy’s office and he was reading a training report for a new pilot that had finished UPT (Undergraduate Pilot Training). Billy asked me to close the door and I sat down. We only closed the door for three reasons. The first was if we were going to talk about the airlines. The second was if we wanted to vent about the leadership. The third which was the most usual, there was something to joke about. We closed the door because it was in poor form to be caught having fun.
Billy handed over the report and I read it. The student was a guy named LT. Shy. Before I even read it, I asked if it was the guy with a brother who was a crew chief. We all knew and loved his brother, he was a quiet guy but always smiling and he was a great guy to take on a trip. We all assumed that the apple had not fallen far from the tree when we hired Lt. Shy. I scanned the report looking for the usual deficiencies but there were none. His daily flying scores were excellent; his check rides went well. His academic scores were good too. His Flight Commander ranking was low but we all knew that the guard guys were always at the bottom because it was a more meaningful ranking for the active duty guys. I finally got to the notes section and there was a comment that “Lt. Shy was extremely demonstrative in and out of the airplane.” But there were no other details other than that single comment.
I asked what that meant and Billy said he had no idea but we would find out when Lt. Shy finished school in the late spring. What neither Billy or I knew was that when Lt. Shy returned from training, we would all be deployed and we wouldn’t meet him until six months later.
Lt. Shy eventually became Shy Dog as I called him that sometime in his first rotation in the fall of 2003. Shy Dog first crewed with Billy on that rotation and as Billy told me got a missile shot at them on Shy Dog’s first takeoff out of Baghdad. In the heat of the moment, Billy dived down towards the ground from the altitude of 100 feet. Richie was the engineer for Billy on that flight. He said that Billy was pulling the shingles off the roofs of the houses because he was so low. They got shot at just as they pulled the gear up and in the heat of the moment, Shy Dog never raised the flaps. Billy commented that he couldn’t get the airplane to accelerate faster than two-hundred fifty knots.
Richie figured it out quickly, it was because the flaps were still down. Billy was going to slow down as the danger had passed, when Shy Dog raised the flaps over the screams of “NO!” from Billy and Richie. The damage had been done and they returned back to our base for a series of flap inspections. For the next ten minutes, Billy learned what the Flight Commander meant when he stated that Lt. Shy was demonstrative as Shy Dog brutally dog cussed himself. That is why I called him Shy Dog.
Fast forward two years later and Shy Dog, Richie, Carl D., Patrick, and Anita were sitting at the dinner table enjoying a grilled cheese sandwiches as Shy Dog for some reason started talking about his favorite Aircraft Commanders. Billy was his favorite, but he loved flying with Russ, Toney, SeaBass, Morgan, Mikey, Pauly, DCM, Jody Jack, Scotty, and so on. As he listed off all of the Aircraft Commanders, Richie kneed me under the table. I looked at Richie and he couldn’t wipe the smirk off his face. I looked at everyone else and they all were holding back their laughter.
I nodded because he had left off one person from his list; me. Everyone knew it except Shy Dog. Carl D. looked at me and we smiled. Patrick looked at Richie and he winked. Anita was holding both hands over her mouth trying not to laugh. But Shy Dog never noticed, he just kept going until he had listed every pilot in the Squadron except me. Richie finally broke the silence. “I guess you don’t like flying with Robbie.”
We all broke into laughter and Shy Dog realized what he had done. He tried to back pedal and say that it was a list of everyone not sitting at the table. He said that iIt should be obvious that I was at the top of the list. Speaking quickly, his face grew redder until he couldn’t hold back the tidal wave of inappropriate words. He cussed himself, he cussed us and he cussed the people he didn’t know at the other tables. He cussed the sky and he cussed the ground. The more we laughed, he cussed. The more he cussed, the more we laughed.
It was the gift that kept giving for the rest of the rotation as someone would tell me that they didn’t think I was as good as any random person in the world. Shy dog would explode on demand and we always laughed. I see Shy Dog from time to time and he always tells me that he didn’t mean to infer that he didn’t like flying with me. Right this second, I am texting Billy and I told him that I am writing this article. Billy says “Excellent. We had some good times. He (Shy Dog) is a great guy to the core.” We all feel the same way about him.
Until next time, keep on rockin.
The following story is being told out of sequence since it makes more sense to tell it now as opposed to when it actually happened.
Rarely do stories from a rotation beat you home. Most of the time, I only found out about my friend’s experiences months or years afterwards. That is one of the downsides of being deployed in smaller numbers. This was one of the few stories that beat us back home.
After the few days of despair following my issues with my wife, Donetta. I tried very hard to find a new usual routine which involved trying to call home as much as possible. Those calls were not always pleasant or productive but they did serve to keep the lines of communication open. One of those calls didn’t go very well and later I found out that Donetta was thinking that her life would be better if I would just simply go away and die. I don’t blame her but this was the first time that I discovered that she has powers beyond most women. Her power is that she can change her thoughts into reality.
We were scheduled to go on a regular Air Medal mission out of K2 Uzbekistan, down to Herat, Afghanistan to Bagram, Afghanistan, to Jalalabad, Afghanistan to Kandahar, Afghanistan back to Bagram and back to K2. All of that in an easy twenty-hour day. We called them Air Medal missions because we would carry Uzbek air to Herat. Herat air to Bagram and so on. We mostly flew empty and occasionally with a couple of passengers or a little cargo. It was simply a regularly scheduled mission that could be re-tasked easily should the need arise.
The co-pilot, Shy Dog, was flying the first leg out of K2 because it was his turn to fly first. Climbing up to twenty-five thousand feet, I already had my chair back and my feet up. He was hand flying to altitude which was the normal routine. We had one of the rare morning departures so the sun was already high in the sky and life was good until he engaged the auto-pilot.
When he did, the aircraft went into a violent spasm, I don’t know how else to describe it. In a nanosecond, it went from smooth flight to severe shaking. A good metaphor would be sitting on a house sized can of paint on the paint mixer. The airplane shook so hard that not only was dust falling down from the overhead panel but it was rising a foot off of the floor. My pilot friends know what severe turbulence feels like and this was way beyond anything I had ever felt. The rudder pedals were popping a couple of inches fore and back, so much that it hurt my feet when I put them to the pedals. The yoke was moving in a circular pattern fore and aft and side to side. Not only that but the sound was overwhelming and over rode the already loud roar from the engines.
I looked at Shy Dog and in typical pilot fashion. “What did you do!” I yelled into the intercom. I was yelling not because I was mad but because I couldn’t hear myself talk through my headsets.
Defensively he replied. “I turned on the auto-pilot.”
“Turn it off!” I commanded using the long-time pilot technique which reasons that if you press a switch and something bad happens, then by turning it off will fix the problem.
He quickly turned off the autopilot and it did nothing to dampen the vibration although the flight controls were no longer fighting themselves. The severe vibration continued and they could be felt everywhere including my chattering teeth. I asked for the airplane and Shy Dog was happy to give it back to me. I had no idea what our airspeed, altitude or heading were because it was impossible to read the instruments. If it had been nighttime, then we would have a more complex issue on our hands. But since we could see the ground, we were able to keep the wings and pitch attitude level.
Richie was one of the most experienced Flight Engineers we had and he was already working to diagnose the problem. Initially, he thought we might have thrown a propeller off an engine. Carl D. and Patrick were already looking out the windows at the engines. As I learned later, they were crossing back and forth from window to window looking for something out of the ordinary. They quickly determined that the engines were operating normally. Carl D even looked at the landing gear thinking that one might have popped out of its lock. It was normally stowed.
After what felt like an hour but in reality must have been thirty seconds, Richie said the worst possible words. “Robbie, I have no idea what is going on.”
Shy Dog and I both turned around to look at him. He just shrugged. That is when I really started to get scared.
He suggested that maybe a life raft had deployed since that had happened to a Marine Corp C-130 a few months earlier. That airplane made an emergency landing in Huntington and our mechanics went down to help them out. But from what we heard, when they had that issue the airplane pitched hard up and rolled over onto its back while the autopilot was on. They were very fortunate to have survived. At that moment, I was expecting the tail of the airplane to fall off and we would have to spend the next several minutes doing our death yell.
At that point, I had only been truly scared once and that was doing a night vision goggle landing in a dust storm. You can read about it here part 1 https://wordpress.com/post/robakers.wordpress.com/1184. Part 2 https://wordpress.com/post/robakers.wordpress.com/578 part 3 https://wordpress.com/post/robakers.wordpress.com/594
The difference between these events was that at that time, the airplane was working great so it was a pilot problem. I was concerned another time after taking off with the airplane’s center of gravity out of limits forward. I never was really worried about that event but I knew that we were operating at the edge of a flight limit so we needed to be very cautious on landing. You can read about that here https://wordpress.com/post/robakers.wordpress.com/1184
This was very different as we didn’t know what was wrong and we didn’t know how much longer the airplane would stay in one piece. I told Carl D, Patrick and Anita the Navigator to put on their parachutes. I would have told Shy Dog and Richie the same thing but I knew they would have told me where to put with that order. For better or worse, we were going to ride it in together.
We knew we had to change something and since we were officially test pilots we could do whatever we wanted. I slowly pulled back the throttles to idle so that we could slow down. To my surprise, the vibration dampened as we slowed. It took a minute or so to slow down from cruise speed towards a speed that required flaps. We talked about if we should change the configuration of the wing. We agreed that we could try as long as we made very small changes so that if things got worse we could try to fix it.
We were still at 25,000 feet and slowed down to our landing speed but were still going towards Afghanistan. I thought that Anita was in the back putting on a parachute when I asked Shy Dog to find us a field when she spoke up. She was still standing at her post and had the information available. Anita told us to return to K2 as it was much closer than Herat. I asked why she didn’t put on her parachute when she actually told me what I could do with that suggestion. She was going to ride it in with Richie, Shy Dog and me. Carl D and Patrick already had their parachutes on. I thought was good to have a living witness.
We made the turn back and declared an emergency with Uzbek air traffic control. We decided to descend to 10,000 feet so that when the tail fell off we wouldn’t have as long to scream. We also did a landing check with the landing gear down and half flaps so we felt pretty sure that if we made the runway then we could land. The vibration had dampened but it was still like driving your car over the rumble strips to the side of the interstate. We could actually see the instruments and the dust was no longer raining down on us. If it took thirty minutes to fly out, it must have taken ninety minutes to get back. It was the longest flight of my life. No one said a word. The airplane was out of trim and heavy on the controls.
We reasoned that it was a problem with the elevator but couldn’t be sure if it was in the trim section or the elevator itself. Several years earlier, an Alaska Airlines MD-80 had an elevator problem that resulted with them being unable to pull out of an un-commanded dive. They all died as they crashed into the ocean just off the California coast. Their problem was attributed to a jackscrew breaking in the elevator. As we slowed to landing speed, the airplane was nose heavy and once we discovered that the normal trim wasn’t working properly, we decided to use our muscles and not trim the airplane. The problem was that it took effort to hold the nose up so we traded controls frequently.
Approaching the field, we could see that the entire base had come out to watch us land. The fire trucks were out, there were at least a hundred-mechanics standing outside and whoever else got wind of the news that we were coming back. I flew and Shy Dog worked the controls with me. Together, we touched down gently and taxied in un-eventfully. I’m sure everyone left a little disappointed that they didn’t get to see us die in a Hollywood style fireball. What can I say, I have been disappointing people my entire life.
We hardly had time to pry the seat cushions out of our backside when the maintenance guys came up. They had already found the problem and were working on fixing it. The actuator that moved the trim tab had broken, so the vibration was coming from the trip tab fluttering in the wind. That is why when we slowed down, we also slowed the air flowing over the flapping tab so that the vibration was reduced. We went back to look at the elevator and the trim tab. The elevator is the size of King Author’s Round Table. It is a huge piece of metal. The trim tab is about the size of a 2X4 piece of lumber. We milled around the airplane for a while, just getting our senses back. Of course, there were hugs and pats on the back but for as scared as we were, it really seemed like the damage to the airplane was minimal.
We were asked if we wanted to go back out and finish the mission. I declined the offer and told the Commander that we needed a break. I’m not sure anyone believed us when we described how violent the flight was, but I didn’t care. I was just glad to be alive. I was so happy that I called home to tell my wife how close she came to being a widow. That is when she told me that she was actually thinking that she would be better off if I had died. But after hearing my voice and heading the story and knowing that she was really close to getting her wish, she and I both felt a renewal and for once there was hope.
Earlier, I said that this story made it home before I did. That was true, after my wife and I spoke she called Billy G’s future ex-wife, Sherri and told her about what happened and how that she thought that I would die and it almost happened. Sherri told Billy and about a month later when I got back to the squadron for a normal training flight. No one cared about the story or anything else about what had happened. All they cared about was if Donetta was happy with me when I left the house that morning because they were not going to fly with me if she was mad at me. From that point on, it was common knowledge that she had super powers and her feelings were not to be trifled with.
Until next time, keep on rockin.
I have been looking for a reason not to write this post ever since my wife first suggested that I document my experiences over there. I have been dodging this particular subject but the time has come that it must be addressed. Not because I want too but because if I am going to be honest with all the other stories, then I have to tell you about my failure.
I alluded to it when I started this new series documenting the particular rotation. I don’t remember the exact time in the rotation that my wife told me that I was not a good husband or father but it had to be fairly early on in the rotation. The details of what I did to her isn’t as important as acknowledging that on the morning that she confronted me, I was sure that I would return to the USA with an empty home and a daughter who would be raised by a single mom.
I have repressed most of the details about that conversation with her but afterwards, I went out to the airplane to fly all day. All I remember about that flight was that it was the day that would not end. I told the crew that my wife and I were having issues and that she would probably divorce me when I got back. I asked Shy Dog if he minded flying and letting me work the radios. To his credit, he said yes and he flew every bit of the twenty-hour day while I sat slumped in my seat totally lost and borderline depressed because I had failed at the most important job.
I don’t remember anyone talking on the intercom other than checklist items. Again, that is so not cool to bring a personal matter into a combat zone but I wasn’t smart enough to say that I couldn’t fly that day. Somehow, we made it through the day and got home safely. I think I apologized to the crew for bringing them down but if I didn’t, then I will do it now. I’m sorry.
Eleven years after that rotation, I believe that if I had been at home when my issues were discovered then my wife and I would have divorced. I believe that things happen for a reason and I believe that there is a higher power that intercedes when knuckleheads like me go off the rails. I believe that it was divine intervention that I was on the other side of the world while my marriage was crumbling. That sounds counter-intuitive but in my case it was the very best remedy for my failures because the problem wasn’t with my wife. It was totally, 100% me. I needed to take a self-inventory and figure out what was really important in life.
A day or two after my wife told me she was leaving, I was laying in my bunk when I decided that I needed to talk to a professional. I got dressed and went out to the Chaplain’s tent. That was a big deal for me because I am not the guy that goes out and pours my life onto someone else. I remember pausing at their door trying to think of a reason not to open it. But since I was desperate, I went in. I looked around and there was no one there. The tent was empty. Normally, that would have made me happy but it was like a kick in the gut because I knew that I would have to try again later. The tent had an exterior waiting room that doubled as a library. There were several books on the counter top. My eye went to one specifically, it was The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.
I’m not a self-help book kind of guy but I picked it up and flipped very briefly through the pages. This was one of those moments when you have the feeling that you’re on the right path but you don’t know why. If I were to state this another way, I think that the book found me. I hurried out of the office before the Chaplin returned and went back to my bunk. I started reading and began to get right with myself. Looking back and summarizing why I was engaging in self-destructive behavior, I think it was an issue of being angry. My heart was filled with anger that was directed at God and myself.
The opening chapter of The Purpose Driven Life dealt with accepting the fact that the God that created the universe also created every human that has walked the Earth and that the God that made everything never made a mistake which means that I was created perfectly, exactly the way he intended. I don’t want to get into the discussion of religion or humanity but for me the huge hurdle in my life was to get over was that I am perfectly created to be who I am and my anger issues were built into my DNA. I still have issues with this but I’m still a work in progress.
Another thing that saved my marriage was the fact there are no secrets on deployment. A day of so after it all went bad, the deployed commander found me at the chow hall. I can see his face but I don’t remember his name. I think he was from the Georgia Guard but I really don’t remember. He told me that he heard I had troubles at home and he told me that his office had a private phone line that I was welcome to use anytime I needed to call home. He said that if he was in his office and I needed to call home then he would leave his office to give me some privacy. It is almost impossible to explain what a blessing that was to us. Normally, to make a call home I had to go to the morale tent where there was a large bank of phones. There was always a line waiting to use a phone and once you got a phone, you were limited to a ten-minute conversation then the line would automatically disconnect. That was all you got unless you got back in line. It was painful but having a private line that could be used anytime and for any length when a long way toward helping my wife and I work through everything. Soon after that offer by my commander, I called home every night and we slowly began to rebuild the relationship.
Another blessing was that a long time married couple back home found out that we were having issues. When we met this couple, they were the picture of the perfect marriage. But they approached my wife and told her about how close they were to divorce early on in their marriage. They are the best mentors ever and have remained close to us to this day.
Those were dark days but thanks to an understanding and forgiving lady, I am still married today. I am so unworthy of her love, but she loves me anyway.
There are probably new people reading this article today who are new to my little side of the internet and why I write these articles about my old life. The point is to give my kids an understanding of who their dad was before they were born. But if you are reading these words and you are currently in a dark place, I hope you can see that there is always hope. One of the things that I had to accept was that I couldn’t control what decisions my wife would make and I couldn’t make her learn to trust me again. That was totally on her, all I could control was my path in life. Those types of decisions are tough for a control freak like me. But the point is still valid, control yourself, be a better person starting with where ever you are and move forward.
I am always here for someone who might find themselves in that dark place. I promise that I will not have all the right answers but I will be honest and try to point you in the right direction for you as you move forward through your dark path. I don’t do this often but I want to post my personal email for you contact me directly: email@example.com
I am serious, if you are in a bad place. Say hi.
Until next time, keep on rockin.
One of the things I like to do here at my site is to give you all something positive to believe in because all we get from today’s media is death, hatred, and Trump. It is enough to make the sanest of us want to slice our collective wrists with rusty, dull butter knives. Last week, my daughter’s Middle School volleyball team completed their season, I have got to tell you about it. I hope that you will leave with a renewed faith in some of the girls the schools are pumping out. There are a lot of words here, please hang with me.
Last week my family and I were consumed with all things volleyball and by the time it was over, we all were plumb worn out. My daughter’s coach is a graduate of the school. When Coach Wilson played at the school, her teams had a record of 60-0 at one point and won the state championship three times in four years playing varsity volleyball. I don’t care who you are, that is very impressive. Coach Wilson went on to play college volleyball at Pensacola Christian College. After her first month, the head coach called her to his office before practice. She thought that he was going to make her a starter, instead he told her that she wasn’t good enough to play for the team. She wasn’t just bad but she couldn’t even do the fundamentals of volleyball correctly. Her only chance stay on the team was to come in an hour before practice and learn everything all over. She spent her Freshman year wearing training wheels never creeping away from the end of the bench but she didn’t quit and she didn’t let herself be run off.
Her second year she got some court time and was a starter her Junior year playing on the back row and never left the court her Senior year. Just before graduating college, she had a job offer at a large private school outside Cleveland to be a Math teacher and the Head Coach of the High School volleyball team. She had the signed contract in front of her just waiting to mail it off when she decided to call the Principle of her former school. To her surprise, the Principle had an opening and it was exactly the same job description as the job in Cleveland. When she left our little Mayberry town, she swore that she wouldn’t come back but after a few minutes talking to the Principle she had verbally accepted his job offer.
Her first year back, she found that the program that she left four years earlier as the best in the state was now in shambles. The school had not put enough emphasis on the Middle School program and there was no talent on the High School team. At the tender age of twenty-one, Coach Wilson decided that she needed to start from the scratch. She became the Head Coach of the Middle School team. That year, they had one eighth grader, a couple of seventh graders and a handful of sixth graders. But there weren’t enough girls to have a full bench so Coach Wilson dropped down to the fifth grade and pulled six girls out to fill out the team. My daughter was one of those girls.
That first year, they got the ever living snot kicked out of them. We would drive two hours to play a match that was over in fifteen minutes. I don’t think they won a game let alone a match that first year. Last year, the team won a few matches but in the state tournament they lost twice and were out on the first day. But there were signs of improvement. This year they had seven eighth graders, four starters, one regular sub and two bench players. My daughter’s group are now seventh graders, provided the other two starters and my daughter was the other regular sub with three more girls on the bench. They were a strong team and after the first week of practice Coach Wilson told me they had a real chance to win it all this year. Coach worked them hard, they ran, they served and competed every day in practice. Wanting more competition, Coach Wilson invited a couple of the High School girls out on Saturday practices to play against the Middle School starters and Coach Wilson regularly played against the starters spiking the ball as hard as she could.
The first game of the season was against Elk Valley Christian School. This school resides at the edge of the flood zone from earlier this summer. Even at the edge of the zone, the school received extensive damage and was closed for at least a month after all the other schools. Almost everyone in that town lost something in the flood; many lost their house. I imagine all of the girls and their families were affected somehow. After that game, Coach Wilson was determined that her team would not lose another game this year. And they didn’t.
My daughter’s team went into the state tournament as the number two seed with a 14-1 record. Elk Valley was the number one seed also with a 14-1 record. Our girl’s didn’t get a return match with Elk Valley because the night they were scheduled to play was the night before the re-opening of their school. They had an open house along with other ceremonies so the game was canceled.
The number three seed was the defending State Champion from Beckley, WV. We were not scheduled to play them in the regular season and they came into the tournament with two losses and a lot of attitude. Their school is easily twice the size of my daughter’s school but with a reputation of several state championships including last year. We played them last year and when Coach Wilson called a time out, their coach wouldn’t huddle up her players. They stayed on the court and waited. Intimation at its best.
The fourth seed was from Huntington and they were the classic never make a mistake team. They had a great back line and always bumped the serve, got it to the middle and hit it back over the net. Well coached in the fundamentals, they were not a team that would beat itself. The fifth place team was from just up the road in Cross Lanes, they were the only team to beat Elk Valley this year and they had the very best player in the league. This young lady is already 5-10 and can jump out of the gym. She sports blond hair cut short with a strong face. She already has a broad back and her arms hang almost down to the floor. She is a total power player and wants nothing more than to drive the ball straight into the face of the girl on the other side of the net. My wife got mad when I called her a gorilla, but that is the best word to describe her. The thing is that off the court, she is one of the nicest, most polite young ladies you could ever meet. Their only problem was that she didn’t have a strong supporting cast, I described them as Snow White and the seven dwarves to my daughter and her team mates one day. One of the girls pointed out that only six people could play at a time so we amended it to Snow White and the five dwarves.
On Monday, we hosted Snow White’s team and beat them in two very close games. It was a great confidence boost for the girls. On Tuesday, we played a school that wasn’t very good. It was the last regular season home game for the eighth graders so they had their night getting their gifts and they proceeded to go out and win the match in fifteen minutes. Thursday the team had probably their very best practice of the year. Coach Wilson was pounding her serves at the team and they were returning them all. Imagine a former college player hitting a ball with everything she has at a twelve-year-old. It doesn’t seem fair but everyone handled the heater. I was impressed and excited.
The only problem was that in the game Tuesday, my daughter pulled a muscle in her shoulder when she was serving. It hurt and she couldn’t serve. She tried in practice to go but as it wore on, she couldn’t play. We tried treatments, ice and heat. We got the kinesiology tape but when she tried to warm up for the game on Friday morning, it didn’t look good. Coach Wilson put her in for a couple of plays on Friday morning but my daughter’s confidence was shot and I knew she was out. Our team dispatched their opening round victim in eleven minutes. It would have been faster but Coach Wilson emptied the bench in the second game. Their next game was against Beckley because they won their first round game just as easily.
Since we were hosting the tournament, our girls went back to class following their game but one of the most exciting things for me was that the entire school in attendance. The gym was electric as two hundred kids from Kindergarten to High School were cheering every single point. Originally the Principal wasn’t going to interrupt school to send the kids down but fortunately he is open to opposing arguments. I got chills watching my daughter and the other girls play in that environment.
The second round matchup was two verses three in a classic matchup of two teams that were mirror images of each other. They had two big girls and so did we but we had the better overall team and would have had a deeper bench of two girls that would be starters on every other team in the league except that my daughter was injured and mentally not confident enough to play. The gym was filled with parents, some students and the two teams that were playing in the second game. If the first game was the biggest crowd these girls had played for during the season, then the night game was the second largest. And both teams put on a show.
Beckley had the second best player in the tournament and she had a great supporting cast but we still had the best overall team top to bottom. The first match was a three-point game from start to finish. It was crazy exciting as neither team flinched. The points were long and included digs out of the net and girls running from sideline to sideline. Our team won the first game 26-24. Before the game, I spoke to several of the Beckley parents just because I’m a nice guy and I was fishing for information. They had four girls that played travel volleyball exclusively and these parents never thought that our school would be too much trouble for their team. They were very nice and they said all the right things but I could tell that they were very confident going into the tournament thinking that they would win it again.
After the first game, one of the dads made eye contact with me and he nodded. Not arrogantly but as a sign of respect. I felt good, we had two games to play only needing to win one while they had to win both. We had home court advantage and we had not really played at the level that they had practiced at just a day earlier. The second game, our first serve went into the net and their opening server ran off nine straight points jumping out to a 10-1 lead. I was so proud of the girls as they came back and kept fighting but they lost the second game 25-19. But our confidence had been shaken.
The third game was another close game but Beckley was able to fight off every time we closed within four points. They ended up winning the third game 25-21. It was a gut shot to everyone from our school. The dream season had come to a close. The girls were in the locker room for about twenty minutes, in tears. We didn’t stay for the next game choosing to take my daughter home. Several of the girls did and it was tough on them to watch knowing they were playing for third place.
The next morning, my daughter and I went to the gym early to watch the fifth/sixth place game. Snow White’s team was playing and she was a monster. They lost to the team from Huntington the day earlier so she took out her fury on the team that we beat in the opening round. She was incredible and there was no doubt that she is the best player in the league. Our girls trickled in as the first game went on. The mood was somber. They all cried all night. Coach Wilson was just as devastated. She said she was working on a couple hours of restless sleep. Up at five, she didn’t have anything to do so she tried to go to some garage sales but couldn’t find the motivation to do anything but walk around like a zombie.
We were playing the team from Huntington as they lost to Elk Valley in what was described to me as a match that was as exciting as our match. Our school has a great relationship with the Grace Christian School. The schools always compete hard but we very friendly with them afterwards. Coach Wilson competed against the Coach of Grace Christian and they are friends. I was talking to one of the parents after we lost the night before and they were so wonderful. One lady noticed that my daughter didn’t play and they were sad that she was hurt. I wished them well and the next morning told them that we were sorry that they lost. Our girls would have liked to have had the opportunity to play Elk Valley and at least have the chance to win the re-match.
We started out slowly but our girls put the wheels when Coach put in the super sub and first girl off the bench. She was a rock star on the court and pulled the team out of their funk. Coach started her the second game and they rolled to victory and third place in the state. The Championship game started and the team from Beckley walked into the gym with all the confidence. But there is something to be said for having a team that just five months ago wasn’t sure they would even have a school to play for this year. There is a different level of determination that comes from seeing your life turned totally upside down in the course of a single night.
That team from Elk Valley didn’t look like a championship team when they got off the bus but they played like one. They dominated a much bigger and more talented team from start to finish and did what our girls couldn’t do. They won the state championship.
I have said a lot of words to this point and I hope you are still with me. As soon as the game was over, while the girls from Elk Valley were jumping on each other, hugging and celebrating their Championship; and while the girls from Beckley were holding their heads and trying to figure out what had just happened; and while three hundred parents from six schools were standing up and stretching for a car drive home. The girls from our school, all fifteen of them ran to the door of the locker room to form a victory tunnel for Elk Valley. Only they were not alone in making the tunnel as the girls from the other five teams ran out of the stands to join them. Very soon afterwards the girls that had just lost from Beckley joined the other players to form a tunnel that reached out onto the court.
It happened so fast that I couldn’t get my phone out. At the time, I was surprised and now I am moved towards tears just knowing that these girls get it. When you are in the game, you play to win but afterwards your goal is to love and celebrate others. They didn’t learn that from me, they learned it from Coach Wilson and the other two assistant coaches.
Would those girls have done that for Beckley? I doubt it. Would the other teams have done that for our girls? I don’t know. On Friday night, I was a mess. I was mad, angry and just devastated. I was sad for my girls because they lost and I was sad for my daughter because she didn’t get to play. But after witnessing that spontaneous display of sportsmanship, I know that the tournament was meant to end just like it did. The right team won and the right teams taught a gym full of parents that we are so fortunate to have all of these girls in our lives.
Sorry for all the words but I really needed to get them off my chest. Until next time, keep on rockin.
In the spring of 2005, my crew took me out from home back to war. This time we were not headed to the relatively flat Iraqi desert, but to the very mountainous Afghanistan region. Like we did in Iraq, we were fortunate to have to live in country. The bad news was that Afghanistan was an hour or so away but the good news was that we didn’t get mortared every night. All things being equal, I was okay with the extra flight time.
We moved into the nice, little oasis of Karshi-Kanabad (K2) Airbase in Uzbekistan. During this time, I was pushed out of shape emotionally but I immediately fell into love with K2. It was a small base that was run by the Army. I have no idea what they did there, but they did leave us alone. We had hard shelters made of shipping containers. They were a huge upgrade over tents. It was nice to have a hard walled, solid floor and a prebuilt cubicle as opposed to a flapping wall, dusty floor and sheet walls for privacy.
The bathroom connex box was right next door so no one had to make the 142 step walk of shame to shower or potty. The Uzbek Air Force occasionally flew their SU-27s and it was cool when they did because they flew a great low level air show over the base.
Richie found a coffee shop called the green bean. Every day before we went out to fly, I would stop into the green bean and get him a triple late’ with three extra shots of caffeine. I don’t drink coffee but the locals didn’t know that. When I walked in, they would start to make the drink to go. Shy Dog would always chuckle when he went with me to order the super strong coffee. But Richie was always happy with his piping hot coffee right before we started the engines.
Before our first flight, Shy Dog, Anita and I spent several hours in tactics, looking over the mountains of scattered information that we needed to know before we flew. I never understood why the important stuff couldn’t be put on a single document that would be easily accessed. It is the Air Force way so I didn’t try to fight city hall. We just learned it all. The nice thing, is that all of the important stuff did fit into a single five-inch binder that we called the Book of Knowledge. We worked out a system where Shy Dog would get the secrets, Anita would carry the Book of Knowledge and I carried Richie’s coffee.
Flying in Afghanistan was more difficult than Iraq in that the mountains really prevented us from flying a true low level arrival or departure. The threat was from shoulder fired ground to air missiles known most commonly as the SA-7. There were several variants of the missile and depending on where the missile was made. Russia, China and Iran were the most common producers of the SA-7 design. There were others that were more hazardous to us, the SA-14, SA-16 and SA -18 were newer technology and considered to be a real threat. As a general purpose, my philosophy was that any missile fired at us was the SA-18 and we reacted appropriately. Also, as a general rule I considered any take-off or landing that was not in North America as a tactical departure. Not that Uzbekistan was a dangerous place, but I wasn’t willing to trust them as much as I was willing to trust Canada.
The goal of every tactical approach was to fly to a point where we would pull the throttles to idle at altitude. Then we would try to fly all the way down to a very low level altitude of 100 feet or lower before pushing up the power again. I never strove to pull the power off and not touch it to touchdown because I didn’t want to be that close to the airport in the descent. I figured that we were more of a target there rather than dropping down twenty miles from the field and flying in from there. It was just a personal preference.
But coming in over the twenty thousand foot mountains into the valley where Bagram or Kabul were located, made things much more difficult to plan. In tactics prior to the first flight, we worked out or game plan and then we had the next two months to perfect it. It really helped to have Shy Dog and his experience on our side. By that time in his career, I don’t think he could have flown a “training instrument approach” but he was a fantastic tactical pilot. The reason he couldn’t fly an instrument approach was because he never had the opportunity to practice them. All things being equal, I would take Shy Dogs experience everyday and twice on Sunday.
One of the items of knowledge that we made a mental note of was that off the approach end of Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan was the base burn pit where they burned their garbage. The procedure was to turn off the missile warning system before passing over the burn pit so that you didn’t drop flares onto the people working there if the system sensed an incoming missile. That made perfect sense to me because no one wants a one-thousand-degree flare dropping on their head while they are working. That responsibility was Anita’s to flip the proper switches, but as Aircraft Commander it was mine to ensure it was done.
Flying out of altitude towards Bagram, I was really struggling to max perform the airplane while trying to get the “feel of old girl” as Scotty described it from years earlier. There really is a difference between flying low and feeling comfortable flying low. When you don’t feel comfortable, you are really dangerous because you are pushing your personal safety boundaries. I always found that it took me at least a couple of weeks to feel comfortable down low. When I had been out of the tactical environment for several months, it took much longer to feel safe flying at house top level.
Since this was the first flight, I was working much harder than I liked and 99% of my attention was focused on keeping the nose of the airplane out of the dirt. Well we forgot to turn off the missile warning system and sure enough, we got a false indication right over the end of the runway. I immediately knew what was happening because when the flares are ejected from their canisters, it really sounds like someone is hitting the airplane with a sledge hammer. Fortunately, we had passed the burn pit but it really is a bad feeling to know that you are pumping out several one thousand degree flares that are bouncing off the runway in every direction. That is a loss of cool points and the tower guy made sure that we knew that we were required to secure the system.
We shook it off and went out and finished the day without any other incidents. But the lesson had been learned, Anita always remembered to turn it off.
Until next time, keep on rockin.