Our father was a decorated B-52 bomber pilot in WWII, and as his first and only son, he was my hero. He succumbed to cancer at age 67, and I am now nearly 73, but he still is my hero.
Throughout my younger boyhood years, I was totally “into” airplanes: I knew every American-made WWII plane, and was “fully current” at age 9 with all the 100-series jets and the various bombers like the B-36, B-47 and B-58. I knew their speeds, their altitude limits, guns, bombs, all of it and could recite these at will. Moreover, I knew the Soviet Union bombers by the aircraft identification booklet we were handed at a get together in our tiny community center in Montell, Texas. You see, we lived about 60 miles as the crow flies from the Mexican border, and believe it or not, there was fear in those days of the Soviets coming from the south to bomb the US, so we were like the “front line” detection system. If we saw unusual aircraft flying north, we could grab our little books, see if we could identify it, then call a number in San Antonio to scramble fighter jets. However, we didn’t even have a telephone and would have to drive to some neighbor’s to call. By then, San Antonio would have been toast. So anyone who thinks that we have to fear terrorists coming across the southern border today, just isn’t old enough to recall what was perceived as a real threat in the days within a few years after WWII.
I used to love hearing, and occasionally seeing, F-100 fighter jets flying down the Nueces River canyon on low level training runs. They would often come right over our house, and Dad’s fifty-foot tall television antennae, used to snag a couple of grainy channels for our old box black and white tv, would actually wave back and forth from the jets’ shock waves, and the sound would be deafening. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world, going that fast and scaring the tar out of folks on the ground! But even better was seeing my father climb into the cockpit of a B-25 at Hondo Air Field, where he worked as an aircraft mechanic, and start the engines up and taxi it to another parking spot. Now that was cool! I could just see him at the yoke doing a dive bombing run on a Nazi railroad bridge in Italy, which he did many times.
When the space race began with the Soviets launching Sputnik, something stirred in me that night our family actually saw Sputnik go over south Texas on a dark starry evening. A few years later we were living not in the Texas hill country, but in San Diego, California, as our parents had had enough struggling to make ends meet on the ranch. Dad had gotten a good job at the plant that was building the new Atlas missiles, and Mom got a good job doing what she did in the war when they met, being an executive secretary. For three years we stayed in Southern California, and in my junior high school I took advantage of the electrical shop classes all three years, and really got interested in anything electric, but my neighborhood buddies and I were also very much into model airplanes. So the mix of electricity and airplanes and Dad working on ICBM’s caused the spontaneous combustion that became my fantasy of becoming an astronaut.
As years went by, I went on to The University of Texas in Austin, studying electrical engineering, while also being an Air Force ROTC cadet officer. I was on track toward my dream goal, of one day going into space.
In 1969 I got orders to head up to the air base in Big Springs, Texas, for pilot training. My dream was really shaping up! We started flying in a Cessna prop plane (although I had already gotten my license while in college), and then advanced to the T-37 “Tweety Bird” jet. Flying that plane was really cool, and it was the only jet plane that could do spins. Unfortunately, one hot afternoon after I had landed, with my instructor pilot in the right seat, we learned that the aircraft practicing in the area next to where we had been, had crashed, killing both. They apparently got caught in an inverted spin and hadn’t enough altitude to recover.
After six months or so I graduated out of the T-37, and was at the middle of my class ranking. I knew I was not material to fly fighters by then, but I also knew astronauts did not have to be fighter pilots. But there was a lot going on in my mind at that time, and it was affecting my spirit and emotions considerably. This was in the middle of the Viet Nam war. I also was madly in love with a beautiful black girl (who would become my wife for 25 years), and this was 1969. I had been in the T-38 supersonic jet training phase about a month or less, had taken one supersonic ride and was doing the simulator training and aircraft systems studies, when the first big written exam came up. I blew it bad. I had not studied, but had been running back and forth to Austin nearly every weekend, a 600 mile round trip. Finally “things” just caught up to me. I had realized a while back that I just did not feel physiologically comfortable flying. The ground felt a lot better. I just hadn’t processed this, and I was caught up in the quandary of being around a few fellow cadets who were openly racist toward me, a war that I did not like, and now this sense of just not being “pilot stuff.”
So when my grade came back from that exam, I was called in for “counseling.” After about five minutes the young officer who was a few years my senior, was able to see that my head was no longer in the program, and he said, well there’s something called “SIE” (a way to quit), and asked if I wanted to go that route, and I blurted without hesitation, “Yes!”. So after a tense officer board hearing and psychological evaluation, I was off to a new assignment in North Dakota. It was at that moment that I found my latent bliss, and it opened the door for me in a few more years to enter the career that I have loved for nearly half a century, being an electrical engineer.
After my military service I eventually got back into flying for pleasure, and did enjoy it, but I always enjoyed stepping out of the cockpit on to terra firma.
I am sure the conflict between fantasy and bliss is not uncommon. My lesson, which must be a universal one, is that catharsis can only be attained by facing the dilemma and listening to one’s heart.