Saturday, September 7, 2013

"When we have mastered these tactics, we will use them to seek out and confront the forces of evil."

Discipline is about doing what you don't want to do.  Self-discipline means that you don't need Staff Sergeant Purcell in your face telling you that you are, and I quote, "An insult to all of the hard working maggots in my great country."  We give the concept a lot of different names and try to make it a nuanced sort of thing, but at the end of the day something is either done or it isn't and that fact is determined by whether or not you did it, and you did (or did not do it) because either you, or someone else, made you.

There are times where that's easy - like eating cake - or hard - like not eating cake.  Sometimes we are asked to be something other than who we really are.  I believe that if you become that thing through self discipline you will not become lost, that you will be able to return to you when the job is finished.   Maybe haunted, maybe with a different perspective on the world, but still you.  Folks who are forced into the discipline are more likely to become lost.  Maybe that's hogwash - I don't have any credentials in the field, just experience with several different institutions.

When I was in high school I had a handful of very good teachers.  One of them (I'll call him Mr. Plumley) flew Hueys in Vietnam.  Slicks.  The ones that zipped into combat to drop or pick up troops but didn't have any weapons.  You didn't know he did that, at first.  Then you would hear stories, first from kids, and then maybe something as an example for a lesson.  But the lesson examples were very tame and more likely than not had nothing to do with the army.  By the end of the year we all knew he'd flown helicopters "back then" but not much else about it - certainly not what flying those helicopters really meant.  I did get him to talk about it a little bit - the movie "Firebirds" came out one of the years I had him and he went to see it.  Thought is was crazy.  "They flew loops.  If we went off level by more than 15% we were in trouble."
What a horrible movie.

Vietnam was something our parents didn't talk about.  All we knew was from watching the A-Team and Rambo.  I had met people who wore the war like a badge, but Mr. Plumley wasn't like that.  I was fortunate to have him more than once.  During my senior year, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and we went to war to avoid a repeat of Hitler's march on Europe.  He didn't say much about it.  Never said we should be more involved. Never said we should stay away.  I had other teachers who were much more vocal.  One of them took us to see "Born on the 4th of July" and then insisted we write an essay supporting Ron Kovic's position.

That same senior year I was able get Mr. Plumley to tell a couple of stories one on one.  I was fascinated by flying and was keen to hear about what it was like.  (My Grandfather flew in B-17s and I peppered him for years to tell me about it.  He did - once.  I get that now, but didn't then.)  Mr. Plumley and I had gotten to know each other a bit by then (when I turned in a test then took the meter stick next to the desk, turned sideways holding it between him and me, and said, "Mr. Plumly, if I were a ninja, would you be able to see me?"  his straight faced, immediate response was, "No, Jon.  I wouldn't.")

He told me about flying from a forward location back to a main base over enemy controlled jungle at night when the low oil pressure warning light came on for the engine.  Everything else looked normal, but that warning light was unnerving.  The three of them conferred and decided to press on - "Must be a short" - but that light haunted them so finally the crew chief covered it with tape.

He told me about a British helicopter that was struck by an artillery shell shortly after take off.  The Americans never fired artillery during flight ops, but the Brits, well they followed the "big sky doctrine".  Mr. Plumley did not subscribe to "big sky" and I don't think I do either.

He told us about rotor failure training.  We'd never heard of such a thing.  On TV when the rotor stopped you died.  He said that "since a Huey had the glide ratio of a safe in free-fall, you didn't really get to pick a good place to land, you just sort of fell out of the sky and tried to time the feathering of the collective just right so you didn't break your back on impact."  After class I asked if he ever had to crash-land his bird.  He said, "No.  I didn't."  There was a pause and he looked out the window.  I still remember that conversation like it was yesterday.  Then he said, "There was one time we were coming in and it was really hot."  The pause again.  "We were just above the trees, maybe 20 or 30 feet.  The gunship in front of us was shooting like crazy, enemy was everywhere.  They took a direct hit that cut out the rear rotor.  They didn't have time to do anything, everything was so cranked up they spun around almost three times before crashing."

There was a lot he left out of that story.  He answered my question and I heard something amazing but didn't have any life experience for context.  He must have been terrified.  He must have been taking fire too.  He knew the guys on the bird that went down.  Probably saw them burn to death, or getting shot.  He was over there for a long time, I'm sure he flew into the fight like that many times.

But you'd never know it to talk to him.  Mr. Plumley wasn't a war hero, he was a teacher.  A good one.  Most of what I remember had nothing to do with his time in the service.  I hope that now, retired and safe with his family, most of what he remembers has nothing to do with it either.

1 comment:

  1. I hope you write "Mr. Plummley" that letter we were talking about!