My Friend Hoppy And ‘The Rest Of The Story'

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Still half asleep after an afternoon doze, and intent on getting a cup of coffee in the mess hall across a dirt road from my barracks, I hardly noticed the shouting.

Then I realized what they were shouting.

"Garrett! Hey, Garrett! Look out!"

Half asleep or not, I got the message. But look out for what? I stopped dead in my tracks, swiveled my head around, and saw....

Nothing. Or perhaps I should say...people. People running everywhere! But why?

Then Hank Durfee pointed up. I looked up and saw what they were yelling about. Aircraft parts. A skyful of them!

Part of a tail section looked like it was headed right for me as it spiraled around and around. The mess hall looked too far away, so I turned and ran back to the barracks and dived inside.

A few minutes later I peeked out the door. The tail piece that had seemed intent on landing on my head had taken a right turn somewhere and come down somewhere out of sight.

I stepped outside and joined a dozen men from my squadron who popped up out of all sorts of hiding places. I didn't have to ask them what had happened.

They couldn't stop talking about it.

A C-47 transport aircraft carrying the commander, deputy commander and much of the headquarters staff of the Air Defense Command were on their way to our base, Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts, for a major inspection. As the aircraft circled the field in preparation for a landing, a fighter jet zoomed out of a cloud and plowed directly into it.

The pieces we ran from where the remains of the C-47. I never saw the jet. I just heard that it crashed in a remote wooded area of the base. Other than that, and the fact that there were no survivors, I never heard another word about that crash -- until years later when I met a 28-year-old airman in my reenlistee basic training flight.

We called him Hoppy, short for Hopalong, a name we gave him because of trouble with his feet. He was in constant, unrelenting pain, terrible pain, during our two weeks of reenlistee basic, and went to great lengths to conceal it from our drill instructor because he was determined to get back into the Air Force.

The Saturday morning after we graduated basic training, Hoppy and I sat on the steps of our barracks talking as he waited for a bus to take him to town, where he could catch a train to his new assignment. He was still in pain, but happy. He'd made it!

The pain in Hoppy's feet was caused by still-healing bones that were as soft as cartilage, the result of an auto accident that had occurred more than two years earlier, one that put him in a hospital for many months because he had broken almost every bone in his body.

He had to wear steel plates in his shoes to keep his feet in the proper shape as he waited for them to recalcify and become solid bone once again, just as he had had to wait for the same thing to happen to the rest of his body.

His recovery had not been easy. Among other things, they had told him he would never walk again. He walked, of course, but it was obvious to the men in our reenlistee trainee flight that the pain was excruciating.

Every one of us was amazed at the courage and determination he showed during our two weeks of reenlistee basic. We asked him many times where he got the courage to bear such pain. He always smiled and fobbed us off. But that last morning, as the sun rose on a chilly day in upstate New York, and he and I sat together on the steps of our barracks, he told me "the rest of the story" about the midair collision I had seen years before.

You see, when that jet fighter went down out in the boondocks of Otis Air Force Base, Hoppy was one of men who were hurriedly assembled and rushed to the site of the crash.

The plane had burned on the way down, but had come in at a low angle and plowed up ground for a long distance. As a result, the fuselage had stayed more or less intact.

The flames were out by the time the truck got there, and the pilot, though obviously dead, was visible through the canopy. As soon as the aircraft cooled down, four men were detailed to get him out. Hoppy was one of them.

Sitting on the front porch of our basic training barracks that chilly May morning, Hoppy told me how he climbed up into the cockpit, straddled the pilot, reached down, gripped the man by his shoulders... and came away with two arms in his hands.

Yes, he spent a long time on his knees spewing his guts out. Yes, so did the others. But he, and the three other men assigned to the task, went back to work and did their duty, removing the pilot, who -- to put it as gently as it can be put -- had been in a cockpit that became a virtual oven.

Obviously, nothing would be gained by getting too graphic. I think you can imagine for yourself the condition of the pilot's body under such circumstances. And I'm equally sure that you can imagine the difficulty of getting him out of that cockpit in as few pieces as possible.

What is far less easy to imagine is the effect it had on the four men who were detailed to do it. Life does not prepare us for such things. We just somehow seem to get them done.

So those four men worked, and got sick. And worked some more, and got sick some more. And stayed with the melancholy mission to which they had been assigned until it was accomplished.

"Tom," Hoppy told me that chilly May morning, with a deeply thoughtful expression on his face, "that day changed me. Yeah, I went through a lot in that hospital after my wreck, and I suppose I went through quite a bit the past couple of weeks, but nothing I do will ever come close to matching what I went through that day."

And then he quoted the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche for me:"That which does not kill me merely makes me stronger."

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