How I Learned To Fly, Part 2


Last week we were wondering where really crazy ideas come from, and how come they arrive full blown and ready to go. Never got an answer to that, I’m afraid. Didn’t even come close. And to be honest with you I don’t think we’re going to manage it this week either. Crazy ideas are born right out of thin air. At least mine are. So let me tell you how I learned to fly.

Well, sort of ...

Tell you what. Let’s ask another question. But this time it’s one we know the answer to. Here it is: What happens when you pen up 60 young GIs in a barracks, give them nothing to do, and turn on a five-day snowstorm?

Do I have to tell you? They go nuts. They start out talking and happy, but after a while the talking grinds to a halt. Then they sit around in little groups and stare at each other.

Evenings aren’t too bad. The brass et al (et al being retread WWII NCOs) stay out of the barracks, allowing cards and dice to come out. But during daylight hours? Sorry, the 18- through 22-year-old mind is not cram-jammed with subjects of discussion. First comes women, of course. Then comes ... uh, women. And then ...

You can see how testy that can get for Air National people, especially when the women are back in Connecticut and the men are up on Otis AFB Base in Massachusetts. That tosses a wet blanket on any and all discussions of the female half of the species. In a rush! Sitting in the middle of the Sahara talking about cool ice cream sodas doesn’t make you any less thirsty.

Or any happier when you wonder who’s drinking your soda.

And that snow would just not quit coming down.

The troops sat in silent little disgruntled groups. That’s bad! When the troops don’t talk they start thinking. Bad! Bad! Bad! Like inviting a troop of monkeys over to paint your house.

Doesn’t work. No prior experience.

So-o-o-o ...

First came the challenge to sleep outside in the snow under just one blanket. Followed immediately by a broadside from our 27-year-old first sergeant, who looked out the window of his office and could not believe what he saw out there in the snow.

Then came the modified challenge — done on the side of the barracks that didn’t face the orderly room, of course. And so off sped my buddy Pete, stark naked except for his skivvies. His goal? The stockade fence standing invisible in the storm a quarter mile away across a field which was under three feet of heavy snow. His motivation? Supposedly 50 bucks, but actually to keep from going stir crazy. Made it too. We defrosted him in a cold shower. He said it felt warm. I suppose it did.

Then came the aircraft-eating episode, during which our only quiet, sensible 26-year-old watched a bunch of nuts devouring his flying model airplane.

And yes, I had a bit of a wing. Crunchy!

That same evening, as the snow continued to fall, was one of the coldest we had seen so far in the old WWII barracks. The only insulation in that place, especially in the upstairs bay where I lived, was the outer wall. There was no inner wall. You could put your hand on the wall down near the bottom and feel ice. The “heat” just didn’t cut it, not upstairs anyway. Downstairs was livable, but that upstairs bay? Whew! Was it cold! Then I got an idea — a sensible one for a change. Why not tack our shelter halfs up over the windows? Nothing to see out there, and the windows were, in GI-SPEAK, “pneumonia holes.” So we did it. Helped too.

The best part of that was the 40 guys from the barracks next door who showed up at our door to see the “dirty movies” we had to be showing. Poor guys. Never seen anyone so broken-hearted.

And then came the nut-case idea of the century!

Popped into my head right after the guys from next door went back home.

There I was, sitting on my bunk looking at my poncho, when it hit me. Bingo!

The whole thing. The whole idea. All at once.

A military poncho, for those who are among the uninitiated, is a heavy plastic sheet about 5 feet wide and 6 feet long. It has a head hole in the middle with a draw string that can be tightened up against your neck. And it has snaps running down each of its long sides so you can snap it closed and turn it into a sort of large, flat personal tent that stretches almost down to your knees. Not bad, keeps you partly dry in really bad weather.

Anyway, there I sat, asking myself if that poncho had any potential as a means of getting warmer in that %$#@! freezer of a barracks when it suddenly hit me. The rest I’ll tell you step-by-step, just as it happened.

I had the poncho on. I spread my arms out and zoomed up and down the length of the barracks yelling, “Hey! Look at me! With my arms spread out I’ll bet I could fly in this thing!”

Naturally, the usual set of warm, friendly “you’re an idiot” disclaimers filled the air. And naturally, I responded with, “Oh, yeah! Well just watch me!” I headed for the door at the end of the bay. In a second I was outside in the snow standing on the railing of our tiny three-by-three balcony.

“Geronimo-o-o-o!” I yelled. drawing it out so it would sound like I had jumped.

Immediately, I sprang from the railing to the plain wooden ladder that served as our fire escape. But I didn’t go down. I went up!

A few seconds later the balcony below me filled with people and voices.

“The crazy ba...rd jumped!” “Where is he?” “Can you see him?” “Is he down there in the snow?” Then they disappeared inside. The door shut. I slid down the ladder like a lightning bolt, ran around the back of the barracks, past the orderly room, across the street, and down the far side of the mess hall.

When they got downstairs I came walking up from the mess hall through unbroken snow. “Made it all the way to supply,” I said.

And yes, they believed me because there was no trail of footprints in the snow. They never tried it themselves though.

Not everybody has to be crazy.


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