A while back I wrote a pair of columns about life’s most exciting moments. At the time something occurred to me. I didn’t mention it then, but I thought about it a lot — some of life’s most exciting moments are also some of its worst ones.
Think about it. How do you and I usually get into one of life’s “worst” moments? It isn’t by sitting around doing nothing, is it? It’s by doing something we might have been better off skipping.
For example, back in 1950, a year out of high school, I worked in a store in New London, Conn. One September workday we were warned that a strong hurricane would strike that evening. It wasn’t supposed to hit New London directly, but an earlier one hadn’t hit us directly either and I had a clear memory of the mess it made. So I think it’s only fair to ask if my brain was in gear that day. Why? Because the store manager, who lived 15 miles away, asked me if I could “run down to the store” during the storm if he got a call that something was wrong.
And I blithely said yes.
That evening, in response to that call, I donned a raincoat, yanked a hat down tight on my head, and sallied forth into the blast. I will never forget it! A 75 mph wind doesn’t sound like much on the radio, but a few times there I found myself almost airborne.
I wasn’t scared — too dumb I guess — but as I was passing some large plate glass store windows I heard an odd sound, turned and looked, and saw the scariest thing I had seen so far in my 18 years — a whole store window coming at me!
Run? Forget it! You can’t outrun something 8 feet wide and 8 feet high coming at you at 75 miles an hour! I tried a clever alternate strategy.
With a “du-u-u-u-u-m” sound the whole window hit me and shattered into sharp pieces of heavy plate glass. For a minute I figured I was dead, chopped up into little pieces, but then I looked down. Not a scratch! My right shoulder and right hip hurt, and I was limping badly, but I was out of the range of any more of those store windows in three seconds flat!
You might think that taught me something, but if you do you evidently aren’t a great thinker.
And so ...
Two years later I found myself at Keflavik Air Base in Iceland, not the most exciting place on the planet. One wintry day we were sitting around the Quonset hut talking and one of my buddies mentioned that he’d been up in a Navy sub-chasing aircraft watching as they shot up rocks in the North Atlantic on a practice run. I thought that sounded like fun, so when my buddy asked me if I wanted to go on a flight I said yes.
What fools these mortals be!
Off I went two days later, but not into the “wild blue yonder,” into the dull gray clouds. It was fun — for a while. I was the only non-crew member and they gave me a headset so I could hear what was going on as we shot up a whole lot of rocks and ice floes. But then the tower radioed the pilot that we could not return to Iceland because the base was socked in. We would have to fly to Scotland.
Everyone aboard cheered! “Yay! A week off the rock!”
But as the pilot talked to Prestwick, Scotland, their tower said we couldn’t land there because they were also under blizzard conditions. So Prestwick and Keflavik got into an argument while we circled over the North Atlantic listening in. Finally, the pilot broke in. “Hey! Make up your minds! I can’t keep circling; I’m running out of fuel. Where the hell do I go?”
Then came the part I didn’t like. As we winged it toward Iceland the pilot said, “Damn it! We’ve picked up a headwind. I’m not sure we can make it in.”
All the way back to Iceland we flew through solid white, waiting to hear the engine quit. We came straight in by radar. The radar controller lined us up on the invisible runway. Then he said, “During the last 10 seconds there will be no transmission.”
Ten seconds. The hiss of wind. The drone of engines. Outside the window, white, white, and more white.
It seemed more like 10 hours.
Then, “Beep! Beep! Beep!” The wheels touched down.
We ran out of gas on the runway. It was that close!
But you think I learned anything, Johnny?
Hah! See you next week.