I was recently provided an opportunity to revisit, if not actually recapture, a time from my youth, and of course I jumped at the opportunity. At almost 66 years of age I have learned those kinds of events don't come along every day. This one came in the form of a chance to spend some time with four old air force buddies with whom I spent a good deal of my early adult life.
Actually to call them merely "air force buddies" may be faint praise. These were my brothers in arms. I had spent some thrilling and chilling times with these fellows, and we had been members of a very select brotherhood none of us will ever forget. All five of us had gone to basic training during the summer of 1963, wound up attending language school together at Syracuse where we managed to make it through to graduation, then of course back to Texas, all winding up in the old AZK school together, and after survival school we all wound up at the 6916th at Rhein Main in the spring of 1965.
Jerry Hatmaker, Dwight Goodman, John Greene, Jim Kelley, and me, Dave Harris, the boys of Class 9-9-63B, a bunch of kids barely out of our teens just like so many others. We tried to fit in, to adjust quickly to the responsibilities and duties. Looking back on that time now it seems amazing anyone would entrust kids like us with that kind of responsibility, but they did, and it seems everyone rose to the occasion. Guess that's always been the military way, train a man well, give him the responsibility, good supervision and guidance, and he will get the job done. Still seems like a pretty good policy today.
It was a fantastic tour, but by summer of 1967 we were all faced with the decision to stay in or opt out of the air force. Two of us decided to stick with the life, but three of our group wanted to give civilian life a try. We had flown the missions, worked the take, done the TDYs, and even flown some of those SARs out of Incirlik in December 1965. But now our little group was about to break up. We all had our share of close calls, we learned a lot, and we all survived.
Jerry, Dwight, and John decided to see what the civilian world had to offer, and went on to go back to college, into business, marry, raise families, and live full and productive lives. Jim and I wound up back at intermediate language school, then we split up too, with Jim heading to Karamursel and me heading for the 6985th, then Goodfellow as an instructor. But Jim is the only one of us to put in 20 years, getting his commission and eventually getting into the newly formed Air Force Special Operations. I put in 8 air force years, then went to NSA as a civilian where I put in 22 more years.
And for over 40 years this group had absolutely no contact with each other. There were thoughts of the group, sure, and sometimes we would think, "I wonder what ever happened to old ......" But no contact. Then through the miracle of the internet and shared interest sites, we reconnected in early 2010. A reunion was discussed almost immediately, and ultimately in June 2010 the five of us along with our wives met in Maryland for our own version of a reunion. As Jerry so aptly put it when we began the planning, "If we're going to do this we better do it now before one or more of us drops dead!"
We met, we talked, we ate, we drank, we joked, we exchanged gifts, we looked at old pictures and took new ones, we recalled good times and bad, we reconnected after so many years of having no contact whatsoever. And since so many doors have been opened in recent years we felt at ease discussing even a lot of old operational things too, the things that were so secret way back in the 60s. One thing about working under a veil of security is that no one outside your circle can understand things because they were not in that circle. Then once outside that small circle of comrades you are unable to discuss anything with anyone else, and it takes an adjustment. The bottom line is that someone who had not shared our world could not even begin to understand, and now our circle was once more complete. It was a wonderful few days that brought out some very strong emotions in all of us.
But one of the most obvious things to all was that even after over 40 years, despite the wrinkled skin, aching backs and knees, false teeth, hearing aids, receding hairlines, and bigger bellies, we were all basically the same people we were in 1967. We fell right back into old relationships so quickly it was like we had not aged a day. We had the same twinkle in our eyes, the same smirks and smiles, the same kidding, the same social dynamics, the same bond, the same brotherhood. Everyone felt it, everyone enjoyed it, and everyone had a wonderful visit.
We took one morning (actually our sole reason for holding the reunion in Maryland) to visit the National Vigilance Park at Ft. Meade. None of us had ever been there before, and I have to tell you it was a wonderful and moving experience. For all you present and former fliers out there, if you've never been I highly recommend a visit. Walking slowly toward the display from the parking lot it was obvious each one in our group was struggling with some inner thoughts and emotions. The big old "Herk" stood their gleaming in the sun just as we remembered it, but now on grass and not a tarmac. The other planes were there around it, the plaques surrounding the displays, and it was almost impossible to take it all in at once. Old memories were flooding in, some good, some bad, and while we talked we also did a lot of thinking in silence, each man left with his own feelings. Those we would discuss later.
And so we paid homage to our fallen comrades that day, thought of old friends and coworkers, spoke in hushed tones, shared emotions. And when reading the names of those who had given their all in service to our country doing the same job we had all done, shared the thought, "There but for the grace of God go I." But we had been lucky. We all made it through our ordeals safely, and were standing here over 40 years later, once more the boys from Class 9-9-63B. We must have taken 200 pictures of the aircraft and our group, as if recording the images might somehow recapture those times now so long gone. And we had one moment that became one of the highlights of our visit.
As the wives were taking "the shot" of all five of us abreast under the radome there was an interruption as some kid maybe 10 years old came running toward us. He was followed by a young fellow maybe in his early 30s, the kid's father, trying to stop him from interrupting our picture taking. But someone in our group spoke up and asked the kid to join us so he could be, as Jim put it, a crew member for a day. We took some pictures with the young kid, then were talking with his father. We told him why were were there and that we also flew on similar aircraft a long time ago. And as the guy was leaving with his kid he came back to our group, shook each man's hand, and simply said, "Thank you for your service." It was quite a jolt, something we "Silent Warriors" had heard very seldom, and it made us all feel fantastic.
It was a most emotional trip and one I would not have missed for anything in the world. It was a chance to renew old friendships, relive old memories, retell old stories, and it also made me understand just how personally lucky I was at that moment. I had not only been able to live those experiences once, but now was able to once again climb aboard that dumpy but beautiful old aircraft, strap in, and take off into a blue sky on just one more mission.....at least in my mind.