"The Rules" are twenty-six ideas I've collected over the years that seemed relevant enough to life in general that I've written each down with a short story to reinforce each in particular. This is Rule Number Thirteen.
— James Albright
In the last several months of 1984, the Pacific Air Forces had a rash of accidents and mandated that every wing will have at least one safety school graduate. The problem, however, was no pilots wanted to go. The school tended to wash out anyone without rudimentary math skills, it took them away for two months, and the victim would forever be type cast as a "safety puke."
I didn't mind getting the assignment. And as long as I was going, I set my sights on becoming the top graduate. For the first time in my Air Force career, I wanted to be known as the best at something. And this something would be quite the prize.
There is only so much you can do
It was 1985 and the Air Force was coming off a lousy couple of years. Everything from the T-38 trainer to the venerable B-52 seemed to be exploding in flight, colliding with other airplanes, or simply flying into the ground. From our part of the Air Force, the Pacific Air Force, “PACAF,” the accident rate was just as bad.
Much of the problem was old, airplanes simply giving up. Easy to point out, not so easy to fix. New airplanes cost money. Others were new aircraft with serious design flaws. Crash airplane, comb through wreckage, redesign. But more often than not, it was a case of a pilot flying a perfectly good airplane into the ground. How do you fix the pilot before the crash?
In the spring of 1985, in PACAF, the answer was to have at least one fully qualified flight safety officer pilot at each base. Only a graduate of the Air Force Safety Officer Course would qualify. At Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, our one and only AFSOC graduate would soon be wearing an American Airlines uniform. It seemed every other eligible pilot on base had airline plans of their own. Well, not every pilot.
The Air Force Safety Officer Course was taught by the University of Southern California in the desert plains near San Bernardino, California, in a place once called Norton Air Force Base. It was two months of academics and field work. Unlike a lot of military schools, this one required a lot of work and not everyone graduated. Nobody wanted to go.
“Capt. Albright,” the squadron commander said as I passed his office, “did you know you are the only officer in the squadron with an engineering degree?”
“Well you are,” he said without a hint of what was to come, “so no use crying about it, you’re going to safety school.”
I didn’t know much about AFSOC at the time, but I knew having an engineering degree wasn’t a requirement. There was a lot of math at the school, sure, but mere history majors made it through all the time.
It was a rush order by PACAF to get one officer from every base through the school and I showed up with 29 other PACAF officers, 28 of those were fighter pilots or navs. The other only other big airplane driver flew HC-130’s, rescue birds, from Okinawa. I settled into the back row of the sterile classroom, my home for the next eight weeks.
Nestled in the furthest left desk, I had one neighbor. Captain John Reape, call sign “Reaper” to one and all.
“James?” he said as we shook hands, “what kind of a call sign is that?”
“It’s my name.”
The first day was consumed with administrative tasks and student introductions. All thirty of us came from some place in PACAF, there were twenty-five pilots, five navigators, and all but two of us spent our lives strapped into ejection seats breathing oxygen. The HC-130 pilot, it seemed to me, was a fighter pilot wanna be, given his swagger, his colorful choice of adjectives, and his ownership of his very own call sign: “Hooch.”
“What kind of an airplane is an EC-135J?” the instructor asked as the class pretended to pay attention.
“A Boeing 707,” I answered. “We fly passengers from Point A to Point B.” I could sense my style points subtracting with every syllable, so I kept it short.
It took just about all day, but we finished our introductions, picked up our books, and made plans for a long night at the bar. I didn’t know any of these guys, there were no females, but a bar is a bar and I went along for a beer or three. The Reaper passed on the beer and stepped up to Tequila and orange juice, and soon the evening became midnight and I ducked quietly the back way to head back to the Visiting Officer’s Quarters.
It was a VOQ circa Korean War, each officer had his own room with its own bathroom, but a shared kitchen area. I would be doing my kitchen duties with the Reaper. He already had the refrigerator stocked with orange juice, a carton of milk, and a bottle of Kaopectate. To that I added my bag of apples, kim chee, and a few vegetables. I was by this time a full throttle vegetarian and I was just one month away from my next marathon.
I got up the next morning at four and headed for the mountains. I would need to put in ten miles every weekday morning, rest on Saturday, and then put in a really long run on Sunday. The Pigeon Pass marathon was thirteen miles up the mountains south of San Bernardino and thirteen miles down to the Riverside valley. As a Hawaii runner, I was familiar with mountain running, but I wasn’t so sure about mountain running in a desert.
By 0630 my run was completed, I was showered and shaved before I heard the first evidence of life next door. The Reaper tended to wake ten minutes prior to class. But at 0800 every morning, he was in his seat ready to learn. Sometimes he learned best with his eyes shut.
The first week was devoted to aerodynamics, a subject I always enjoyed. Most of the history majors struggled, and it became obvious that only two of us, the other also an engineer, would pass the test. It wasn’t rocket science, but being comfortable with F=ma and knowing the difference between a cosine and a cosigner would have helped.
“Listen,” the instructor said, “you gotta pass this test to graduate, you really need to figure something out.” The class sat silently. “Now when you are out in the field investigating a crash site, you are going to find not everyone is an expert in everything. Your jobs will be a lot easier if you find the right person to do the right job, and put them in the right location. Do I make myself clear?”
“We got it,” a number of the students said. I didn’t get it at all.
“Well let’s take a break,” the instructor said, “you guys work it out and will be back here on the hour.”
The instructor left and the senior student, Captain Scooter - I really don’t know his name or why a grown man would want to be called Scooter - got up to address us. “Gents, let’s hang tight for a couple of minutes, we got class business to take care of.”
After a week of class it was the first time Scooter said anything to us outside of the bar. “Okay, James we are moving you to the front row, middle left. Wizzer, you take the front row, middle right.”
“I think James needs a wing man,” Reaper said across the room, “I know how he works and I volunteer.”
“Good idea,” Scooter agreed. “Okay, we’re done here.”
It was a military situation, he ordered, Wizzer and I complied. I took up my new position with Reaper on my right. But why?
The next day, during the test, all became clear. “James,” Reaper whispered, “you gotta move your hand away from the paper.”
Ah, now I see, said the blind man. It was actually pretty ingenious. As I darkened the circle on each multiple choice answer, the Reaper cleared his throat and:
a. rested his hands atop his head,
b. bumped his elbows on the table,
c. rubbed his eyes to see more clearly, or
d. dipped his head into his hands, as if tired.
The give away was (c). After my third “c” in a row I caught on to the rub your eyes routine. I remembered that from pilot training: “can’t you see the answer?”
I noticed a similar activity on the other side of the room and halfway through the test there was a bit of commotion from the back of the room. “I thought he said ’b’,” a voice whispered. “He did,” came the answer, “but Wizzer said ’c’ on that one!”
Most of the class aced the test. Wizzer got a ninety-five. Of those who missed the one question, all missed the same question. Funny how that happens.
I was getting used to the morning run, shower, shave, eight hours of class, three beers at the bar, go to bed, and repeat routine. By Friday, I was ready to skip the bar and get some quality sleep. But our class, after having done so well on the make-it-or-break-it aero test, decided we had to do a class celebration at the crab races.
Yes, I grew up in Hawaii and yes, I was a crab fanatic before turning vegetarian. But a crab race? I showed up at the appointed location and was greeted warmly by my peers. I guess carrying them through some aerodynamics garnered some trust and a few free beers. We circled an open pit where there were wooden lanes, about a foot wide each, filled with a little sand and a sign that said “start” on one end and a checkered flag on the other.
The DJ announced the first race contestants, a crab named “Eagle” and another named “Lawn Dart.” Scooter jumped into the pit and proudly displayed his crab, upon which was written “F-15” in what looked to be red lipstick. In the opposite lane there was Reaper and crab, this one with “F-16” on his back.
I’m not sure how you motivate a crab to run, but these guys are fighter pilots and motivation is a part of their DNA. The bell rang and both crabs took off. The noise was deafening and if you were a crab sensitive to these kinds of distractions, it would surely throw you off your game. Eagle was running as if his life depended on it and perhaps it did. Scooter repeatedly slammed his fist onto the lane behind his crab, just barely missing the poor thing with each thud. Eagle made a determined effort to be forward of each potentially lethal blow. Lawn Dart was far behind, but Reaper’s technique seemed no less valid. He knelt over the lane, one knee on each side, and placed his screaming mouth just behind the crab. “I said go!” he yelled, perhaps his tequila enriched breath motivation enough.
I hadn’t placed a bet but was rooting for my wingman. All seemed lost until one of Scooter’s mighty fist pumps ended not behind young Eagle’s shell but on top of it. The shell fragments went everywhere, including the next lane. Oh the horror, the humanity. But Lawn Dart was undeterred and finished the race. I congratulated Reaper as he counted his winnings.
It was fun, but not worth an encore. I drove back to the VOQ and went to bed.
The next morning, opening the refrigerator, there I found Lawn Dart sharing the space in a clear plastic container with what looked like a barbecued chicken wing. I picked up the container and Lawn Dart scurried behind the chicken. I left him in the refrigerator to chill. There are questions that don’t need answers.
The second week was devoted to metal fatigue and fractures. It wasn’t quite as math intensive as the previous phase and it was a bit more fun since it was more about airplanes than algebra. We learned how to tell by looking at a propeller or a turbine fan blade if the engine was producing power on impact. We learned about the patron saint of Air Force crash investigation, Captain Edward Murphy — yes, he’s that Murphy. We found how to look at a crumpled wing to determine if the aircraft met its demise in controlled flight or an uncontrolled fall to earth. I needed about three hours with the books each night just to keep up so I skipped the class bar scene each night. I knew this was bad form for an officer and a gentleman, but my priority was to ace each test, end up as the top graduate, and finish the Pigeon Pass Marathon with a good time.
My classmates didn’t seem to notice and I learned to enjoy the “there I was” stories each morning recounting the previous night’s crab race, bar maid score, or other drunken episodes driving back on base. (This was back in the days pilots were expected to be full throttle in the cockpit and at the bar, these things were just tolerated.)
The Friday test was a replay of the previous week, but this time formation integrity suffered and the test scores varied wildly. I got my one-hundred, put in a token appearance at the Friday night crab race, kept to myself on Saturday, and did my last long run prior to the marathon on Sunday. I was in a routine. Routine is a good thing for all things aviation and it’s a good thing for marathon training.
The third Monday was like the previous two. I got up at 4 am, ran ten miles up and down the nearest mountain, got back, showered, shaved, got into my blue captain’s uniform, and went to class. The only thing different was I met a friend along the way to class and we talked for a while and I wasn’t the first person in the classroom. When I finally got to the class, my peers were consumed with controversy.
“Tap, tap, tap!”
“Yeah,” the chorus sang out, “that’s it exactly!”
I walked in and all eyes were on me. As the lone big airplane driver in a sea of fighter pilots, the C-130 driver doesn’t count, I was already suspect. After a few weeks in class my uber geekdom had already been proven. Now, twenty-nine sets of eyes bore in on me for a crime I didn’t even know had taken place.
“What time do you get up every morning,” Scooter asked, “we know it’s early!”
“Four am,” I said, “I’m training for a marathon this Sunday.”
“Oh,” he said, “I guess it isn’t you.”
The mob desisted. I asked Reaper what the commotion was.
“Oh, we all operate on min sleep,” he said, “you know that.” I nodded. “Well, every morning at six, on the dot, the pipes start knocking. Every morning! Most of us have our alarms set for seven-thirty.”
“I see,” I said, “I can’t help you.”
He nodded, “Yeah, I told these guys you get up at oh-dark-thirty.”
We finally settled down and sat at our desks. At 0800 sharp there was no instructor. Weeks three, five, and eight were devoted to aviator psychology and our instructor was a PHD from USC with a worldwide reputation in figuring out what was going on in the pilot’s head at the moment of impact. I had heard of Doctor Chader Mason years ago. I guess when you became famous punctuality was optional.
I picked up a crossword puzzle, a few others browsed magazines; still others simply sat back in their chairs and dozed. I too felt the urge to rest my eyes when the back of the room exploded. Reaper almost knocked me out of my chair as he leapt from his. The sound, which we felt as well as heard, sucked the oxygen out of the room and eventually we all turned aft to look at a gray haired and portly gentleman holding a smoking starter’s pistol.
“Shock,” said the gun toting man, “is one of those emotions you cannot fake nor disguise. How you reacted just then tells me volumes on how you would react in the cockpit. And that, fellow aviators, is lesson one.”
Despite the theatrics, the lessons to follow were all very good. As he left us at the end of week three, he assigned us our assignments for week eight.
“You all did very well on aero,” he said while scanning his notebook, “and as a class you are all doing very well. But only one officer walks away with top grad honors. You may have heard, but in case you didn’t, here it is. Fifty percent of your grade comes from a paper you are writing for me. I need ten pages on a personal experience that came very close to ending your flying career but ended up teaching you a lesson about flying you will never forget. That is it, fellows. I’ll be collecting those on Monday of week eight.”
So far, in four weeks, I had yet to miss a single exam question. I got top scores on all our lab work too. Half our grade would come from an exercise in writing? I had the perfect story and I could write. The top grad honors were as good as mine.
April in San Bernardino should normally see high temperatures in the low eighties. The air is dry and it will certainly be cooler in the mountains. At least that was the theory. On Saturday the local authorities issued a smog alert accompanied with unusually high temperatures. It might hit 100, they said.
I drove to the assembly area, just downhill from the notorious Pigeon Pass. There were all the trappings of your usual marathons: big tents, lots of runners, aid stations, and an ambulance or five. Five? It was to be a marathon only; no half-marathons, no ten-k’s, none of the faux distance running that blighted our sport in the recent fitness craze. That was sure to hold the numbers down and I had heard only three hundred signed up. It would be great.
As I approached the assembly area a man in a white coat approached. “You are running the marathon?” he asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“Have you heard about the smog alert?”
“Yes,” I answered, “but I’ve run in smog before.”
“At over one hundred degrees?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“We don’t want you to do that,” he said, “we are refunding the entry fee to any runner who wisely decides to skip the marathon.”
“But what if I am not so wise,” I asked.
“We set up a ten-k.”
“No thanks,” I said, “I came to run 26 miles today.”
“You will need to sign a waiver,” he said, “absolving us of any blame if you die out there.”
A bit over the top, I thought. I signed the form.
There were about a hundred of us at the starting line, most set for the ten-K and a few of us for the long haul. When the starter’s pistol went off, the ten-K crowd was off like a shot. Us few left in their dust, settled in for the long haul. How many of us? I don’t know, I didn’t look behind and ahead were the short haul crowd.
It was hot, no doubt about it. I’ve dealt with hot before. It was smoggy, no doubt about that either. Again: been there done that. After about ten miles something else became apparent: it was lonely.
Every two miles there was an aid station manned, or womanned, by a single person with an umbrella, some water, and some encouragement.
“How many of us are out here,” I would ask.
“You are number five,” they would say.
“Where do I go from here?”
And then there would be instructions. As a perpetual middle-of-the-pack runner, it is easy just to follow the crowd. But in this race, as far as you can see forward: nobody. The occasional look back: nobody.
At the crest of the mountain finally, the view was . . . nowhere. It was too smoggy to see the valley below or even the next hill over. All terrain out here was a pallid gray. The sky was gray. The ground was gray. The only color was my phlegm. It was green. That isn’t right, is it?
This was marathon number eight for me. The first marathon is a challenge. The second is affirmation that the first wasn’t a fluke. The third is a statement: I am a runner, not one of those fad-crazed maniacs. By number eight you have crossed the threshold. You are no longer somebody trying out the sport. You are a runner. A runner spitting up his lungs in Technicolor. It was great.
At the Honolulu Marathon the locals speak of “The Wall” both physical and mental, right around 24 miles where the race rounds Kahala and onto Diamond Head road. Here is where you find the masses who thought they could do distance, but as it turns out they could walk the distance. The race is hilly, to be sure, but most of the race is flat compared to mile 24.
At the Pigeon Pass Marathon, the elevation change begins at mile 1. And it just keeps coming. By the time you’ve climbed the hundreds, maybe thousands of feet in elevation, your very will to live is tested. The only thing keeping you going is the idea that elevation up becomes elevation down. But all the downgrade does is stress an entirely different set of muscles. And by then I had been out there — out there — for two hours. Now it was getting hot. Still, once you stop running it is all over. Must keep going.
At mile 24, the last aid station, I spotted the aid worker from a mile away. She was reading the paper. About a half mile to go she put the paper down and got a cup of water ready for me. About a quarter of a mile she drank the water and got another.
“You’re looking,” she said with a pause, “you’re looking great. You’re almost there! You can do it!”
I grabbed the water, downed it with my best marathon running élan, and thanked her. The look on her face told me there was a problem. I wondered what was troubling her.
Rounding the last corner, with just a hundred yards to go, I could see the first familiar marathon sights in the three hours I had been out there. The tent, the crowds, the music, and the finish line banner. But there were no runners flying down the finishing chute with a parade of time keepers and worker bees busy tabulating scores and keeping the runners in orderly lines to keep the photos and time keepers in sync. This chute was empty.
“Here comes another one!” somebody cried. Now the crowd was cheering. I’ll have to admit my run, at times, was more like a crawl. If a run is defined as only one foot in contact with the earth at a time, perhaps my run wasn’t a true run for all 26 miles and 385 yards. But that last 385 yards . . . got to put on the show for the home team. I picked up the pace, I lifted my feet, I had some rhythm! I felt . . .
“He looks awful,” I heard from one side.
“Somebody get a doctor,” I heard from another.
I looked up and saw “03:35:12” in the jumbo ticker. Not a great finish but, given the conditions, pretty good. I was happy as I crossed the finish line by myself. But two steps later I was being carried by a white-coated man on each arm.
“I feel fine,” I kept saying. They kept ignoring.
Soon there was an IV in my arm and I was in a tent with a machine monitoring my beeps. “Beep,” it would say, pause, and then “beep” again.
“I feel fine,” I said again.
“You finish that IV bag,” the white coat said, “and we’ll think about letting you leave."
My first Monday in a while where I wasn't up at four. At 0600 I got up, showered, and pulled out my trusty razor. It was one of those old models where you carefully lowered the double edged blade into its chamber, twisted the end to close the clamps, and scraped away at your face. When the blade became too contaminated with shaving cream and hair, a quick rap against the faucet.
Then it dawned on me. I was usually shaving at six. “Tap, tap, tap!” It was me. The class was complaining about the pipes at six. It was me. I kept it to myself. The mysterious noise never came back.
Week five was back with Chader Mason and more deep dives into aviator psychology. Two weeks ago he proved to us the linkage between aviator emotions and cockpit performance. In two weeks to come we would learn how to look at a chain of events and determine if the pilot’s emotional baggage had an impact on the impact. For now, we needed to better understand what makes the pilot tick.
”Let’s see a show of hands,“ he said while pacing at the front of the class, ”who here among our group of steeley eyed Air Force Aviators, who here is afraid of heights?”
I raised my hand. There was some snickering from the back of the room. I heard “heavy driver, figures” from another corner.
“Come on,” Chader insisted, “there’s more than one.”
Then came another hand, then another. One by one, hands joined mine. Soon, all but three hands were raised.
“That’s about right,” Chader said, “about ninety percent of all military aviators are afraid of heights. It’s because there is a direct link between a fear of heights and the need to be in control. We don’t know if people who are control freaks become military aviators, or military aviators become control freaks. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you remember that whenever trying to dissect a military aviation mishap. In the next few weeks, we learned all that was true.
The lab work was very good. The Safety Center had relocated about twenty actual crash sites to the school and we got our hands at looking at the sight of each crash just as they were found when still smoldering. We were being taught to run a mishap investigation team but from all this I was taking away was to keep the mishap from happening in the first place. It was rewarding and fun at the same time. Now that the marathon was over, I was starting to enjoy the class for the academics.
With less running in my early morning schedule, I had more goof off time. My classmates encouraged me to the crab races and I went. But secretly I was devoting my efforts to my ”I learned a valuable lesson about flying” paper. It was going to be great.
Everyone back in Hawaii was expecting me to walk away with top grad honors. The school had a reputation for washing out the non-technical and I was about as technical a pilot as most of them had ever seen. By week seven I still had yet to miss a single exam question and I was looking to be peerless in the class standings. The Reaper, damn him, was a close second with a 98 percent exam average and his lab work was nearly flawless. On Friday number seven, our last test, I got another hundred but so did Reaper. All that remained was the paper.
As soon as we got the assignment — a personal experience that came very close to ending your flying career but ended up teaching you a lesson about flying you will never forget — I knew what I was going to write about. At that point in my life, the closest to death I had ever come was about 45 seconds from impact. I was asleep in the right seat of a T-37 when the guy flying the airplane got target fixation and was getting ready to fly us into a mountain. I woke up in time and we lived. The story wrote itself. I called it, simply, No Time to Nap.
As I finished the last sentence on the last page, I knew it was a masterpiece. I turned it in and never looked back.
Day last of eight weeks of grueling academics and lab work, airline ticket in my pocket and room left in my luggage for the trophy.
“Doctor Mason,” the head of the faculty announced, “sends along his congratulations to what ended up being a great class. You guys did great.” We all clapped for ourselves. “Finally,” he continued, “special congratulations to the Reaper, our top grad.”
We all congratulated Reaper and filed forward to collect our graduation paperwork and last bit of academics. In the stack I found my paper with a big “Pass” on the front page and only a single line on the last page. “I bet you’ll never do that again! - Chader.”
I stared at the words in disbelief. My solitude was broken only by a slap on the back. “It was a pleasure James,” Reaper said, “for a heavy toad you are okay.”
“You are a good guy for a fighter puke,” I said, “thanks for sharing a fridge with me.” He smiled, knowing he barely used a tenth of its space. “Hey Reaper,” I said finally, “I’m kind of a writer wanna be and I’d like to see your paper, to see what a top grad paper looks like.”
“Sure,” he said, “in fact you can keep it.”
I read it three times. Every sentence included the word “fuck” in one of its many variations. Fuck, fucked, fucking, fucker, and holy fucking fuck. The rest of the paper was unintelligible. Chader added a few comments on every page. “Fucking A!” “That was fucking awesome!”
And on the last page, “This is the best fucking story ever fucking ever!”
It took me a while to get over it. I threw Reaper’s paper away. Twenty years later. I’m over it.