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A Trek Through Life
By Wayne Brown
By: Wayne Brown
As you might remember, Vietnam was a big motivator to pursue education for most of the boys of my era. It was raging when we graduated in '66 but everyone was sure that it would go away soon. My parents, relatives, etc had always told me that I would be a college graduate. This seemed like a good time to prove them right. After graduation in May '66, I entered college studies at theJunior College (kind of like a junior mint don't ya think) in the fall of '66. This was fairly a uneventful time. I did form some new bonds with folks including some from my own high school class. During my two years there I did manage to make a little history. With the help of my roommates, we made a few memories that I still have today. But basically I was still a fairly naive young man with no idea where I was headed but I did not want to disappoint anyone along the way that had higher expectations of me than I did.
After two years in junior college, I dodged the AA degree and transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg. I had followed a major in drafting at JC and expanded that into the Industrial Technology program at Southern. The course of study required a lot of time lying over drawing boards with T-Square and a set of dividers. There was little automation then and everything about blueprints was manual. I grew to hate it just a bit but stayed the course to graduation hoping to use the degree to pursue opportunities in manufacturing management. This is important; I vowed that I would not make a living with a straight edge and a set of dividers. Graduation came in the spring of 1970.
Fate was always waiting nearby and seemed to have some desire to push me into the military. The government had been kind enough to keep the conflict going in Vietnam. By this point, it appeared to be a permanent thing in our lives. Once I became a "non-student", an official with the local draft board alerted my mother that within six months I would be called to serve. With a low lottery number for the draft, any potential for a job was rather hopeless, thus I began to weigh my options.
I had invested a lot of time and money into the education process by this point. Even if I had to enter the military, it was only fair that I gain as much monetarily as I possibly could. With that in mind, I began to pursue the path that would allow me to become an officer. I investigated the various branches of the military to see who slept outside the most and who walked the longest mile. Eventually, it became clear in my mind that the Air Force was the direction that I needed to follow. They were interested in having me as an officer but only if I was willing to fly. There were no slots for non-flying officers at the time. This was a big decision for I had never flown in my life. It was mid-summer 1970 when I heard that I had passed all of my officer and flying aptitude testing. I signed the papers, my mother cried, and I soon headed west on a journey that would take me away from my home both in distance and time more so than any journey before it. By the way, navigators by trade lay over a table with a straight edge and dividers pretty much defining a job I had not intended to ever take. Alas.
I departed my hometown for the Air Force in January 1971 headed for OfficerTraining School in San Antonio, TX. At the time, I had no idea of what I faced. This program washed out more than one-third of all the candidates and washing out meant a quick trip into the enlisted ranks. It is probably good that I did not know at the time as it would have only increased the pressure of the program. The program was designed to drive each individual to the breaking point and find out what he or she was made of and build on that. There was pressure on the supervising officers daily to identify those who showed weakness and toss them out. There were days when I felt that the next one over the side would be me. Luckily, I learned from the mistakes of others and made it through winning my 2nd Lieutenant gold bars in the spring of 1971. In the process, I had lost a few pounds, learned to eat my meals with my heels together, and unconsciously squared each corner that I turned. Otherwise I arrived back home for a short leave seemingly the same person.
After a couple of weeks back home, I loaded up my sun-fire yellow Corvette roadster and pointed the nose toward Sacramento, California. This stop would take me to Air Force Navigator Flight Training, a course of study that would require a full year to complete. Vietnam was still looming as if awaiting my arrival. I was still a bit apprehensive in that I was heading off to fly for the next five years and I had no idea whether I would like flying at all. In some cases, one just has to trust his instincts. Luckily, I did like the flying although the process of navigation came with more challenges than all my previous work prepared me to face. Not knowing how to fail, I managed to get through and earn a set of silver wings to go with those gold bars. In the process, I had also met an aspiring model who would eventually become my wife. It was April 1972 and there was not a single reason that I could not go to Vietnam now. In fact, my journey over the past year had virtually guaranteed my slot. With some luck and divine intervention, I was able to draw a state side assignment out of flight school. It was April 1972 and I was headed to Abilene, Texas to navigate the infamous C-130 Hercules aircraft.
Arriving at Dyess Air Force Base, Abilene, Texas in late June 1972, I was immediately immersed into the process of certification in the aircraft. I also was engaged to be married. The training plan did not call for any time off for things like marriage thus I had to get married over a long 4th of July weekend. On Monday morning following the weekend, it was back to work with the Hercules. By fall of that year, my training was complete and I was sent off to Europe for three long months flying cargo trash between logistical points within the NATO countries. This was the way of life for "trash haulers" who were not yet in Vietnam…three months here, three months there, with maybe three months at home in between. I calculated that I was gone for about half of the first three years I was married. We were protecting the world three months at a time. By December of 1972, the reality of Vietnam finally came to visit me. I received word that a former flight school classmate had been shot down over Laos in a C-130 gunship. His remains would not be found for over ten long years from that date. Vietnam was still out there and I would get my first look at it within a matter of months.
My first brush with Asia came in one of those temporary three month gigs. The entire squadron of aircraft headed to Ching Chang Kiang Taiwan (CCK) to fly resupply support to troops in country and to do whatever else anyone could come up with. The missions were varied and included resupply missions into Cambodia which was in the midst of falling into communist hands at the time. Nearing the end of the three month period, we received word that the POW's held in North Vietnam would be repatriated shortly as a result of the Paris Peace Talks orchestrated by Henry Kissinger. Unfortunately, our role would be to fly the Viet Cong prisoners back to the Demilitarized Zone between the north and south and prepare them for release. On each mission we loaded 120 Viet Cong prisoners into the cargo area. Each load had three Vietnamese guards assigned who immediately decided to take naps after take-off. The flight crew kept pistols loaded and prayed the bunch in the back did not get any ideas while the guards slept. Again, prayers were answered and everyone headed home. It was spring time in Vietnam, 1973.
Within months of returning to Abilene, I received a permanent assignment to go back to Asia. This time it was a change of mission as a crew navigator on the airborne command post that directed the air war in Southeast Asia. The aircraft flew 12 hour orbits on stations located over northern Laos. The mission was boring as most of the action was taking place in the command capsule in the cargo bay where the air war commanders were gathering information and making decisions. For the crew up front charged with flying the airplane, it was bologna sandwiches, bad coffee, smut novels, and ten degree bank turns to head once again into the opposite direction in the elongated orbit path. There was always that apprehension that the North Vietnamese fighter aircraft would launch and head our way. We had no guns and no speed to match their performance. The Asian climate was always reliable in producing those thunderstorms that make you want to go home by train. After navigating the aircraft through a few of those, I began to wonder if a classmate who had edited my high school annual knew what she was doing when she entered the phrase beneath my 1966 Tiger Annual picture that stated "He rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm".
Within months the final cease fire was announced and my unit was pulled back to the Philippine Islands to see if the North Vietnamese would keep their word. It was here that I first realized what a small world it truly is for us. I was seeing a movie in the local theater at ClarkAB, PI. I had gone out to the concession stand to get a bag of popcorn and was waiting in line for my turn with the clerk. I happen to look behind me only to realize that an old friend from back home in Mississippi was standing behind me in the line. He too was in the Air Force and had been assigned to Clark to work on F-4 fighter aircraft. We had a chuckle or two about it all.
I returned to my previous assignment in Abilene in May of 1975. I reclaimed my bride and we settled in with a focus on building a family. That goal suffered interruptions time and again as I returned to the process of three month tours about the world. Finally, we gained a son in August of 1976 in celebration of the Bicentennial. I had managed to survive Vietnam, a short stint at marriage, and now parenthood would be my test. Hopefully, I would not fail at this.
By 1976, I was growing tired of flying and the whole military experience. I had become a flight instructor and spent a lot of time bouncing around on low-level high speed runs across the turbulent west Texas terrain watching students get lost and air sick all at the same time. The days were long and the body was growing tired. I was also losing faith in some of my fellow flyers who did not seem to take flying as seriously as I did. After all, death was only one mistake and a few seconds away, why so serious? I had a good career going but it was not my chosen direction in life. I needed to make a change and I would. Unfortunately it would be a change of greater proportion than I realized at the time. It would cost me my marriage. It was June 1977 and I was resigning my commission as an Air Force Officer and turning in my silver wings to fly no more. I vowed never to carry a large black bag like I had for years as a navigator ever again.
I took my first civilian job in July 1977 as a sales representative with a major global corporation and to my surprise, found they carried large black bags. I was happy to have the Air Force behind me. My wife was sad as she loved the Air Force lifestyle. Soon we were on our way to Washington State for a new life. We settled just outside of Olympia, Washington and I set to work on my new career. Western Washington is a beautiful place when the sun is shining and the sky is bird-egg blue. Too often, that is not the case, as the area is overcast with low clouds and a slow drizzling rain for weeks at a time. The first year, I would say "Gee it is raining, I am depressed". After three years, I was saying "I am depressed and don't know why". I was like the natives; I did not see the rain anymore. The rain and the birth of our second child, a daughter, took a toll on my wife. She became very depressed and convinced that California, her home state was the only answer to her depression. While California was not in the plan career-wise, a new job opportunity did arise for me that would send us back to Texas where I would serve in one of the company's technical groups. It was a dream come true opportunity for me and I had high hopes that it would work for my wife as well. I was partially correct. It was May 1985 and it was raining.
I resettled the family in a new home Texas in May 1985 and set about working my new assignment. My wife did not improve and only became more convinced that California was the answer. In August of 1985, she filed for divorce. By January 1986, I was single and my family was half way across the country in California. For the first time in my life, I realized that being a pretty good guy and playing by the rules did not always bring the proper result. Almost 14 years of marriage was just a sum of memories and sheer distance threatened any real relationship with my children. All I had left to distract me from the pain of the divorce was my job and I threw myself into it completely hoping to numb my condition. It was the winter of 1986 and the space shuttle was exploding in a large plumb of smoke just like my life.
The next few years after my divorce are blurred and some of it is blocked out now. My faith in relationships was pretty well busted in a way that doctors could not cure. My divorce had been painful and I wanted to avoid ever going on that life trip again. My relationship with my children was constrained due to the great distance between us. The divorce was long since over but the relationship was an on-going agony. I could not date anyone or consider a serious relationship without thinking that I might be creating yet another bad experience for myself. By this time, that naive little boy from Mississippi had long since ceased to exist. I spent the next ten years focused on my job and hoisting a few beers with the guys. Short lived relationships came and went like ships passing in the night. I kept myself safe from that world.
In 1990, I again changed my work assignment and landed a new assignment. I began supervising product evaluations in the western regions of the United States and Canada. My work was still pretty much the center of my life along with an occasional Miller Lite. I had settled into the status of permanent bachelor and looked forward to aging gracefully. There is a comfort in accepting that circumstance yet there is also that old concern about growing old alone. The two points were at opposite ends of the spectrum so I let them fight it out hoping that one or the other would prevail.
I met my current wife in the spring of 1993. We had our first date on April Fools Day of that year. She was different in that I first met her only casually, and then we became phone buddies and talked long and often sharing our problems and opinions. She had grown up in a small town in Oklahoma and could relate easily with my small town background. We became friends. From that point the friendship turned into a relationship and finally into a marriage in May of 1997. We just celebrated our 9th anniversary and we are still best friends, a fact that I never take too lightly. She is a commercial property and leasing manager supervising Texas properties owned by California investors. Her work requires a lot of her focus as does my own. But we always find time for our life and our friendship. Between us we have four children and a child-like dog. Our child-like dog is a seven year old Shih Tzu named Lexi-B-Luv and she owns my heart. Life ain't all bad.
As for me, those who know me best might describe me much like I describe the wines that I enjoy, "Simple Yet Complex"…that about sums it up. One would be mistaken to attempt to define me completely as I change and grow with each year that passes becoming a little less simple and a bit more complex with each passing moment. My ever changing surroundings have taught me much about life and mankind in general. I find my powers of observation increasing with age and I am at peace within myself with little left that I need to prove to anyone. It is the summer of 2006 and life is good. WB