#5 - So you want to be a Flyboy

#5 - So you want to be a Flyboy

U.S. Navy Photo by Seaman B. Siens -

When you’re young and still immune to plebeian concerns that have Ralph Nader fans obey the speed limit on deserted country highways, you have neither the time nor the interest to chisel your road map in stone. That’s if you even have a road map. You’re up for adventure, ready to jump into uncharted territory should an opportunity present itself for which by happy coincidence you’ve acquired the most minimal skill set.

Then somewhere between your first hangover and piling the kids into the minivan a decade later you have an epiphany: True fulfillment can’t be drawn from reminiscing about the surprisingly dumb stunts you survived in your ‘what-could-possibly-go-wrong’ years, nor can it be rekindled from past barroom liaisons that still come with a face but no longer a name. Notwithstanding your parents’ fears, you’ve somehow managed to put all that behind you. You’ve come up with a dream, a vision of the most excellent adventure you’re about to embark on in the river of your imagination.

My vision was to join the U.S. Air Force and see the world. And fly jets. That was my chosen river. There were no missteps in my past, no testosterone-driven bad choices that could have torpedoed my dream. Francis Vogt, my aunt in Rochester, NY, she understood — maybe better than most. Two of her sons were in the military, Bill in the Army and Bob in the Navy. When I told her about my ambitions on the way to their cottage in the Thousand Islands, she nodded with an approving smile and said “So you’re going to be a flyboy.”  I hadn’t heard the term before, but yeah, Aunt Francis, I’m good with that.

Flying wasn’t a young boy’s fantasy, like wanting to become a fireman or a race car driver. Talk to most pilots and you’ll discover flying is in their DNA. You don’t remember when the bug first infected you, the exact day you found yourself looking up at every airplane flying low overhead — you just always did. And you still do, to this day.

I’m fond of cars, don’t get me wrong, but growing up in wartime Germany I never got close to any car that would have left an impression. If I did, I don’t remember. So I guess, no. For one thing, the few well-connected members of the elite who had access to a car only ventured out at night to minimize the risk of 50 cal. bullets raining down on them in the daytime. All vehicles, military and civilian, had their headlights blacked out, leaving only a tiny rectangle in the middle. Streetlights stayed dark and window shades were drawn at dusk to lower the odds of seeing the family home reduced to rubble during a nighttime raid, often with the family still in it.

During the closing months of the war, the German Wehrmacht ran on synthetic fuel and there wasn’t much left of that. What really inhibited any sort of addictive car craziness was that nearly all civilian vehicles had been converted to run on wood gas. Aside from making cars look hideous and needing to get a roaring fire going before you could drive them anywhere, wood gas cut in half what little horsepower those old cars had to begin with. The motivation for becoming a car guy just isn’t there when you can outwalk any Mercedes or Opel sedan up an incline.

I did get exposed to plenty of airplanes. The sky was full of ’em, even saw a Zeppelin once and a huge 4-engine Focke-Wulf 200C Condor. Getting exposed wasn’t something you wished for unconditionally, but even the risk of getting bombed or strafed never diminished my passion for flying.

Late in the war I visited my aunt Lydia in Böblingen outside of Stuttgart. We happened to walk past a small grass airstrip when an air raid siren started to wail. Minutes later, three young pilots and their crew came running out of a concrete block building and pulled the camouflage netting off their Me-109 fighters. As we stood by the side of the road to watch the three planes take off, we were beginning to see the first streams of contrails overhead. Thousands of Allied bombers with their fighter escorts, glistening like tiny sardines with occasional flashes of sunlight glinting off polished aluminum some 20,000 feet above. Those three young airmen were rushing up to confront them.

Witnessing such acts of courage and devotion to country performed not by actors on a silver screen but by ordinary people right in front of you made it easy to get drawn to aviation and find inspiration from the men and women who made history — on both sides of the conflict.

The fact that we stood directly under the incoming squadrons of the Eighth Air Force to watch what was about to unfold in the skies either didn’t occur to us or was brushed aside. We did have an acute awareness that the bomb bays of the B-17 Flying Fortresses were not filled with Bonbons, and that the delivery address for whatever those planes were carrying might have been as indiscriminate as “to whom it may concern,” which could conceivably have matched the exact coordinates of the spot we were standing on.

My biggest dream had been to live in America. My greatest hope after coming here was to serve as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Sadly, that wasn’t to be, a lost cause from the beginning. It wasn’t for lack of trying. One of the lessons I had learned in Germany during the postwar years is that the world doesn’t give a damn about the storms you encountered, but did you bring in the ship! There was an Air Force Recruiting Station on State Street in downtown Rochester. Every time I stopped in, nothing had changed, the sergeant kept telling me. The regulations were still what they were two weeks ago, and two weeks before that: “To serve as a pilot in the Air Force you have to be a commissioned officer. To become that officer you must be an American citizen.”

The Naturalization Act passed by the United States Congress in 1795 mandated a waiting period of five years before ‘free white persons’ could apply for citizenship. The 14th Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1868, replaced ‘free white’ with ‘all persons’ born or naturalized in the United States. The five-year waiting period stayed on the books as is, untouched to this day.

I had barely turned twenty when I cleared Customs and Immigration at JFK. It would be another five years before I could take the oath, pledge allegiance to the flag, burn my green card, and tell the world I was a U.S. citizen. The five-year internship was an ancient law, passed for good reason, but for my chosen career inconvenient in the extreme: The age limit to enter Air Force flight training was twenty-three. How can anyone be too old for anything, save for kindergarten, at the age of twenty-five!

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, not the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. - Ecclesiastes 9:11   King James Version

In hindsight, the Vietnam War wasn’t far off. Had the regulations been eased to allow enlisted personnel into fighter plane cockpits I might have served some decidedly unpleasant years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton — or worse. "Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans," wrote John Lennon in 1980, without credit to Ecclesiastes. Could it be that life itself had handed me the better future?

Now that the Air Force was a nonstarter, it was good I had devised a backup plan: Join the Army. Some people with whom I shared this plan thought it was a great idea. I thought it was a great idea. What it was not, however (and you should have seen this coming) was by anyone’s definition a good idea. It could have been, had not the Russians and Americans pointed guns at each other at checkpoint Charlie in Berlin at the most inopportune moment in time. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

First, let me underscore that abandoning any hope of becoming a fighter pilot didn’t mean I was giving up on flying altogether. It was a decision I could live with, having grudgingly pushed aside Hollywood glamour in favor of cold reality: There’s no toilet in a fighter plane. Neither is there a coffee maker which you’ll have to admit shows foresight on the part of the plane’s designers, taking into account the lack of facilities.

Aerial refueling often leads to long hours aloft for fighter pilots, with spent  ‘piddle packs’ piling up in the cockpit. Such packs are similar in function if not in design to the empty coffee can that families with small children sometimes bring along for emergencies on long trips in the minivan.

Using a piddle pack requires sufficient time to find the opening in your boxer briefs after digging through the overlaying zippers in both your flight suit and your g-suit while being strapped tightly eight ways to the ejection seat. Not getting to "it" in time before a dog fight will produce predictable results that make the urgency of unzipping to be no longer so pressing afterward. Never a slam dunk for men, the procedure is by nature even more daunting for women. Makes you wonder whether piloting a lumbering C-130 Hercules with an onboard Porta-Potty and an electric coffee maker isn’t the preferred way to go — so to speak — even in the Air Force.

Seeing we’ve jumped this far out of the box of cramped fighter jet cockpits already, wouldn’t an even better career choice be to pilot an airliner? Like the Lockheed Super Constellation that carried me across the Atlantic? All airliners have bathrooms. Score one for airliners, ‘heavies’ as air traffic controllers call them. Airliners are also equipped with coffee makers and microwaves and refrigerators — tipping points two, three and four.

Best of all, they come with flight attendants. Known as stewardesses in the fifties, their charm and beauty and stylish uniforms made air travel glamorous, until a handful of tiny pretzels and a glass of water replaced prime rib and red wine on the menu. So glamorous, in fact, you could count on half the male passengers weighing their chances for a date with – and, in their “house in the suburbs” fantasy world, getting married to – an airline stewardess, often before the future Mrs. Jones had served the current Mr. Jones his first cocktail.

The only reason the ratio wasn’t even more lopsided was that the male travelers accounting for the other half were already married. Charm and beauty and stylish uniforms are still how we envision female flight attendants. That hasn’t changed, from my generation’s perspective.

And while air travel is now thought of as mass transit, we still want it to be a pleasant flight. What has changed is that jet propulsion has cut flight times to a fraction of what they used to be in the propeller age, so flight attendants have less time for pleasantries to lavish on Mr. and Mrs. Jones.

By now, all the pros and cons of the type of airplane I wanted to fly in the military had gotten pointless. If I was still hell-bent on a flying career, piloting a commercial ‘heavy’ would be my only option. But airlines, too, had age limits for new hires. To have any shot at flying in the commercial sector, I would have to enroll in a private flight school — yesterday! Complicating the timing was the draft. I knew I was going to get called, just didn’t know when, and couldn’t afford to wait for the printed invitation.

The solution turned out to be simple. Here is how a co-worker moonlighting as a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve spelled it out for me: “Enlist in the Marine Reserves. Join the unit I’m with and serve six months on active duty at Parris Island now, then six years as a local reservist. This will let you attend flight school during the week and pay for the tuition with money you earn at your Bausch & Lomb day job.” Good advice, although I decided in favor of ignoring the enlist in the Marines part. I had just seen The D.I. at a local theater which convinced me I wasn’t leatherneck material. The most logical branch would have been the Air National Guard, but the nearest station was in Niagara Falls, a two-hour drive each way from Rochester. So instead, on July 27, 1957, I reported for active duty at Fort Dix, New Jersey as the newest boot in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Following ten weeks of boot camp, I spent four months learning how to repair military vehicles, mostly Jeeps and Deuce-and-a-half trucks, so named because of their 2-½ ton carrying capacity. I knew my way around cars and motorcycles long before I entered the Army's auto repair school, so I didn't have unreasonable expectations for broadening my knowledge. But you always do learn something.

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young. Henry Ford

In my case, I had never before taken apart and put together an automatic transmission. The Army taught me how to make reluctant Hydramatics play nice and switch gears again. Another esoteric curriculum at Fort Dix was water-fording, something most frontline military vehicles are capable of and I had never even heard about. The term "fording" on its own had yet to find its way into my sketchy English vocabulary.

To not leave you hanging in mid-stream: Vehicles able to water-ford can traverse a shallow river even when the driver's head is underwater. That sort of capability might become useful in our daily commutes if we can't get a handle on climate change before Walmart runs out of snorkeling gear.

Speaking of vocabulary, another phrase I stumbled over while going through basic training was "assume the prone position", an order barked out by the drill instructor at the rifle range. The first time I heard that command, it left me as the only recruit still standing. When I looked around and saw the rest of the platoon hugging the terrain with rifles pointed downrange, there wasn't much of an "Aha" moment: Get your sorry butt down and add "prone" to your dictionary.

In the military, career NCOs (non-commissioned officers) will tell you never to volunteer. That's usually good advice. But not always. An opportunity to learn free of tuition a skill we can get paid for in civilian life would be wise to treat as an exception. Case in point: After completing training at Fort Dix that had classified me as "Auto Mechanic," I was assigned to a MASH unit in Rochester, New York. MASH stands for "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital." Because of the long-running television series, most readers will be familiar with Radar and Hawkeye and P.J. Honnecut (not to mention the ever-fashionable Klinger).

As I recall, the motor pool of the MASH unit in Rochester was too small to write home about. Even the sitcom, with a single auto mechanic, the cigar-chomping Staff Sergeant Rizzo, had more vehicles in their inventory. I don't remember how our unit ever got transported to the annual 2-3 week summer training camp, generally held at Camp Drum near Watertown, New York. Nor do I recollect ever turning a wrench in the motor pool. But then, more than a few things that happened 63 years ago are now a distant memory. No regrets. For some happenings to have faded, I'm sure I should be grateful.

What does stand out is the summer camp we spent not at Camp Drum, but at the Valley Forge General Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. It was the largest military hospital in the United States. Why our unit was sent to Valley Forge remains a mystery, but considering the size of the hospital, they may have been understaffed and welcomed our help. Most of the officers in our MASH unit were doctors and nurses.  The year before, our company commander had asked for volunteers who wanted to become medics. The training would be conducted locally, by EMS first responders. Naturally, I signed up for it. I couldn't think of a more useful skillset, in or out of the military.

The morning after we arrived at the hospital, the entire unit assembled for a welcoming ceremony. Following the usual pleasantries, our company commander read a list of jobs for which enlisted personnel could volunteer. True to protocol, few of us did. Strangely, paramedic was missing from the list. What was included, near the end of the list, was military police.

I had never worked security, much less served as a police officer, but the opportunity was intriguing, so I raised my hand. There was a short interview during which I was asked about my qualifications, I mentioned that I had taken some Judo classes in Germany, (which I had — Jiu-Jitsu self-defense classes, to be exact — to protect myself against criminal DPs roaming the streets after World War II) and was told "close enough".

That same afternoon I was driven to the Provost Marshal's Office where I was fitted with a military police uniform, handed a nightstick, and a loaded 45 pistol with extra ammunition. The rest of the afternoon I found myself on patrol in a squad car with blue lights and siren, with an MP Sergeant riding shotgun while teaching me the do's and don't's of military police work — and I suspect giving me the once-over to see whether I was up to the job. At the time, the bulk of the enlisted personnel in the American military consisted of draftees. No computers, no satellites, no drones piloted from afar. Qualifications then were a far cry from what they are now.

Core values, the qualities that matter, have survived. I've mingled with American soldiers in Germany as a teenager after the war and served with many of them during two tours in the U.S. Army before becoming an American citizen. I still run into active military now and then at the American Legion Post 942 in Webster, NY. What most Americans know in their heart, and are grateful for, remains unchanged: The love of country by the men and women who serve, and who put the security of the nation above their own. Go Army!

Those early years are all history now. Camp Drum was given permanent status and renamed Fort Drum in 1974. The last U.S. Army MASH unit was decommissioned on February 16, 2006, the year I sold the Dragon Snake. And the Final Episode of the celebrated M*A*S*H sitcom aired on February 28, 1983. The two-and-a-half-hour special ranks as the most-watched non-Super Bowl television broadcast ever, drawing in more than 106 million viewers.

When I showed up at Bausch & Lomb in 1958 on my release from Fort Dix, all I asked for was my old job back. It never occurred to me to ask for a better one. The stars must have been in my favor because the thought did occur to the employment counselor. My old job had been filled while I was away. By law, the company had to take me back at my old salary.

“Let me see what I can find,” the counselor said. “How much education do you have?”
“A three-year business apprenticeship, in Germany.”
“Oh, so you’re fluent in German?”
“Yes sir. And French.”

I don’t remember how the rest went, but three things stand out. First, I had a desk job now, white collar with a tie and office Christmas parties and my very own business card. "Helmut Heindel," my card read, "Foreign Sales Correspondent." Second, I was making more money than the $1.42 an hour I had been paid picking microscope parts. And finally, I had failed to recognize a glaringly obvious opportunity to move up in the world. My career boost was all on the employment counselor, I couldn’t take credit for any of it. Nice going, genius!

Adding business skills to my resume while still in Germany had actually been my mother’s idea. I was eager to get into flying, so I owe her for being adamant about the business apprenticeship. Ever wonder how our parents seem to get so much smarter as their kids get older? On the flip side, my mother also made me take piano lessons. Earning extra money at dances, she said, was worth looking into. Really, Ma’, with Germany in shambles and no piano to practice on?

Fortunately, the piano teacher would only let me study the classics, so after a year I quit. Conceding that Bach and Beethoven could not be relied on to be big moneymakers at weddings, my mother went out and bought me an accordion. Practical woman, my mother. Not only did I now have an instrument to practice on, I already knew how to play the right half of it.

This wasn’t lost on the revelers spilling out of the "Krone" in Rohrbronn on the odd weekend, long past midnight, cut off at the bar but not yet partied out and now eager to break into song even if not excessively gifted that way. To my detriment, the tavern entrance was conveniently located directly across the street from my second-story bedroom window. “Hey, Helmut, come down and play a boogie-woogie for us.” I rarely fell for it, but the few times I did, the villagers weren’t shy about letting me know in the morning that they might have slept better had I stuck with Bach and Beethoven.

The photo shows life in Rohrbronn in 1952, looking down at the main thoroughfare. The "Gasthaus Krone" (Crown Tavern) is on the left. There’s an open area between the tavern and the fenced flower garden where, seven years earlier, I had encountered my first American. He was sitting atop a tank with a submachine gun in his lap, guarding the entrance to the village. Our neighbor’s house on the right dates back to 1549, the year Michelangelo turned 74.

Getting back to Rochester and my new post at Bausch & Lomb: I liked being a Foreign Sales Correspondent. It was a fun job with a touch of international allure. For one thing, the title on the business card could easily be confused with that of a Foreign News Correspondent like Edward R. Murrow. The difference became virtually indistinguishable at even the swankiest bars as the hour approached midnight. And it sounded so much better than "stock clerk" for which there was, in any event, no business card.

The intrigue didn’t stop there. I remember one incident where I received a request to quote on an unusually large number of our most expensive 7×50 binoculars, the kind Bausch & Lomb supplied to the U.S. Navy. The request arrived on a postcard — from Algeria. It was my first year on the job, but I had already received enough crackpot inquiries to recognize three marbles in a can when I saw them. A postcard? No sane person would try to save a nickel on postage to initiate a sixty-eight-thousand dollar business transaction.

The card sat buried at the bottom of my inbox for the better part of a week when second thoughts began to haunt me. What if the inquiry was bona fide? What if the buyer was real and sent a follow-up letter to my superiors? So I quoted — and got the order, along with an authentic, good-as-cash certified letter of credit. Later that year I was informed by our agent in Paris that I had sold the binoculars to Algerian rebels. Much later, thankfully, because it was common back then for clandestine arms suppliers to go underground. Not by melting into the crowd for a while — I’m saying underground literally, with flowers, as in forever!

Most of the correspondence in the Export Department was in English, with a fair amount of Spanish and a sprinkling of German and French. No Italian or Greek or Portuguese. With 6,909 languages in use throughout the world, we had to draw the line somewhere. Overseas calls were rare due to cost. Nearly all communication was via airmail typed on manual typewriters. The electric kind had yet to come into widespread use, and fax and email hadn’t been invented yet.

Letters were logged and stored in folders in the General Files department down the hall from the Export offices. Ann Singles, the department head, knew of my involvement with motorcycle racing back in Germany. Her son competed in local rallies with an Austin Healey 3000. His navigator had recently moved to another state, and would I be interested in taking his place? The following weekend I had my second ride in a sports car. For the next two years, I split my free time between learning how to fly at the Hylan School of Aeronautics in Henrietta, NY and navigating in the big Healey. I liked the car so much that a few years later I bought the metallic ice blue MK II 3000 BJ7 (2+2) you see in the photo.

Josefina Aquino had come to Rochester as an exchange student around the time I arrived as an immigrant. A graduate of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila with a degree in pharmacy, she was studying clinical technology at St. Mary’s Hospital. We were introduced by a mutual friend, hit it off, and got married in the spring of 1960. Effie was fun-loving and full of life and a born entrepreneur. You may have heard of "Bollywood" (a blend of Bo·mbay and Ho·llywood). Manila had "Cinema of the Philippines", as vibrant a movie industry as you would have found in India. Effie appeared in a number of Philippine films as the “Mambo Queen", with a stack of movie posters to her credit.

With each passing year, free time was harder to come by. If I was serious about pursuing my dream of a flying career, shouldn’t I have devoted every spare minute to flight training? Maybe, and borrowed the money. But I’m at peace with it, knowing that in the end, it wouldn’t have made one wit of difference. The Cold War saw to that.

Remember how I said joining the Army was a great idea, though in hindsight not even remotely a good idea? Blame the Berlin Crisis. The event and what led up to it are well documented, so I’ll keep it brief. The United States, Russia, France, and England had agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference that Allied personnel could move freely in any sector of the city they jointly governed. In 1961 the Russians reneged. On October 22nd, the American Chief of Mission in West Berlin was prevented from going to a theater in East Berlin. The car had occupation forces license plates. Former Army General Lucius D. Clay, President Kennedy’s Special Advisor in West Berlin, decided to demonstrate American resolve. The upshot was that American and Russian tanks loaded with live munitions were staring each other down a hundred yards apart at Checkpoint Charlie on the Friedrichstraße.

You had to be there to appreciate the American moxie. As one of the first to spot the Russian tanks when they arrived, First Lieutenant Vern Pike was ordered to find out whether they really were Soviet tanks. The Russians had overpainted all identifying markings and dressed the tank crews in black so they could claim “nyet, no was Ruski — was local volunteers” should the confrontation lead to war, a tactic they would repeat fifty-three years later when they annexed Crimea. Pike, whose military police platoon managed Checkpoint Charlie, jumped into an Army sedan with his driver Sam McCart. They threaded their way around the barricades and past the Soviet tanks into East Berlin.

Walking back to the tanks from the side street where they had parked their sedan, Vern found the crews sitting on the ground nearby, attending what looked to be a mission briefing. Brushing aside the risk that one or two soldiers could still be inside the tanks — and of a lowly First Lieutenant triggering World War Three — Pike climbed into one of the T-54s. He came out waving a Red Army newspaper. Said a stunned Colonel Sabolyk when Pike showed him the evidence, “You did what?”

I would have liked to have been there, actually, as boneheaded as that may sound. When President Kennedy called up the reserves in response to the brouhaha in Berlin, I expected to be sent back to Germany, playing a big shot American Forces soldier. Instead, my orders were to report to Fort Hood, Texas. TEXAS! Recall that the crisis was playing out in Berlin and I was fluent in German. The army evidently needed me in Texas or they wouldn’t have sent me there. To be fair, the brass might have known something I didn’t. With apologies to George Gobel (Lonesome George, from the Johnny Carson days), not a single Russian tank made it past Dallas while I was protecting Texas.

The 457th Ordnance Company to which I was attached was a reserve outfit from New York City. Officially designated a ‘Collection and Classification’ unit, the company ran the military equivalent of a junkyard. Our mission was to collect and classify what was left and still usable of crashed military vehicles (jeeps and trucks mostly — tanks and self-propelled howitzers do very well in collisions when not colliding with each other). Before the reserve call-up, the army had two such units worldwide, one in Korea and one in Texas. They now had two in Texas, both at Fort Hood. This is known as military intelligence, possibly dispensed by the same high command that sent me to Texas!

I have no idea why the army thought they needed an Army Reserve military junkyard in Manhattan in the first place. Nobody in New York City drives a car or even bothers to get a driver’s license because where would you park? Residents take the subway or flag down a cab. How were they going to haul away a defunct M35 Deuce and a Half on Fifth Avenue when nobody in the company knew how to work a clutch? Call a tow truck? The 457th had four open slots to fill, which they remedied by requesting “Fillers” such as myself from reserve units upstate. A filler’s job was not to collect and classify, we found out. It was to teach all the New Yorkers in the outfit how to drive.

Those lessons would be over and done with in a month and I couldn’t see myself picking up cigarette butts every day for the eleven months following. When I asked the company commander to assign me to Post Ordnance, I was sure he would grant it. In peacetime, there weren’t many vehicles to be hauled away to the junkyard. None during my entire assignment. The captain’s biggest headache was to find work for the four idle platoons under his command.

Post Ordnance was staffed almost exclusively by civilians. I had scored an eight-to-five job for the remainder of my tour, repairing tanks, self-propelled howitzers, and armored personnel carriers for the First and Second Armored Divisions. The most fun part of the job, aside from learning new skills by working alongside the civilian mechanics, was road testing M48 battle tanks after I had earned my tank license.

For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with how things get done in the military, some quick explanations might be helpful. Like, how did I hold down a job repairing tanks and howitzers and armored personnel carriers when all the Army had ever taught me was how to fix jeeps and light duty 3/4 ton Dodge trucks and 2-1/2 ton Deuce and a Halfs? At Ft. Dix, where I spent Basic Training and four months learning how to take apart and put back together again motors and transmissions, nothing was ever said about replacing tank tracks. The Army wisely left the training and responsibility for that to the tank's crew, the people most at risk for coming under fire and thus most motivated to get the brute moving again.

Credit for my tracked vehicle training goes squarely to Bob Creazy, an Army veteran working as a civilian at Post Ordnance, who became my mentor in Texas. Understand that whatever expertise you may have acquired repairing cars and trucks and 2-stroke Maico motorcycles will be of no help whatsoever when somebody hands you a tank. Not counting any of the armament even, because somebody else will be tasked with that. Your sole job will be to keep the thing mobile.

Short of adjusting the carburetors, there is almost no maintenance you can perform on the motor with the motor still in the tank. So the first thing Bob taught me was how to remove it and set it onto a large dolly. The motor is relatively simple to extract with an overhead crane, thanks to quick disconnects of the wiring harness and the cross-mounted transmission. What takes practice is how to "drive" the crane without causing the 6-ton gasoline-powered Continental V12 to start swinging like Tarzan from one side of the bay to the other, causing any group socializing beneath its flight path to scatter and run for cover, a group which my mentor suggested should never include officers, rank irrespective.

The second lesson I was taught was to prevent — at any cost — getting trapped in the escape hatch. For good reason: Tanks are not waterproof. Parked out in the open during a rainstorm, a fair amount of water will collect in the bottom of the hull. The escape hatch is there to allow the crew to crawl out and find temporary shelter from small arms fire between the tracks should the tank become disabled. The hatch is covered by a steel plate the size of a large manhole cover. Removing the cover to let the water drain out is usually the first thing a mechanic does before he or she works inside.

It's not a bad work environment. In an M48, the driver's seat is mounted directly above the escape hatch. The seat has two levers: One to raise and lower it (same as you do in your car), the other to let it instantly drop out of the way so that if the tank does come under attack the driver can get out of the line of fire and steer the tank from behind a periscope. I have no idea how well that works in combat. Luckily, I also have no firsthand knowledge of what it feels like to work sitting in the driver's seat and accidentally press the wrong lever — the one that activates the dropdown — and get deposited butt-first into the open hole of the escape hatch. A coworker in the adjoining bay confided that the experience was no picnic, even with the hatch closed.  

Spc. Adam Bartkowicz tightening the track of an M88
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Bill Boecker -

In the military, harmless pranks come with the territory. Some may not start out as pranks but can easily end up that way. On one of my first assignments in Post Ordnance, an M48 tank came rumbling in. The driver climbed out and said some of the tracks felt loose. Bob Creazy happened to be away on a mission somewhere, but the fix here appeared simple enough. I had barely started meticulously checking each bolt with a heavy wrench when Bob came strolling back. "Don't tell me, let me guess," he said. "Somebody asked you to check the tracks."

With that, he retrieved a small ballpeen hammer from his toolbox and lightly tapped each link, listening to the sound the hammer made. As he proceeded along the track, he clued me in. "If the sound is high-pitched, like champagne glasses at a wedding, the link is tight. When you hear a dull thud, it's not." I was happy Bob wasn't gone for the entire afternoon. It would have been a long day.

As you can see, my US Army driver's license expired decades ago. Why the Army thought a 45-ton tank was LIGHT could be explained but would take too long and be pointless in any event. Rhyme and Reason are not written in capital letters in the Army's playbook. Besides, the rules of the road are different for tanks, noticeably so: There aren’t any. No rules. I never once got a one-finger salute for inconveniencing traffic. Regardless of which way the big gun is pointed or whether the oncoming driver is a private or a general, when people see a tank coming they get out of the way.

Not surprisingly, President Kennedy’s decision to call up the reserves had decisively trashed any remaining hope I might have had for a flying career. By the time I got out of the Army for good, I was too old even for the airlines.

Could I have become a pilot had I stayed in Germany and pursued a flying career there? Not a chance! The postwar German Air Force wasn’t founded until January 9, 1956, just six months before I arrived in America. Lufthansa, the only German airline allowed back into the skies, ten years after the war, began limited operations on April 1, 1955 — with two Convair 340 propellor airplanes — and to fly German routes only. The carrier had to ask for special permission from the Allies to do even that. They had plenty of applicants from the defunct German Luftwaffe to co-pilot those two airplanes, but all captain seats had to be occupied by British nationals, no Germans allowed. Once again, the war had seen to it that time was not on my side.

Was I disappointed? Of course, who wouldn’t be? At times I still wonder what turns my life would have taken had I managed to become a professional pilot. But I never felt deep regrets about it. After my discharge from the Army, I was eager to get back to my desk in the Export Department at Bausch & Lomb. I loved the work and the people I was working with, so it didn’t take long for my career to gain momentum. In relatively short order, I was promoted from Foreign Sales Correspondent to Product Manager, then to Sales Manager, and finally to International Marketing Manager — all within less than a decade, including the time I spent in the Military.

The company had an in-house travel bureau. As International Marketing Manager, I was free to write my own itinerary to any country in the world not blacklisted by the U.S. State Department. At one point, I ran out of pages in my passport and had to have extension sheets glued in. This was a legitimate practice back in the sixties, before 9/11 and TSA checkpoints and having to take off your shoes to board an airplane. Life was good, really good.

The excitement didn’t stop with the globetrotting part, the pleasure of getting to meet so many people in so many countries all over the world. I truly enjoyed connecting with our foreign agents, helping them man their display booths at exhibits in London and Paris and Rome when they asked for it, or educating their sales reps on how to use and sell Bausch & Lomb products. And having Ned Campbell, our agent in Lima, Peru surprise me with a little levity now and then.

"You can get the hell out of here. And the rest of you remember to stop asking questions I can't answer."

What slowed the euphoria in the spring of 1969 was the realization that fun alone is no magical elixir for happiness. Fun is an event, happiness is a state. A free, unlimited ticket to see the world is fun, especially if you're young enough to immensely enjoy it. So is making love. Hardly anyone will disagree with that, although much depends on time and place and who you're with. Traveling is fun in a similar way, especially when it comes to the "who you're with" part.

But happiness is more than partying it up and having a good time. Happiness is living your dream. To get there you first have to build a vision of your dream, then commit to it unconditionally. I had left my family and my friends and my country with not one dream but two: To live in America, and to become a pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

I'm living the first half of that dream every day. So much so that some days I feel the urge to pinch myself to make sure it's really happening. The callback into the Army has torpedoed the second half, but I'm not shedding tears over it. In April of 1969, Jerry Mayo and I left Bausch & Lomb and founded Unitac International Inc., an export management company that has since morphed into Unitac Publishing LLC. My dream had never been to climb the corporate ladder and retire as the CEO of someone else’s corporation. Neither was it a house in the suburbs, a white picket fence, 2.5 children, and a dog, the “Happy Days” life most Americans aspired to in the Fifties.

I'm writing this at the mature age of 86, deep into my third dream: A career that satisfies my creative urges to write and design, with an exhilarating new vision of my life, completed by an irrepressible and loving partner who helped me discover it. "There's something in you that needs to come out," Terry said to me one day. Even as a child I was obsessed with making things: A wooden train set for my brother Eugen, a dollhouse for my sister Erika — for Christmas, when store shelves were still empty in postwar Germany. I was categorized as a "Kriegskind", a war child, and accepted the tag as the baggage all war children had to carry. Could it really have been that simple?

As some of my more charitable Republican friends will tell you (and pretty much all my friends who are Democrats), I'm no Conservative. When I look back at my cash-poor postwar years, what exactly was there worth conserving? Certainly not pounding rivets into rakes and hay forks most afternoons at Wilhelm Abt GmbH in Schorndorf, having spent the first part of my day in a high school classroom. In the absence of child labor laws, I received my first paycheck at age thirteen and still couldn't afford to buy a watch until I began my business apprenticeship at age sixteen.

In America, I've learned to look for opportunities to celebrate each day. I keep some truly special memories alive as “Strawberries”, a metaphor reserved generally, though not categorically, for encounters of the “Casablanca” kind. How did the strawberry label come about? Its origins can be traced to a beach in Australia where Dulcie and I spent delightful afternoons together. Dulcie had been a flight attendant for TAA, a local airline. Few things in life are more enjoyable for an aviation fan than to talk shop with a gorgeous stewardess, on a beach awash with bikinis, with a vendor nearby selling fresh strawberries. It was nothing more sinful than that.

Unlike the edible kind, my strawberries are unplanned opportunities for episodes of great joy. They’re sweet and delicious and will always emerge out of the blue. You can’t grow them, and you won’t find them in the wild. Strawberries shun the safe, familiar roads on which you normally travel. But if your mind’s eye can see opportunities not only for what they are but for what they could be, and you’re willing to let a strawberry take you by the hand and venture with you into the unknown, that strawberry will find you. When it does, remember this advice:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the things you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain

To which add “Carpe diem" –  Seize the Day. Because this day, too, as all the days following it, will die at the stroke of midnight. I try hard to not lose sight of that. What I haven’t lost is my passion for flying. To any airline pilot reading this, I still look up whenever one of you passes overhead; and I still find myself watching John Wayne and Doe Avedon in “The High and the Mighty” around Christmas for the umpteenth time.

Melissa Kirsch wrote in The New York Times: "Too much sameness and the world goes gray." So it does. But could you inspire your fellow travelers with the multitude of hues in your worldly bubble? Probably not. For many, gray will always be their favorite color.

Christina Tosi wrote in her book Dessert can Save the World: "Just bake the Cake. Nostalgia is your road map. If you ever lose your way, follow your happiest memories; they will always, always lead you back to who you are." Also true, if you don't rush blindly through wishful flashbacks to an unrepeatable past.

Ironically, I did learn to fly in the Military. Not in the Air Force as I had hoped to, but in the Flying Club at Fort Hood, Texas during my second tour in the Army. Granted, an aging Piper PA-18 Cub with duct tape on a side window is a far cry from an F-16 Fighting Falcon or an F/A-18 Hornet. But until somebody hands me a crystal ball with a panoramic view of tomorrow, I’ll be happy with what I can get today. To paraphrase a 1970 Steven Stills tune: “If you can’t get what you love, love what you can get.”

One final, sad note as we close this chapter: After fifteen years of marriage, Effie, my always active and upbeat best friend and mother of our son Raymond succumbed to illness in the prime of her life. Tragic events happen, often when you least expect them. Pilots who have been flying for a while know success isn’t measured by how closely they follow their flight plan but by how well they manage the blindsides. They live and breathe the golden rule: Never stop flying the airplane. All else is secondary. Nothing good will come from letting yourself fall out of the sky.

Before we roll up to the gate, here is some timeless advice I received from a seasoned female flight instructor while working my way through ground school at Hylan Flying Service in Rochester, New York:

You’ re only as good a pilot as you are in your worst moment.
If things go bad it doesn’t matter who’s right. What matters is
who ‘s left.

Copyright 2022 - Helmut Heindel